The adoration of the Magi was one of the most popular subjects in 15th-century Florence because of the active membership of the Company of the Magi, a lay confraternity whose responsibilities included planning the Feast of the Magi. The Feast was observed on Epiphany (January 6) and celebrated the story of the arrival of the gentile wise men who traveled to pay homage to the Christ Child (Matt. 2). Sandro Botticelli painted the subject at least seven times. The Medici family were members of the Company and were frequently painted as the three Magi. In this version (c. 1475), Cosimo de’ Medici is the oldest Magus, who kneels before Christ. He is covering the child’s feet with a veil to echo the actions of a priest during the benediction of the sacrament. Cosimo’s sons, Giovanni (d. 1463) and Piero the Gouty (d. 1469), are the other two, and the figure to the far left may be a fourth Medici, Lorenzo il Magnifico. The presence of the Medici in the figures of the Magi contained not only a religious message but also a political one. The Medici saw themselves as benevolent leaders and wanted to ally themselves with Florence and its rituals.
When we think of epiphanies, we tend to idealize the sudden revelation, the moment of knowing that we are heading out on the right path. Do the captured Israelites expect their return home to be such an epiphany?
I must admit at first it threw me, competing with a portent. (What fools would treasure light instead of might?) Such naïveté: Scholars trekking here smitten with a star or some convergence of the cosmos. Yet another fire to put out.
I sent them on their way, their caravan rife with herbs I could have used myself. Camels balking and desert horses restless in the night. Meanwhile that star hummed like a lute, vibrating on a frequency I coveted but couldn’t always hear. I slammed the door, closed the shutters. No way would it make a shadow out of me. My wife said,
“No worries. They’ll be back. Anyway, what child can match your currency, your death squads? The bricks of that new temple? And Rome behind you? Get real.”
I pulled her close, forgetting which wife she was (nine? ten?) and glad to have her. Weeks later, when those wanderers failed to return, I glanced into my looking glass. The eyes staring back at me were nothing but blank gold coins.