A Month of Christmas: Adoration of the Magi & Albrecht Dürer

New Zealand - Scott #355 (1961)
New Zealand – Scott #355 (1961)

The Adoration of the Magi or Adoration of the Kings is the name traditionally given to the subject in the Nativity of Jesus in art in which the three Magi, represented as kings, especially in the West, having found Jesus by following a star, lay before him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and worship him. It is related in the Bible by Matthew 2:11:

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path“.

Christian iconography has considerably expanded the bare account of the Biblical Magi given in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (2:1–22) and used it to press the point that Jesus was recognized, from his earliest infancy, as king of the earth. The scene was often used to represent the Nativity, one of the most indispensable episodes in cycles of the Life of the Virgin as well as the Life of Christ.

In the church calendar, the event is commemorated in Western Christianity as the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). The Orthodox Church commemorates the Adoration of the Magi on the Feast of the Nativity (December 25). The term is anglicized from the Vulgate Latin section title for this passage: A Magis adoratur.

Detail from “Adoration of the Magi” tempera on wood by Gentile da Fabriano, 1423. Currently in the collections of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

The biblical Magi (singular, magus), also referred to as the (Three) Wise Men or (Three) Kings, were, in the Gospel of Matthew and Christian tradition, a group of distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity celebrations of Christmas and are an important part of Christian tradition.

Matthew is the only of the four canonical gospels to mention the Magi. Matthew reports that they came “from the east” to worship the “king of the Jews”. The gospel never mentions the number of Magi, but most western Christian denominations have traditionally assumed them to have been three in number, based on the statement that they brought three gifts. In Eastern Christianity, especially the Syriac churches, the Magi often number twelve. Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is probably linked to Psalm 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him”.

The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from Greek μάγος magos, as used in the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew (“μάγοι”). Greek magos itself is derived from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan magâunô, i.e., the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born (Yasna 33.7: “ýâ sruyê parê magâunô” — “so I can be heard beyond Magi”). The term refers to the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic, although Zoroastrianism was in fact strongly opposed to sorcery.

The King James Version translates magi as wise men; the same translation is applied to the wise men led by Daniel of earlier Hebrew Scriptures (Daniel 2:48). The same word is given as sorcerer and sorcery when describing “Elymas the sorcerer” in Acts 13:6–11, and Simon Magus, considered a heretic by the early Church, in Acts 8:9–13. Several translations refer to the men outright as astrologers at Matthew Chapter 2, including New English Bible (1961); Phillips New Testament in Modern English (J.B.Phillips, 1972); Twentieth Century New Testament (1904 revised edition); Amplified Bible (1958-New Testament); An American Translation (1935, Goodspeed); and The Living Bible (K. Taylor, 1962-New Testament).

The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic circa 565, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (restored during the 18th century). As here Byzantine art usually depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes, and Phrygian caps. Detail from: “Mary and Child, surrounded by angels”, mosaic of a Ravennate italian-byzantine workshop, completed within 526 AD by the so-called “Master of Sant’Apollinare”.

Although the Magi are commonly referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in the account from the Gospel of Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind. The identification of the Magi as kings is linked to Old Testament prophecies that describe the Messiah being worshipped by kings in Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 68:29, and Psalm 72:10, which reads, “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him.” Early readers reinterpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and elevated the Magi to kings. By AD 500, all commentators adopted the prevalent tradition that the three were kings. Later Christian interpretation stressed the Adorations of the Magi and shepherds as the first recognition by the people of the earth of Christ as the Redeemer, but the reformer John Calvin was vehemently opposed to referring to the Magi as kings. He once wrote:

But the most ridiculous contrivance of the Papists on this subject is, that those men were kings… Beyond all doubt, they have been stupefied by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at [their] gross ignorance.”

The New Testament does not give the names of the Magi. However, traditions and legends identify a variety of different names for them. In the Western Christian church, they have been all regarded as saints and are commonly known as:

  • Melchior (also Melichior), a Persian scholar;
  • Caspar (also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa, and other variations);
  • Balthazar (also Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea), a Babylonian scholar.

