One of the most recognisable scenes of the Nativity of Jesus (celebrated at Christmas) is the ‘Adoration of the Magi’: the wise men from the East bringing gifts to Christ. This blog post provides a translation of the relevant passages from the Old English translation of the Gospel of Matthew, as well as a discussion of the Magi in Anglo-Saxon art.
Matthew 2:1-12 in the West-Saxon Gospels and the Missal of Robert of Jumièges
The only mention of the Adoration of the Magi in the Bible is in the Gospel of Matthew. The Old English text below is taken from the West-Saxon Gospels, the fist stand-alone English translation of the four Gospels (c. 990). The images are taken from the Missal of Robert of Jumièges, a beautiful manuscript made in Anglo-Saxon England for Robert of Jumièges, the first Norman archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1052/1055). This missal features the most complete cycle of Magi illustrations to come from Anglo-Saxon England.
Eornustlice, þa se Hælend acenned wæs on Iudeiscre Bethleem on þæs cyninges dagum Herodes, þa comon þa tungolwitegan fram eastdæle to Hierusalem 7 cwædon “hwær ys se Iudea cyning þe acenned ys? Soðlice we gesawon hys steorran on eastdæle 7 we comon us him to geeadmedenne.”
[Truly, when the Saviour was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, then the astronomers came from the East to Jerusalem and said “Where is the king of the Jews that is born? Truly, we saw his star in the East and we came to pay worship to him.”] (Matthew 2:1-2)
It is noteworthy that in the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi are not classified as kings (this is an apocryphal tradition, for which see below); instead, they are mentioned here as “tungolwitegan” [‘lit. planet-knowers, i.e. astronomers’].
Whereas the Gospel of Matthew does not specify the number of the Magi, the Missal of Robert of Jumièges follows the popular aprocryphal tradition that there were three Magi (a number derived no doubt, from the number of gifts that these wise men from the East bring to Christ). The Missal also provides a typical depiction of the Magi as wearing Persian clothing, recognisable by the so-called ‘Phrygian caps’.
Ða Herodes þæt gehyrde ða wearð he gedrefed 7 eal Hierosolimwaru mid him. 7 þa gegaderode Herodes ealle ealdras þæra sacerda 7 folces writeras 7 axode hwær Crist acenned wære. Ða sædon hi him “on Iudeiscere Bethlem. Witodlice þus ys awriten þurh þone witegan: ‘And þu Bethleem Iudealand, witodlice ne eart þu læst on Iuda ealdrum. Of ðe forð gæð se heretoga se þe recð min folc Israhel.'”.
[When Herod heard that, he became afraid and all of the Jerusalem-dwellers with him. And then Herod gathered all the elders of the priests and the writers of the people and asked where Christ had been born. Then they said to him: “In Bethlehem of Judea. Truly thus it is written by the prophet: ‘And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judea, are truly not the least among the elders of Judah. From you the leader goes forth, he who rules my people Israel.'”.] (Matthew 2:3-6)
The prophecy referred to and cited by one of these “Hierosolimwaru” is Micah 5:2.
The Missal of Robert of Jumièges shows Herod on his throne, surrounded by his advisors; one of them, on the outer right, points up to the Star of Bethlehem. The two advisors closest to Herod lift up five and two fingers, respectively – a reference to Micah 5:2? Maybe. The fact that King Herod wears a Phrygian cap similar to the ones worn by the Magi might indicate that the artist of the Missal already associated the Magi with kings (for which, see below).
Herodes þa clypode on sunderspræce ða tungelwitegan 7 befran hi georne hwænne se steorra him æteowde. And he asende hi to Bethlem 7 ðus cwæð: “Farað 7 axiað geornlice be þam cilde 7 þonne ge hyt gemetað cyþað eft me þæt ic cume 7 me to him gebidde”. Ða hi þæt gebod gehyrdon þa ferdon hi, 7 soþlice se steorra þe hi on eastdæle gesawon him beforan ferde oð he stod ofer þær þæt cild wæs. Soþlice þa ða tungelwitegan þone steorran gesawon fægenodon swyðe myclum gefean. 7 gangende into þam huse hi gemetton þæt cild mid Marian hys meder 7 hi aðenedon hi 7 hi to him gebædon. And hi untyndon hyra goldhordas 7 him lac brohton þæt wæs gold 7 recels 7 myrre.
[Herod then spoke in private to the astronomers and asked them eagerly when the star had shown itself to them. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said thus: “Go and ask eagerly about the child and when you meet it tell me afterwards so that I might come and worship him.” When they heard that command then they travelled, and truly the story, which they saw in the East, went before them until it stood over the place where the child was. Truly, when the astronomers saw the star, they rejoiced with much faith, and, going into the house, they met the child with Mary his mother and they paid worship to them and they worshipped them. And they unclosed their gold-hoards and brought them a gift, that was gold, frankincense and myrrh.] (Matthew 2:7-11)
It is notable here that the Gospel indicates that the Magi only met Christ and his mother – there is no reference to Joseph, who, consequently, is often absent from depictions of the Adoration of the Magi, as in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges:
The Missal’s depiction of the Magi in the Adoration scene shows some notable differences to the Magi on horseback in the same manuscript. They are still wearing their Phrygian caps, but appear to have lost their pants and shoes (a sign of humility?); one of them had a beard while on his horse, but now all of them are clean-shaven (on the importance of bearded Magi, see below).
