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Biblical Magi


Lucas Emil Vorsterman, after Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, 1620, engraving on laid paper. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

The Gospel of Matthew (2:1–12) speaks of Magi, or wise men, who followed a star from the East to Bethlehem in search of a newborn king. There they found Mary and the baby Jesus and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As gentiles who acknowledged Christ’s divinity, the Magi claim an essential role in the Epiphany, the manifestation of God to the world. Yet Matthew’s brief description of the episode provides so few details about them that biblical scholars have had to speculate on their number, appearance, and origins.

By the Middle Ages, most believed that three Magi visited the Christ child and that they were kings who symbolized the three ages of man. In keeping with Matthew’s account that the Magi journeyed from the East, writers first suggested that the kings were Persian. Later commentators proposed that they represented the three known continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. From a wide assortment of names suggested for the Magi, those that eventually prevailed were Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar. But the names, like the lands of origin, were never consistently assigned to a particular king.

The theological significance of the story of the Magi, together with the imagined pageantry of the kings’ exotic dress, their luxurious gifts, and their large retinues, ensured their prominence in art all over Europe. The most popular scene from the Gospel of Matthew was their arrival to worship the newborn Christ, yet artists frequently conflated the story with the account of Jesus’s birth in the Gospel of Luke—which includes no Magi but introduces the picturesque detail of a manger.

See depictions of the Adoration of the Magi on view at the National Gallery of Art.