These Three Kings (Mmm… Marginalia #24)

Christmas is swiftly approaching, so this week’s edition of Mmm… Marginalia presents two sets of three kings, with some extra shepherds abiding in their fields just because I’m nice.  The first is found in a 13th-century Flemish manuscript now held by the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, where it adorns the bottom margin:


Just to be clear, the king on the far left is shielding his eyes against the brilliance of the star, not holding his nose.  

Now, if we zoom out a bit, we can see the star that so blinds him, as well the aforepromised shepherds.  


The star is positioned so that it’s almost the period to the sentence beginning Verbum caro factum est… or “The Word was made Flesh,” referring to that certain manger-dweller that some people today chidingly remind other people* is “the reason for the season.”  Medieval Christians were, of course, quite clear that they were celebrating the birth of Christ, the Word, and the anniversary of his Incarnation, and lots of other things that required capital letters when you write them out.  The dude with the red suit just didn’t factor into it.  But this does not mean that medieval folk were always as stodgy and solemn about this time of year as the people who mutter about wars on Christmas might have you believe.  I am almost certain that if tacky icicle lights had been invented, the medievals would have tacked them all over the cathedrals for their Christmas masses. 

In other words, just because something was sacred doesn’t mean that people in the Middle Ages couldn’t have fun with it.  This brings me to the second set of three kings, these found in the lower margin of  Shcaffhausen Stadtbibliothek MS Gen. 8, a fourteenth-century copy of the “Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk,” a German vernacular Bible:

I had originally intended to discuss the way that the artist depicts the passage of time by showing each of the three kings at a different point in the journey*–but then I took a closer look at Joseph on the far right, who’s just a lot more fun:  


This is a Joseph we moderns almost never see, one who looks pretty dubious about the story he finds himself written into, the look on his face as he stares down at his adopted holy son sort of a cross between “well I’ll be damned” and “now what am I supposed to do?”  Here’s a closeup:


You can’t help but feel for the guy.  He’s old enough to have to walk with a cane (for Chrissake) and now he’s expected to change the diapers of this glowing-headed baby.

*These people being “preachers on the radio” and “me” respectively.  Macon has apparently limitless reserves of Christian radio programming and no good alternative stations.
**Because I grow increasingly dull in my old age.

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  • Dr. Virago

    In other words, just because something was sacred doesn’t mean that people in the Middle Ages couldn’t have fun with it.

    I’m going to quote you from now on in every class I teach. I frequently say similar things, but nearly as succinctly.

    Also, did you notice Baby Jesus’s rather ape-like feet in that last image? Weird!

  • Dr. Virago

    Er, I meant *not* nearly as succinctly.

  • jenne.heise

    Personally, I think medieval people would have gone right for the blinky multicolored light strands for their cathedrals… And we don’t want to think about what light-up figures they might have put in their front yards.

  • Got Medieval

    If this weren’t an illumination, I’d call the folks over at Photoshop Disasters. That’s definitely a hand, not a foot, on the end of Baby J’s leg.

  • Lord William Star Breaker

    The expression on Baby Jesus’ face is almost as good. Almost as if he’s telepathically thinking to Joseph, ‘Yeah, that’s right, I’m the new man of the house (and the rest of creation too!).’

  • Jeffrey J. Cohen

    And did you notice that the non-haloed Josephus is wearing the pilleus cornutus, the pointy cap that signifies Jewishness? He's not just saying "I'll be damned<" he is exclaiming "Oy vey!"

  • Dr. Richard Scott Nokes

    I thought the same thing about the Jesus feet. I don’t know if that particular Jesus image could walk on water, but it sure looks like he could swing through the trees.

  • Anthony

    When was it traditional, and where was it traditional for Balthazar to be depicted as African? Because I know Bosch painted him this way, and the Italians of the Reniassance, but before that? Because he isn’t here.

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