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Balthazar’s Gift Is a Sophisticated, Complex Proclamation

January 7, 2021


In this week after the Epiphany, it occurs to me that a depiction of the Adoration of the Kings, done by the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel (Breugel the Elder), deserves further scrutiny, most especially of Balthazar’s complex gift. What are we to make of the green nautilus conch, bearing myrrh and presented within a small barque?

Bruegel was not the only artist to use the nautilus in this way. Maerten de Vos and Johann Sadeler, working at around the same time, also show Balthazar presenting a conch-shell variation to the Christ.

In the sixteenth century, much had been written about its golden-mean geometry and logarithmic mathematics, so the number of artists using nautilus cups for Balthazar’s gift of Myrrh—the embalmer’s spice—is not surprising.

We can see representations of the nautilus in Willem Kalf’s Still Life with Porcelain and a Nautilus Cup and—more relevantly—in his Still Life with Chinese Bowl and Nautilus. In the latter we see a miniscule Jonah (a Christ figure) being spewn from the mouth of the whale, the shell substituting for the body of that ocean-dwelling behemoth.

What we also see is a crystal within its mouth, very much like the crystal atop the galleon in Breugel’s piece. This Old Testament (but scientific) allusion to the Resurrection, along with the awesome profundity of the embalmer’s spice, would only have added to the sophistication of the work.

Indeed, the armillary sphere atop the barque is another indication of the artist’s intention. This astronomical instrument, which was developed over the centuries for navigational purposes, is today considered the first of such complicated mechanical devices. By the sixteenth century, it had become a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. In that case, it may represent the star of the Magi. On its own, the crystal at its center had been used even earlier to represent the aquatic associations with Christ’s baptism and our own—to which Balthazar’s gift is also analogous. Not only the early Church Fathers, but even Pliny before them, considered rock crystal to be solidified water.

It should be pointed out that January 6, the traditional date of the Epiphany (also popularly referred to as the Feast of the Magi or the Feast of the Three Kings), was celebrated in the Egyptian calendar, long before the Christian era, as a water festival.

Tobi 11 (the “first month of growth”) was celebrated when the Nile River was believed to be at its purest. Contemporaries of that period have commented that water drawn from the river on that day remained fresh long after other supplies had gone bad. The water was considered so sacred during this phenomenon that it was shipped by galley to other parts of the world for libations in the temples of Isis. Given the central place of water in the sacrament of Baptism, it is not too difficult to understand why the African fathers would choose this Nile festival for the Feast of the Epiphany or why they would set this day aside for the rites of Baptism. Needless to say, it was from the Nile River that the water for this sacrament was taken. Besides a reference to this, the golden galleon in the palm of Balthazar’s hand is also an allusion to such Old Testament texts as Ezekiel 47:9, “And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes,” and Zechariah 14:8, “On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter.”

As in pre-Christian times, this collected water was stored for years and recommended for its age, just as wine was. Regarded as virtually magical, one common belief was that it did turn to wine. Doesn’t that sound a bit familiar? Indeed, along with the messianic revelation of Christ to the Magi and the world, and again at his baptism in the Jordan, Christ’s miracle at the wedding at Cana has always been an integral part of the Epiphany celebrations.

What this would seem to imply with regards to Balthazar’s gift is that its aquatic significance meant as much to the early Renaissance artists as did the color of his skin. What it also implies is how far into modern times Europe was influenced by this specifically African concept of the Epiphany. In fact, as late as the seventeenth century, in certain regions of the British Isles, the Epiphany was still referred to as the “Feast of the Water Vessel” or the “Feast of the Well of Water.” The water connection is maintained in many Eastern-rite Epiphany celebrations, which still designate this feast day for the sacrament of Baptism, and hold a bone-chilling competition among young men to retrieve a crucifix thrown by a priest into the briny depths. In the West, all this has been mostly forgotten.

In addition, it is only recently that I have come to realize the relationship of crystal to the sun:

Using a crystal to ignite the Paschal fire by concentrating sunlight is implicitly mentioned for the first time by Ennodius of Pavia, a bishop of Italy (+521), who in each of the two Praeconium paschale texts that he composed for the blessing of the Easter candle speaks of the candle’s light as coming from the sky; the use of a crystal or lens to kindle a fire for this purpose is repeatedly mentioned in liturgical books from the late ninth century to the sixteenth century, beginning with the pontifical of northern France formerly known as the Pontifical of Poitiers. John Beleth considers the crystal a symbol of “the most pure and brightest flesh of Christ,” which like the crystal is “without blemish.” Durandus adds that the crystal is juxtaposed between the sun and the receptacle of the new fire in likeness to the role of Christ “as the Mediator between God and our infirmity.” (James Monti, A Sense of the Sacred: Roman Catholic Worship in the Middle Ages)

It would seem, wouldn’t it, that the magisterial weight and profundity of the symbolism with which Balthazar’s gift is imbued is what creates the difference between him and the other two Magi. Not only is his traditional heraldic insignia of the sun infinitely more powerful and impossible to behold with the naked eye than those of stars for Melchior or a quarter moon for Gaspar, but just as awful is the myrrh he bears: the symbol of death in all its horror—but the promise, as well, of the incomprehensible glory of the Resurrection.

Melchior’s gift of gold is a tribute to a king; Gaspar’s frankincense is the offering of priest. It is Balthazar’s gift of myrrh that proclaims the core tenet of Christianity: the mystery of Jesus’ death and Resurrection.