By Costanza Beltrami

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him”… and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, and frankincense and myrrh.”
(Matthew 2:1-11)

The 6th of January, known in Italian as the Epifania (Epiphany) is an important religious festivity for the Catholic Church. It celebrates the manifestation (in Ancient Greek, ἐπιφάνεια, epifàneia), of Jesus’s divinity to the Gentiles, as represented by the presents given by the Magi to the new-born baby. Literally, the Magi were the Zoroastrian priests of ancient Persia. Inspired by apocryphal sources, Christian art generally represents them as three Kings dressed in rich and sometimes exotic robes: Caspar from India, Melchior from Persia, and Balthazar from Arabia. Caspar is often represented as young and beardless, Melchior as elderly, and Balthazar as black.

The adoration of the Magi was one of the most common subjects in Italian religious art, especially in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. For example, in the 3rdcentury an Adoration scene was painted on the walls of the Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter in Rome. Realized before the scene’s iconography became fixed, it features only to Magi. The Biblical event was later represented by artists such as Giotto, Gentile da Fabriano and Leonardo.

Despite the religious importance and artistic fortune of the Adoration of the Magi, the 6th of January is more commonly celebrated as the day of the Befana, traditionally an old lady or witch who brings small gifts to well-behaved children, and lumps of coal (or rather, black-colored sugar candy) to the unruly ones.

Adoration of the Magi, 3rd century AD, fresco, Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome.

Nicola Pisano, Adoration of the Magi, 1260, marble, 85 x 113 cm, Baptistry, Pisa. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Giotto di Bondone, Scenes from the Life of Christ: Adoration of the Magi, 1304-06, fresco, 200 x 185 cm, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423, tempera on wood, 300 x 282 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Magi, The Adoration of the Magi, 1440/1460, tempera on poplar panel, 137.3 cm, Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, inv. no. 1952.2.2. Photo: National Gallery of Art.

Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, 1481-82, oil on panel, 246 x 243 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Magi, 1495-1505, distemper on canvas, 55 x 71 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. inv. no. 85.PA.417. Photo: The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Andrea Della Robbia, Adoration of the Magi, early 16th century, enamelled terracotta, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, inv. no. 4412-1857. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Adoration of the Magi, 1753, oil on canvas, 408 x 210 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Gaetano Previati, Adoration of the Magi, 1896, oil on canvas, 98 x 198 cm, PInacoteca di Brera, Milan, inv. no. Reg. Cron. 2284. Photo: Pinacoteca di Brera.

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