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 him 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 painted sculpture of the Adoration of the Magi forms part of a wider altarpiece picturing various scenes from the young life of the Virgin. It was created by Sir Ninian Comper in 1898 for the Lady Chapel of Downside Abbey, in Somerset. This particular scene follows a popular design by A.W.N. Pugin, with two kings discussing the star while the third kneels with his gift before the infant Christ. Note that the third king has also cast his crown down before Christ, as a sign of worship (cf Revelation 4:10). Christ is also giving his blessing to the king, while the seated Virgin holds him steady.
See the full image:
Where to find this work of art
Downside Abbey, Somerset
Read the relevant passage