Today is Epiphany, an important feast day in both the Eastern and Western Christian churches.
In general, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the revelation to man, by God, of the incarnation of his son, Jesus Christ, but there are also some stories and rituals that vary between the East and West. In the Western Church we usually think of the Epiphany as the event where the three Magi, after following the star of Bethlehem, make their way to the manger to offer gifts to the Christ child. In the Eastern Church the celebration is a conflation of the Western story with a commemoration of Christ’s baptism and the end of the twelve days of Christmas festivities. Last year, I was lucky enough to be in Greece visiting the island of Hydra on January 6. This tiny island (no cars!) celebrates Epiphany with a ceremony where the priest throws a silver cross into the ocean. Teenage boys dive in to retrieve it. The ritual also functions as a “Blessing of the Waters” for this fishing village as well as a promise of a year of prosperity, good fortune, and good health for one lucky young diver.
Sculptures and paintings of the Adoration of the Magi were quite popular from about the 13th century. In fact, the Nativity scenes we see today on church lawns and in Christian homes are a typical Adoration of the Magi scene in three dimensional form. (St. Francis of Assisi had something to do with this – but that’s for another blog post.) Most Nativity scenes featured the three Magi juxtaposed with the lowly shepherds and their sheep, a not so subtle message that Christianity was a religion for the masses, not just the elites.
One of my all time favorite artists is Giotto di Bondone (Florence, 1266/7 – January 8, 1337), whose paintings are considered a real bridge between Medieval and Renaissance image and thought. A small panel painting of the Adoration is a good example of Giotto’s genius and his humanistic approach.
The Epiphany, possibly ca. 1320
Giotto di Bondone (Italian, Florentine, 1266/76–1337)
Tempera on wood, gold ground (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
17 3/4 x 17 1/4 in.
While the painting follows the prescribed format for panel paintings of their time – lack of a descriptive landscape, gilded background, hierarchical scale and haloes galore, there is something quite modern and touching here as well. All eyes look at the Magi in the foreground holding the infant Jesus. He has knelt down, removed his crown, and placed it on the ground. Joseph, at the right, leans forward, as though to catch the baby in case the King falters, a typical new father’s response. Mary, too, seems to be reaching for the baby. The king has humbled himself before the incarnation of God in this little baby – but the fact that he is still just a baby is emphasized by the parents’ reactions and in the gesture of the King, who seems to be admiring the Christ child as just that, a child. There is quite a bit of theological emphasis here as well, however. Notice how the crown’s shape is echoed in the shape of the manger's roof and the mountain behind it. Giotto seems to be reminding us that the fancy trappings of wealth and status are not important compared to what has happened under this simple roof. Again, with the simple removal and placement of the crown, we are reminded that Christianity is not a religion just for the elites.
Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun
Autun Cathedral was a pilgrimage church. Gislebertus (one of the few medieval sculptors whose name is known to us) had also sculpted a Last Judgement in the tympanum above the entrance to the Cathedral. The horrors and rewards that await the saints and sinners were graphically illustrated there, as images of pilgrims lined up to be plucked into the heavens for the weighing of their souls span the lintel above the doorway.
Gislebertus, Last Judgement
Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun
As pilgrims walked through the Cathedral they would look up at the massive columns lining the nave – the top of each one would feature carved reliefs of biblical stories (historiated capitals). Dream of the Magi clearly and poignantly illustrates an aspect of the story rarely found in art. Here are the Magi in bed together with a wonderfully patterned blanket wrapped protectively around them . They all sleep with their crowns on! While two are asleep, one awakens as the angel very gently pokes at his hand while gesturing to the star.
The general consensus in art history is that medieval art tended to rely on formulaic imagery and that we don’t see as much attention paid to real human responses and experience until at least the time of Giotto, almost 200 years later. Yet, this work is clearly intended to speak to the experiences of the people who came to view it. Think about the message conveyed here. Gislebertus (or more likely his patron) has chosen to illustrate an event that shows us how the kings came to follow the star. They were traveling and sleeping in cramped quarters when they were called by God. The pilgrims who visited Autun were also on a journey that often required hardship - long days on foot, bad food, and uncomfortable sleeping quarters - as they hoped their sacrifices would be acknowledged and blessed by God. This message is similar to Giotto’s reminder that Christianity is a religion for everyone. And even today, the “Blessing of the Waters” that I witnessed in Greece seamlessly combines the stories of Christianity with the traditions of a culture that calls upon God’s blessing to ensure the continuation of a way of life and beliefs that have endured for centuries.