Spotlight: Lilith

Neither Shall You Touch It (detail), Anonda Bell, 2013-14 Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Few figures in the Bible are referenced so fleetingly and yet continue to inspire as much fascination and ambivalence as Lilith. Her name is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible only once, but her legacy in art and culture is far reaching. An ambiguous and mysterious figure, she has been imagined across time as terrifying and beautiful, a demoness and a goddess, a succubus and a feminist icon. Legends have identified her as everything from the first wife of Adam to the demon wife of the devil-like Samael, to the very serpent that handed Eve the fateful fruit. Transforming with changing cultures and being passed through many languages over thousands of years, the term Lilith has been used in feminine, masculine, and plural forms; over time and in different contexts, “the Lilith” has been understood as female, male, and androgynous, and as an individual being—human or otherwise—as well as an entire class of creatures (the way the term “the owl,” for example, may mean one owl or the species as a whole). Lilith’s changing identity and relationship to culture are represented in various forms of art throughout history, and loosely fall into three periods: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern.

The Ancient Lilith

While Lilith is sometimes associated with other biblical characters, the word Lilith can be found in the Bible on a list of 8 unclean, possibly demonic animals living in the desolated land of Edom, in Isaiah 34:14 (New Revised Standard Version):

Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
    goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
    and find a place to rest.

Dead Sea Scroll 4Q510. Plate 280, Frag 2, B-333675. Taken November 2011, by Shai Halevi. From the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library

Dead Sea Scroll 4Q510. Plate 280, Frag 2, B-333675. Taken November 2011, by Shai Halevi. From the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library

Here Lilith may refer to an individual or a class of creatures, as the root layil in Hebrew simply means “night.” Lilith appears again in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the 1st century BCE in the Songs of the Sage, as liliyyot or liliyyoth—a plural form which is found among a list of evil spirits in an incantation for protection against demons. This is the first clear connection, in the Hebrew tradition, of “Lilith(s)” with supernatural beings. The Hebrew Lilith may be associated with earlier traditions of Mesopotamian night and air spirits, which can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, among other ancient texts. However, not all scholars agree with this connection.

Lilith in the Middle Ages

The story of Lilith saw a turning point in the Middle Ages. The Gemara of the Talmud, a collection of commentary on the Mishnah, the Oral Torah, had become a foundation of Rabbinic Judaism by the 6th century. In this text Lilith is identified as a female demoness and given physical characteristics: a human appearance, long hair, and wings. She is said to be a succubus, taking hold of anyone sleeping in a house alone, and procreating with men against their will while they sleep. Once she was associated with this threatening behavior and these physical traits, as both a distinct figure and a class of evil spirits, Lilith became recognizable on objects of protection throughout the Middle East. Incantation bowls or “demon traps” were placed upside down under floors and thresholds of houses, in order to trap evil spirits inside the bowl. These bowls typically featured spells and incantations against a specific demon, as well as a picture of its likeness. Here Lilith is drawn with her hands and feet bound, her chest bare and her long hair undone and flowing around her. She appears as promiscuous and adulterous, and some bowls even feature a symbolic “divorce” between Lilith and the household.

MS 1911/1, Hebrew and Aramaic on clay, Iran/Mesopotamia/Syria/Jordan, 5th-7th century. From the Schoyen Collection

MS 1911/1, Hebrew and Aramaic on clay, Iran/Mesopotamia/Syria/Jordan, 5th-7th century. From the Schoyen Collection

Amulets of protection against Lilith became widespread in Jewish communities in the Middle Ages. Sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries, a text called The Alphabet of Ben-Sira attempted to explain this phenomena by expanding upon her story. It was common legend by this time that Adam had a wife before Eve, who was created as he was from the earth, instead of from Adam’s rib. The Alphabet identified this first wife as Lilith. In this version of her story, Lilith was created as a companion for Adam. When Adam challenges their equality, Lilith refuses to submit to him, speaking the unspeakable name of God and flying away from Eden. After much pleading from Adam, God sends three angels, Senoy, Sensenoy, and Semangolef, to bring her back. They find Lilith by the Red Sea, where they deliver a mandate from God that if she does not return, 100 of her children will die every day. Lilith refuses, saying that she will instead attack infants (possibly out of envy or grief at her own childrens’ deaths), but allows that any child guarded by an amulet with the names or images of the three angels will be protected from her curse. This story established Lilith not only as lustful and adulterous, but also as a witch and killer of children and pregnant women. Lilith was identified as the queen to the King of Demons, and as the mother of innumerable evil spirits. It was even said that she procreated with Adam, against his will, during a 130-year period of fasting and separation from Eve following their expulsion from the Garden—and that Adam fathered many demon children during this time. The tradition of amulets meant to protect newborns and childbearing mothers from Lilith continued well into modern times, as can be seen by this amulet from the 19th century.