Encyclopædia Britannica states: “according to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.” These names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria around 500, and which has been translated into Latin with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari. Another Greek document from the 8th century, of presumed Irish origin and translated into Latin with the title Collectanea et Flores, continues the tradition of three kings and their names and gives additional details.

One of the earliest known depictions of the Magi from a third-century sarcophagus currently in the collections of the Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy. The clothing of the Magi here is typical of Parthian nobles.
Adoration of the Magi as seen on a relief panel from a Roman sarcophagus, 4th century CE. from the cemetary of St. Agnes in Rome. Currently in the collections of the Vatican Museums and displayed at Museo Pio Christiano, Vatican City.

In the earliest depictions, the Magi are shown wearing Persian dress of trousers and Phrygian caps, usually in profile, advancing in step with their gifts held out before them. These images adapt Late Antique poses for barbarians submitting to an Emperor, and presenting golden wreaths, and indeed relate to images of tribute-bearers from various Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern cultures going back many centuries. The earliest are from catacomb paintings and sarcophagus reliefs of the 4th century. Crowns are first seen in the 10th century, mostly in the West, where their dress had by that time lost any Oriental flavor in most cases. The standard Byzantine depiction of the Nativity included the journey or arrival of the mounted Magi in the background, but not them presenting their gifts, until the post-Byzantine period, when the western depiction was often adapted to an icon style. Later Byzantine images often show small pill-box like hats, whose significance is disputed.

The Magi are usually shown as the same age until about this period, but then the idea of depicting the three ages of man is introduced: a particularly beautiful example is seen on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto. Occasionally from the 12th century, and very often in Northern Europe from the 15th, the Magi are also made to represent the three known parts of the world: Balthasar is very commonly cast as a young African or Moor, and old Caspar is given Oriental features or, more often, dress. Melchior represents Europe and middle age. From the 14th century onward, large retinues are often shown, the gifts are contained in spectacular pieces of goldsmith work, and the Magi’s clothes are given increasing attention. By the 15th century, the Adoration of the Magi is often a bravura piece in which the artist can display their handling of complex, crowded scenes involving horses and camels, but also their rendering of varied textures: the silk, fur, jewels and gold of the Kings set against the wood of the stable, the straw of Jesus’s manger and the rough clothing of Joseph and the shepherds.

One of the “Allendale group”, the small Adoration of the Magi predella by Giorgione, oil on panel, circa 1506-1507. Currently on display in Room 12 at the National Gallery, London, England. Born Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco; circa 1477-1478, Giorgione was an Italian painter of the Venetian school during the High Renaissance from Venice, whose career was ended by his death at a little over 30. Giorgione is known for the elusive poetic quality of his work, though only about six surviving paintings are firmly attributed to him. The uncertainty surrounding the identity and meaning of his work has made Giorgione one of the most mysterious figures in European art.

The scene often includes a fair diversity of animals as well: the ox and ass from the Nativity scene are usually there, but also the horses, camels, dogs, and falcons of the kings and their retinue, and sometimes other animals, such as birds in the rafters of the stable. From the 15th century onwards, the Adoration of the Magi is quite often conflated with the Adoration of the Shepherds from the account in the Gospel of Luke (2:8–20), an opportunity to bring in yet more human and animal diversity; in some compositions (triptychs for example), the two scenes are contrasted or set as pendants to the central scene, usually a Nativity.

The “adoration” of the Magi at the crib is the usual subject, but their arrival, called the “Procession of the Magi”, is often shown in the distant background of a Nativity scene (usual in Byzantine icons), or as a separate subject, for example in the Magi Chapel frescos by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence. Other subjects include the Journey of the Magi, where they and perhaps their retinue are the only figures, usually shown following the Star of Bethlehem, and there are relatively uncommon scenes of their meeting with Herod and the Dream of the Magi.

“The Adoration of the Kings” is a large oil-on-oak painting by Jan Gossaert, dated to 1510–1515, depicting the Adoration of the Magi. Although Gossaert’s name is signed on the border of Balthazar’s richly embroidered headdress, and on a collar worn by Balthazar’s turbaned attendant, the painting was occasionally attributed to Albrecht Dürer in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 2010, Ainsworth suggested that the work was a collaboration between Gossaert and Gerard David. Currently on display in Room 14 of the National Gallery, London, England.
Adoration of the Magi. Stained glass window in St.Michael Cathedral. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Hand-blown using the medieval method in the of Franz Borgias Mayer of the Mayer Company, Munich, Bavaria, 1912.

