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Matthew 2.1-12, uniquely among the gospels, recounts the journey of the Magi, a story that is reenacted at this time of the year in school nativity plays, recited at carol concerts, and visually seared onto the minds of all who give and receive cards depicting vaguely oriental dignitaries either following a star on camelback, or else assembled beside Christ’s manger bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Three Wise Men

The popular image of the Magi (astrologers, but later also called kings) before a be-mangered baby Jesus elides two moments the gospel narrative keeps distinct, that of Jesus’s actual birth, and the story of an epiphany (or theophany), a physical meeting but also a transforming apprehension of Jesus as the Messiah. The cosmic coordinates of their old knowledge lead the Magi to this epiphany; the Hebrew prophetic scripture of King Herod’s priestly advisors confirms the travelers’ news. This is a revelation for the world, and a threat to some, like King Herod, who opts for the cautious policy of having every boy in the vicinity of Bethlehem aged two and under killed. Liturgically, the feast of the Epiphany falls on 6 January, and not 25 December, hence the various Christian churches’ celebrations of Christmas on one or other of these dates.

Christians follow their own spiritual journeys as if in the footsteps of the Magi. Take, for example, the thirteenth century German Emperor Otto IV, and the English poet, TS Eliot, who both left poignant and personal traces of their meditations on the meaning of the epiphany. The remains of Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar, as these saintly kings became known in the early middle ages, were brought back from the East by Constantine’s mother, St Helena, in the fourth century, and translated to Milan in the fifth. Frederick Barbarossa (who later died on his own journey to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade) moved the kings from Milan to Cologne Cathedral (subsequently an important pilgrimage centre and venue for the staging of imperial coronations) in 1164. A wooden basilica-shaped casket housing the three saints’ relics was sheathed by goldsmiths in copper, silver and gold, and encrusted with precious stones and gems between the 1180s and 1230s. It is the largest surviving medieval saints’ shrine in western Europe today and can be seen at Cologne Cathedral. One of Barbarossa’s successors, Otto IV, can be found graven on a gold panel depicting the adoration of the Magi. A ruler who had been excommunicated by Pope Innocent III, he queues rather pensively behind them, wondering perhaps whether the gift he brings will find favour with the Virgin and Christ child.

Frieze of the magi

Soon after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, TS Eliot published Journey of the Magi, a melancholic, modernist reminiscence and meditation on the intimate and cosmic meanings of the Epiphany, as if voiced by one of the Magi in old age. For me it is exquisite testimony to the profound state of ambivalence in which even the most assured of the Christian faithful in the 1920s might have found themselves. It is a rich and dense feast of metaphor, symbolism and half prophecy, and you can hear the poet recite it here.

It is said that if you chalk the initials of their names by the threshold of your home, Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar will protect your household.

Simon Yarrow

Dr Simon Yarrow is Director of the Birmingham Institute for History and Cultures. His latest book, 'The Saints: A Short History', was published by Oxford University Press in September 2016.