19th Century Silver Amulet, probably from Persia (Iran), which invokes the names of the three angels for protection of a woman named Hannah during and after childbirth. Private collection

19th Century Silver Amulet, probably from Persia (Iran), which invokes the names of the three angels for protection of a woman named Hannah during and after childbirth. Private collection

Lilith also became associated in the Middle Ages with dragons and serpents. In the mystical text The Treatise on the Left Emanation, Lilith is named as the wife of Samael, as part of a couple corresponding in the spiritual realm to the earthly Adam and Eve, all of whom were characterized as androgynous. Lilith and Samael are identified as aspects of the great sea serpent Leviathan, whom God rendered unable to reproduce in order to prevent the destruction of the earth. This inability to reproduce with her partner was given as an explanation for why she preyed upon sleeping men. In this text she is identified also as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Becoming jealous of Eve’s relationship with Adam, she is said to have tempted Eve to eat the fruit as revenge, instigating the Fall. Since the Middle Ages, Lilith has been depicted in art as both intimate with snakes, such as in John Collier’s Lilith, and as a snake, or the very serpent of Eden, herself .

Lilith in the Modern World

Lilith remained a part of Jewish tradition but garnered attention in English literary and artistic circles when she appeared in Goethe’s Faust in the late 18th century. Dante Gabriel Rossetti soon brought her into the forefront of the artistic imagination of the time with his painting Lady Lilith. In this work, Lilith is depicted as beautiful and self-absorbed, a vain woman reclining in a room full of flowers, brushing her long hair and peering at herself in a mirror—an allusion to another Jewish folk tradition that posited that Lilith was able to possess women through mirrors. Rossetti wrote a sonnet to accompany the work titled Body’s Beauty, highlighting Lilith’s association with materiality and sensual preoccupations. This was both in line with many of the earlier Jewish folk stories of Lilith as lustful and wild, and in contradiction to Jewish mystical texts which held that Lilith was the spiritual counterpart to Eve’s material being. The image created of Lilith in the late 19th century drew primarily on that of Jewish folk traditions—Lilith as a sensual, feminine, embodied woman who wielded a dangerous power of temptation, much like the serpent of Eden.

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1866-73, oil on Canvas, Deleware Art Museum

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1866-73, oil on Canvas, Deleware Art Museum

Paradoxically, although these renderings of Lilith painted femininity and sensuality as dangerous and even evil, Lilith’s entrance into these modern artistic styles and sensibilities allowed her some agency, however limited—in Goethe’s Faust, she has a literal voice, and in Rossetti’s paintings she is at the center of her own world. She became an individual with whom one could empathize. This is reflected in translations of lilit in the Hebrew Bible; until the 20th century, lilit was translated by English Bibles, including the King James Bible, into a variety of creatures, including “night hag,” “screech owl,” “spirit,” and “vampire.” Only in 1966 did the Jerusalem Bible reincorporate “Lilith” into the text. This is the translation commonly used today, including in the New Revised Standard Version, which is the Bible most used by academic and inter-religious groups.

Logo, Lilith Fair, 1996-7

Logo, Lilith Fair, 1996-7

For many feminists, particularly since the second half of the 20th century, Lilith has become an icon of female independence and strength. They celebrate her sexual agency and refusal to submit to Adam, and have transformed her stories and legends from warnings into sources of affirmation and inspiration. In 1996, Sarah McLachlan and other musicians started an all-women’s music festival named Lilith Fair, which continues to this day. Kiki Smith’s sculpture Lilith perches upside down on the wall of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, staring at visitors with a piercing and unsettling gaze. In MOBIA’s very own gallery, as part of our current exhibition, Back to Eden, Anonda Bell’s Neither Shall You Touch It portrays a conversation between Lilith, here rendered as a woman who is wild and close to nature, and Eve, the embodiment of traditional femininity. This piece may echo stories of Lilith and Eve as antagonistic, jealous adversaries, but might also recreate a modernly depicted narrative of Lilith and Eve as friends.

