The Magi Pay Homage to Jesus Christ, the Light to All Nations

SCRIPTURES & ART: Because the ‘Three Kings’ have traditionally represented all the nations, this week’s painting retells the ‘epiphany’ of Christ to three nations: Poland, Lithuania and Russia.

Kazimierz Sichulski, “The Homage of the Three Kings,” 1913
Kazimierz Sichulski, “The Homage of the Three Kings,” 1913 (photo: Public Domain)

The Epiphany as a Solemnity once rivalled Christmas, because it was the celebration of the Incarnate God made manifest (“Epiphany,” ἐπιφάνεια, means “manifestation”) to all peoples. The Magi — by Western tradition three — were said to represent the three races of humanity.

The significance of the Epiphany is evident in Matthew’s Gospel, which is the source of almost all Sunday readings this year. (The Epiphany is not necessarily a “Sunday,” inasmuch as it is properly celebrated — as most of the world does — on Jan. 6. The U.S. Bishops, however, received permission to “transfer” the Solemnity to a Sunday). If we only had Matthew’s Gospel, we would not have the account of the shepherds visiting Bethlehem after receiving the announcement of the angels. That’s in Luke. Matthew 1 provides Jesus’s genealogy and the account of the dream whereby Joseph came to know of Jesus’s origins. Matthew 2 — today’s Gospel — then launches immediately into the coming of the Magi. That’s where Matthew puts the emphasis in his “Christmas story.”

It’s interesting that he does so there because, as we have noted, Matthew was probably writing to Jewish Christians to demonstrate that Jesus was the fulfillment of their expectations. That’s why, for example, Matthew often includes references to the Old Testament. 

But the coming of the Magi challenges that Jewish focus. For one thing, the Magi were foreigners, pagans, astrologers. So, from the very start of his Gospel, Matthew makes the point that Jesus comes for all humanity, not just for Israel. His mission is universal, not national. Matthew 2 carries forward what had already been suggested in the Book of Jonah: God’s saving will extends to all peoples.

Matthew’s Magi account also points something of an accusatory finger at Israel. The Magi are presented as coming enthusiastically in search of the “newborn King of the Jews” (2:2). They arrive in Jerusalem, expecting that the seat of Israel’s political and religious establishment would be a source of information and share in their joy. It’s quickly apparent they don’t.

That’s understandable in the case of Herod, whom the Jews considered at best a half-Jew, an Idumean, and a usurping collaborator of Rome. But the real criticism is directed at the “chief priests and teachers of the law” (verse 4) — the religious establishment. When asked where the newborn King of the Jews should be born, they have the Scriptural information at their fingertips. When they speak of “you, Bethlehem, land of Judea…” (verse 6), they are quoting the prophet Micah (5: 2,4). For Matthew, the paradox is striking: here are foreigners, guided by their beliefs in astrology, in honest search for “the King of the Jews,” and there are the heirs of the Law and Prophets, with God’s Revelation right in their Rolodex, whose reaction — like the hated King Herod — is to be “disturbed” (verse 3). 

When the Magi, relying on their reading of “the Book of Nature” rather than the Bible, finally find the Christ Child, their gifts symbolically profess their acknowledgement of that Child’s identity: gold for a king, incense for God and myrrh for one who is to die.

Matthew is making clear to his Jewish audience that, far from some aberration, God’s plan from the very beginning was that Christ Jesus was Messiah for all mankind, not just Israel. He is a King and God. His worldly mission will involve mortality. Indeed, his Kingship and his Divinity finds unique expression in the King of the Jews and crucified One who dies and rises.

In this way, writing to Jewish Christians, Matthew Chapter 2’s “Christmas story” — the Epiphany — explains what this feast is all about: Jesus Christ, “the light of the nations and the glory of Israel” (Luke 2:32).

Because the Magi, the “Three Kings,” have traditionally been taken to symbolize all the nations, all of humanity, we have a special painting to illustrate today’s Gospel. Polish artist Kazimierz Sichulski’s 1913 triptych, “Pokłon Trzech Króli” (The Homage of the Three Kings) retells the “epiphany” of Christ to three nations: Poland, Lithuania and Russia. It is in the National Museum in Warsaw.

I chose this painting in light of the war in Ukraine. As I write this, Russia’s war against that country continues to rage. It is a war not just of militaries, but an attempt to dominate Ukraine culturally and even spiritually. 

Sichulski worked in a different era. In 1913, a year before the outbreak of World War I, Poland and Lithuania were not independent countries. Both had been occupied by their neighbors: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been progressively eaten away by Russia, Prussia and Austria from 1772 until it was finally devoured in 1795. While the Poles and Lithuanians harbored hopes for freedom, they had been bitterly suppressed for almost 120 years.

The artist seeks to recapture Christ as a light to all nations, bringing them together in Christian brotherhood. The center panel depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph. A cow, alluding to the manger, pokes its head in from the left. But Mary and Joseph are not dressed like first century Jews. They wear the richly embroidered folk costumes of early 20th century Central Europe. Stars spangle the sky, including the largest star right above the heads of Mary and Joseph. Three crosses appear in the background over Mary’s right shoulder, alluding both to the three future crosses on Calvary and the three crosses these three countries bear.

The two “kings” on the left represent Poland and Lithuania. The mustached king with sword is Poland; the Druid-like king with beard is Lithuania, alluding to the fact that Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe, converted to Catholicism only in 1387. Catholic steeples stand in the background. In lieu of camels, an aide holds a horse’s bridle.

The “king” on the right represents Russia. He, too, wears national clothing and is attended by an aide. In the background, Orthodox onion-spires appear.

All “three kings” kneel in homage to their one true King, Jesus Christ, who should unify them in their relations and dealings with each other for, as we read in the weekday liturgies during Christmastide: “Whoever does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And he gave us this commandment: ‘Whoever loves God must also love his brother’” (1 John 4:21).

Kazimierz Sichulski (1879-1942) was a Polish artist who worked in the “secession” style and the “Young Poland” (Młoda Polska) art movement. The “Young Poland” movement was marked by neo-Romanticism, symbolism, and elements of art nouveau. They are all on display in this work, especially the symbolic elements. “Young Poland” artists also sought to incorporate national elements into their work (especially when Poland’s and Lithuania’s occupiers sought to suppress those local cultures). In the case of Poland, they often incorporated the distinct style of the Polish Highlanders, the górale of the Tatra Mountains south of Kraków. Those elements are apparent in the dress of Mary and Joseph but are also overlaid on the Polish King. The incorporation of earlier Lithuanian elements also sought to give vision to that national heritage. The secession style — minus the strong “Young Poland” elements such as we see here — was also popular in Austria around the turn of the 20th century.

Five years after this work, Poland and Lithuania would again be free but Russia in the throes of the Communist Revolution. A century after Sichulski’s work, bloodletting and occupation by Russia continues in this part of the world. Is it not time to recognize the One King of Peace we all supposedly profess?