"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, January 11, 2013

Faith Filled Friday: Adoration of the Magi

This past Sunday was the Feast of the Epiphany, a celebration of the day the Magi arrived to the Christ child.  This week’s FFF I am going to post discussion of a modern representation on the Adoration of the Magi subject. 

In her fine blog, Simcha Fischer asks whether there are rules for art when engaging a religious subject.  In particular she explores this contemporary painting by an artist named Tai-Shan Schierenberg, strangely titled, “The Adoration of the Magi.”


I agree that the fact that it’s not three exotic men in a barn setting does not disqualify it as religious art.  Contemporary art, as in art from every age, can update the details of the subject to fit it to its time and place.  But then she pushes further:

But what happens when we not only update clothes and hair and remove the easily-recocognizable symbols, but go a little further? This, I argue, is what artist Tai-Shan Schierenberg has done in "The Adoration of the Magi," and I believe that he's made a work of art which is not religious at all, despite its title. It's a good piece, but it's secular. Why? Because of where the focus is.

What is missing clearly is the Christ child.  She continues.

So let's look at this "Adoration of the Magi." Is it a problem that these "Magi" are not kings or wise men, that they're not even all men, that they don't have historically accurate clothes or hair, or that they don't show any signs of bearing gifts or of having traveled afar? Not necessarily. These departures from more traditional art may irritate or perplex you, but they aren't enough, in themselves, to disqualify this painting as religious art.

The reason I call it a secular painting is because it kind of . . . doesn't have God in it. The Magi's faces take up most of the canvas; but that's not what I mean. I mean is that this painting is about the "Magi" themselves, and not about God. A depiction of the Adoration of the Magi might have all sorts of elements in it, but it absolutely must contain at least an indication that what they are adoring is God. This is what is lacking in this picture, and that is what makes it not religious art.

You can tell by the shadows and highlights that the light source is above and to the right, out of the frame. As I've discussed before, what light is doing in a painting is -- well, enlightening.  In a traditional piece of art depicting the Magi, the light would be emanating from below, from the Christ Child, or from above, from the divinely-appointed guiding star. In this painting, there is a significant break: the light -- late morning sunlight, from the looks of it -- is from above, from behind the faces, and to the viewer's right. And it's pretty clearly just the sun. Why this innovation, if not to make a point?

 And her final point is:

But what is the expression on their faces, as they look at him? They are withholding judgment. Their oddly prominent lips are closed and at rest, without anything to say. This is not a meaningless, mute painting, though. It portrays very poignantly the religious experience that so many modern people have: they have come to see what the fuss is about. And there it is. They look at God, and they don't know what to think.

These are modern magi: exceedingly clean, healthy, and decent, confident but courteous. But do they adore? I don't see it. I don't think they see God, at all.

This is how I commented.



I did not read the comments section, so I don’t know if I’m repeating someone else’s thoughts. I’m only addressing your understanding of the painting. You might be right, but there is another way to look at it. It could be that the “Magi” are experiencing a profound religious experience. In the biblical story all the Magi know is that a king will be born in Bethlehem. They do not know that this king will be transcendent and divine. When they get there their experience is profound, penetrating to the soul. The biblical story doesn’t go into detail, only that they “prostrated” themselves before our Lord. The question is what did this profound experience constitute? Did they suddenly realize their whole lives have been working toward the wrong end of holiness? Is their new life, after the epiphany, a burden now after new knowledge?

This is not unprecedented. Read TS Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi.”
There is burden in the journey and there is burden in their new life. It is a realization of a new cross they have to bear. Here’s the last stanza:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Now getting back to the painting. It depends on whether the artist is being cynical in the title with “Adoration” or whether “Adoration” is encompassing a deeper, total Truth that projects toward the crucifixion. The shadows can suggest that and can suggest the burdens of their personal sins and the cross they now will bear.

Anchoress also cited Simcha’s blog, and had her take on it, agreeing with Simcha. 
In my response to Anchoress’s blog, I also said this:

 Let me also add that the Christ child is clearly implied between the painting’s title and the focus of attention. So God is not necessarily absent. He clearly is not, and sometimes things are more powerful if they are offstage. A traditional painting of the Epiphany has the child as the center, and clearly the subject. Here for better or worse the subject is the soul transforming experience of the Magi.

One of the meanings of “epiphany” is this:
a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.
The painting captures the sudden epiphany of the magi.

So it comes down to these questions.(1) Are the facial expressions of the Magi revealing indifference or a soul transforming moment which point to the crucifixion?(2) Is the artist being cynical with the title or do we take him at his word? (3) Is the painting a better painting with or without the Christ child present? (4) How would you assess (poor, mediocre, good, great) the painting? and (5) Is this a religious painting or not?

I don't profess to be an expert here. Simcha's and Anchoress's reading are certainly possible. The facial expressions can point to anything. If you ask me, that is the failing of this painting, the fact that it's so ambigous on the very foundation of its subject. Personally I think this is a mediocre painting at best.

What are your thoughts?




  1. I'm a painter, so I feel I have to offer my answers to your questions. 1)Their facial expression may be revealing of a transforming moment or not at all, I agree with you. 2)I think the artist is being cynical, or he would have been a little more accurate in reference to the subject. 3)I would accept the absence of the Christ child and even find it interesting if the Magi were more recognizable. 4)This is not a religious painting and, I agree with you, is a mediocre painting.

    1. Thank you Antonella. I did not know you were a painter. Let's see. We agree on 1, 3 (sort of), and 5. We disagree on 2 and 4.

      It's hard to say if he's being cynical. If he is, then obviously I would have to agree with you on (4) that it's not a religious painting. If he is being cynical then why are they "Magi"? Technically they would be indifferent, and if they are then why paint it? I have to take the artist at his word.

      My real hunch is that the artist did not think it through, which makes it less than mediocre.

  2. Since I am not an artist, nor have I ever played one on TV, all I can offer is an esthetic viewpoint. That being...

    I like it.

    Whatever the trio are gazing at, they are not indifferent. Their gaze is quite direct. Who knows why the painter titled the work as he did? Since artwork is highly personal, I think maybe we do artists a disservice by trying to critique a work simply because of the title.

    1. I agree with you, they are not indifferent. However the title really transforms the work. If it weren't for the title then they are just three people looking at something below them. It might actually be a better painting then--I think you're right there.

  3. Izy, a blogger who is an artist herself and I've recently been enjoying her blog gives her comments here:

    Make you sure you read her response in her comments section.