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The Journey of the Magi and The Epiphany of Jesus

By Revd Canon Ian Morter

6 January is the day we remember the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus as recorded for us in St. Matthew’s Gospel.

This painting of The Journey of the Magi from the Metropolitan Museum of Art came to my attention recently when visiting New York. It is by the Early Renaissance artist Stefano di Giovanni usually known as il Sassetta and was painted between 1433/5 in Egg Tempera.

il Sassetta (c. 1392–1450) was working in Tuscany and was an important member of The Siena School. But he also developed his own style introducing elements of the Decorative Gothic Style of which Exeter Cathedral is a leading architectural example.

T.S. Eliot wrote a dramatic monologue entitled ‘The Journey of the Magi’ that focuses upon the famous biblical story of the three kings from the East travelling to Bethlehem to pay homage to the baby Jesus. The narrative is told from the point of view of one of the magi, who expresses themes of alienation, regret and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that is changing.

The Journey of the Magi

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

– T.S Elliot (1927)

Happy New Year and Journey safely through this coming year.