Many different ideas and beliefs about Lilith still abound. Images of the evil temptress and beliefs about the danger of female sexuality have not disappeared, even among changing ideas about gender roles and women. Stories of Lilith as a dark, isolated, and even dangerous being have also been interpreted by psychologists like Marie-Louise von Franz as narratives of humanity’s potential for darkness—of the “unbridled life-urge which refuses to be assimilated” that “lies behind depression” (Siegmund Hurwitz, Lilith: The First Eve). Differing versions of Lilith appear throughout modern pop culture, appealing to storytellers as a multifaceted and intriguing character offering a multitude of possible narratives and meanings. Despite a fleeting presence in the Bible, the figure of Lilith has a rich history as a dynamic being continually translated, adapted, and reinterpreted across languages, traditions, and time.

Lilith as depicted in 1997 in Neon Genesis Evangelion, an anime series which draws on religious symbols and themes. In the series, Lilith is a powerful and potentially dangerous “Angel,” who is ultimately crucified.

Lilith as depicted in 1997 in Neon Genesis Evangelion, an anime series which draws on religious symbols and themes. In the series, Lilith is a powerful and potentially dangerous “Angel,” who is ultimately crucified.

- E. G. for MOBIA

Spotlight: The Passion of Christ

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

The annual celebration of Holy Week – the seven days preceding Easter Sunday – is now over, but the biblical events that are commemorated during that time are among the most important in Christian theology and worship and are recalled throughout the rest of the liturgical year.  Art depicting these New Testament themes abounds, particularly art focused on Jesus’s death and resurrection.  A compelling fifteenth-century example of this is currently on view at MOBIA.

These battlemented panels once formed an altarpiece dedicated to the Passion of Christ, one of the most common subjects for English alabaster altarpieces.  It can plausibly be proposed that the altarpiece only ever consisted of the five principal panels seen here, together with two terminal or supporting figures.  The altarpiece found its way, presumably as a medieval export from England, to the oratory of the Holy Sepulchre and the Knights Templar, Palma de Mallorca; it was apparently still there in the early nineteenth century, but was dismembered and its panels were eventually sold at auction in 1928 in Amsterdam.

The panels, as arranged above, follow the chronology of events in Christ’s Passion: the Betrayal, Christ Carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Deposition, and the Resurrection.


The Betrayal, c. 1400-20 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Betrayal, c. 1400-20
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Betrayal takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus is kissed by his traitorous disciple, Judas Iscariot, who uses the friendly gesture to signify to the guards of the High Priest which man they should apprehend.  Simon Peter, who had been sleeping, draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, Malchus.


Christ Carrying the Cross, c. 1400-20 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Christ Carrying the Cross, c. 1400-20
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Christ Carrying the Cross shows Jesus enduring further torture from the soldiers who lead him to Golgotha.


The Crucifixion, c. 1400-20 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Crucifixion, c. 1400-20
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Crucifixion is the centerpiece, as was typical in an altarpiece of this subject matter.  To Jesus’s right is the Roman soldier who declares, “Truly this was the Son of God,” evidenced by the worn-away text that scrolls from his pointed finger to Jesus.  Mary the Virgin Mother and the beloved disciple are at the foot of the cross, while the other Marys watch the crucifixion on the left.


The Deposition, c. 1400-20 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Deposition, c. 1400-20
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Deposition of Jesus’s body from the cross is attended by the beloved disciple and Jesus’s mother.  Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin who was a secret follower of Jesus, handles the body; a wealthy man (as indicated by his heavy coin purse), he had asked Pontius Pilate that he be allowed to bury Jesus in an empty rock-hewn tomb.


The Resurrection, c. 1400-20 Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Resurrection, c. 1400-20
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Resurrection panel depicts a triumphant Christ rising from his tomb, stunning the guards (one of whom is sleeping) that Pilate had placed there to make sure Jesus’s disciples would not steal the body. Though he is now risen from the dead, Christ still wears the crown of thorns and cloak mockingly given to him by the soldiers who beat him during his Passion.  He also now carries a standard bearing the cross as a symbol of victory as opposed to one of death and defeat.

