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A different version of the Epiphany

Yesterday it was the 6th of January, aka the religious holiday Three Kings’ Day, aka Epihany. For most people in the Netherlands, this day simply is the moment when you have to get rid of your Christmas tree. But there is a story behind it, and quite an important one for art, I might add. Three Kings’ Day marks the day when the three wise men from the East came to see little baby Jesus.

The Adoration of the Magi (as the moment is generally called) has been a popular subject in art for ages. The earliest example we know of dates from the sixth century. It is a spectacular mosaic in a church in Ravenna, Italy.

The Three Wise Men. Detail from: “Mary and Child, surrounded by angels”. Mosaic. Completed 526 AD by the “Master of Sant’Apollinare”. Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

After Ravenna, numerous artists have depicted the three kings, and almost all have chosen the moment when the Magi are in adoration of Christ. The likes of Rubens, Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Botticelli have all made at least one version of it. The men are still popular to this day. You can encounter them in nativity scenes underneath Christmas trees, they feature in school plays, you can even buy a Playmobil version of the kings for your children to play with. Popular guys, those Magi.

I suspect that everyone has a certain image in mind when they think of the three kings adoring the infant Jesus. That’s why I wanted to discuss a work in which the kings can be seen in a different setting.

It took me a while, but I have found one: Journey of the Magi (c. 1894) by the French-English artist James Tissot (1836-1902).

Tissot becomes rich and famous in the second half of the nineteenth century by portraying elegant nouveau riche ladies in upper class England. While his art friends Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet develop their styles towards impressionism, Tissot goes another direction: realism.

The last years of his life he uses realism to depict biblical scenes. To perform these in the most truthful way, Tissot travels to the Middle East to study the landscapes, light, people and clothing of the region. He makes sketches, but also uses photography.

In Journey of the Magi the influence of photography can clearly be seen. Look at the way the landscape is painted. This can only be done by someone who has been there. Tissot shows us the fine details of the mountainous desert: the ridges, the little stone walls, the way the light casts shadows.

Now let’s look at the caravan traveling over the mountain path. In the left half of the work we can only see a hint of people and animals, they are too distant for our eyes to focus. As your gaze moves to the right, more details start to be visible. This could have been a picture taken in the region.

The three figures that cover almost the entire right half of the painting are clearly the protagonists. Three men, dressed in traditional eastern robes and seated on camels, are riding through the mountains. They are traveling, by the looks of the amount of luggage the camels are carrying.

The thing that strikes me the most is the way in which Tissot depicts the three Magi. These are not the stereotype white, black and something in between guys we usually see in paintings of the three kings. Neither are they explicitly young, middle aged and old, like the bible story tells us. Tissot differentiates the men a bit in terms of skin color and age, but you get the feeling that they are quite alike. The men are wearing the same type of clothes and colors, all three have beards, their camels are walking side by side. They come across as equals.

Another remarkable thing: those camels, so lively and real. Not your average street scene in nineteenth century London or Paris. Extraordinary.

A final thought I would like to share is the position of us viewers. We seem to be standing in the middle of the road, right in front of our kings. In a few moments they will bump into us, if we don’t get out of the way. This positioning of the viewer inside the painting makes it exciting, because you really get drawn into the scene. Tissot has created a movie moment. I can imagine that the use of photography has helped him achieve this effect.

Journey of the Magi is a nice variety of the theme of the Magi. Tissot has chosen a different moment of the story to depict than we so often see, and also an original manner of showing it to us. Of course, there are some fine examples of the moment of Adoration of the Magi in art history. But let’s look at that another year.

James Tissot, Journey of the Magi, c. 1894. Oil on canvas, 70.8 x 101.6 cm. Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis.

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