The usefulness of the subject to the Church and the technical challenges involved in representing it have made the Adoration of the Magi a favorite subject of Christian art: chiefly painting, but also sculpture and even music (as in Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors). The subject matter is also found in stained glass. The first figural stained glass window made in the United States is the “Adoration of the Magi” window located at Christ Church, Pelham, New York and designed in 1843 by the founder and first rector’s son, William Jay Bolton.

Many hundreds of artists have treated the subject. Albrecht Dürer’s 1504 oil-on-wood painting “Adoration of the Magi” (“Adorazione dei Re Magi” in Italian) has an unusual setting — an impromptu stable offering shelter to the ox and ass erected against one of many ruins and arches. The air seems crisp. The magi are richly clothed and their offerings impressive. The baby boy accepts a chest of gold from the oldest of the three. On the right, a servant appears to be taking more gifts from a bag. Joseph is missing. The relevant passage is Matthew 2:11:

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.”

“Self-Portrait” (or “Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight”) is a panel painting by the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. Painted early in 1500, just before his 29th birthday, it is the last of his three painted self-portraits. Art historians consider it the most personal, iconic and complex of his self-portraits. The self-portrait is most remarkable because of its resemblance to many earlier representations of Christ. Art historians note the similarities with the conventions of religious painting, including its symmetry, dark tones and the manner in which the artist directly confronts the viewer and raises his hands to the middle of his chest as if in the act of blessing. Currently on display in Room IX (1st floor) of the Alte Pinakothek, an art museum located in the Kunstareal area in Munich, Germany. It is one of the oldest galleries in the world and houses a significant collection of Old Master paintings.

Albrecht Dürer was a painter, printmaker, and theorist of the German Renaissance. Born in Nuremberg on May 21, 1471, Dürer established his reputation and influence across Europe when he was still in his twenties due to his high-quality woodcut prints. He was in communication with the major Italian artists of his time, including Raphael, Giovanni Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci, and from 1512 he was patronized by Emperor Maximilian I and is commemorated by both the Lutheran and Episcopal Churches.

Dürer’s vast body of work includes engravings, his preferred technique in his later prints, altarpieces, portraits and self-portraits, watercolors and books. The woodcuts, such as the Apocalypse series (1498), are more Gothic than the rest of his work. His well-known engravings include the Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in his Study (1514) and Melencolia I (1514), which has been the subject of extensive analysis and interpretation. His watercolors also mark him as one of the first European landscape artists, while his ambitious woodcuts revolutionized the potential of that medium.

Dürer’s introduction of classical motifs into Northern art, through his knowledge of Italian artists and German humanists, has secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance. This is reinforced by his theoretical treatises, which involve principles of mathematics, perspective, and ideal proportions.

Dürer’s Adoration of the Magi was an altarpiece, commissioned by Friedrich III for the Schlosskirche (the church in the castle) at Wittenberg. This king, who came to be known as Frederick the Wise, later acted as patron to Martin Luther.  The work is considered one of Dürer’s best and most important works from the period between his first and second trips to Italy (1494-5 and 1505). The second king is a self portrait of Dürer. Dürer’s Adoration was very influential for other Renaissance painters like Pieter Coecke van Aelst.

“Adoration of the Magi” by Albrecht Dürer. 1504. 99 × 113.5 cm. Oil on wood. Currently on display at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

In his “Adoration of the Magi”, Dürer framed and delimited a large space by an architecture composed of arches of a very refined perspective. The three kings arrived at this slightly elevated space from the back and after having climbed two steps. A single figure, sharply foreshortened, followed in their footsteps from the distant background. Only the upper half of his body is shown where he now stands at the bottom of the two steps. He is Oriental and wearing a turban. The heavy traveling bag he holds probably contains precious gifts for the infant Jesus. The Madonna is clad in azure clothes and cape, a white veil covering her head. She is holding out the infant, who is wrapped in her white veil, to the eldest king. He is offering the infant a gold casket with the image of Saint George, which the infant has already taken with his right hand. This is the only action that unfolds in the principal scene, except for the Oriental servant’s gesture of putting his hand in his bag. All the other characters are motionless; immersed in thought, they look straight ahead or sideways, creating the effect of a staged spectacle set with immobile characters.

