My Advent devotion series, based on the 10 greatest paintings of the Christmas story ever produced.
Look carefully at the painting. Read the Bible text. Read the reflection. Recite the prayer.
8. THE MAGI SEARCH FOR THE CHRIST
Artwork: The Procession of the Magi – Benozzo Gozzoli, Medici Riccardi palace, Florence
Reading: Matthew 2:1-10
The Medicis were an Italian banking family that came to exercise such supreme control over the affairs of Tuscany and Florence that they became first a political dynasty and later a royal house.
Wealthy and powerful beyond all reckoning, they transformed Florence into a stunningly beautiful and excessively luxurious city of the finest architecture and art. Medici money seemed to be inexhaustible. One Medici or another was patron to Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens, and even Galileo. Four Medicis became Pope, a host of others cardinal, and two went on to rule France.
So, when in 1459 Piero de’ Medici commissioned Benozzo Gozzoli to paint a series of frescoes of the procession of the Magi, Gozzoli knew exactly which side his bread was buttered on. His painting is a monumental exercise in sucking up!
Instead of depicting just three wise men riding camels in the desert, he painted 33 kings parading in a cavalcade of excess and grandeur, every one of them a Medici or one of their hangers-on. Gozzoli even included his own portrait as one of the sycophants (left).
Wealthy Italian noblemen, bankers and churchmen ride slowly toward Bethlehem, resplendent upon their steeds, their servants hunting deer for their meals along the way.
It’s an astonishing picture. Not because of its depiction of the Magi, but because it reveals the utter excess of the Renaissance church.
The Magi of Matthew’s Gospel were genuine seekers, combing Judah for the promised king. Whereas the Medici were self-satisfied and extravagant. As depicted by Gozzoli they seem utterly unconcerned about the object of their search.
Sometimes today, in the midst of the shallowness and commercialism of Christmas, we find it difficult to see Jesus. Where is he in the tsunami of excess we’re swimming in? The same question could have been asked in the 15th Century.
Gozzoli’s picture is a salient reminder that temporal power, egotism and dissipation are the opposite of Jesus’ rule. The world Jesus was born to usher in is an upside-down kingdom where weakness is power, power is weakness, and suffering leads to glory. Of course we can’t see him in this depiction of excess.
O Lord, our God,
who in the birth of your Son Jesus
has provided our world
with a great and guiding light
in the midst of darkness,
grant that, as we celebrate his birth,
his living presence may create anew:
grace in our sinfulness,
peace in strife,
joy in sadness,
courage in our weakness.
Make it clear to us
that Christ’s coming
is your coming;
that his emergence into history
means we will never again
be separated from the love of God.
By Ross Langmead