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Here is an illuminated page from the Da Costa Book of Hours which was illustrated by Flemish master Simon Bening around 1515 AD.  Bening was regarded as the last great Flemish illuminator. His illustrations (somewhat like “The Shepheardes Calender“) chart the months of the year through sensitive landscapes filled with hard-working farmers and gardeners.   It is a remarkable and rare work in the canon or art in that the workers look like they are actually working, but are neither bumpkinish figures of fun nor beautiful superhumans (although they are brilliantly attired in expensive new garb).  The book was made for the Sá family of Portugal (it is a Sephardic surname).  This is the illustration for the month of March when winter has not yet left the land, yet the first green shoots are appearing.  The gardeners are hard at work laying in the new garden and repairing the trellised avenue as a fur clad nobleman explains what he wants. Note the courtly nobles holding hands on the bridge and the stork nesting on the chimney of the handsome little gothic chateau.

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Happy Epiphany!  When I was growing up, my family always celebrated the twelve days of Christmas which started on Christmas proper (December 25th) and lasted until until January 6th (“Epiphany”, “Little Christmas”, or “the Feast of Three Kings”) which is also, my father’s birthday.  Happy birthday, Dad!  The liturgical explanation of Epiphany was that Jesus was born on December 25th (just like Mithras, secret Persian god of the late Roman military! quite a coincidence) and then adored for 12 days until the Magi showed up with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Thereafter the holiday was finished: Jesus had to run hide out in Egypt and my family had to take down the decorations and deal with the grim realities of winter, unleavened by colorful Yuletide fantasy.  Come to think of it, Epiphany also involved some business about the bapism of Jesus, the appearance of the holy spirit, and the revelation of Jesus’ divine nature, but all of this was mixed up in the disastrous sectarianism of different forms of Christianity, so you will have to run ask your favorite bishop about the full niceties.

At any rate, the three kings were always great favorites of mine.  I recall playing Melchior in the Christmas pageant dressed in shimmery polyester 1970s curtain fabric and holding the Chinese jewelry box which my mother used to keep on her dresser.  “We Three Kings of Orient Are” was always my favorite Christmas song (since it hints at the broader themes of Christ’s life in a way that lesser, newer Christmas songs do not).  Also, the inclusion of the three kings allowed for camels, royal finery, and orientalism in Christmas decorations which was a real aesthetic plus.

To celebrate the holiday I have included two Medieval representations of the three kings:  the one at the top is an enameled reliquary made in Limoges, France in the late 12th century.  The journey of the three kings is portrayed on the top (sadly lacking the camel) and the adoration of the Christ child is shown on the side.  The gothic gilded box probably contained some ghastly mortal fragment of a medieval saint (or a lump of quotidian matter which was labeled as such), but it is exquisitely beautiful and would be perfect in a Christmas pageant, if it weren’t enshined in the Musée de Cluny in Paris.

The image below is from an illuminated book of hours (the so-called “Hours of the Queen of Sweden” according to my source) and shows a delightfully integrated group of kings kneeling before a legitemately beautiful medieval Mary.  Look at the tiny Jerusalem in the background.  Around the sacred image are beautiful still-life images of flowers, seed pods, insects, and birds.  Both of these imags are real artistic masterpieces of the Middle Ages and I hope they help you celebrate Little Christmas, because we have a lot of winter to slog through now (at least here up north…if you are in Aukland, Argentina, or Madagascar or something send us some pictures of your summer revels so we can get through January)…

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