Faith through Art: Epiphany reflections on Magi, Virgin and Christ child
By Norman Farmer
To honor this month’s Solemnity of the Lord’s Epiphany, “Faith through Art” reflects upon the majestic, perduring mosaic composed in the sixth century Basilica of Sant’Apollinaris Nuovo at Ravenna, Italy. Today, when secularism, commercialism and media are bent on trivializing the traditional icons of Christmas, this compelling image –– the earliest known to name the Magi –– shimmers with the breath of the Holy Spirit and turns our thoughts once again to the mystery concealed in the question asked by the Magi: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?”
In an image whose style colorfully reflects the Byzantine origins of the story told by Matthew (2:1-12), Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar press forward, their heads lifted in the expectation of faith and their faces radiant with hope as they eagerly seek the manifestation of the God of divine love they have discerned “from his star at its rising.”
They run, rather than walk, reminding us that 33 years later Zacchaeus, a tax collector, will run ahead of a crowd and climb “a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus” (Lk 19:4). And some might even say that the Magi in their exhilaration appear to dance their way to their destination much as King David once danced with total abandon before the Arc of the Covenant (2 Sm 6:12-18).
Clothed according to the Gentile manner of “the Persian East,” they wear gaily decorated pants instead of the robes common among Jews. They lean exuberantly into their mission, their colorful cloaks billowing behind them, hastening beneath a golden sky and within shimmering landscape with blooming flowers, green shrubs, and fruit-laden palms that holds out the promise of a new Eden buoyant with the awe and wonder known as “the fear of the Lord” (Ps 111:10).
Their red phrygian caps identify them as learned “seers.” And though they are steeped in Gnostic knowledge and worldly philosophy they seek (as Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2013 homily on the Epiphany) “more than simply knowledge about things.” Rather, they have “become seekers after God” whose “outward pilgrimage ... is an expression of their inward journey, the inner pilgrimage of their hearts.”
Arriving at their destination, they find precisely the essential knowledge that they seek, the new kind of knowing praised lavishly by the prophet in Isaiah. This is expressed in the mosaic by an image of great solemn formality and sublime beauty completely different from the natural world where the Magi journey.
Here in the luminous, shimmering space of the infinite Divine, the Virgin Mother, the glorified theotokos or God-bearer, is seated upon a jewel-encrusted throne between two pairs of angels while she herself is the very throne from which her Son blesses all who come to witness his manifestation. She is also the mediatrix of that blessing, passing it on through the two angels on her right to the Magi through the gracious gestures of their angelic hands. It is assuredly no exaggeration to discern here a foretaste of “The Mystery of Faith.”
It now remains to see how the architecture of the Basilica frames this jewel-like manifestation of Christ to the Magi. Their three-as-one procession is actually the precursor of a procession which, in Pope Benedict’s words, “winds throughout history” and includes in ever-greater numbers every soul who journeys inwardly to seek out and commune with Christ at the Eucharistic table.
Here, along the length of the north wall at Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo from the Narthex to the great Arch at the Chancel, the Magi lead a solemn procession of 22 virgin martyrs, each bearing her crown of martyrdom as her gift to Christ. Thus do the Magi whom we celebrate on the Epiphany (observed Jan. 8) lead all who, following their example, process through the public spaces, the Naves, of churches everywhere to taste and see the answer to the perennial question: “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?”
Can Faith through Art be any more explicit?