In the popular story of the Nativity the Three Kings, along with the angels, the shepherds, and the manger, have long played an important role.
They are an essential part of school Nativity playlets, often with surprising results. At Christmas time 1961 the English cartoonist Osbert Lancaster published one of his classic pocket cartoons, which shows a rather distraught vicar saying to a rather snobby looking king, aged seven:
The cartoon is very much of its time, but it also poiints to how development of the legends about the Three Wise Men says a great deal about the interaction of European Christianity with others cultures, especially in Asia and Africa, and as we shall see, emerges as a surprisingly relevant legend for us today in a quite unexpected manner.
In looking into the development of the essential Christian legend the place to begin is with the gospels.
In opening his Gospel the author of Luke refers explicitly to the many rival narratives that were already in circulation detailing the events of Jesus’ life. These have now largely disappeared. Luke, Mark and John say nothing about the wise men. The legend derives wholly from Matthew’s gospel, which was written, perhaps by an author of Jewish culture, in Antioch about 80-85 AD.
Though long thought to have been the first Gospel written using Aramaic, it now seems more likely that it was written in Greek for a Jewish Christian community in a transition from using the Torah to using the emergent Christian observances.
The story appears in chapter 2, verses 2-12; here in the words of the traditional Rheims version of 1582, once so familiar to Catholics. The reference to “the prophet” is to Micah chapter 5, verse 2:
“When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.
“Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him.
“And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
“And assembling together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born.
“But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet:
“And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel.
“Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them.
“And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him.
“Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.
“And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
“And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
“And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country.”
This is all that Scripture had to say, but people, being in all ages anxious to know more, were soon asking who were these men, where were they from, and what were their names? The “growth of tradition” soon found answers to these puzzles, as it always seems to do.
In Matthew the three night visitors are simply called “wise men”, magoi. They became identified with the priestly learned class of Chaldea, in Mesopotamia, who were expert astronomers and astrologers, students of the stars which Christians down to a very recent date have always thought were capable to revealing or predicting events.
Their names were now said to be Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar (though there are many variants in the legend, more than can be mentioned in a short article).
As Christianity spread into the Roman Empire they were slowly transformed into kings from Chaldea, into kings from Persia, then into kings of different countries in the Near East, and finally, in the high Middle Ages, into three great monarchs of Asia, Africa and Europe. European Christians did not want to be left out of involvement in the legend of the Nativity, but were prepared at that date to share the honours with other the known continents.
The Magi were already presented by artists as an elderly man, a middle-aged man, and a young man – this interpretation can be seen in many early medieval paintings and illustrations.
But Marco Polo, in his account of his Oriental travels, written about 1300, recounts the fable that when the three Magi arrived at the house where the Holy Family were, the three went in one by one. The old man saw Jesus as an old man, the mid-aged man saw Jesus in his own form as a middle aged man, and the young man as a young man. Then going in together, they saw that Jesus was still a baby.
The development of the legend of the Magi took different forms in the cultures of the Western and Eastern Churches.
It was believed in Europe that Constantine’s mother Helena, having recovered the True Cross on her visit to the Holy land about 326, also brought from the East the remains of the three kings. At first these were enshrined in Milan. But in 1162 the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa sent them to Cologne.
In Cologne Cathedral they were placed in a magnificent shrine, the largest reliquary in Western Europe, an extraordinary piece of medieval art. Though the original Cathedral dates back to the 9th Century, it was only formally completed and inaugurated in 1880. It remains one of the principal places of pilgrimage in Germany, where miraculous healing properties were attributed to the relics.
The shrine, by the way, was once opened and found to contain, according to report, the remains of three males, one old, one middle aged, and one young, all according to legend. These were wrapped in white silk and re-enshrined.
However, in the early 1270s, a century or so after the relics were installed in Cologne, Marco Polo, then travelling through Persia, arrived at the city of Saveh, just south of Tehran. There he was shown what was claimed to be the true tombs of the Magi, but the locals could tell him little more than “they were three kings who had been buried there in days gone by”.
It was from Saveh, Polo reports, that three kings set out when “they came to worship Jesus Christ”. But by this time the three were coming to be seen as kings, not in Persia, but in Southern India, the coast of Malabar which had been visited in Apostolic times by St Thomas.
They were baptised, as was said by St Thomas, and later were honoured themselves as saints. St Caspar, the youngest one carrying the gift of gold, was now identified as an Indian, or in the style of the day, an Ethiopian.
As for the actual Ethiopia, the land of Prester John, a Christian monarch of legend, came to be more clearly identified as properly being in Africa, Caspar became a true African. At this date the pagan Bantu peoples of Zinj, from the south along the east coast of Africa were known only as slaves in the Muslim world; at this time the slave trade of Europe and the new world had not yet begun.
The Ethiopians, since the nation became Christian, had claimed that their kingdom had been founded by Solomon’s son by the Queen of Sheba, so they were not merely witnesses to the birth of Christianity, they were in truth an entitled people with authentic Biblical connections. This the Ethiopians believed as matter of faith in the 14th Century. And this they still believe, wherever they live, from Ethiopia to Ireland, still as a matter of faith.
In western art the three kings, who had originally been as three white men, became three men of Asian, African and European aspect.
In his 1550 painting of the Magi Albrecht Durer, for instance, aside from giving his own features to the second king, paints the young Caspar as an African. So did other artists, such Hieronymous Bosch. However, as the Reformation swept Europe, the patience of some reformers, such as Luther, with all this legendry rigmarole broke. Martin Luther insisted they were not kings, but merely wise men, honourable enough, of course, as were “the learned among us in universities’.
It is significant in fact that he did not allude to Caspar being Black. The Middle Ages were now coming to an end. The Renaissance was dominant. And with it came a new European intolerance of other points of view, and of other races, in which the Church shared. If man was the measure of things, from Italy he was seen as a white man.
It is striking that in Marco Polo, and more so in the legendry Travels of Sir John Mandeville a little after Polo, how interested both men of medieval culture are in other cultures and religions. They took things as they saw them.
But future centuries would find it very difficult to have such tolerance, especially in Portugal, Spain, Britain and the United States in the era of slavery: Brazil was the last westernised nation to abolish this crime against civilisation.
This was on May 13, 1883, long after other states. That slavery should have lingered so long in a great Catholic nation, which saw itself as a progressive place, is a shameful fact. Since 1600 Catholic Brazil had imported from Africa an estimated four and half million slaves, far more than the British in the Caribbean or the US to the north.
This is a sober thought perhaps for the feast of the Nativity, but it is a notion worth thinking about, a sober note in days of feasting.
We usually think about the nature of the gifts that the Magi brought, the gold, frankincense and myrrh, and their significance not just today, but in the ancient cultures of Arabia and Africa. Yet the real gift that Caspar brought to Jesus was not the gold at all, representing the wealth of the world, but himself as he was, a black person. That, too, is something for Christians to think about.
It is significant that legend, poetry and art saw Caspar the young king as a black person. The symbolic significance of this was that one of the first to recognise Jesus as the Messiah was a representative of the black races.
He was given an equal – and being seen as a young man – perhaps a more important position, with regard to the future: a non-European as one of the first witnesses, of what Christians saw as the salvation of the world, and perhaps (if we, like the Magi, could look into the future) even one of the last.
For more about the tolerant view of other peoples in the Middle Ages, readers might consult the edition of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, translated and edited with an introduction by C. W. R. D. Moseley (Penguin Classics, £9.99), and the more popular treatment by Giles Milton, The Riddle and the Knight: the Search for Sir John Mandeville (John Murray, £10.99).