The Magi in Western Art and Literature: Forms and Meanings


  • Diane Speed


The Magi have held a remarkable fascination for people from early times to the present day. The Biblical account in Matthew 2.1-18 represents the Magi as the unwitting occasion of a shocking massacre of small children, but gives tantalizingly little information about them. They are an indeterminate group of exotic figures, appearing from an unspecified part of 'the East', from the world of 'the Other', then disappearing back into it at the end of the episode, yet they seem for the time being to know more of the mind of God than the chosen race themselves. Even their status as 'magi' approved by God and the narrator is puzzling, since the term is associated with non-Judaeo-Christian religious belief and practice, and other Biblical magi, Simon and Bar-Jesus (Acts 8.9-24 and 13.6-12), are distinctly disapproved. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Biblical narrative has been explicated and interpreted to the point of being effectively reinvented.