Christ is the Light of the World — and of the Universe

The message of Epiphany is that God “wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Antonio Vivarini, “Adoration of the Magi,” c. 1446
Antonio Vivarini, “Adoration of the Magi,” c. 1446 (photo: Public Domain)

Epiphany — “Twelfth Night” (as in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”), falling on Jan. 6 — was once as important a Solemnity as Christmas itself. (It just happens to be coincidence that, because of their adherence to the Julian Calendar, much of the Christian East’s liturgical calendar is so out-of-sync with the sun that their “December 25” Christmas now falls close to Western Epiphany).

In many countries, Epiphany as Jan. 6 is a civil holiday and holy day of obligation, around which many persist Christmas-related customs, especially in Ibero-American countries. By transferring Epiphany from Jan. 6 to the first Sunday after Jan. 1, the American hierarchy in its “wisdom” has turned “Twelfth Night” into anywhere from “Ninth to Fourteenth Night.”

We noted how, for the last two Sundays, the Church copes with fitting much more limited Gospel material with her three-year Lectionary (cycle of readings) by adapting or stretching texts. No such adaptation occurs on Epiphany, even though the account of the Magi appears only in Matthew, because Matthew 2:1-12 is the one Gospel for the Solemnity, which was not designed to be a Sunday and, therefore, pre-empts the Sunday. (In countries where the Solemnity of the Epiphany remains on its proper day, Jan. 6, any Sunday between Jan. 1 and 6 would be “the second Sunday after Christmas”).

Because Epiphany played a much more important role in the liturgical and civil calendars than it does now (in earlier times, the whole Twelve Days of Christmas were in places an extended “winter holiday” that dared mention its name), the Adoration of the Magi is a frequent theme in Christian art. Our focus today will be Antonio Vivarini’s “Adoration of the Magi” (1418).

Vivarini, like many fifteenth-century “Italians” (noting “Italy” is still 400 years in the future) bridges the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods, elements of which are apparent in this painting. He spent most of his time in Venice.

Like paintings of this period, the focus is theological, not historical. “Epiphany” means “revelation.” It is the revelation of Jesus’ identity and mission, the Savior sent to redeem all humanity. That “epiphany” is reflected cosmically in this painting: heaven and earth join in this revelation. The Trinity is present: God the Father presides over the scene. Angels attend Him. The Holy Spirit hovers over Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The Star of Bethlehem shines down on “the place where the Child was” (Matthew 2:9b). 

My question is: who are these three men who have followed that star to come and see Jesus? Three is itself a tradition: the Gospel simply says “Magi from the East” (v. 1) came to Jerusalem, a plural but unspecified number. Three may very well come from the three gifts later enumerated (v. 11). By the Middle Ages, they have morphed into three “Kings,” although the Bible does not use that term. The Bible’s “Magi” were learned men who blended all sorts of learning, including astronomy and astrology, to seek the truth wherever it was to be found.

Vivarini, coming very much off that medieval heritage, presents them as kings. Are we to understand the crowds around them as their royal retinue? If so, it would have been hard to imagine an escort of that size coming to Jerusalem not gaining Herod’s attention enough to go with them. Royal personages would be expected to be accompanied by such an entourage: not having it would be tantamount to the president evading the Secret Service for a night on his own. 

Magi, on the other hand, might have moved in small parties although, even here, one would not imagine three men that were the elite of their milieu traveling that distance solo. 

Looking at the crowd still coming down the hill on the right, the painter probably wanted to signify the large royal retinue accompanying the Three Kings. I would propose a different, theological interpretation of that throng as “a great multitude, whom no one could number, out of every nation and people and tongue, standing before the throne and the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). The whole purpose of the coming to Jesus of the Magi — foreigners — is to attest that Christ is not just Savior of Israel but Savior of all mankind. That is what the Epiphany reveals. Is it not the same message Simeon reveals at the Presentation: Jesus is Light of the Nations and the Glory of Israel? Could that perhaps also be a way of seeing this painting?

Surprisingly, Vivarini’s three kings do not seem to be racially mixed. There was long a tradition of Magi representing three races of humanity. These men are not, although at least one (along with the Holy Family, the kings have halos) is more Semitic in appearance. One king is in the course of offering his homage, his gift already received and held by St. Joseph, his doffed crown in the care of an attendant. The second and third, waiting, bear their own gifts. 

I’ll admit I’m not sure what gift to identify with whom. Is it legitimate for me to infer that the boat-like vessel St. Joseph holds is frankincense, the second king’s box gold, and the third’s vessel, myrrh? If so, it would seem an interesting order: we tend to order these symbolic gifts as gold (royalty), incense (divinity), and myrrh (mortality), in the order the Gospel lists them (v. 11b). But would it not be more appropriate that the first gift confess Divinity in the presence of the Trinity?

Our way of thinking about Christmas, accustomed to 2,000 years of a “combined” Christmas story, sometimes overlays elements of the two Infancy Gospels (Matthew’s and Luke’s) that are unique to one. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph receive this retinue in what looks like a house, which tallies with Matthew’s Gospel (“upon entering the house” where the star stopped – v. 11).

Whose house? Luke presents the Holy Family as visitors to Bethlehem, temporarily in dad’s family’s old home town, for census registration purposes. That’s why they need to find an inn and end up in a manger. Matthew has them in a house, some exegetes trying thereby to undermine the reliability of the Infancy Narratives. Could it perhaps be, rather, that after a certain time the Family did find more humane temporary lodging, among extended family or friends?

In fidelity to Matthew’s Gospel, most artists will situate the reception of the Magi in some house-like structure. Interestingly, Botticelli puts that house inside a ruined Roman Temple, suggesting that the old order – pagan and Jewish – is now collapsed. Paganism, for sure, but Judaism? Far more rather fulfilled. 

We are assured that “God … wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). That is Vivarini’s message. It is above all the message of Epiphany.