Happy Epiphany! This holiday, also known variously as “Three Kings Day”, “Little Christmas”, and “Theophany,” celebrates the revelation of Christ to the gentiles. In ancient Christian tradition, Christmas has 12 days, starting upon December 25th when Mithras–I mean Jesus!–was born and ending when the wise men arrive to present their gifts and acknowledge Christ as king of Earth. Observed on January 6th, it also brings an end to the joyous Christmas season (which reminds me, I need to take down my tree this weekend…sigh). If you live your life in accordance with liturgical colors (which I find hard to imagine you doing unless you are the pope), January 6th marks the return to ordinary green.

When I was growing up, I always liked the three wise men, who seemed like cosmopolitan outsiders in the somewhat insular & Jewish world of the synaptic gospels. Plus I always played Melchior in Christmas pageants (with exotic orientalist “robes” and an inlaid mother-of-pearl jewelry box from my mother’s vanity table!

The Adoration of the Kings (Jan Gossaert, ca. 1515), oil on oak panel

Anyway, to properly celebrate this holiday-which-ends-the-holidays, here is a favorite artistic interpretation of the momentous visit by Flemish genius, Jan Gossaert. The painting has a sort of “find-these 30 hidden objects” quality to it (which is something I love about Flemish art), so it is worth really looking at it for a while. You might want to head over to the National Gallery’s website where you can really blow up the image to see the incredible details in every inch of the masterwork.

The kings’ names (Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior) are not found in the Bible. In fact in the gospels they are not even kings but “wise men.” Apparently their name and rank came from 5th century AD Greek texts. Interestingly it was the venerable Bede (an 8th century Northumbrian monk) who first wrote of Balthasar being black! The kings’ diverse ethnicity later became their signature feature during the Renaissance (when Gossaert was painting) as the age of exploration brought newfound fascination with ethnology.