Today is Epiphany. A Christian holiday celebrating three holy kings, also known as three wise men or the Magi visiting baby Jesus. Everyone knows the standard story; They saw a star in the East, recognized that it means the birth of a king, so they brought presents : gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Some people also know that myrrh is a dried oleo resin of Commiphora species of trees. It smells nice and it was used in ointments, soaps etc.
Few people know that frankincense and myrrh were priced at their weight in gold back in those days. One ounce of gold, myrrh or frankincense was of the same value and thus equally worthy gifts.
There are however some facts about the three wise men that very few people these days know. Read on and join the club:
Fact 1 : January 6th was the original Christmas
Eastern Orthodox churches still celebrate the birth of Jesus on January the 6th. In A.D. 361, Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus quotes St. Epiphanius who says that January 6 is “hemera genethlion toutestin epiphanion” (Christ’s “Birthday; that is, His Epiphany”).
The earliest known reference to the December 25 being the birthday of Jesus is found in the Chronography of 354, an illuminated manuscript compiled in Rome. It says that in the East, early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ as part of Epiphany on January 6.
Sometimes between 340 AD and 350 AD (sources disagree on exact date) Cyril of Jerusalem writes to Pope Julius I and asks him to assign the true date of the nativity “from census documents brought by [Roman Emperor] Titus to Rome”. Julius assigned 25 December. This date corresponds to pagan celebrations of Mithras (and some other pre-Christian deities). However, this is the date the western Christians still celebrate as the birthday of Christ, while Eastern Christian churches still celebrate it on the January 6th.
The word for Christmas comes from late Old English “Cristes Maesse”, the Mass of Christ, first found in 1038.
Fact 2 : At first the story was about the 12 wise men
The first extant painting of the kings bringing gifts to the Christ child is in the Priscilla Catacomb of Rome dating from the 2nd century AD. It shows 12 kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. Some eastern christians still hold the tradition of the 12 magi.
Fact 3: The three Magi were represented as three races, three known continents and three age groups
The earliest known reference to the names of the three kings comes from 387 AD manuscript “Excerpta Latina Barbari” page 51B:
“At that time in the reign of Augustus, on 1st January the Magi brought him gifts and worshipped him. The names of the Magi were Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa.”. Today we know them as Casper, Melchior and Balthasar.
The art before 1500s usually shows all 3 wise men as being white:
Domenico Ghirlandaio 1487
But after 1500 the three kings start representing three continents (Europe, Asia, Africa) and 3 age groups. Melchior is the old white man, Balthasar an oriental middle aged man, and young black man is Casper.
Albrecht Dürer 1504
In the renaissance this was the standard portrayal of the three kings. If you look at any old postcard or old figurines from past centuries you will see the above pattern – three kings are an old white man, asian middle aged man and a young black man.
These days they don’t make art schools as they used to, so artists (at least those that do go to art schools) rarely learn this stuff. Hence you will not see this very often these days.
Fifty years from now you will watch your grandkids playing with their Iphone 35 and you will wonder whether or not to bother them with this story.
You might interest them enough to look at a nice picture though. Below is a gilded sarcophagus kept in the cathedral in Cologne, Germany where the bones of the holy three kings are believed to be residing today. Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa brought them there from Italy back in 1161.
Image By Frank Kehren via Flickr