The Adoration of the Magi in Early Western Artistic, Liturgical, and Textual Tradition
The traditional twelve days of Christmas derives from the separation of the feast of the nativity on December 25 from the celebration of the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus, recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. The separation likely began in the West no later than mid-fourth century, where the magi’s arrival became the principle celebration held on January 6th. The Eastern churches, by contrast, continued to commemorate both Christ’s birth and baptism on that day, maintaining its prominence as the Feast of Light. Meanwhile, early Christian art in the West (catacombs, sarcophagi, and mosaics) represent the adoration of the magi earlier and more frequently than any other aspect of the nativity story. This early imagery generally (but not always) shows three nearly identical figures, dressed in costumes that identify them as Persian, bringing gifts to the Christ child who sits on his mother’s lap.
This presentation will examine the significance and early history of the story of the magi, paying attention to its incorporation into preaching, hymns, the liturgical calendar, and visual art.