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Monday, 24 December 2012

The Magi


The Journey of the Magi: Sassetta, c. 1435, tempera and gold on wood, 21.6 x 29,9 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

But were they not exhausted by the long difficult journey
perhaps the words of instruction had been slurred
could it have been they had misheard,
chosen the wrong route,
taken a wrong turn at Aleppo,

failed to water the camels sufficiently,
lost their way in the deep Syrian sands,
arrived too late
at the wrong manger,
time once again proving its strange magical
the straw already
drenched with blood?

The Appearance of the Star: Giovanni da Modena, c. 1412, fresco, Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna

Adoration of the Magi: Pieter Breughel the Younger, c. 1600, oil on panel, 38 x 56 cm (Museo Correr, Venice)

Lancelot Andrewes: Sermon of the Nativity, Preached Upon Christmas-Day, 1622

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 worship Him.

Ecce magi ab Oriente venerunt Jerosolymam, Dicentes, Ubi est Qui natus est Rex Judaeorum? Vidimus enim stellam Ejus in Oriente, et venimus adorare Eum.

St. Matthew ii:1-2

The text is a star, and we may make all run on a star...

For they sat not still gazing on the star. Their vidimus begat venimus; their seeing made them come, come a great journey. Venimus is soon said, but a short word; but many a wide and weary step they made before they could come to say venimus; lo, here we are come; come, and at our journey's end.

To look a little on it. In this their coming we consider, 1. First, the distance of the place they came from. It was not hard by as the shepherds but a step to Bethlehem over the fields; this was riding many a hundred miles, and cost them many a day's journey. 2. Secondly, we consider the way that they came, if it be pleasant, or plain and easy; for if it be, it is so much the better. 1. This was nothing pleasant, for through deserts, all the way waste and desolate. 2. Nor secondly, easy neither; for over the rocks and crags of both Arabias, specially Petra, their journey lay. 3. Yet if safe but it was not, but exceeding dangerous, as lying through the midst of the black tents of Kedar, a nation of thieves and cut-throats; to pass over the hills of robbers, infamous then, and infamous to this day. No passing without great troop or convoy. 4. Last we consider the time of their coming, the season of the year. It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solsitio brumali, the very dead of winter. Venimus, we are come, if that be one, venimus, we are now come, come at this time, that sure is another.

And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came. And came it cheerfully and quickly, as appeareth by the speed they made. It was but vidimus, venimus, with them; they saw, and they came; no sooner saw, but they set out presently. So as upon the first appearing of the star, as it might be last night, they knew it was Balaam's star; it called them away, they made ready straight to begin their journey this morning.

A sign they were highly conceited of His birth, believed some great matter of it, that they took all these pains, made all this haste that they might be there to worship Him with all the possible speed they could. Sorry for nothing so much as that they could not be there soon enough, with the very first, to do it even this day, the day of His birth. All considered, there is more in venimus than shews at the first sight. It was not for nothing it was said in the first verse, ecce venerunt; their coming hath an ecce on it, it well deserves it.

Lancelot Andrewes: from Sermon of the Nativity. Preached before King James, at Whitehall, on Wednesday, the Twenty-fifth of December, A.D. MDCXXII

The archangel Gabriel visits the sleeping Magi in a dream, nudging them awake and pointing to a guiding star: sculptural relief by Gisleburtus, Cathédrale St-Lazare, Autun (Burgundy), 12th c.

Strabo: The Magi

But it is especially to fire and water that they offer sacrifice. To fire they offer sacrifice by adding dry wood without the bark and by placing fat on top of it; and then they pour oil upon it and light it below, not blowing with their breath, but fanning it; and those who blow the fire with their breath or put anything dead or filthy upon it are put to death. And to water they offer sacrifice by going to a lake or river or spring, where, having dug a trench leading thereto, they slaughter a victim, being on their guard lest any of the water near by should be made bloody, believing that the blood would pollute the water; and then, placing pieces of meat on myrtle or laurel branches, the Magi touch them with slender wands and make incantations, pouring oil mixed with both milk and honey, though not into fire or water, but upon the ground; and they carry on their incantations for a long time, holding in their hands a bundle of slender myrtle wands.