This altarpiece is exhibited in Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum, at MOBIA through June 8.

- T.C. for MOBIA

Thirty Pieces of Silver

Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, and said unto them, what will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver, and from that time he sought opportunity to betray him.” – Matthew 26:14-16

János Pentelei Molnár The Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1909

János Pentelei Molnár
The Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1909

The Betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot is usually represented through the pivotal moment in which Judas identifies Jesus to the arresting party in the Garden of Gethsemane by kissing him. Yet according to the Gospels, even prior to the Last Supper when Jesus announced to his disciples that one of them would betray him, Judas had already made a deal with the chief priests of the Temple of Jerusalem to hand Jesus over to them in exchange for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15-21). This sum of money has since become a symbol for compromising one’s morality and principles in exchange for personal gain, inspiring artists throughout time to interpret the biblical account of the Bargain of Judas.

Judas Duccio

Duccio, Bargain of Judas, Maestà, 1308-11

The reverse side of Duccio’s Maestà altarpiece (1308-11) is decorated with twenty-six scenes from the Passion, one of which illustrates the meeting of Judas and the chief priests. Duccio depicts Judas reaching out his hands to accept a small pouch from one of the priests whom he looks directly in the eye to seal their pact. Duccio’s contemporary, Giotto, included the scene in his frescoes for the Arena Chapel (1305).  Like Duccio, Giotto sets the negotiations outside the entrance of the Temple, but places more attention on the figures than the setting.  Judas holds a bag of coins as he speaks to a man in red robes, presumably Caiaphas, the high priest who is said to have organized the plot to kill Jesus (Matthew 26:3-4). A major narrative difference is the inclusion of a dark devilish figure that stands behind Judas, gripping him by the shoulder.  Giotto seems to have been working from the version of the story in the Gospel of Luke, in which it is said that Satan entered into Judas as he communed with the priests, leading him to betray Christ (Luke 22:3).

Judas Giotto

Giotto, Judas’s Betrayal, 1305, Arena Chapel

Although the exact type of coins used in the exchange is not known, it is believed that the payment made to Judas was worth approximately four months’ wages. The number of coins in itself is symbolic since it references passages in the Hebrew Bible. In the Old Testament, thirty pieces of silver is identified as the price of a slave and therefore a considerable sum of money (Exodus 31: 32). In Zechariah 11:12-13, thirty pieces of silver is the amount paid to the Hebrew prophet for his work shepherding a flock. Zechariah is then ordered by God to “cast it unto the potter,” an order which Christian theology suggests is fulfilled after Judas returns the money to the chief priests and they use it to purchase a potter’s field for burying strangers (Matthew 27:3-7).

Rembrandt’s Repentant Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver (1629) shows Judas kneeling before an assembly of Jewish priests after having scattered the coins on the ground before them. Rembrandt’s composition is centered on the coins which are highlighted by a theatrical use of light. The figures in the scene are depicted with dramatic gestures and expressions, revealing the gravity of the situation. Judas returns the money after Jesus’s arrest to atone for his betrayal, but it is believed that this action results in his damnation, since he has taken salvation into his own hands instead of accepting Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, which, in the Christian faith, is believed to be the only form of salvation.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn Repentant, Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver, 1629

In 1989, the English sculptor and installation artist Cornelia Parker created Thirty Pieces of Silver, a work consisting of thousands of silver objects that were ceremoniously crushed by a steamroller at the artist’s request. They were then arranged into thirty disc-shaped groups and hung a foot off the floor by wires. The title of the installation is intended to be both a literal description and a reference to the Bargain of Judas—“it alludes to money, to betrayal, to death and resurrection,” says the artist. The pieces of silver in Parker’s work were originally valuable household objects with practical functions, but they are rendered useless by “the destructive powers of the world.” Cornelia Parker embraces the heavy symbolism of the thirty pieces of silver free from a direct narrative, but the connotations with the Bargain of Judas are ever-present.

