Back to News Index

we kindly receive articles and artworks which have concern about Christian Art in Asia, to be published in this site.

Please contact us.

we published IMAGE, the Asian Christian Art magazine. Please check information about subscribtion.
by Jyoti Sahi
Art Ashram India, December 2001.

Three persons who came to greet the child JesusIntroduction to the Theme:
I have been thinking about the theme of the three wise persons who witness to the Incarnation, from an Indian perspective. Already I have been painting this subject representing the Wise Persons (Magi) as Indian sages who are concerned with the interpretation of signs to be found in nature, such as stars and their configuration, or other indications from nature of an Epiphany. I prepared for the Indian catechism a "mystery play" in which the three wise persons came from the Indian Primal traditions of Folk and Tribal cultures. Over the last fifteen years working at the National Biblical, Liturgical and Catechetical Centre I have been focusing mainly on these primal traditions, as most of Indian Christians do not come from the background of a Classical High Caste tradition, but rather from the oppressed and marginalized peasant or tribal communities. From such a perspective it makes no sense of course to stress on "Three Kings" who have no relevance for such peoples. Anyway, the Biblical account does not speak of Kings, but rather of wise persons.

It has been generally assumed that these wise persons are all men. This is from the perspective of a male-dominated society. But, already in the middle ages, we can observe out that one of the wise persons is often given a decidedly feminine appearance. This feminine figure reminds us that one of the texts which is used concerning those wise persons who came from afar to bear witness to Christ, is described as none other than the Queen of Sheba. This Queen is supposed to have come from the East to see the Wisdom of Solomon. Now, in the coming of Christ there is One who is even greater than Solomon.
Also from very early times, it was a convention to represent the three wise persons as belonging to three major periods of a human being's life cycle. Thus, a wise person may be either a youth, or someone in their middle age, or again a very old person.
Lastly, because the underlying purpose of the Epiphany theme is to indicate the presence of wise worshippers coming from other cultural traditions, it is important to note that this wisdom tradition to be found in the cultures of the East has nothing to do with wealth or influence, but is often characterized by the insights of those who are poor and marginalized. This of course is already manifested by the presence at the Crib of the Shepherds, who were poor people to whom the Good News is primarily addressed. I have tried in my sketches to bring out the essential connection between the two infancy narratives (as found in the Gospel of Luke, and the Gospel of Mathew) to show that the witness of the Poor (Anawim) and the witness of the Wise Persons is essentially not different. This can be understood because the Wise are also often poor and marginalized. So, in the Indian context, wise persons can be represented as the Dalits (peasant downtrodden peoples) the Tribals (Adivasi people, who are aboriginal) and the Women who also represent a profound wisdom tradition, which is different and distinct from the kind of wisdom which is to be found in men.
Finally, we come to the gifts which they bring. These gifts are themselves symbolic, and have their foundation in liturgical signs. In fact the whole theme of the wise persons who come to offer gifts, probably emerges from a very ancient devotional practice of offering special gifts as a liturgical sign associated with the whole understanding of Revelation or Epiphany. We know that these gifts are supposed to represent three precious items, namely Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Each of these items has been invested with profound symbolic meanings.

In the Eastern Liturgical traditions related to offering, as in the Indian concept of "Arathi" we have the importance given to the different elements. Thus Earth, Water, and Fire play a very important part in the configuration of Eastern ritual signs. These elements I feel are not unrelated to the gifts which traditionally the Magi are supposed to have brought to the infant Jesus.

The figure of a Magi with Frankincense on his handsFrankincense is associated with the earth in so far as it is derived from herbs, and is fragrant like the earth. We have taken the symbol of the pomegranate, which is very much used in Indian medicine, but is also a fruit mentioned in the Bible as representing life. In Christian symbolism the pomegranate has been associated with the Church, in that its many seeds are like the many members of the living community. Also the flower of the pomegranate fruit is like a crown. Here the figure of the strong peasant from Gujarat reminds us of the fact that much of India remains a rural economy.

The figure of a Magi with Gold on his handsGold has been, from ancient times, associated with the element of fire, in that fire purifies gold, and also gold has a shining warm colour which is associated with that of flames.

The figure of a Magi with Myrrh on her hands
Myrrh as a symbol of death could be linked particularly with the sacramental meaning of water, which is generally very important as a symbol of Epiphany. It will of course be remembered that the other main image of Epiphany is the Baptism of Our Lord. In this connection water is often included in Icons of the nativity, where the midwife is shown bathing the infant Jesus.


© ACAA - Asian Christian Art Association