In Cappadocia (for there the sect of the Magi, who are also called Pyraethi, is large, and in that country are also many temples of the Persian gods), the people do not sacrifice victims with a sword either, but with a kind of tree-trunk, beating them to death as with a cudgel. They also have Pyraetheia, noteworthy enclosures; and in the midst of these there is an altar, on which there is a large quantity of ashes and where the Magi keep the fire ever burning. And there, entering daily, they make incantations for about an hour, holding before the fire their bundles of rods and wearing round their heads high turbans of felt, which reach down over their cheeks far enough to cover their lips. The same customs are observed in the temples of Anaïtis and Omanus; and these temples also have sacred enclosures; and the people carry in procession a wooden statue of Omanus. Now I have seen this myself; but those other things, as also what follows, are recorded in the histories.

Strabo (64/63 BC-c.24 AD): from Geography, translated by H.L. Jones, 1924

No. 18 Scenes from the Life of Christ: 2. Adoration of the Magi: Giotto di Bondone, 1304-06, fresco, 200 x 185 cm (Cappella Scrovegni [Arena Chapel], Padua)

No. 18 Scenes from the Life of Christ: 2. Adoration of the Magi
: Giotto di Bondone, 1304-06, fresco, 200 x 185 cm, width of detail 89 cm (Cappella Scrovegni [Arena Chapel], Padua)

Adoration of the Magi: Giotto di Bondone, 1310s, fresco, North transept, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi

Adoration of the Magi: Fra Angelico, 1423-24, tempera and gold on panel, 63 x 54 cm (Abegg-Stiftung, Bern)

Adoration of the Magi and the Man of Sorrows (Cell 39): Fra Angelico, 1441-42, fresco, 1175 x 357 cm (Convento di San Marco, Florence)


Mose23 said...

time once again proving its strange magical

How Matthew plays with, relays and overlays time is something beautiful. Maybe a kind of revenge, given that "strange magical reversibility".

Lancelot Andrewes: what it is to come to the seen that matters, the appointed time, with the vast indifferent bustle about us (as in the Brueghel.

For us, for the most part, the slips in time, time gone awry, missed events.

The relief from Autun is wonderful, the three of them snug beneath those exquisite folds.

Mose23 said...

"Seen" should have read "scene" but there we are - those slurred words again.

Hazen said...

The poem is quite fine, and perfect for this season of materialist frenzy in the guise of religion. You'd think it was Mammon’s birthday. In that first picture of the magi descending, the stylized Star of Bethlehem, lower right, has an eerie resemblance to a bullet mark. Maybe it’s an optic influenced by these times. Clearly, we’re in the process of losing our way ‘in the deep Syrian sands.’

TC said...

Such apt comments these, how dare one have the privilege of such friends.

Hazen as always addresses the nail with the hammer to create the pitch-perfect response, which I will indulge myself by repeating:

"...perfect for this season of materialist frenzy in the guise of religion. You'd think it was Mammon’s birthday. In that first picture of the magi descending, the stylized Star of Bethlehem, lower right, has an eerie resemblance to a bullet mark. Maybe it’s an optic influenced by these times. Clearly, we’re in the process of losing our way ‘in the deep Syrian sands.’"


Any words not yet heard slurred probably ought to be. Perhaps then chaos theory might set in -- in lieu of any other useful prevailing mythology -- and much as Adam before the troubles, we might be perfectly understood not only by one another but perhaps more importantly by all the animals. As e.g. those exquisitely rendered, amazingly lifelike show-stealing camels of that great master of catholic (in the lowercase "good" sense) attention, Giotto.

Or better still we might remember that in our higher (?) moments (are we still capable of those?) we remain, or at least retain faint traces of, actual biological animals ourselves?

After several days of inundating rains, there came a lull between the vast climate change megastorm waves, late last night, and venturing tentatively out into the for once vacant streets (only sign of traffic, a few late-late shoppers, shiny fast cars laden with bulky shapes suggesting the predictable redundant imperial "holiday" cargo), I encountered not only a star above (portent? satellite?), but several actual animals, sprung from their fugitive coverts to browse among the sodden leaf waste for a possible bite to eat.