- D.L. for MOBIA

Spotlights on Broadway: “Genesis Creation Sermon I: ‘In the beginning all was void…'”

Paintings offer artists the opportunity to tell a story—to craft an evocative setting around a cast of characters and to account for the details needed to convey the message of the narrative. For Jacob Lawrence, painting was also a way to explore how a story is brought to life by its storytellers. Most famously, he used the series format—several paintings in conjunction with one another, all preoccupied with a common subject—to consider how storytelling affects the way a story is perceived. Lawrence’s Genesis Creation Sermon I, featured in MOBIA’s Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery, is the first of eight pieces that make up Lawrence’s 1989 series of sermon paintings.

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

The foreground of the painting features the animated figure of the inspired preacher, speaking to his enraptured congregation about the story of God creating the world. Everything about his body emphasizes the energy of his discourse, from the fluid lines and swirls of his blue robe to the position of his feet, which convey that he is in an active squatting pose rather than kneeling. With his hands raised in a gesture of prayer, perhaps even supplication, the preacher commands the attention of the church-goers, sitting at individual pews in the middle ground. Some watch open-mouthed, while others hug their arms to their torsos; the woman in the red dress even sheds a tear.

As part of a series, this painting conforms to its fellows in several ways. The preacher is always shown in the foreground, a monumental figure on a stage-like platform, whose grand gestures help deliver his sermon. A flower always accompanies the preacher, and the shape of the end of its stem often echoes the form his feet. Most imaginatively of all, each painting features a toolbox somewhere amidst the pews, as a further reference to the process of creation. The hammer, spike, and pliers also allude to the instruments of the Passion, used to inflict harm upon Christ’s body before his Crucifixion. The reference to Christ’s suffering, which designates him as the “New Adam,” reminds the viewer that for Christians, the New Testament is a fulfillment of the Old Testament; the instruments of Creation thus relate directly to the process of Christ’s sacrificial atonement for the sins of man.

What changes most elaborately from painting to painting is the scene taking place outside the arched windows of the church, in the background. This is the space that Lawrence devotes to illustrating the words delivered by the preacher. In the case of Genesis Sermon I, the view from the windows is darkness—an unmodulated black filling each window. Lawrence has chosen this abstract image of nothingness to represent the moment before God says, “Let there be light,” when “everything was engulfed in total darkness” (Genesis I:2). The absolute darkness sets up the perfect dramatic contrast to the whirlwind of creation that will follow these words—which will be spoken by the preacher, capturing the imagination of the congregation. In the scenes which follow, the view from the windows reflects the most important moments in the first chapters of Genesis, from the creation of the animals to the creation of Adam and Eve.

Lawrence, who was born in New Jersey in 1917, moved to New York City with his family in 1930, and spent his childhood and adolescence immersed in the community of Harlem. His initial forays into art involved painting scenes of the sights in his own neighborhood, inspired by the people and places he knew best. Many decades later, when Lawrence began his Genesis Creation Sermon series, he still looked to his experience among other African Americans in Harlem as a source of inspiration. For the eloquent and powerful figure of the preacher, Lawrence called upon his own memories of the impassioned sermons of Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr. at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Turned away from the pulpit, the preacher is driven to his ecstatic pronouncements by a vigor that cannot restrict itself to reading only; Lawrence captures him seemingly mid-syllable, his mouth open expressively to show even his teeth. Lawrence binds the body and voice of the community preacher to the famous first chapters of Genesis. For the people in the pews, the sermon is an immersive experience facilitated by the preacher, which Lawrence demonstrates by surrounding the congregation with the preacher on one side and the story unfolding beyond the windows on the other. The shock and awe registered on each individual face suggests that the preacher’s emphatic language has deeply moved each person in attendance.

Everything within the scope of Lawrence’s painting seems interconnected and epiphenomenal, as marvelous events occurring parallel to one another. Lawrence achieves this by limiting his palette to a handful of colors, many of them bright primary colors. The distinctive blue of the preacher’s robe reappears in the clothing of the men in the pews. The two solid colors which describe the architectural space of the windows lead impossibly into the world of the imagination where the first moments of Creation materialize. Emphasizing the emotional connection between the preacher and his congregation, Lawrence uses the same technique to describe their eyes and furrowed brows: a caramel color for the area around the eyes, with pupils the same color as the skin to describe eyes open in wonderment. With this simple but powerful gesture, Lawrence brings home the sense that preacher and church-member alike are seeing, together, what was only a moment before a collection of words on a page.

