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The Adoration of the Magi (anglicized from the Matthean Vulgate Latin section title: A Magis adoratur) is the name traditionally given to the Christian subject in the Nativity of Jesus in art in which the three Magi, represented as kings, especially in the West, having found Jesus by following a star, lay before him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and worship him. It is related in the Bible by Matthew 2:11.
In the church calendar, this event is commemorated in Western Christianity as the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). The Orthodox Church commemorates the Adoration of the Magi on the Feast of the Nativity (December 25). Christian iconography has considerably expanded the bare account of the Biblical Magi given in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-22) and used it to press the point that Jesus was recognized, from his earliest infancy, as king of the earth.
In the earliest depictions, the Magi are shown wearing Persian dress of trousers and Phrygian caps, usually in profile, advancing in step with their gifts held out before them. These images adapt Late Antique poses for barbarians submitting to an Emperor, and presenting golden wreaths, and indeed relate to images of tribute-bearers from various Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern cultures going back many centuries. The earliest are from catacomb paintings and sarcophagus reliefs of the 4th century. Crowns are first seen in the 10th century, mostly in the West, where their dress had by that time lost any Oriental flavour in most cases. Later Byzantine images often show small pill-box like hats, whose significance is disputed. They are usually shown as the same age until about this period, but then the idea of depicting the three ages of man is introduced: a particularly beautiful example is seen on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto. The scene was one of the most indispensable in cycles of the Life of the Virgin as well as the Life of Christ.
Occasionally from the 12th century, and very often in Northern Europe from the 15th, the Magi are also made to represent the three known parts of the world: Balthasar is very commonly cast as a young African or Moor, and old Caspar is given Oriental features or, more often, dress. Melchior represents Europe and middle age. From the 14th century onwards, large retinues are often shown, the gifts are contained in spectacular pieces of goldsmith work, and the Magi's clothes are given increasing attention. By the 15th century, the Adoration of the Magi is often a bravura piece in which the artist can display their handling of complex, crowded scenes involving horses and camels, but also their rendering of varied textures: the silk, fur, jewels and gold of the Kings set against the wood of the stable, the straw of Jesus's manger and the rough clothing of Joseph and the shepherds.
The scene often includes a fair diversity of animals as well: the ox and ass from the Nativity scene are usually there, but also the horses, camels, dogs, and falcons of the kings and their retinue, and sometimes other animals, such as birds in the rafters of the stable. From the 15th century onwards, the Adoration of the Magi is quite often conflated with the Adoration of the Shepherds from the account in the Gospel of Luke (2:8-20), an opportunity to bring in yet more human and animal diversity; in some compositions (triptychs for example), the two scenes are contrasted or set as pendants to the central scene, usually a Nativity.
The "adoration" of the Magi at the crib is the usual subject, but their arrival, called the "Procession of the Magi", is often shown in the distant background of a Nativity scene, or as a separate subject. Other subjects include the Journey of the Magi, where they and perhaps their retinue are the only figures, and relatively uncommon scenes of their meeting with Herod and the Dream of the Magi.
The usefulness of the subject to the Church and the technical challenges involved in representing it have made the Adoration of the Magi a favorite subject of Christian art: chiefly painting, but also sculpture and even music (as in Gian-Carlo Menotti's opera Amahl and the Night Visitors). The subject matter is also found in stained glass. The first figural stained glass window made in the United States is the "Adoration of the Magi" window located at Christ Church, Pelham, New York and designed in 1843 by the founder and first rector's son, William Jay Bolton.
Many hundreds of artists have treated the subject. A very partial list of the most celebrated is:
Saint-Thiébaut Church, Thann, around 1400
Gentile da Fabriano, 1423
Jacopo da Ponte, 1563-1564
Simone Peterzano, 16th century
Diego Velázquez, 1619
Rubens, 17th century
Murillo, 17th century
Jean Fouquet (one of the magi is King Charles VII of France)
Adoration of the Magi Giotto
Morris & Co. tapestry, 1888–1894
Adoration of the Magi. Fragment from medieval fresco, Kremikovtsi Monastery
Stained glass window at St. Michael's Cathedral (Toronto)
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