Accompanying the Magi : closeness and distance in late medieval “adorations of the Magi” in Central Europe

By Melis Taner

Master’s Thesis, Central European University, 2007

Abstract: From farting peasants to attendants in extravagant turbans, the Magi story includes different elements and figures within its depictions in late medieval Central Europe. The basis of the legend, which is the gospel account of Matthew, 2:1-12, remains reticent as to the details of the Magi, their ages, their names, appearances, or in fact how many they were. It is perhaps this reticence of the story that has led to different interpretations. Fifteenth-century Central Europe, in particular, with a plurality of influences from the Ottoman Empire, Germany and Italy, presents a fascinating source basis for the different meanings that can be loaded to the Magi story. A discourse of distance and proximity is at the core of this story that has the Magi originate from distant lands to recognize and worship the King of the Jews. The Magi are also recognizable as Kings, albeit, increasingly in the fifteenth century, as oriental Kings. To the religious context and message of the legend, a political one is added where “real” Kings are portrayed as Magi. A further didactic message can be found in depictions of peasants, hunters, wild men who join in the procession of the Magi. The malleability of the legend thus manifests itself in different levels to the story with regards to function and perception, seen in a discourse of distance and proximity.