And hi afengon andsware on swefnum þæt hi eft to Herode ne hwyrfdon ac hi on oðerne weg on hyra rice ferdon.
[And they received a warning in their dreams so that they did not turn to Herod afterwards but travelled to their realm via another road.] (Matthew 2:12)
And that is the last we heard of the wise men from the East in the Gospel of Matthew. The Missal of Robert of Jumièges shows how the three Magi received their warning while they slept under one blanket. Notably, they had kept their clothes (and Phrygian caps!) on:
Psalm 71:10-11 and the Magi as kings
The Magi in the tenth-century Benedictional of St Æthelwold are depicted without Phrygian caps but with crowns, instead. The notion that the Magi were kings is not derived from the Gospel of Matthew, but stems from the interpretation of Psalm 71:10-11 (according to Vulgate reckoning). Here is the relevant Latin passage from the twelfth-century Eadwine Psalter, along with its Old English gloss:
Reges Tharsis & insulae munera offerent. reges Arabum & Saba dona adducent. Et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae. Omnes gentes seruient ei.
Kininges 7 iglonde of tarsis læc brohton. Kininges of Arabe 7 Feredæ giefa to geledæþ. 7 gebiddaþ hine eællæ kininges of eorðæn. Eællæ diodæ þeowigæþ him.
[The kings and the island of Tharsis brought treasure. Kings of Arabia and Saba bring gifts and all kings of earth worship him. All nations serve him.]
The Eadwine Psalter itself is beautifully illustrated with literal interpretations of the Psalms – the illustration of Psalm 71 features an image of three kings offering gifts to Christ:
Whereas the Eadwine Psalter depicts three kings offering their gifts to an adult Christ, the eleventh-century Bury St Edmunds Psalter illustrates the same passage of Psalm 71 with a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi, giving gifts to the baby Jesus:
If you look closely (you can zoom in on the image here), you can see that one of the Magi is wearing a Phrygian cap and the other two are wearing crowns. The Magi are further differentiated: the Phrygian cap Magus is clean shaven, the standing Magus has a beard, while the kneeling Magus has an even longer beard. This differentiation between the Magi (in this case in terms of age: young, middle-aged, elderly) became a common topos in depictions of the Adoration of the Magi – representing different age classes, the Magi symbolize mankind in its entirety (similarly, in later traditions, the Magi are differentiated for race).
The importance of beards: The Franks Casket and Bishop Cuthwine’s Carmen Paschale
The earliest known depiction of the Adoration of the Magi from Anglo-Saxon England is found on the front panel of the Franks Casket, an early 8th-century whalebone box now kept in the British Museum. the Magi, here led by a duck (or dove), are clearly differentiated in terms of age: beardless, semi-beard, full beard.
There is one more depiction of the Magi with Anglo-Saxon origins that differentiates between the Magi through their beards. It is found in a ninth-century Carolingian manuscript of Sedulius’s Carmen Paschale (an epic re-write of the Gospels) :
As I have discussed in another blog post (An Anglo-Saxon comic book collector: Cuthwine and the Carmen Paschale), this manuscript was copied from a book once owned by the Anglo-Saxon Bishop Cuthwine (fl. 716-731) and its miniatures show the influence of an eighth-century English exemplar. As such, Cuthwine’s original copy may have had a similar image of the Magi; it would certainly have featured Sedulius’s poetic paraphrase of Matthew 2:1-12:
So, watching the light fixed high in the sky before them,
The wise men made haste to follow the star with its royal twinkling.
They kept close to the hoped for road which under a subsequent
Dispensation has led adoring gentiles to the holy cradle.
And when together they had opened their treasures in reverence,
So that the precious objects themselves could point to Christ,
They poured out gold as a present fit for a new born king;
They gave him frankincense, a gift for a god; they offered him myrrh for his grave.
But why three gifts? Because the greatest hope we have in life
Is the faith which testifies to this number and the most high God
Who distinguishes all times, past, present, and future,
Always is, always was, and always will be possessed
Of his triple power. Then the Magi, warned from on high
By a dream to despise the commands of the threatening tyrant,
Changed their itinerary, and, proceeding by alternative routes,
Returned to their homeland. Thus we also,
If we wish to reach our holy homeland at last,
After we have come to Christ, should no longer return to the evil one. (bk. II, ll. 89-106, trans. Springer 2013)
By exhibiting this valuable lesson, the Magi themselves, it seems, were deemed worthy of adoration in early medieval England.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other posts about illuminated manuscripts:
- A medieval manuscript ransomed from Vikings: The Stockholm Codex Aureus
- Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels
- The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book
Works referred to:
- Sedulius, The Paschal Song and Hymns, trans. C. P. E. Springer (Atlanta, 2013)