Here we see Peter Koenig’s evocative depiction of The Magi offering gifts to the holy child. The artist is a contemporary Roman Catholic painter, many of whose religious paintings are displayed within a church located in Northamptonshire, England. It’s not far from the parish where Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child is situated, the sculpture we viewed in the prior post. Though Koenig often depicts biblical figures in contemporary settings, this painting of the Magi worshipping the Christ Child is both traditional and also Byzantine in style. As in much of his work, recognizable elements of the Gospel story are intertwined with highly symbolic biblical imagery. By ‘reading’ some of the imagery Peter Koenig shares with us, his painting enriches our celebration of the Epiphany, and our appreciation for its greater meaning in our lives.
Along with obvious features in the Gospel narratives, Peter Koenig’s painting employs other biblical imagery symbolizing the broader significance of the event that is portrayed. Right away we notice the large and rough wooden cross, draped with an abundantly grape-bearing vine. The cross as an instrument of death became the fruitful tree of life, and a source of what we receive in the cup of the New Covenant. As a result, the Holy One who is worshipped is the Vine, to whom we become connected as branches.
Employing this kind of symbolism, Nativity scenes often include passion flowers and lilies, associated with our Lord’s death and resurrection. Peter Koenig’s painting has other evident suggestions of Jesus’ destined saving work. The large and open stone square represents the door of our Lord’s tomb, along with its round stone cover, rolled aside by his resurrection. In fulfillment of the Genesis promise to Eve, her counterpoint, Mary, is shown treading upon the serpent whom we associate with the cause of our suffering and death. Mary’s tunic is turquoise, that lovely mix of blue and green. Here in the clothing of the mother of new life, ‘Marian blue’ is blended with the color we associate with life in the natural world, the greenery of trees and shrubs.
Another symbol regarding the vocation of the holy child is the way in which he is clothed. Notice that he is covered by strips of cloth, wrapped around his body, just as his body is later prepared for burial. And in each of his hands, we see him grasp a nail spike. The band of cloth wrapped around his shoulders suggests the mantle or yoke of which he later speaks, and which we find represented in the stoles that deacons and priests wear in the liturgy.
The three differing cupolas of the very Russian-looking church surely represent the Trinitarian being of God, and its significance for our redemption. Another recognizable image, the wine jar in the lower right corner, stems from how this picture is part of a much larger triptych. The complete work depicts several Christmas and Epiphany themes ~ not only the Magi’s visit, but also the wedding at Cana and the Baptism of Jesus, along with the martyrdom of St. Stephen.
In addition, the shells on the foreground suggest the seaside, and may symbolize the liminal shoreline between this realm and the greater life beyond. The scallop shell is associated with St. James, who along with his fisherman brother, John, was one of our Lord’s first disciples. The shell has an ancient pre-Christian association with death and rebirth, as well as our journey into the next life for which we hope. We often use a scallop shell to scoop the water at Baptism. And in the background of this painting, we find suggestions of the harsh and inhospitable aspects of the fallen world, represented both by inanimate stone as well as glacial mountains of ice and snow. The tree of life stands out all the more against this backdrop.
Peter Koenig’s painting is reproduced here with the artist’s kind permission. This and other examples of his religious artwork can be seen by visiting the website of his parish church, where much of it is displayed (click here). This post is based on my homily for The Epiphany, January 6, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.