Monday, 28 December 2009

Magi! Magi! Magi! Out! Out! Out!



If the tradition of present giving at Christmas originates in the visit of the three kings, or magi, to the infant Jesus, then Pieter Brueghel, the great unmasker of vanities, has some pretty sharp things to say about it in his Adoration of the Magi, above*.

On the French news this morning, the second item - the first was about airport security - reported the roaring trade on e-bay in unwanted Christmas presents. This seemed to me to be so sad, a terrible indictment of overblown giving and receiving. It occurred to me at that moment that the very same thing was happening in Brueghel's Adoration of the Magi: the man standing to the right of Joseph in Brueghel's painting was whispering to him that the proffered gold/incense/myrrh might fetch a tidy sum, and in fact he's brought his friend (extreme right, with glasses) along, whose racial origins would have been clear to Brueghel's public, if Joseph was interested in doing a little business. Nor does Joseph object...

I had to look through what seemed like hundreds of much more conventional Adorations of the Magi on Google before I found what I was looking for. I wondered why it was hidden so deeply. Maybe because the truths in it have such sharp edges? Wherever you look there is greed, envy, avarice, vanity, stupidity, underlined by suggestions of violence and death. Mary holds a hand up in an expression of weary resignation, maybe thinking to herself Oh, why couldn't they have brought nappies or baby wipes? (Is this terribly irreverent? It's not meant to be.) The baby Jesus shrinks away, as far as he can, and who can blame him? The 'gift' being offered is myrrh, of which the nearest present-day equivalent is embalming fluid.

Oh dear. And yet I love presents, as long as they're unconditional.

*Title inspired by Rog. Thanks.

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