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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.

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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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