- Before the parade on Constitution, the concert on the Mall, or anytime before the July Fourth holiday weekend comes to a close, residents and visitors will want to visit the cool confines of the National Gallery of Art with its comforting temperature, pleasures and stimulation offered by a few thousand pieces of art (including the newly opened Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye and Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael) and say adieu to Peter Paul Rubens: The Three Magi Reunited.
For the first time in 130 years, the faces of the Three Magi as portrayed by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) have been reunited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Because possibly Melchior (far right, above, in red) is part of the National Gallery's Chester Dale bequest which prohibits travel or loans to other institutions, this grouping of three will likely be the only time they will be seen together for, perhaps, another 100 years.
(Balthasar (far left, above) is on loan from the
No one knows, of course, what the three kings looked like. The only Biblical reference to them is found in the Gospel of Matthew which pays the Magi scant attention. Nor is it firm that there were three Magi, but three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) are mentioned in the Bible which match the three ages of life (youth, middle, and old age) which have led scholars to settle on three.
Their origins may have been Europe, Asia, and Africa, or just Asia.
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star
At their opening in March, the National Gallery's Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., said "they all are real people in some way or another. They are real figures" and how Sir Rubens brought them to life is "fascinating." Their names, Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, have evolved over time.
Wikipedia quotes Encyclopædia Britannica: "According to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India." (Myrrh, brought by Balthasar, is found in the Horn of Africa, close to Arabia.)
Rubens painted them probably in 1618, upon commission from his good friend, Balthasar Moretus, whose parents named him and his brothers after the kings, a common practice then.
Balthasar, the king from Africa, brought the baby Jesus the gift of myrrh, a resin used in embalming. In the portrait Rubens placed it in a small chest similar to a sarcophagus, symbolizing the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
It is probably Melchior, the middle-aged king, who carries frankincense which scholars say represented sacrifice, prayer, and the Christ Child's divinity.
Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high
The old man with the long, white beard, possibly Gaspar, wears a gold brocade mantle and has a dish filled with coins. In many Adoration of the Magi renderings (the National Gallery has 60 in its collection; not all on view), Gaspar is the Wise Man who kneels closest to the Baby Jesus.
Born a King on Bethlehem's plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign
O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light
Where: Main Floor, West Building, National Gallery of Art, between Third and Seventh streets at Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. On the Mall.
Admission: No charge
Metro stations: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, or L'Enfant Plaza
For more information: 202-737-4215