By Stephen Enzweiler
Particular to the NKyTribune
The tales of Christmas are ever current to us this time of yr. Irrespective of our ages or backgrounds, most of us can bear in mind these wee days rising up with tales informed to us concerning the mysteries of Christmas and the approaching of the Christ little one. As younger youngsters, who amongst us didn’t gaze upon a Nativity scene with an empty manger and really feel a way of expectation? Who didn’t look ahead to staying up late the one evening of the yr we have been allowed so we might go to Midnight Mass? Or what teen, of their wide-eyed innocence, didn’t lookup into the winter sky on a Christmas evening and hope to see the star of Bethlehem? Younger or outdated, there’s nonetheless thriller in Christmas, and one doesn’t need to go very far in Covington to seek out it.
Within the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption is a stained-glass window that tells of one of many extra puzzling episodes of the Christmas story. The window measures 21-feet excessive by 9-feet extensive and may be discovered within the nave’s south wall above the fifth Station of the Cross. Referred to as “The Adoration of the Magi,” it’s one among a grouping of 4 home windows that illustrate the early lifetime of Christ. Its story is taken from a passage of Matthew’s gospel (Mt 2:1-11) and illustrates the second when “magi from the east” arrive in Bethlehem and pay homage to the Christ little one with presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
“The Adoration of the Magi” window is the creation of the studio of Mayer & Firm of Munich which produced stained glass for Covington’s cathedral from 1905 to 1922. Like all Mayer home windows of the interval, it’s made within the Munich Model which turned fashionable a century earlier through the reign of Bavaria’s King Ludwig I. The window itself is a “four-light” window, that means it incorporates 4 vertical panels throughout its central width. The tracery within the high portion is curvilinear in its styling, a form of intersecting sample elaborated with ogees (double curves) creating a fancy reticular or net-like sample. Pink-winged seraphim play devices amid the blazing stars of heaven to announce the beginning of the brand new king. Surrounding them are decorative home windows of purple roses which are the image of the shedding of Christ’s blood.
Beneath the tracery is the primary scene. The attention is instantly drawn to the middle of the window—to the Virgin Mary and Christ little one on her lap. We instantly discover that the Virgin and little one are the brightest figures in all the window, as if they’re the supply of the sunshine. The artists selected this visible dominance over the opposite figures for 2 symbolic causes. First, it communicates the shut bond of mom and son, paying homage to what Pope Pius IX described in his encyclical Ineffabilis Deus: “To her did the Father will to present his only-begotten Son. It was she whom the Son himself selected to make his Mom.” Secondly, their brightness communicates each the purity of the immaculately conceived Virgin Mary and the sinless purity of the kid born from her.
Mary’s gaze is directed downward in humility. She attracts again his swaddling garments to disclose the infant messiah. He appears instantly at us and blesses us. His hand gesture is part of a visible ecclesiastical language that usually conceals metaphors and expresses dogmatic truths. On this case, the prolonged thumb and two fingers signify the unity of God within the Holy Trinity, and the opposite two symbolize the Incarnation and the 2 natures of Christ as each human and divine.
Eight-pointed stars—an emblem of resurrection and everlasting life—embellish the kid’s swaddling garments. His mom has a halo with seven stars, a quantity representing perfection. Discover that the sunshine supply within the scene is from the Christ little one himself, a reference to Jesus’ personal phrases, “I’m the sunshine of the world . . . ” (John 8:12). Above the Virgin and little one is the star seen by the magi who’ve come to supply him their presents.
Matthew’s account doesn’t specify what number of magi there have been or give any names or particulars of their origin besides to say they have been “from the east.” The East on the time of Christ’s beginning meant Media, Persia, Assyria, or Parthia (previously Babylonia). The primary three centuries of Christian artwork persistently current solely three Magi. The oldest recognized picture depicting them is from a 3rd century Roman catacomb which reveals three males in Phrygian (Persian) caps approaching Mary and the kid with their presents.
