The North Door Panels

Panel III - The Adoration of the Magi

Panel III - The Adoration of the Magi


Matthew, 2:11. and when they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshiped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The coming and adoration of the Magi is narrated in various apocryphal gospels, whereas the “canonical” description of the event is found only in the passages of the gospel of Matthew (2:1-12):

Matthew 2:1 now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem,
Matthew 2:2 saying, “where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
Matthew 2:3 when Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Matthew 2:4 and when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
Matthew 2:5 so they said to him, “in Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
Matthew 2:6 ‘but you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’
Matthew 2:7 then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared.
Matthew 2:8 and he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “go and search carefully for the young child, and when you have found him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship him also.”
Matthew 2:9 when they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
Matthew 2:10 when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.
Matthew 2:11 and when they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshiped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Matthew 2:12 then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

The gospel of Matthew suggests that Pagans, here represented by the Magi, who are seeking God, do not calculate how long the road is or the dangers they may encounter along the way. They come from far away; from the east, just as the patriarch Abraham departed from the east to follow the signs of God. At that time, the population did not acknowledge or recognize the divinity of Jesus and king Herod wanted his death, whilst the Magi, guided by a star, travelled to find the messiah, worship him and offer him gifts. The Magi were warned in a dream not to report back to Herod, thus they returned to their country by a different route and when Herod discovered the deception, he ordered all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of two years old to be killed, causing the “massacre of the innocents”. Joseph had been warned in a dream to leave Bethlehem as well and he fled to Egypt with his family. The gospel of Matthew is not a precise testimony but rather adopts the role of narrative, as the passage does not provide the exact number of the Magi, though the most common tradition, based on the fact that three gifts are mentioned, speaks of three men. The Greek text instead does not mention the number or the names of the men; it recounts only of “some Magi from the east”, therefore the only information given is that there was more than one Magi. Neither does the text specify the amount of time elapsed between the birth of Jesus and the arrival in Bethlehem of the Magi. The gospel according to Luke narrates that Joseph, Mary and Jesus remained in Bethlehem for at least 40 days, waiting until the moment of the presentation in the temple. According to some scholars who have suggested the events described in the gospels should coincide, the visit of the Magi and the immediate flight into Egypt should have taken place after this episode, which is in contrast to the liturgical tradition that allows only twelve days between Christmas and epiphany. It has also been speculated that the Magi went to Nazareth because they did not find Jesus when they arrived in Bethlehem, as he and his family had already departed. As the Magi were leaving town, the star guided them to Nazareth. nonetheless, beyond the time, varying concepts and the Christian liturgical calendar, the adoration of the Magi is a fundamental event due to its symbolic and religious importance.
Magi is the rendering of the ancient Persian term magùsh, in Akkadian magùshu, in Syrian mgòshà, to the Greek màgos. The title refers specifically to Zoroastrian priests, typical of the Persian empire. In Herodotus the word Magi was associated with aristocrats from Media (ancient Persia), soothsayers and philosophers as well as priest astronomers who, it was believed were capable of killing demons and enslaving them. The gospel does not mention the exact number of Magi, however, popular Christian tradition has often identified them as the three wise men or the three kings giving them the names of Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar. There are alternative traditions, though, which indicate either fewer (two) or more (up to twelve) Magi visited Jesus. The Magi as priests, therefore, were the first religious authorities to worship Christ. Christian tradition has enriched the story of the Magi with many details and one of the most significant developments is the passage from astrologers to kings. The most accepted view is that it is a reference to the Old Testament prophecies that speak of the adoration of the messiah by some kings (Isaiah 60:3, psalm 72:10 and 68:29). The first exegetes would, therefore, have reinterpreted the passage from Matthew in the light of these prophecies elevating the Magi to the rank of kings. As early as the sixth century, however, all commentators adopted the more popular version of three kings, which was not challenged until the protestant reformation. Further developments consider the Magi came from countries far away in the three known continents (Europe, Asia and Africa), signifying Jesus’ mission of redemption was directed to all the nations in the world. This is the reason that the three kings are generally depicted as a white man, an Arab and a black man. The number three has an important symbolic value, as some scholars indicate the three races descended from the three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth.

The eastern churches have given various names to the three Magi. Western tradition, instead has established the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Melchior would have been the oldest and his name derives from Melech, which means king. Balthazar derives from Balthazar, the mythical Babylonian king, suggesting his country of origin. Caspar, in Greek is Galgalath, which means lord of Sheba. None of the accredited names is clearly of Persian origin, nor can we say they have a specific meaning. Gaspar could be a variant of the Persian word Jasper - “lord of the treasury” – from which the word Jasper also derives. The names of the Magi vary in different cultures. The Ethiopian catholic church calls them Hor, Basanater and Karsudan. In Syria, the Christian community calls the Magi Larvandad, Hormisdas and Gushnasaph, which are quite likely of Persian origin, though this does not sufficiently guarantee their authenticity.

The story of the of the Magi’s relics borders on legend. it has been said that during her pilgrimage to the holy land, st. Helena found the remains of the Magi and had them transported to Constantinople to be preserved in the hagia Sophia and from there, in 344 they were brought to Milan at the behest of bishop Eustorgius. In 1164 the emperor Frederick I Barbarossa took possession of the relics transferring them to the Cathedral of Cologne where they are still kept today, in a precious reliquary. It was only in 1904 that some fragments of the relics were transported to Milan. It has been narrated that Marco Polo visited the tombs of the kings in the city of Saba, south of Tehran, around 1270.

