Monthly Archives: December 2017

The Unexpected Adoration of the Magi

In Kevin T. Bauder’s essay “The Completeness of the Incarnation“, he echoes and explains a series of insightful observations made by Leo Steinberg, writing for Harper’s Magazine in March of
1984. In explaining Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Magi, Steinberg explains how artists depicted a fundamental truth of Christianity, adored and celebrated at Christmas. The way they did so takes us aback at first, until we understand.

Domenico Ghirlandaio

Consider Ghirlandaio’s work. The scene is recognisable. Mary holds Jesus, as the Magi examine Him. What we do not notice at first, until closer scrutiny reveals it, is what exactly the Magi are gazing at. They are looking on, in astonished wonder, at the Child’s genitals.

Sandro Botticelli

One can see the very same posture and gaze in Botticelli’s version of The Adoration, and in many others, particularly Ricci and Veronese.

Note, this is not the profane treatment of sexuality so common in modern media, where prurient curiosity is satisfied with shameful exposure, and where the objectification of the sex act is foisted on us in the name of “gritty reality”. Nothing here is coarse or debased, but has instead the same tasteful veiling that is found in Song of Songs. It may be hard for those in a pornographied culture to imagine such a depiction of nudity as anything except a stimulant for immorality, but realising that these portraits were for religious edification should give us pause before assuming so.

But it is nevertheless an odd phenomenon, upon first encounter. Why would so many artists depict the Wise Men showing fascination with reproductive organs?

Filippino Lippi

The point is a theological one. As the Magi have come to worship the King, they are staggered to find out that He is human, in every respect. His humanity is not a mere appearance, a facade hiding His true Deity. His humanity is not a super-human, supra-human, or sub-human one. He is human in every respect, including that aspect most despised by Gnostics and celebrated by Epicureans: sexuality.

The Gnostics particularly despised sexuality. Certain strands of Gnosticism saw the body as evil, and either veered into asceticism or unbridled sensuality (since the body was not significant for higher, spiritual matters). But Christianity taught that God the Son added to himself a true human nature, including a rational soul and mind, so that His humanity was like ours in every respect, yet without sin. John responded to early Gnosticism with these words: “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.” (1 Jn. 4:2-3)

Paolo Veronese

Paolo Veronese

“Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 5:5)

For Christ to be human in every respect, it includes our sexuality. He did not bypass or omit this aspect of our humanness, because of its abuse or proneness to be used sinfully. Indeed, since man’s sexuality was part of God’s original creation, blessed and pronounced good by God Himself, the Second Adam was like the first in every respect.

Pieter Aertsen


Further, the Incarnation was a means to an end. For there to be a mediation between God and man, the mediator must have equal sympathies with both parties. For there to be union between God and man, there must exist between them a God-Man. In other words, the Incarnation took place so that the Cross could take place. On the Cross, Jesus redeemed only that which He participated in. If He participated in only 80% of our humanity, we could be only 80% redeemed, which is to say, not at all.

If the Enlightenment attacks on the Bible led some to diminish and dilute the Deity of Christ, perhaps the over-correction in our era has been to underemphasise His humanity. But a superhuman Saviour is not Good News, for He could only be a substitute for superhumans. A subhuman Saviour is not goodwill to all men, but goodwill to subhumans.

Sebastion Ricci

The Good News is Hebrew 2:14-18: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.” (Heb. 2:14-18)

So it turns out that these paintings of the Magi were not really about the Magi at all. They were beautiful, discreet, and evocative ways of celebrating the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: “truly God and truly Man;…acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb. Come, let us adore Him.