By the fifth century as Christianity continued to develop, curiosity within the magi story additionally grew. Previous Testomony Scriptures have been recognized as foretelling their go to: “The kings of Tarshish and distant shores will convey tribute to him. The kings of Sheba and Seba will current him with presents. All kings will bow all the way down to him and all nations will serve him” (Psalm 72:10,11). By the eighth century, texts just like the Excerpta et Collectanea elaborated even additional on the custom of the three magi, making them kings and going as far as to present them names. By the ninth century, their identities and roles had change into well-established in Christian artwork and custom, and aside from their names, they developed distinct traits within the Christian custom.
There’s Caspar (or Gaspar) the King of Tarsus, land of retailers, bringing gold, the normal present for kings. He’s an outdated man with an extended white beard who’s the primary to take away his crown and kneel earlier than the Christ little one. Then there’s the middle-aged Melchior whom custom says was the King of Arabia, bearing frankincense, the fragrance of reward and adoration. Balthasar, the King of Ethiopia, was the youngest. He’s swarthy (generally depicted as black-skinned) and bore the present of myrrh, a medicinal aloe used for making medicines and in addition used as an embalming agent. Myrrh was additionally seen all through Christianity as a prefigurement to Jesus’ demise and burial—an interpretation made fashionable within the well-known Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”
Artists by way of the centuries have been recognized so as to add their very own interpretations and inventive variations to the normal magi story, and Mayer & Firm was no exception. On this window composition, the Mayer artists have depicted 4 magi moderately than the normal three; they’ve additionally launched two different figures. Within the middle is Caspar, historically the primary to kneel, his crown eliminated and set upon the bottom in a gesture recognizing the Christ little one’s kingship over his personal. Simply past within the inexperienced turban is the black-skinned Balthasar carrying myrrh in a fluted fragrance flask. Within the far proper of the body are two unknown figures, the higher one in a purple Phrygian (Persian) cap carrying a small chest of pearls, the Christian image for the Kingdom of Heaven and a potential allusion to the parable of the pearl of nice value (Mt 13:45). The opposite is an unknown determine, with out crown or regalia, presenting a easy blue field of unknown contents.
At far left is the turbaned Melchior, depicted as dark-skinned and on his knees holding a thurible of aromatic frankincense. Standing simply behind Melchior is a thriller determine—pale-skinned, attired in a striped Egyptian “nemes” headdress and bearing a fan of peacock feathers. The “nemes” is a well known image of Egyptian sovereignty and the peacock a Christian image representing resurrection. Word how the Egyptian stares instantly at St. Joseph, and the way St. Joseph stares again uncomfortably. Right here the Mayer artists have inserted one more story for us to ponder, utilizing these figures and their gazes to foreshadow the household’s imminent flight into Egypt to flee King Herod’s wrath.
The complete scene is supported beneath by a basis of ornamented grisaille work typical of the Mayer fashion. It’s embellished all through with white roses, violets, and fig leaves organized as flower blossoms. In Christian artwork, white roses signify the Virgin Mary. Due to its three leaves, violets have been known as “the herbs of Trinity” or “flowers of Trinity” by medieval monks. Additionally it is stated that violets symbolize the Virgin Mary’s humility and purity. The lowly fig had all the time been an emblem of Israel and foretold the well being of the nation each spiritually and bodily. “When I discovered Israel, it was like discovering grapes within the desert; once I noticed your ancestors, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree.” (Hosea 9:10).
The Adoration of the Magi will all the time stay one of the intriguing and mysterious chapters of the Christmas story. Borne out of historical past, with particulars stuffed in over two thousand years by Christian artists and writers, it continues to fascinate us even at the moment. It teaches us concerning the kingship of Jesus, of how the Father so liked the world that he despatched his solely son in order that man might need life, and that even within the darkest of instances, there’s all the time a cause to have hope. We are able to all the time be reminded of this stuff every time we go to the Cathedral Basilica and spend just a little time with this window, or maybe after we let the kid in us lookup into the winter sky on a Christmas evening and hope to see the magi’s star.
Stephen Enzweiler is a author, Cathedral Historian, and a docent at Covington’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption.