The visit of the wise men to the newborn Christ is one of the more intriguing aspects of the Christmas story. The story is described only in St Matthew’s gospel. He tells us that a group of wise men, or ‘Magi’, came from the east to worship the infant king of the Jews.
It was the appearance of a mysterious star that motivated them to travel to Jerusalem. After meeting the scheming King Herod, they were directed to look for the child in Bethlehem, since this was where the promised Messiah would be born (Micah 5:1-2). On arrival in the town, the star led them to the house in which the Holy Family was staying. On entering, they knelt down in adoration before the baby, presenting him with various gifts.
The exact identity of the Magi isn’t known for sure. Their stargazing suggests that they may have been court astrologers from Persia. On the other hand, their gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) suggest that they may have been Arabian chieftains, since this merchandise was Arabian in origin. The gospel does not tell us exactly how many Magi came to visit, nor their names, although the three gifts mentioned led to the idea that there were three men – each bringing one gift each.
The traditional identification of the Magi as ‘kings’ goes back to the very origins of the Church. Their arrival was understood to fulfil various prophecies from the Old Testament. Several texts describe how Arabian kings would travel to worship the King of the Jews, bringing with them gifts of gold and frankincense (Psalm 72:10-15; Isaiah 60:1-6).
The visit of the Magi is celebrated by the Church on 6 January, in the feast of the Epiphany (which means ‘manifestation’). This is because, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, the story is about “his manifestation to the peoples of the entire world, represented by the Magi who came from the East to render homage to the King of the Jews.”
This beautiful golden mural of the Adoration of the Magi is found within the church of Our Lady of Loretto, Musselburgh. It’s part of a wider scheme that covers the entire sanctuary, featuring all of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. This masterpiece was painted by a Scottish artist, George Duffie, between 1944-1947.
All of the figures were drawn from life, with hand-picked parishioners posing as models. The mural was completed in stages, using layers of oil paint, gold leaf and protective isinglass (fish glue). This highly detailed scene features not only the three wise men, but the shepherds, a guiding angel and prophetic sayings.
The Prophet Haggai (far left) holds a scroll that foretells the arrival of Christ (Haggai 2:8), while the star beneath his feet speaks of the coming ‘King of Nations’. One of the kings hands his gift to the delighted Christ child, while one of the others gestures towards the Star of Bethlehem. Behind the seated Virgin, St Joseph keeps a watchful eye.
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Where to find this work of art
Our Lady of Loretto, Musselburgh
Read the relevant passage
On a similar theme
- From the Old Testament: The mural links the Adoration of the Magi with the prophecy of Haggai.
- From the New Testament: The Magi visited the Holy Family in Bethlehem, following the Nativity.