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Tuesday, 6 January 2009

On The Adoration of the Magi



Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.

So this is a good excuse to feature here the magnificent work of art above and to suggest its significance for Christianity.

The work is the Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci. It is unfinished and dates from around 1482, when the 30 year old Leonardo left Florence for Milan.

It is a startling picture, not least because the Magi are shown to be deeply awed or starkly terrified. Such responses would of course be entirely appropriate to God becoming man.

This depiction contrasts with the still and dutiful aristocrats conventionally shown as attendees to the great event, for example the Adorations of his contemporaries Botticelli:


And the usually disturbing Bosch;


If the adoration actually did occur, I suspect Leonardo's psychological realism would be nearer the mark.

Leonardo scholars suggest that he was more concerned with the technical problems of human and other representation, and that this explains his approach to this and other works.

That said, he did leave this potential altar piece unfinished, and I often wonder if this is because the monks were shocked.

Leonardo did not only show the effect Jesus would have if he was God but also if he was human.

The Benois Madonna shows Mary playing with Jesus as if he was indeed a baby (if somewhat obese) and she was a happy young mother:


As, to a lesser extent, does his Madonna of the Carnation:


Leonardo's depictions of Jesus as a God or as a man are perhaps disconcerting to us, but they really should not be.

The fault lies with the conventions of Christian art, which often makes bores of all its subjects.

If Jesus was God then it would suddenly and fundamentally change the lives of those who realised it. And if Jesus was man then he would indeed be like a human being, as a baby and an adult.

But Christian art too often depicts him as neither.

My late Grandad said that if Chritianity was true, then why did Christians look and sound so bored (he had turned over to Songs of Praise by accident).

Leonardo in a way shows what it would be like if Christainity was true.

One wonders what the original Last Supper looked like (now almost gone); not so much for the amazed and telling looks of the disciples, but for the look on the face of Jesus.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For some pseudo religions- like Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy epithany is more significant than Christmas itself.
The three magi represent three "root races"- white European, "yellow" Indian and black African. Their gifts too are significant- Melchior (european) brings gold- symbol of wisdom and intelligence- the fifth root race.
Balthasar, represents the fourth root race, offers frankinsense, and is associated with influence of a godhead.
Caspar, representing the third root race, brings myrrh- the symbol of the of dying of "lower life".
Anthroposophy's central theme is reincarnation through a variety of "higher" and "lower" "evil" races until the "universal human is reached. It stems from Blavatzk'y theosophy, and underpins Steiner waldorf education, biodynamic agriculture and cosmetics ( Weleda, Dr Hauschka) and anthroposophical medicine- "mistletoe cure for cancer" etc.
There are many critics of Steiner's philosophy, but they are often stifled by fanatical protectors of the faith.....