Sunday, January 06, 2013

One Fine Day I Met Upon My Way .....

... Three Great Kings in their bright array.

This rather fanciful, and busy to the point I couldn't get the camera to focus, scene is an Adoration of the Magi cutout that I bought at the Tirolervolks Museum in Innsbruck.  This little "creche in a perspective box" was the work of the Engelbrecht Brothers some time between 1712-1735 and is very like the tradition of the toy theatre.  Prints could be bought plain to be hand-coloured or already coloured and ready to be cut out and assembled.  I also have the Visit of the Shepherds - which is not quite as busy - shepherds bring with them only sheep not a royal entourage.
I remember this from my choral music class in grade 9 and being told by Mr Livingstone that it was based on music from Bizet. Being the smug little bastard I was I probably told him that it was incidental music for a play and based on an old Provençal carol. How he then resisted the urge to jam his baton down my throat I will never know.

Of course the tune, Marcho dei Rei, is known outside Provençe as a theme that runs through Bizet's music for L'Arlésienne. In its best known appearance Bizet combines it with Danse dei chivau-frus a traditional folk-dance melody that may have roots as far back as Le bon roi René.

Can there be anything as exuberant as this lovely pop-up Presepe by the genius that was Emanuele Luzzati?
His jewel-like colours and the lively faces of his people and animals are filled with the joy of Christmas.
King Balthazar's horse seems as pleased as the Kings themselves to arrive at their destination.
And rather ingeniously they are hidden away in a slot and drop down in time to arrive on  January 6th.
One of my great regrets is being with a few feet of the Museo Luzzati in Genoa and not realizing it
because of the pounding rain.

The Second Suite, arranged four years after Bizet's death by Ernest Guiraud, has been recorded many, many times but my favourite is one of the older recordings made by one of the great conductors of the 20th Century - Sir Thomas Beecham.  Behind his facade of English eccentricity lay the ability to reach into music, particularly French music, and bring out colours that allow you to hear old favourites anew.  He was a true "amateur" - one who loves.

Of course what inspired my listening to this piece is the celebration today in the Western Christian Church of The Feast of the Epiphany. The day when tradition says that the word was revealed to the Gentiles:
    Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
    Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
    When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
    And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
    And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
    And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
    Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
    And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
    When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
    When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
    And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
    And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Gospel of St Matthew 2: 1-12
Matthew is the only Gospel where the visit of the Magi or Kings or simply Wise Men is recounted. But out of it came a mythology rich in tradition and symbolism for the Christian Church.

These three Polish glass ornaments have been on our tree for many years:

It is uncertain when the tradition of Balthasar
coming from Africa began as in earlier mythology
he was said to be an Arabian scholar.
Though first accounts say that Melchior was a Persian
wise man over time he came to represent Europe and tradition
said he was the King who came bearing gold.

Gaspar was said to be an Indian sage and he came bearing
frankincense but again in time his origins changed and his
homeland has various been portrayed as China or Mongolia.

Matthew does not tell us how many wise men there were but he does say that they bore three gifts; as early as 500 AD the writer in a Greek document assumed that three gifts meant three kings.  An 8th Irish manuscript not only gave them names but the countries their journeys began in as well. It was said that Melchior was from Persia, Gaspar was from India and Balthasar started his travels in Arabia.  Though their names remained essentially the same as Christianity spread their countries of origin were adapted to reflect an expanding world.   Balthasar was said to come from Africa (perhaps Ethiopia), Gaspar from Asia (Yemen or possibly China or Mongolia) and Melchior from Europe, his origins being either Celtic or Frankish. 

The figures in our Polish creche have a more serious mien but I find the rather weary looks on the 
three royal travellers faces touching.  Their journey has taken them far and having reached their 
destination they gaze onthe object of their search with obvious adoration.

Unlike their birth places the gifts of the Kings (Wise men, Sages) have never changed: gold and frankincense and myrrh.  It has been thought they have a spiritual meaning of Jesus as King and God and Sacrifice: gold - signifying earthly kingship; frankincense - an offering of sweet smelling incense to a deity; and myrrh - an ancient embalming oil symbolizing death.  But it has also been suggested that the gold could stand for virtue, the frankincense for prayer and myrrh for suffering.   What happened to these gifts is never made clear in the gospel but stories developed around them.  One legend said that the gold was stolen by the two thieves who were crucified with Christ; another says that Mary and Joseph used it when they fled to Egypt; a third has it being entrusted to Judas who used it for his own ends. Another story says that Mary kept the myrrh and used it to anoint his body after his crucifixion. 

06 January - 1907: Maria Montessori opens her first school and daycare centre for working class children in Rome, Italy.

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1 comment:

Debra She Who Seeks said...

"March of the Kings" has always been one of my favourite carols. When we were young, I would play it on my recorder and my sister would sing it with gusto. Good memories.

A blessed Epiphany to you!