The architecture of the fictive ruins behind the Madonna is beautiful and imaginative. Dürer had previously experimented with this design in drawings and engravings. The background is stupendous: the limpid sky, in which the cumulus clouds chase one another; the light Nordic city, climbing up the cone-like mountain; the road bending into the archway where people stop, following behind the three kings. These are represented with much imagination and variety, as far as the fashion and colour of their clothes and the differences in their expressions. In the far right are a lake and a boat. This imagination and variety continue in the extraordinary depiction of the kings, in lavish clothing, with their precious jewels, and with the beautiful goblets and caskets that they bear as gifts. It is telling here that Dürer was also an expert goldsmith. According to the Nordic tradition, also adopted previously by Mantegna in Italy, one of the kings is a Moor. The physiognomy of the young king with long blond curly hair, standing in the middle of the painting, bears, according to recent interpretation, a resemblance to a self-portrait of Dürer.

Dürer was passionately devoted to the study of animals and plants, which he reproduced faithfully from life. He often distributed these images in his landscape passages, and particularly in his drawings and engravings of the Madonna. We find some here as well: in the foreground, to the right, a flying deer, already known from various watercolours, which here symbolizes Christ; the plantain (plantago major) seen directly behind, whose healing properties were once much appreciated, recalls the spilled blood of Christ; in the foreground, now to the left, on the millstone beside the carnation, a small coleopterum surrounded by a few butterflies, the ancient symbol of the soul, which here may be a symbol of the resurrection.

In 1603, Christian II, Elector of Saxony presented the painting as a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. It remained in the imperial collection in Vienna until 1792, when Luigi Lanzi, the director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, acquired it in exchange for Fra Bartolomeo’s Presentation in the Temple.

Sts. Joseph and Joachim, 96×54 cm, left wing of Three Kings altarpiece by Albrecht Dürer. Currently part of the Bavarian State Painting Collections at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.
The Jabach Altarpiece by Albrecht Dürer, oil on panel, circa 1504. Local artist Joseph Haussmann, who had the altarpiece for a while, cut up the paintings, added monograms and the wrong date of 1523, and sold the different parts in this way for more money. The Job suffering part, now in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut of Frankfurt, was once owned by C.F. Wendelstadt of Frankfurt who had a lithograph reproduction made to which was added an explanation on the paintings and some of their whereabouts. The drummer and piper piece was in the collection of late canon and professor Wallraf in Cologne, and is now in the museum of the same name in Cologne. Both paintings were the outer wings of the complete piece. The inner wings, representing Simeon and Lazarus on one side, and Joseph and Joachim on the other side, went to the Boisserée collection and then to the King of Bavaria. They are now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

Some art historians suggest that the Adoration of the Magi painting could have been the central panel of the Jabach Altarpiece, an oil on lime tree panel painting by Dürer executed around 1503–1504. Originally a triptych, only the side panels are now preserved: the right picture, measuring 96×54 cm, is housed in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum of Cologne; the left picture, measuring 96×51 cm, is housed in the Städel of Frankfurt.

The left panel depicts the prophet Job seated, with a desperate expression on his face, after Satan has defied him to keep his allegiance to God even in the most tremendous afflictions. These include his flock getting scattered in the other panel, while his properties are on fire at the left edge. Further, his skin is covered by blisters, an appropriate element for a painting likely originated as an ex-voto for the end of plague. His wife, dressed in Renaissance garments, is pouring dirty water above him, while a small devil flees in the far background. The right panel shows two standing musicians. The right one, with the drum, is perhaps a self-portrait. Their meaning has not been explained: they could be a further element of mockery against Job, or, instead, an attempt to console him through music.

