|Epiphany: The Adoration of
The story of the Epiphany, in which a star leads the Magi to come from the east and adore the Christ Child, is told in Matthew 2 and expanded in apocryphal accounts, where the men are said to have descended from the prophet Balaam, whose prophecy of a star in Numbers 24:17 (cached) was taken by Christians to refer to the birth of Jesus.
The Gospel does not specify how many magi visited, nor does it call them kings. In catacombs paintings the number varies and they wear Phrygian caps (examples). This is commonly explained as a reference to their eastern origin. In classical Greek art, the Phrygian cap could signify that the wearer was non-Greek. Another early image provides the Magi with camels but omits the caps.
In most of these early works the Magi approach holding their gifts out toward the baby, who sits on the Virgin Mary's lap (example). This pattern will come to govern Epiphany images for centuries, although in some very early images the gifts are offered on plates, as is the case in the catacombs paintings and in an early mosaic in Rome. (That mosaic is also unusual in displacing the Virgin Mary to the side of the child's elaborate throne.)
The Magi's star is seen often but not invariably in early and medieval images of the Epiphany such as the 8th-century Franks Casket and a 15th-century Dutch polyptych. In a vierge ouvrante from the end of the 13th century one king turns to a second and points up to the sky while the third kneels to Jesus. This pattern is not unusual in medieval Epiphany images.
The Magi are promoted to kingship by the third century in the literature and the twelfth in the art (example). Their identification as kings is due partly to Christian readings of passages in the Old Testament. (See this image of the magi's journey, in which David and Isaiah bear scrolls from their writings that are said to have prophesied the journey.) Sometimes the three men represent the three ages of youth, middle age, and old age (example), sometimes the three known continents (as early as the 12th century, as in this example). In the latter case, the African magus starts acquiring realistic Negro features in the 16th century (example).
A convention arose of representing the containers for the three gifts as a box for the gold, a horn for the incense, and for the myrrh an ointment jar similar to the one often carried by St. Mary Magdalene (example). The earliest example of this that I have found is Giotto's in the Arena Frescoes (1305-6).
A polyptych from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden has one panel for the gifts of the Magi and another in which they first sight the star. The latter follows the account of the Magi given in the Golden Legend's entry for the Nativity.
Feast day: January 6
At left, 1380 painting by Bartolo di Fredi (enlargement)
French high relief, 12th century
Mosaic in Rome, 13th century
The Protevangelium of James
The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior
John Chrysostom's homilies on Matthew 2:1-2 (cached), 4-5 (cached), verse 2 (cached), verse 16-17 (cached)
Gregory the Great on the Epiphany: Homily I (cached), Homily III (cached), Homily IV (cached), Homily VI (cached)