- I.L. for MOBIA

Come see Ashe to Amen before it closes this Sunday!

Spotlights on Broadway: Queen of Spades

Januwa Moja
Queen of Spades, 1996
Mixed fabrics with metallic ribbons, 20 x 60 in.
Courtesy of the Artist
Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Artist and designer Januwa Moja designed Queen of Spades to honor the goddess Oya/Yansa.  Oya is an Orisha, a Yoruba deity or spirit meant to reflect one of the manifestations of God.  Moja invoked Oya because the deity is a warrior spirit who controls the weather (especially the winds, which bring change) and who guards the realm of the ancestors.  She is the also the Orisha of the Niger River in western Africa; in Yoruba, the river is called Oya, which literally translates to “She tore.”  In Santeria, a practice that combines African and Caribbean religion with Roman Catholicism, she is identified with Our Lady of Candelaria, an apparition of the Virgin Mary honored on Tenefire, one of the Canary Islands.

Moja constructed this from different patterned fabrics significant to different parts of Africa.  These brightly colored fabrics are produced for export in Holland and Indonesia.  African communities use the cloth in various significant ways – for example, politicians will buy bolts and have their portraits printed on the fabric for distribution during a political campaign.

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Moja created the feathered headdress and two necklaces as part of this ensemble.  The necklaces, made from bone, antler, beads, and cowry shells, are not made to be worn as mere decorative jewelry, but armor, as befits the powerful Oya.

Photographer Renee Cox wore Queen of Spades and its headdress in her work Yo Mama Madonna.  Cox chose Moja’s garment because of its distinctly African look, which aligned with her artistic vision.  In the photograph, Cox, donning the pieces, depicts herself as the Madonna, with her own son representing in Christ Child on her lap.  Cox’s choice to include Queen of Spades as part of her work draws an interesting connection to Oya’s identification with the Virgin of Candelaria, as the latter is sometimes depicted as a Black Madonna.  This plays into Moja’s vision of the robe as a way of honoring the goddess as she was seen in the African Diaspora.

Come see Queen of Spades and other inspiring works of art at MOBIA!

- T.C. for MOBIA

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Spotlight: The Magi

In honor of the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th), Art, the Bible & the Big Apple is highlighting the Magi who are commemorated on this coming Sunday.


“The Adoration of the Magi”
Hieronymus Bosch (Netherlandish, ’s Hertogenbosch ca. 1450–1516 ’s Hertogenbosch)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Accession Number: 13.26

In the infancy narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 2:2-12), the Magi (sometimes known as the wise men) come to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Jesus, claiming that they came from the East following a star.  They bring him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, offerings that respectively symbolize Jesus’s role in the eyes of believers as King of Kings, Priest of Priests, and the Suffering Sacrifice.

Before they found Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, the Magi approached Herod the Great, the king of Judea, and inquired as to the whereabouts of the newborn king whose star they saw.  Herod sends them off to find him, telling them to return to him and alert him of the new king’s whereabouts so that he may worship him as well.  Once they depart, Herod plots to have the child, whom he considered a rival, killed.  In a parallel of what happens later in Matthew’s Gospel when an angel tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt, an angel warns the Magi not to return to Herod, and so they bypass Jerusalem on their journey home.

Over time, the image of these wise sojourners has evolved.  While the Magi were most likely Persian astrologists, they are commonly identified as kings, and while the Gospel does not give a specific number of men who came to pay the infant homage, they are traditionally depicted as being three in number, most likely because of the number of gifts


“The Adoration of the Magi”
Quentin Metsys (Netherlandish, Leuven 1466–1530 Kiel)
Date: 1526
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Accession Number: 11.143

presented.  A document dated to 500 C.E. called the Excerpta Latina Barbari identifies the Magi as Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar.  They are also traditionally assigned different areas of origin, though Scripture implies that they derived from the same country.  In art often one is depicted as being European, another as African, and another as Asian or Middle Eastern.  Sometimes they are even depicted as being in the throes of three different stages of life – young, middle aged, and elderly.

How to Know Them: The Magi can be identified most easily be their symbolic attributes, their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  They stand out from the other witnesses to the Nativity in their lavish costumes, in particular contrast to the shepherds who come directly from the fields to worship Jesus.


