Epiphany’s Essence: Unveiling the Symbolism of the Magi’s Gifts

Exploring the Biblical and Historical Significance of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh
L'Adorazione dei Magi di Giotto basilica inferiore di Assisi
L'Adorazione dei Magi di Giotto basilica inferiore di Assisi

The allure of Epiphany, celebrated every January 6th, lies in the biblical story of the arrival of the three Wise Men – Melech, Balthazar, and Galgalath, better known as Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar – at Mary’s dwelling in Bethlehem, where she had given birth to Jesus just thirteen days earlier. The narrative speaks of significant gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These items, besides their intrinsic value, are rich in symbolism.

Gold, the most precious of metals, symbolizes royalty and acknowledges Jesus as the “King of Kings.” Frankincense, a central element in worship rituals, underscores Jesus’ divinity. Myrrh, used in funeral rites, alludes to Jesus’ mortality. This traditional interpretation was enriched by Saint Irenaeus in the 2nd century AD, who saw in myrrh a reference to Christ’s Passion, in gold a symbol of royalty, and in frankincense a tribute to divinity. In the 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux offered a more pragmatic reading: gold to alleviate Mary’s poverty, frankincense to purify the Bethlehem stable, and myrrh as a medicinal remedy. Centuries later, Martin Luther interpreted these gifts as symbols of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.

Adorazione dei Magi (Lorenzo Monaco)
Adorazione dei Magi (Lorenzo Monaco)

More recently, an interpretation has developed that views the Magi’s gifts as substances with healing properties. Gold, for example, had therapeutic applications in ancient Egypt, often mistaken for turmeric powder due to its similar color. The latter was used for its medicinal qualities, particularly in combating infections, a real threat in the context of childbirth. Frankincense, also known as olibanum gum, has anti-inflammatory properties, useful in a medical context, especially for respiratory and skin conditions. Myrrh, with its anti-inflammatory and analgesic qualities, can also be seen as part of this “medicinal package.”

Giotto (Cappella degli Scrovegni a Padova)
Giotto (Cappella degli Scrovegni a Padova)

Artistic representations of this event vary: from Lorenzo Monaco’s panel (Uffizi Gallery in Florence), to Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and the Lower Basilica of Assisi, to a fragment of a gradual illuminated by Giovannino da Genova in the 14th century, each work offers a unique vision of this historic and religious moment.

Frammento di un graduale miniato da Giovannino da Genova e datato al XIV secolo
Frammento di un graduale miniato da Giovannino da Genova e datato al XIV secolo
By Marco Mattiuzzi

A multifaceted artist, former teacher and communicator, he has dedicated years to art and communication. He taught classical guitar, exhibited photos and wrote in magazines. In the book sector, he promoted photography and art through HF Distribuzione, a company specialized in mail-order sales. He currently owns CYBERSPAZIO WEB & STREAMING HOSTING. In 2018, he created the Facebook group "Art Pills" with over 65,000 members and manages CYBERSPAZIO WEB RADIO dedicated to classical music. He collaborates with several cultural organizations in Vercelli, including Amici dei Musei and Artes Liberales.
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