A large doe, wary and frozen in her tracks by my presence, long before I saw her. And a busy, considerably less wary black-and-white-skunk. Beautiful the both of them. Would that they and their likes might inherit the earth, supposing there's anything left of it when the Bad Monkeys finally self-immolate for good and all.

The Mages of course were neither saints nor happy wise men but members of a priest cult of great political power and no little regional influence. Strabo did not approve of them, and he must have known a bit. They busily slayed and were slain (hanging by the thumbs was one particularly vivid technique employed to put them in their place when necessary -- perhaps the Persian equivalent of our venerable custom of waterboarding), back then, in that stage of the historical dialectic -- the long seesawing of acts of brutality that always seems to go hand in bloody hand with the fatal involvement of religion and politics. In the one walkman earplug that has survived my brush with death by ideology (is not the automobile our pathetic answer to the imperial priestly camel?), the BBC was interviewing a China expert discussing the Dalai Lama's implicit encouragement of pyrosuicide as a political statement. (Time being short, there was no input from the NRA on this worried question, though one assumes their spokesman was waiting impatiently in an outer-studio chamber, chafing to poke his assault-weapon muzzle under the tent.)

I do love the way the Autun angel has managed to awaken one of the three sleeping Mages, to get them up before first light and on their way, much like a helpful motel manager giving the wakeup call.

TC said...

There was a time, some half century ago now, when I plodded about Europe visiting old churches, then often empty and unguarded and almost always sans tourists, to see some of the paintings here as well as many, many more. It did strike me then as now that the artists were often working in extremely cramped circumstances (Fra Angelico in the tiny cells of the Convento), or remote locations (toiling up that steep winding hill path in Assisi to the then unrestored and entirely empty church where Giotto had worked, I encountered exactly one human, a fellow running about waving what at distance appeared to be a badminton racquet, but at closer range turned out to be a butterfly net).

The ideology or mythology or call it what you will that provided the text upon which such radiant and luminous art was created may be to very few people's taste now. That granted, still one might be tempted to ask, what is the secular text upon which "postmodern" "art" (contradiction in terms, that?) is so very precariously founded?

If not, I mean, this?

And finally, getting back to chaos theory and solar religion, in trying to come up with an example of a latterday Mage inflamed with a nonideological, nonpolitical necromancy, I did recall another longago pilgrimage, to the extremely impressive, highly disciplined training school of this man. Illumination perhaps need not contain a power component after all, though it certainly could never come easily or without some study. And nowadays, what with the rush of the festive season, who'd have the time?



Beautiful to recall "the long difficult journey," see these scenes of those on a long ago journey toward a place below a star (Balaam's star, must have been a planet), read St. Mathew's Latin, Lancelot Andrewes' Sermon preached before King James, at Whitehall (490 years ago -- "time once again proving its strange magical reversibility"). All of it in this "season of materialist frenzy" as Hazan says, such seen/scene, my words also slurring as Wooden Boy says.

And the storms of yesterday have moved on for now, planet up there this morning like that long ago star.


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, silver of planet behind branches
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

one that in a certain sense,
not to point at cloud

version which may be a copy,
see concept of, count

grey rain cloud against invisible ridge,
whiteness of gull on windblown sandspit

TC said...

Thanks Steve, the world awakening now with familiar traffic rush of getting and spending, high pitched whine of leaf blowers & business as usual on the Avenue of Materialist Frenzy

not to point at cloud

version which may be a copy,
see concept of

a fugitive bit of blue sky through overhanging redwood branch...

Anonymous said...

nice post...!!

TC said...

Muchas gracias, Sandra. Y feliz Navidad a usted!

Anonymous said...

gracias...igualmente para usted y familia Tom !

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

“noteworthy enclosures”, indeed!

Nin Andrews said...

Merry Christmas! And yes, beautiful post. Thank you Tom!

TC said...

Many thanks, Vassilis and Nin.

More than a bit wet and wintery here today, wishing for one of those noteworthy necromantic enclosures.

(Lean too close and... Poof! your priestly turban's on fire!)