Epiphany; "Manifestation", "striking appearance") is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as human in Jesus. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates principally  the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, and thus Jesus' physical manifestation to the Gentiles.  Eastern Christinas  commemorate the baptism of Jesus,  as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God.    




The Three Wise Men


In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.

                                                                                                                                                     Matthew 2: 1-12

The anonymous author of the Book of Matthew probably lived in a Jewish-Christian community in Roman Syria towards the end of the 1st century and drew on a number of sources in writing the book.  This is the only book to recount the story of the Magi and the origin remains a mystery.  Over the centuries the number of the wise men will be fixed at three, they will acquire names (Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar), come to symbolize the three continents where Christianity takes root (Asia, Africa, and Europe), be awarded a day in the church calendar (Epiphany), and have their remains interred in a golden shrine in Germany.

goose parade
A Epiphany parade in Madrid, with  geese.  Traditionally, children in Spain get  Christmas presents  on Jan. 6, the day celebrating the Magi visit to the baby Jesus.

 Their portrayal in art will also evolve. While the earliest depictions of the wise men show three  figures in  profile approaching mother and child (below), by 15th century the wise men  are often conflated with the  shepherds from the Gospel of Luke. Moreover, the later compositions become very complex - few more complex than The Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert.


magi 4th century sarcophagus, Vatican. (notice the camels)


 Over the centuries their relics will not only be venerated, but will work miracles. Now, let us briefly turn our attention to the seemingly peculiar medieval belief involving the remains of venerated church figures. How can an educated person today possibly share their belief that an appeal via the bones of such a venerated person be relayed to the spirit of that person who may intercede in heaven on your behalf? To answer that question we must first examine not the evidence supporting such a belief, but instead, examine the human psyche.


The English writer George Orwell once took his young niece to visit the British Museum.   After their visit he asked her what she liked best.  She thought for a moment and replied, "Nelson's bloody shirt." In the same vein, Graceland is one of the most-visited private homes in America with over 600,000 visitors a year, just behind the Whitehouse.

Relics and certain sacred places were and are believed by some to cure illnesses or to provide protection.  The veneration of relics and sacred objects is associated with several religious systems besides that of Catholicism - Hinduism and Buddhism share such beliefs.  Even before Christianity the classical world valued relics.  At ancient Athens the supposed remains of Oedipus and Theseus were honored and the bones or ashes of Aesculapius at Epidaurus were treated with veneration.  Moreover, the sacred spring at Delphi was important to the oracle. Christians, however, went a step further - they institutionalized relics.

The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 decreed that every altar should contain a relic, a practice that remains to the present day in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Such beliefs are difficult for educated people to share in this day and age.  Visitors to Graceland probably don't believe gazing at Elvis' white suit will cure the flu, but, let's not dismiss the medieval belief in the power of relics out of hand; modern man has a like faith in the power of science, it is called the placebo effect.

The placebo effect often works simply because an individual believes it will work. A particular mind-set or belief about one's body or health may lead to improvements in disease symptoms, brain chemicals and even vision - fundamentally the mind and body are connected. For medieval man venerating relics often worked to cure illness just as a sugar pill is often effective for a believer in modern science.

We must remember, for medieval man faith made a relic, not the other way around. .


II. Links

Below are links to three sections concerning art objects related to the story of the Magi. The selections begin with a shrine in the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany and traces how the remains of the three king ended up there. Second, through the ages artists called upon to paint the nativity have struggled with St Joseph, the odd man out. Often he is pictured asleep or lurking behind a donkey, finally Bosch found something for him to do; he has the old fellow out behind the barn drying diapers. Finally, we find a culmination of the nativity scene in art. The painting by Gentile da Fabriano is so complicated, you could spend days examining all of the details. The sections are not linear, so begin where you will. -JJ



 The Magi Cologne Cathedral Shrine     The Shrine in the Cologne Cathedral
The Prado Epiphany Triptych closed A Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch  
Adoration of the Magi Fabriano The Masterpiece of Gentile da Fabriano