I know of a congregation that, for many years, provided a “living nativity pageant” in its community. The church is in the center of town and has an expansive front lawn. On a certain December Sunday afternoon each year, it would fill that lawn with live sheep and goats and donkeys, costumed shepherds and wise men, a gaggle of angels, an innkeeper, a manger, and, of course, the holy family.
It’s an intrinsic part of Matthew’s story of the wise men that even Gentiles come to bow down before the king of the Jews—but these aren’t the sort of next-door Gentiles who came to Judea to help out with the wheat harvest.
The adoration of the Magi was an important subject for Florentines, as many men were part of the civic organization dedicated to the Magi. Palla Strozzi, a powerful banker, commissioned Gentile da Fabriano (1385–1427) to paint this work for his family burial chapel in the sacristy of Santa Trinita in Florence. Da Fabriano’s paintings combine the naturalism of the Early Renaissance with the elegant, refined drapery style and meticulous attention to detail that characterize the International Gothic style. In this composition, the oldest Magus prostrates himself before the Christ child, who affectionately touches his balding head; the second Magus lifts his right hand to remove his crown; the youngest Magus stands waiting his turn. The predella (the horizontal panel beneath the central composition) shows three scenes from the infancy narrative of Christ: Nativity (bottom left) is believed to be the first painted night scene.