Dream of the Magi

Dream of the Magi December 23, 2016

El_sueño_de_los_Reyes_Magos,_Misal_de_Salzburgo (1)

Here we have an illuminated letter from the Saltzburg Missal, from about 1480, portraying the Magi dreaming of the holy archangel who warned them to flee home by a different route.

Never really thought about them this way, did you? All nestled snug in bed together, naked except for their crowns?

Me either.

Of course, nude and in the same bed was the perfectly normal way for kings to sleep in that part of Europe, at that point in history. Pajamas weren’t really a thing, and people slept together for warmth– servants on the floor, nobility in the bed. I don’t think most beds were nestled in a giant letter E and I don’t think that kings wore their crowns all night, but there you go.

Poor Balthazar looks like one of the Delvians from Farscape. But, in defense of the anonymous monk who illuminated the manuscript, I imagine he’d never seen an actual black person from Africa in his life. He just heard they had black skin, and used the expensive indigo pigment.

This portrayal would have looked perfectly normal, five or six hundred years ago.

Funny how that works.

Stories are translated from culture to culture; images are adapted and then repeated until they turn into cliches, cliches are repeated until they practically turn into abstracts, a cluster of familiar shapes: Mary and Joseph here, the shepherds here, the angels here, and here come the Magi at the end of the pageant, one black, one tan and one white. Then you look back in history at another culture’s telling of the story, and laugh. It looks so strange– strange as three pagan kings from different lands, all dreaming of the same Holy Archangel and returning home by a different route.

And so we re-discover the strangeness, the mystery– even the comedy– of the story we’ve heard a thousand times.

May the mystery not be lost on you as we enter into this holy season.


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