In Hispanic countries it is difficult to imagine Christmas without the three Wise Men. In many of these countries Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar are in charge of bringing gifts to the children on the night of January 5, the magical Twelfth Night. Nor is it possible to imagine a nativity scene without these three figures, who generally appear worshiping the Child and bringing him three gifts: gold, incense and myrrh.
However, was it always like this? History shows us that no, that the representation of the Kings (and even their age and number of them) has varied considerably over the centuries. And, in reality, the Bible gives us very little information about these three characters. To begin with, in the only canonical Gospel that talks about the childhood of Christ, the Gospel of Matthew, it is not specified that there were three, and it only talks about some “wise men” who went to worship the Child.
Are you curious? Join us through this journey through the origin and development of these Christmas charactersfrom its biblical roots to its most recent representations.
History of the three Wise Men of the East: kings or wise men?
As these are figures linked to Christianity, it is logical to think that the main source of these three characters is the Bible. Well, as we have already pointed out, in the Gospels little is said about them. Matthew only tells that some “wise men” came to see the Child and that they worshiped him and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, which has meant that, although the apostle does not specify their number, it has traditionally been considered that There were three, one for each gift.
Let us also note that Matthew speaks of “wise men,” not kings. The word “magician” comes from ancient Persian moguwhich actually means astrologer. That is, Matthew presents three astrologers who, upon seeing an atypical star shine in the sky, understand that something miraculous and transcendent is about to happen. Astrologers may have been kings themselves, but the evangelist does not make this point clear. When, then, do these figures begin to relate to royalty?
All kings will bow down before him
To clarify this point, we must travel further back in time and take Psalm 72 of the Old Testament, where we can read that a king will come before whom “all kings will bow down” and whom, furthermore, “all nations will serve.” Here is the germ of later iconography, which turns the wise men into “kings” who prostrate themselves before Jesus, the King of Kings, and bring him gifts. Furthermore, in its universal symbolism (since the three Wise Men symbolize the three continents known at that time) They in turn make true the prophecy that “all nations” will worship and serve the new king.; that is, the entire world.
The attempt to relate the coming of Christ to the ancient biblical prophecies is clear, a link that seeks to convert Jesus of Nazareth into the continuation of the Jewish faith and, therefore, into the renewed promise of God. This is not only seen in the case of the wise men later becoming kings, but also in other elements such as the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, much more appropriate than what was probably his hometown, Nazareth. Let us remember that, in the Old Testament, the birthplace of the Messiah had to be Bethlehem: “O you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are the least among the thousands of Judea, from you will come to me the one who will be the ruler in Israel” ( Micah, 5:2).
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Were there three Wise Men?
We have already commented how Matthew mentions “magi” in general, and does not stop to specify the number. Only from the gifts they brought to the Child (gold, frankincense and myrrh) was it deduced much later that there would be three wise men, also alluding to the three continents then known (Africa, Europe and Asia). In the first Christian representations the number of wise men-kings varies depending on the place and time. In some catacombs of the 4th century there are between two and four, but in many representations of Coptic Christianity (from the area of Egypt and Ethiopia) the number of characters rises to twelve, in a clear parallel between these worshiping kings and the apostles of Jesus. We do not find the consolidation of the number until Origen (185-253), a Roman Christian theologian who writes that, indeed, there were three wise men.
The number matches perfectly with the number of gifts that, in addition, soon acquired their own symbology. Gold would symbolize the royalty of Christ (as King of Kings). Incense, its divine condition, since this essence has been used since ancient times in religious celebrations. And finally, myrrh would refer to their humanity, because it was with this oil that corpses were anointed before being buried.
Related to this idea, Later the concept of the three presents emerged as a symbol of the Trinity: the gold was from the Father, the Lord of all; the myrrh of the Son, as to man; and incense, from the Holy Spirit, a purifying entity.
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What were the Three Wise Men actually called?
Melchior Caspar and Balthazar; These are the canonical names of the Three Wise Men. It is evident that, before the consolidation of the number three, the magi who worshiped Christ lacked names. And even when it was determined that there had been three characters who had come to see the Child, tradition did not agree on their names. For the Christian Greeks, they were Apellicon, Amerim and Serakin; for the Ethiopian and Egyptian Copts, the names were Ator, Sater and Paratoras.
The Latin names that were finally consolidated come from the so-called Armenian Gospel, one of the apocryphal gospels, written in the 6th century. The apocryphal gospels are texts that relate aspects of the life of Jesus that were not admitted in the final compilation of the New Testament, for different and varied reasons. However, many of them provide us with very valuable information about the childhood of Jesus (remember that, in the canonical gospels, very little is said about it and only in the Gospel of Matthew).
This Gospel of Armenia speaks of Melkion, monarch of Persia; Gaspar, king of India; and Baltasar, monarch of the Arabs. In addition to specifying their names (which are those that have survived to this day, with some changes), this apocryphal gospel says that they are wise men, but also kings, in one of the first texts where it is stated that the astrologers of the Gospel of Matthew belong also to royalty.
The iconographic representation of the Three Wise Men in history
With so many variants and so many changes, it is logical to think that the plastic representation of the Three Wise Men has been diverse. In the first Christian centuries, especially in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, they began to be represented with a Phrygian cap and the characteristic colored Persian pants., a clear allusion to its oriental origin that, in addition, related the advent of Jesus with oriental rites of solar renewal such as Mithraism. In this way we see them in the famous mosaic of San Apolinar Nuevo (6th century), in Ravenna, where, in addition, their “official” names also appear: Melchior, Gaspar and Baltasar.
Also at this time it is common represent the Three Wise Men as a symbol of the three ages of the human being, that is: youth, maturity and old age; probably, in reference to Christ as the beginning and end of time. Usually, Melchior is represented as an old man with a beard and white hair (alluding to old age), Gaspar as an adult man (maturity) and Baltasar as a boy (youth). In San Apolinar Nuevo we see it with complete clarity, but it catches our attention that the three characters are white. In fact, the figure of King Baltasar as an African will not appear in iconography until the second half of the 15th century and, more generically, at the beginning of the 16th century.
The issue of ethnic diversity (related to the continents and, therefore, to the fact that “it will be served by all nations”) was complicated by the fact that, in the 15th century, Europeans had discovered a “new ” continent, the American, but the kings were traditionally only three. In some places Baltasar began to be represented as a Native American man., as can be seen in the altarpiece of the Viseu Cathedral. However, this iconography did not catch on, and tradition continued to see Baltasar as a character from Africa.
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The origin of the Three Kings festival
The celebration of Epiphany (January 6 in the Western calendar) is very old, as, according to some sources, it dates back to at least the 3rd century AD. However, The tradition of the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to children on the night of January 5 to 6 is quite modern. In Spain it began in the 19th century, so it is one of the most recent, especially if we compare it with that of San Nicolás (the germ of Santa Claus), which dates back to the medieval centuries.
Be that as it may, Twelfth Night remains a magical night for children. According to tradition, those who have behaved well will receive what they have previously asked for in their letters, but those who have had a more naughty and disobedient attitude will find coal in their shoes. Of course, the food and drink will have disappeared, since both the camels and the Three Wise Men will give a good account of them during their visit.