“The Adoration of the Magi”
Giotto di Bondone (Italian, Florentine, 1266/76–1337)
Date: possibly ca. 1320
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Accession Number: 11.126.1

Where to Find Them: Nativity scenes so often and so prominently featured the Magi over time that many portrayals are known by the title The Adoration of the Magi.


“Adoration of the Magi”
Date: ca. 1520
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Accession Number: 32.100.144

A Metropolis Full of Magi: The magi can be found mostly in nativity sets, but New York City museums have many depictions of this scene.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art contains a large collection, one of which was recently on view at MOBIA as the subject of the exhibition The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed.


“The Adoration of the Magi’
Bartolo di Fredi (Italian, active by 1353–died 1410 Siena)
Date: ca. 1390
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Accession Number: 1975.1.16

Contemporary Kings: The Magi are staples of religious Christmas films and television specials.  They are major characters in the 1968 classic stop-motion animation classic The Little Drummer Boy, fitting into the perception of Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar as coming having come from Europe, Africa, and Asia, respectively.


“The Adoration of the Magi”
Date: ca. 1175–1200
The Cloisters Collection
Accession Number: 30.77.6-.9

The Magi also act as comic relief in the 2006 film The Nativity Story.  The first act of the movie shows three calculating their destination based on the star, the second act focuses on their bumbling travels to Judea, and the third encapsulates the awe-inspiring faith they find at coming upon and his parents in the stable.


Leaves from a Beatus Manuscript: Bifolium with part of the Genealogy of Christ and the Adoration of the Magi
Date: ca. 1180
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Accession Number: 1991.232.2a-d

Spotlight: The Shepherds

“Plaque with the Annunciation to the Shepherds”, ca. 1165
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17.190.417

One of the most enduring and endearing Christmas images is that of a heavenly host of angels calling to fearful shepherds in the fields of Judea that on this day, in the city of David, a Savior was born.  These humble shepherds are the first to hear the proclamation that has remained integral to worship in the Christian faith, “’Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!’” (Luke 2:14).  The shepherds who find the infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger are the first to worship Jesus as the Messiah in the chronological narrative of Gospels.

How to Know Them and Where to Find Them: In contrast to the rich and gift-bearing magi who come to praise the newborn in the Gospel of Matthew, the shepherds are usually depicted in plain clothes.  In many depictions throughout the centuries, they have been portrayed as peasants, often times in clothing contemporary to the artist.  Sometimes they are shown holding bagpipes, the traditional instrument associated with sheep herders, as they were in the a painting exhibited at MOBIA earlier this year, loaned from the Cloisters.


Bartolo di Fredi
“The Adoration of the Shepherds”, c. 1374
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection

The shepherds can be found in general Nativity scenes, but there exists a subset of those scenes, called the Adoration of the Shepherds, that specifically focuses on their encounter with the Holy Family.

The shepherds are also found in portrayals of the annunciation to them by the angels.


Andrea Mantegna
“The Adoration of the Shepherds”, shortly after 1450
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shepherd Sightings: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has several depictions of the shepherds of the Nativity story, including one by Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna.  Another image, by a follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar, is based off of the visions of St. Bridget of Sweden, a fourteenth-century mystic who envisioned the Christ child as emanating a great light.

In Today’s World: The attendants of the Nativity have long stirred the imaginations of artists.  Lew Wallace, a Civil War general and author, devotes a lengthy passage to the experience of the shepherds in his novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.  Though best known as a film, the original 1880 novel introduces the story by lavishing attention on the various figures who adored the infant Jesus.

The shepherds are treated to screen time in 2006’s The Nativity Story.  Before the birth of her son, Mary encounters an elderly shepherd on way to Bethlehem who tells her that he was never blessed enough in life to receive a gift.  Later, when the shepherds come to adore the child, Mary holds her baby out the teary-eyed shepherd, and when he touches the infant, she tells him, “Each of us is given a gift.”


Follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar
“The Adoration of the Christ Child”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whether it be in tender, in-depth portrayals like this, through the singing of a Christmas carol like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, or in a family’s chreche, lovingly displayed every holiday season, the inclusion of the shepherds brings a sense of humility, wonder, and awe to the Nativity scene.

- T.C. for MOBIA