Christmas Quiz: What’s Different About This Picture?
by Bob Schwartz
If you look closely at the painting above, you may notice something unusual about the adoring Magi.
The painting, Adoration of the Magi, is attributed to Vasco Fernandes (ca. 1480–ca. 1543). I’ve shown it to a number of people this Christmas, who all remarked that it is beautiful, but did not comment on anything else.
Can you see what it is unusual about it? If you know or think you do, don’t look first at the answer below.
Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (2010) by Brent Landau is the first-ever complete English translation of what purports to be a first-person account by the Magi themselves. Written sometime before the fifth century, it is not actually a chronicle by the Magi, but it is a spiritually fascinating addition to the usual Christmas story.
The Revelation of the Magi, mostly narrated by the Magi in the first person, is a sweeping and imaginative work that begins in the Garden of Eden and ends with the Magi being baptized at the hands of the Apostle Thomas. These Magi are members of an ancient mystical order and reside in a semimythical land called Shir, located in the extreme east of the world, at the shore of the Great Ocean. The Revelation of the Magi says these individuals are called “Magi” in the language of their country because they pray in silence. The story implies that the name “Magi” is thus a play on the words silence and/or prayer, but that implication does not make sense in any of the most common languages spoken by early Christians. Despite this unsolved mystery, however, this description sharply distinguishes the Magi of this story from any of the most common ancient usages of the term magoi: these Magi are not magicians, astrologers, or even priests of the Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism.
These mystics, who live in a mysterious, far-off land, as the Revelation of the Magi depicts its Magi, are the descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. Seth was believed by many early Jews and Christians to be extremely pious and virtuous, so it is very fitting for the Revelation of the Magi to trace the ancestry of the Magi back to such an illustrious founder. The Magi inherited from Seth a prophecy of supreme importance for the world: a star of indescribable brightness will someday appear, heralding the birth of God in human form. Seth himself had learned about this prophecy from his father, Adam, since the star originally had hovered over the Tree of Life, illumining all of Eden, before Adam’s sin caused the star to vanish.
Every month of every year, for thousands of years, the order of the Magi has carried out its ancient rituals in expectation of this star’s arrival. They ascend their country’s most sacred mountain, the Mountain of Victories, and pray in silence at the mouth of the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries, where Seth’s own prophetic books are housed and read by the Magi. Whenever one of the Magi dies, his son or one of his close relatives takes his place, and their order continues through the ages.
All of this lore about the origins of the Magi and their prophecy has been narrated, we are told, by the generation of the Magi that was alive to witness the coming of the star. They have gathered together to ascend the Mountain of Victories, as was their ancient custom, but suddenly the foretold star appears in the heavens. As promised, the star is indescribably bright, so bright that the sun becomes as faint as the daytime moon; yet because the Magi alone are worthy of guarding this prophecy, the star can be seen by no one but them. The star descends to the peak of the mountain and enters the Cave of Treasures, bidding the Magi to come inside. The Magi enter the cave and bow before the star, whose incredible light gradually dissipates to reveal a small, luminous human! This “star-child” reveals to the Magi that he is the Son of God, but—and this is of crucial importance—never calls himself by the familiar names Jesus or Christ. Nor do the Magi themselves ever call him by these names, and the absence of these designations will provide us with a critical clue about the central message of the Revelation of the Magi.
The star-child instructs the Magi to follow it to Jerusalem so that they may witness its birth and participate in the salvation God has planned for the entire world….
The Revelation of the Magi even influenced the way explorers of the New World understood the indigenous cultures they encountered. Two examples will suffice. First, there is the seventeenth-century Augustinian monk Antonio de la Calancha, who studied the Incan culture of Peru. He was impressed by the similarities between Andean traditional religion and Christianity, and he believed that the Apostle Thomas and the Magi must have missionized the region together, just as the Opus Imperfectum indicated. Second, the Franciscan missionary and historian Juan de Torquemada described the belief among some of the Aztecs that the conquistador Cortés was the god Quetzalcoatl with recourse to this legend. Just as the Magi had stood atop the Mountain of Victories awaiting the fulfillment of their prophecy, Torquemada notes, so, too, did the Aztecs anxiously await the foretold return of Quetzalcoatl, and were all too willing to accept Cortés as the returned Quetzalcoatl when Spanish ships appeared off the Mexican coast.
And that is the story of how, in this painting, one of the Magi appears as a Native American.