The altarpiece was probably commissioned by Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, for a chapel in his castle at Wittenberg, perhaps on the occasion of the end of the plague in 1503. The reconstruction of the work is disputed. Some art historians identify the central panel with the Uffizi Adoration of the Magi, while according to others there was instead a group of sculptures. The Apostles on gilded background now at the Alte Pinakothek of Munich have also been associated with the polyptych: in this view, the two known paintings would form a single image on the external shutters once closed; in fact, the two share a common background, and the dress of Job’s wife continues to the right panel as well.

It  is named after one of its owners, Everhard Jabach, in whose family chapel it was still hanging in the late 18th century, before being split up and scattered to different locations.

A view at Galleria degli Uffizi from the upper loggia of Palazzo Vecchio showing the narrow courtyard between palace’s two wings with view toward the Arno. Photo taken by Samuli Lintula on February 19, 2012. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Currently, Dürer’s “Adoration of the Magi” is displayed at The Uffizi Gallery (Galleria degli Uffizi), a prominent art museum located adjacent to the Piazza della Signoria in the Historic Centre of Florence in the region of Tuscany, Italy. One of the most important Italian museums, and the most visited, it is also one of the largest and best known in the world, and holds a collection of priceless works, particularly from the period of the Italian Renaissance.

After the ruling house of Medici died out, their art collections were gifted to the city of Florence under the famous Patto di famiglia negotiated by Anna Maria Luisa, the last Medici heiress. The Uffizi is one of the first modern museums. The gallery had been open to visitors by request since the sixteenth century, and in 1765 it was officially opened to the public, formally becoming a museum in 1865. Today, the Uffizi is one of the most popular tourist attractions of Florence and one of the most visited art museums in the world.

In 1959, the Festivals Committee of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand and the Rt. Rev. A K Warren, Bishop of Christchurch requested the Post Office produce a Christmas stamp. There was some concern expressed at the time that as the stamps would be postmarked as they passed through the postal system, some people might object to the ‘defacement’ of stamps that carried a picture with a spiritual significance. Finally, late in 1959, approval was given to produce Christmas stamps with the first one being issued on November 1, 1960 (Scott #353).

When the stamp first appeared, the necessity for its issue was questioned in various circles including the House of Representatives. It featured the Nativity scene ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Rembrandt and proved to be very popular with no fewer than 20,000,000 copies of the stamp issued.

New Zealand – Scott #355 (1961) first day cover

The success of the first stamp encouraged the Post Office to produce a second Christmas stamp in 1961. The stamp depicted Dürer’s “Adoration of the Magi” and was first announced in New Zealand Post Stamp Bulletin No. 24 on September 25, 1961, which stated:

In an endeavour to reproduce the painting in as near as possible to its natural color, four colour photogravure printing has been used by Messrs Harrison and Sons Limited, London. In comparison to the rather sombre colours of the 1960 issue, this year’s stamp is particularly bright.”

Scott #355 was issued on October 16, 1961 — two weeks earlier than in 1960 to meet with the demands for overseas postage. It was withdrawn from sale on January 13, 1962. Designed by the New Zealand Post Office in Wellington, and printed by Harrison and Sons in London, the stamp was denominated at 2½ pence to conform to an increased rate of postage for inland commercial papers, printed papers and postcards. Measuring 33mm x 38mm and perforated 14½ x 14, Scott #355 was printed in sheets of 60 impressions in five rows of 12. The upper right corner of the sheets bear the value 12s.6d. while the printer’s imprint, together with the plate number, appears in the lower left corner. The plate number of 1A in each case is shown in the color used, namely black, red, yellow, and blue. The stamp is known for its many examples of color shift errors in both mint and used condition.

The bulletin mentions that the consistency of the paper used was 50 percent Esparto and 50 percent sulphite. This chalk-surfaced paper bears a multiple NZ and star watermark. In 1962, Harrison and Sons Limited distributed special presentation folders including a copy of Scott #355 as well as a copy of the 1962 New Zealand Christmas stamp (Scott #358) with a cover designed by noted New Zealand artist L.C. Mitchell.

New Zealand – Scott #355 (1961) watermark

Harrison and Sons Limited special presentation folder, including Scott #355 and #358 (1962)

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