Who were the Magi – and how they are represented in art

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The adoration of the Magi is an episode in the life of Jesus that is widely represented. Who were the Magi ?

This representation appears throughout the history of Western art by great artists but is also part of the popular imaginary.

who were the magi giottoCover image: Adoration of the Magi, Giotto di Bondone c.1304 – c.1306.

In Portugal, for example, it is common during the Christmas period to make nativity scenes in houses. But also in several municipalities of the country, in the streets, squares and churches.

These manifestations can range from elaborate artistic nativity scenes with hundreds of figures to live “performances” or manifestations of popular handicraft.

These representations are part of the cultural heritage.

The website MyownPortugal presents an interesting route to the Nativity scenes of Portugal that you can see at the link.

And, of course, Belchior, Balthasar and Caspar are always represented with their offerings to the Messiah.

Who were the Magi and how are they represented in art?

The announcement to the Magi and the adoration of the Magi are episodes that integrate the cycle of Jesus’ life linked to the Nativity.

Characters

The Magi; Jesus, Mary and Joseph; sometimes: the Shepherds.

Description of the scene

Adoração dos reis magos, Fillippo Lippi

Adoration of the Magi, Fillippo Lippi

 

The Magi follow a bright star in the sky, which leads them to where Jesus is.

These three Magi offer three gifts to Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Who were the Magi and how many were they?

It is from the number of offerings that we conclude that there are three Magi.

In the Middle Ages, the Magi are figured as Kings.


General Meaning of the Scene of the Adoration of the Magi

  • Recognition of the Messiah by other peoples and nations (who will be included in the Redemption).Analysing art The girl with the pearl earring

The offers:

  • Gold – royalty (1 Kings 10, 2);
  • Frankincense – divinity (Lev 2:1-2 and John 8:4);
  • Myrrh – suffering (Luke 23, 56);

Who were the Magi and what do they represent

The 3 kings represent the 3 distinct races that were known. But they can also represent the 3 ages (youth, mature age, and old age), and they are represented accordingly.

Giorgione, Adoração dos Reis Magos, c. 1505

Giorgione, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1505

References

Matthew 2, 1-12:

From Magi they are referred to as Kings: Psalm 72:10-11;

Names of the Magi:

Armenian infancy Gospel 5, 10


As in many other scenes and episodes in Christian iconography, the Magi are often depicted with customs and costumes of the time when the artworks were produced.

Look at this representation by Botticelli in which the Magi portray members of the Medici family, patrons of the artist.

who were the magi in botticelli painting

Adoration of the Magi, Botticelli; the Medici family, his patrons, are here depicted as the Magi.

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