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    Which Came First: Paintings of the Nativity or of the Magi?

    There are a couple Rembrandt paintings that made news in 2021.

     

    One may be an unknown Rembrandt recovered in 2019 after being stolen from the Friedenstein Castle forty years ago. It was Germany's biggest art heist, and the thief (or thieves) has never been charged. One of the stolen paintings, the Bearded Old Man, is a portrait thought to be done by one of Rembrandt's students. But after recent careful study, it was announced in November some believe it may have been painted by Rembrandt.

     

    This painting joins another thought to be the original of the Bearded Old Man hanging in the Harvard Art Museums. Art enthusiasts eagerly await which painting will be proven to be the original and which the copy.

     

    The other painting making bigger news is Rembrandt's The Adoration of the Magi. The painting, thought to be a copy, was owned by a Roman family. When the painting fell off their wall in 2016, the family sent it out to be restored. Imagine everyone's surprise when the man restoring the minor damage to the art suspected the painting to be an original.

     

    This past June it was announced by the French Academy of the Villa Medici in Rome that the painting is a Rembrandt original. It is now valued between $83.5 million and $238.5 million. 

     

    Apparently those magi are still in the business of bestowing wealth. Even before paintings and sculptures of the nativity, the magi appeared in art. They appear way before Rembrandt or even DaVinci.

     

    Rembrandt's Adoration of the Magi dates to the 1600s. In 1481 Leonardo Da Vinci was also working on a painting called the Adoration of the Magi. Da Vinci never finished his painting. He portrayed Jesus older than an infant, more compatible perhaps to the biblical account. But in the background he drew the Basilica of Maxentius, a building in Rome that legends says would collapse the night a virgin gave birth.

     

    Unfortunately the building didn't exist in the first century. Construction on it didn't begin until 308 AD. It was finished in 312AD under Emperor Constantine. Many think DaVinci was using the building symbolically to show how Christianity gained the victory over the pagan world at the time.

     

    The real magi came from the east, but scholars are not exactly sure how far east. They have pondered places like China, Persia, Babylon and Nabatea. The magi's intention was to honor a young King. They brought costly gifts for Him. But they also brought danger, something they hadn't considered.

     

    Their story is told in Matthew 2. They stopped in Jerusalem at Herod's palace. Perhaps they didn't know Herod had a violent temperament. They inquired of the baby, and Herod had to call the chief priests in to explain what the magi had been talking about.

     

    After their visit with Jesus, the magi never returned to Herod as he had instructed them. God warned them in a dream not to meet Herod again. They left for the east by some way that avoided Jerusalem.

     

    But the danger wasn't over. Herod had a fit. He ordered the death of every boy in Bethlehem and the surrounding districts who was two years old and under. Thankfully, Joseph and Mary were already gone. They had left soon after the magi visited because God told Joseph in a dream Herod wanted to kill Jesus.

     

    Herod's order was carried out. We do not know how many innocent boy babies were slaughtered. Educated guesses are less than a hundred. Still, how many mothers clung to their sons only to have them ripped from their arms? Too many. The grief must have been horrendous.

     

    We don't know if the magi heard the news of what their visit had brought on the people of Bethlehem. But the tragedy was remembered. Perhaps this is why they were the first to be portrayed. We see the magi's visit as wondrous and miraculous because it was. But there are those who like Herod look at the miraculous and despise it.

     

    It will never change. And, Jesus is not a baby anymore. As the time draws ever closer for our Savior's return, there are those who will see Him on His throne and wish for death. They will be the ones who never chose Him even though He died for them.

     

    This season let's not be angry with those who spurn our cheerful "Merry Christmas!" Let's not belittle in our minds those who mock us and our relationship with Jesus. With sober mercy and love let us increase our prayers for those whom the god of this world has blinded their minds. Because, we were like them once.

     

    May God's peace fill your hearts this Christmas.

    Image by  Robert Thiemann courtesy of Unsplash

     

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