Three Kings from 1900

The audience for tomorrow’s moment of revelation, in J.C. Leyendecker’s remarkable Saturday Evening Post cover for Christmas 1900:

A portrait of the Magi, the Three Kings (or Wise Men), owing much to Art Nouveau style, and with the artist’s characteristic attention to the physical masculinity of his models.

(Hat tip to Tommy Lee Whitlock on Facebook. This posting is somewhat abbreviated; I’ve been sick.)

First, the religious festival, from NOAD:

noun epiphany (also Epiphany): [a] the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12). [b] the festival commemorating the Epiphany on January 6. [c] a manifestation of a divine or supernatural being. [d] a moment of sudden revelation or insight. ORIGIN Middle English: from Greek epiphainein ‘reveal’. The sense relating to the Christian festival is via Old French epiphanie and ecclesiastical Latin epiphania.

Then the Magi. A very complex story, with highlights from Wikipedia on the Biblical Magi:

Encyclopædia Britannica states: “according to Western church tradition, Balthasar [or Bathazar] is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar [or Caspar] as a king of India.”

… In one tradition, reflected in art by the 14th century (for example in the Arena Chapel by Giotto in 1305) Caspar is old, normally with a white beard, and gives the gold; he is “King of Tarsus, land of merchants” on the Mediterranean coast of modern Turkey, and is first in line to kneel to Christ. Melchior is middle-aged, giving frankincense from his native Arabia, and Balthazar is a young man, very often and increasingly black-skinned, with myrrh from Saba (modern south Yemen).

… The subject of which king is which and who brought which gift is not without some variation depending on the tradition. The gift of gold is sometimes associated with Melchior as well and in some traditions, Melchior is the old man of the three Magi.

On the gifts: myrrh functions as an anointing oil, also used in embalming; frankincense as a perfume, especially in incense form. More below.

On this blog, in a 12/24/16 posting “This year’s most puzzling Christmas card”, about Christmas in Barcelona, featuring the Three Kings (with Melchior as the old one).

The distribution of the kings over the three ages, three gifts, and three names varies from context to context, though in modern times Balthasar is young and black. I haven’t found a key to Leyendecker’s intentions about the kings in his magazine cover; the details on them:

left: young (and black) king — certainly Balthasar — bearing frankincense

middle: old, bearded king, bearing a jar of myrrh oil

right: middle-aged king, looking decidedly Egyptian, bearing gold

(I have some personal interest in these matters, since I am Arnold Melchior Zwicky, son of Arnold Melchior Zwicky and grandson of Melchior Arnold Zwicky, so Melchior’s my guy.)

Frankincense and myrrh. Their plant family, from Wikipedia:

The Burseraceae [#90 in my running inventory of plant families] are a moderate-sized family of 17-19 genera and about 540 species of flowering plants. … The Burseraceae are also known as the torchwood family, the frankincense and myrrh family, or simply the incense tree family. The family includes both trees and shrubs, and is native to tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

The plants in the family are the source of fragrant resins, in particular:

Frankincense … is an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes, obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia in the family Burseraceae (Wikipedia link)

Myrrh is a natural gum or resin extracted from a number of small, thorny tree species of the genus Commiphora [of the family Burseraceae]. Myrrh resin has been used throughout history as a perfume, incense, and medicine. (Wikipedia link)

Leyendecker. The subject of my 1/22/11 posting “J. C. Leyendecker”. A significant American illustrator and commercial artist, creator of (among other things) influential images of American masculinity, Leyendecker was a gay man whose very popular illustrations were often unobtrusively homoerotic. And the Magi as a subject allows an artist to indulge in whatever  form of exoticism appeals to them; see above.

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