Magi Reunited

Through July 5, 2015
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC

Bearing gifts, they traversed afar, and now they’re coming together again.

In 1618, the great Flemish artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens painted portraits of the three wise men. For the first time in 130 years, these paintings can be viewed together in the exhibit Peter Paul Rubens: The Three Magi Reunited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. They will be on display through July 5, 2015.

Museo de Arte de Ponce. The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, INC.
A portrait of Gaspar.

Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp—UNESCO World Heritage
A portrait of Balthasar.

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Chester Dale Collection
A portrait of Melchior.

The three paintings were commissioned by Rubens’s childhood friend, Balthasar Moretus. The project held special significance for Balthasar, since he and his brothers had been named after the magi—Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. Although the paintings stayed together in Antwerp, Belgium, until 1876 and then briefly in Paris until 1881, eventually they dispersed across the world. The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, now holds the portrait of Gaspar (above, left), and the Museo de Arte de Ponce near san Juan, Puerto Rico, has the portrait of Balthasar (above, middle). The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, houses the last of the trio, the portrait of Melchior (above, right). It was given to the National Gallery of Art in 1943 on the condition that it could not travel, which is partially why the three paintings have not been reunited in so long.

Although the magi make an appearance in the Book of Matthew, they are not named or even numbered in the Bible. It is later tradition that we have to thank for casting them as three wise men—because they brought three gifts—and assigning them names, ages and ethnicities. In Rubens’s paintings, the three wise men are portrayed as coming from different continents—Africa, Asia and Europe—and as representing the three stages of life—youth, middle age and old age. Bearing myrrh, Balthasar (above, middle) is depicted as a young African man. With frankincense in hand, Melchior (above, right) is portrayed as a middle-aged man from Asia, and, holding a gold dish filled with coins, Gaspar (above, left) is shown as an old European man.

Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.


Related content in Bible History Daily:

Witnessing the Divine: The magi in art and literature by Robin M. Jensen

Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?

Frankincense and Other Resins Were Used in Roman Burials Across Britain


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  • Luis says

    The museum of art where Gaspar is name , Museo de Arte de Ponce. Ponce being one of the largest cities of Puerto Rico about 2.5 hours from SanJuan or at the south of the island. Not near Sam Juan.

  • Kurt says

    Who were the Magi that visited the young child Jesus?

    Astrologers (Gr., maʹgoi; “Magi,” AS ftn, CC, We; “Magians,” ED) brought gifts to the young child Jesus. (Mt 2:1-16) Commenting on who these maʹgoi were, The Imperial Bible-Dictionary (Vol. II, p. 139) says: “According to Herodotus the magi were a tribe of the Medes [I, 101], who professed to interpret dreams, and had the official charge of sacred rites . . . they were, in short, the learned and priestly class, and having, as was supposed, the skill of deriving from books and the observation of the stars a supernatural insight into coming events . . . Later investigations tend rather to make Babylon than Media and Persia the centre of full-blown magianism. ‘Originally, the Median priests were not called magi . . . From the Chaldeans, however, they received the name of magi for their priestly caste, and it is thus we are to explain what Herodotus says of the magi being a Median tribe’ . . . (J. C. Müller in Herzog’s Encl.).”—Edited by P. Fairbairn, London, 1874.

    Rightly, then, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Tertullian, when reading Matthew 2:1, thought of maʹgoi as astrologers. Wrote Tertullian (“On Idolatry,” IX): “We know the mutual alliance of magic and astrology. The interpreters of the stars, then, were the first . . . to present Him [Jesus] ‘gifts.’” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1957, Vol. III, p. 65) The name Magi became current “as a generic term for astrologers in the East.”—The New Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia, 1952, Vol. 22, p. 8076.

    So the circumstantial evidence is strong that the maʹgoi who visited the infant Jesus were astrologers. Thus The New Testament translated by C. B. Williams reads “star-gazers,” with a footnote in explanation: “This is, students of stars in relation to events on earth.” Fittingly, then, modern English translations read “astrologers” at Matthew 2:1.—AT, NE, NW, Ph.

    How many of these astrologers “from eastern parts” brought “gold and frankincense and myrrh” to the child Jesus is not disclosed; there is no factual basis for the traditional notion that there were three. (Mt 2:1, 11) As astrologers, they were servants of false gods and were, wittingly or unwittingly, led by what appeared to them as a moving “star.” They alerted Herod to the fact that the “king of the Jews” had been born, and Herod, in turn, sought to have Jesus killed. The plot, however, failed. Jehovah intervened and proved superior to the demon gods of the astrologers, so instead of returning to Herod, the astrologers headed home another way after being given “divine warning in a dream.”—Mt 2:2, 12.

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