Not such a white Christmas: Balthasar

Bosch

Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Talking of colour, in north Europe we no longer get so much snow, but our Christmas really is very white—celebrated by nativities with white people in fancy dress, based on stories by the genteel British names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Welcome as is the growing presence in our schools of children from the Middle East, who could imagine that is just where all this took place?

And even once we recognise this, the tableau still isn’t monocultural—as illustrated by the story of the Three Magi. As wiki observes,

The single biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed “wise men” (μάγοιmágoi) visits him in a house (οἰκίανoikian), not a stable, with only “his mother” mentioned as present.

In early sources the term magus refers to Persian sorcerers/astrologers; the three were first named as Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior in a Greek manuscript from 500CE.

Jonathan Jones describes their changing representations in art. Although the Venerable Bede described Balthasar as black in the 8th century, very few images depicted him thus before 1400; but in the Renaissance, representations proliferated along with growing awareness of other races then being subjugated, serving to illustrate Christianity’s powers of conversion.

Durer
Dürer, The Adoration of the Magi, 1504.

Another article refers to the research of Paul Kaplan, Cord Whitaker, and Kristen Collins with Bryan Keene. As Geraldine Heng noted:

The topos of blackness becomes in Europe a reflexive gesture denoting the exotic and the foreign. […] By this time, courts, kings, and nobles played with blackness for purposes of spectacle in performances of masques, pageantry, processions, and balls.

This leads to a discussion of the use of blackface in Epiphany and Three Kings’ Day parades (cf. the Bacup Morris dancers).

Of course, we can’t expect historical authenticity from religion. Acculturation is subject to constant change. Religious art too reflects changing perceptions and agendas.

Cf. the widespread image of the Black Madonna. See also Esther Chadwick’s review of the collection Black in Rembrandt’s time, focusing on the Afro-Atlantic community in Amsterdam.

Turning to 1730s’ Leipzig, among the constant wonders of Bach’s Christmas oratorio, The Journey of the Magi (Part Five) opens with an exhilarating chorus in which the fiddles get as close to bluegrass noodling as you can in early music—as if the Magis’ stellar Satnav had whimsically chosen a route to Bethlehem via Appalachia:

Part Six goes on to portray The Adoration of the Magi.

Messiaen‘s depictions of the story are also wondrous. On a lighter note, my post on The Three Wise Men of Daoist ritual studies includes a cameo from Monty Python (“We were led by a star!” “Led by a bottle, more like!”).For the unpromising chromaticisms of I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, click here.

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