Three Parthian kings – and a Queen

The current SOAS exhibition on Zoroastrianism has lots of great things – the video of the Yasna ceremony is especially interesting. But this week I want to pick out a very small reproduction of a very large mosaic: of three Parthian “wise men” or Magi.

The Parthian wise men – in Ravenna mosaics. Panoramio image by John Goodall

Here’s an image of the whole thing, in Ravenna – doesn’t it look different (and even more impressive) in situ!

The men are dressed in what the exhibition describes as “Parthian attire”: with leopard print leggings, Phrygian caps, fluttering cloaks, and upturned-toe shoes. I think they look gorgeous – even if I still haven’t understood why they are dressed in specifically Parthian fashion. While I was trying to find out (ideas welcome); I did work out why the mosaics are in Ravenna.

The story starts in the gospel of Matthew – he just gives a few lines: with the three travellers eastern “magi” (not kings), following a star and presenting their gifts. Beyond that, there is nothing. Matthew doesn’t give names, or numbers, or even genders.

The more elaborate modern story (and click here for a very modern view) comes from the History of the Three Kings, as attributed to the fourteenth-century cleric John of Hildesheim. As well as giving lots more information about the star, this says that the three wise men were named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, and were the kings of “Ind, Chaldea, and Persia”. Many years after they all returned home, another Star appeared, indicating that the Kings’ lives were nearing an end. They built a joint tomb at the Hill of Vaws, where Jesus’ Star was first sighted.

About 330, after Constantine rebuilt the city of Byzantium, and rededicated it as Constantinople, his mother Helena went to the Holy Land. There, she collected various relics, including the true cross. She put the relics of the wise men “into one chest and ornamented it with great riches, and she brought them into Constantinople…and laid them in a church that is called Saint Sophia”. The travelling Kings kept on journeying, first to Milan and then to Cologne – where they still supposedly are.

Epiphany offerings at the Royal Chapel, St James. Image: cultureconcept

The mosaics are in Ravenna because the northern Italian City was chosen in the year 404 as the Imperial residence of Byzantine Emperor Honorius (395-423). Ravenna conserves the most intact set of Roman mosaic images from the days of the Roman Byzantine Empire.

So that’s the mosaic, but (despite not being a royalist at all) I’d also like to point out that there is an earthly monarch who has continued the tradition of an annual offering of gold, frankincense and myrrh since the Norman Conquest. Every year, the English Queen offers the same gifts in the Chapel Royal at St James.

2 thoughts on “Three Parthian kings – and a Queen

  1. Three Kings and a Queen – plus some pomegranates

    This week, I’ve been visiting the Zoroastrian exhibitions at SOAS and the British Museum. Go see them, if you can!
    A tiny image of Parthian magi – the “We Three Kings of Orient are” of British Christmas-time – caught my attention. So I did a bit of finding out. It turns out that the real image isn’t tiny at all – it’s a huge and very lovely Byzantine mosaic mural.
    And the Queen? Well, I didn’t know that the Queen of England replicates the offerings of the three legendary Kings – an earthly monarch following in the footsteps of a fourteenth century spun-version of the Bible tale.
    Lastly, just in case you aren’t followers of the great My Persian Kitchen website (and surely you are!), it’s their Pomegranate Week 2013 – with a great recipe for lavashak anar (fruit leather), and a scrumptious sounding butternut squash and pomegranate salad. Do tell how your cooking goes!

  2. IF emailed me to say:
    I much enjoyed your “little gem” about the magi, and I spent quite some time following up all the links.
    Interestingly, John of Hildesheim states that the kings brought gifts from their own lands, but both frankincense and myrrh are endemic to the South Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa where none of the three come from.

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