The most valuable of the three gifts the Magi brought was the last, myrrh. Myrrh is a resin obtained from the commiphora tree and is reddish-brown in colour. It is a medicinal plant and its resin was mixed with oils to make ointments for medicinal purposes, cosmetics and even religious functions. The word Christ means precisely, anointed, consecrated with a symbolic ointment or chrism, to become king, healer and messiah of divine origin. In the first coming of Jesus, he is symbolically covered with myrrh from birth to death. Incense is a yellow resin, also known as olimbanum and comes from boswellia trees. Incense is a fragrance that is burned and is widely used in rites and religious venerations, considered a symbol of “divinity”. Gold is a precious metal and is the ancient symbol of prosperity and wealth, thus an excellent omen. It is the first metal that man discovered and used. Gold, the precious metal par excellence signifies “royalty.” Some scholars have purported that instead of gold, it might have been the most precious gold coloured turmeric powder, which comes from the east and is known for its medicinal and healing properties.

The star shooting through the sky that legends and iconography defined as the star of Bethlehem and contemporaries defined the “star of prophecy” (the one that the historian Flavius Josephe referred to his patron Vespasian), is often represented as a comet with a tail. The star is not the only sign in the story indicating the town of Bethlehem. One interpretation of the book of Isaiah, of which Herod was knowledgeable, identified the town of Bethlehem as the place where a king, the messiah of the Jews, descendant or “son” of David would be born. In ancient times it was very common to narrate important events heralded by celestial phenomena and all the eminent Gods of antiquity were linked to the stars. God often likened the descendants of Abraham to the stars in the sky, as if every man were a star, created to brighten the nights. ...”look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them”, adding, “so shall your descendants be.” (gen 15: 5). Jesus is also a star, “a star shall come out of Jacob”, (numbers 24:17), which rises from on high, “the bright and morning star”, apocalypse, 22:16. The most widely accepted theory about the nature of the star was that shared at the time by Kepler, who identified the star as the unusual positioning of Jupiter, considered the royal constellation in ancient times, in conjunction to Saturn, the farthest planet away, according to ancient scholars. Saturn was the symbol of the God of time Chronos, which has stimulated a myriad of hypotheses over the course of history. Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction, in a precise position of the zodiac, certainly had a special significance. The most recent research on the subject was conducted according to the established belief that the triple conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, called “conjunctio maxima” occurred in the year 6/7 bC. The story of the comet which led the Magi to Jesus seems to have originated from a painting by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, depicted in 1301. Giotto depicted the Epiphany next to the Nativity, as well as a comet over the hut, only because in December of 1301 the famous halley’s comet appeared in the sky; it was very bright and dazzling, causing great wonder and fear among the population at that time.

The journey. The narration of the coming of the Magi seems to embrace the great themes of journey, exodus or departure. The mysterious Magi moved away from their land in search of the king, the Lord. Matthew emphasizes their journey through the use of verbs that accompany the story as it unfolds: they came, we came, sent them, gone, departed, went before them, entered, did not come back,they returned. The physical path of the Magi conceals a much more important and meaningful journey; that is, faith. it is the journey of the soul, arising from the desire to meet and know the lord.

These reasons explain why Christian populations revere and respect the story of the Magi. The liturgical calendars of the Catholic and other Christian churches commemorate the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus on January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany. the Orthodox church and other eastern churches (that consider the Epiphany the baptism of Christ in the Jordan river) commemorate the coming of the Magi on Christmas day.

The iconography of the artistic representations of the event reflects the ideas and symbols mentioned above and is rich in artistic and devotional testimony of the most eminent works of art through the centuries up to today.

The panel representing the adoration of the Magi created by Ghiberti most likely dates to the early years of his work on the North Door, as the composition is similar to that of the competition panel (Krautheimer, 1937; 1956). The scene is set in the centre of the quatrefoil frame, though it is clearly suffering in its limitations and the event depicted seems to want to escape from the frame itself. On the left side of the panel, the holy family is set in an arch in perspective while the technique of designed flattened out relief appears three-dimensional. There are evident "classic" architectural references that are perfectly in line with what will become Renaissance architecture. It is interesting to note that in order to eliminate a pillar of support, Ghiberti used the informal "perspective section" for the composition of the scene that he had already adopted in the panel "Chasing the merchants from the temple".
The architecture denotes simple decor but at the same time it is distinctive, almost regal. The madonna is seated, holding the fidgeting baby Jesus, who is reaching out to one of the Magi prostrated at his feet in adoration. The figures of the Madonna, Jesus and the Magi are represented in a close compositional relation set on a single oblique axis that unites their faces and their eyes. Standing to the side behind a pillar is the figure of Joseph showing only his head and one arm, as if he were emerging from the background. To the right of the panel there is a group of figures in the foreground together with the other two wise men who are holding gifts in their hands. There is a crowd of restless and whispering spectators behind these figures, of which Ghiberti masterfully sculpted their heads detailing various emotional expressions. The entire scene is focused on the figures gazing at the messiah, who is the focal point of the composition. One of the details in the panel deviates from the setting of the composition, seemingly having a life of its own and regarding the game of glances between the last two figures of the spectators. Ghiberti sculpted a woman of classic and severe profile who is aiming a warning look at a young man with a monkey on his shoulder, signifying disapproval and exhorting him to abandon the bestial practices and Dionysian irrationality that they represent, in the presence of the messiah, whose birth instantaneously expunges ancient pagan superstitions and instincts. This panel is positioned centrally on the door next to the Nativity panel, at eye level of the viewer, where Ghiberti engraved his signature: ". Opvs lavrentii florentinii".

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