From the detached sumptuousness of Fabriano's Magi to the humane, engaged intellectual visages of Brueghel the Elder's Kings, images of the Christian Epiphany always intrigue me.
The Magi always seem to have been a bit of an afterthought here in the UK and I wonder if this is because their festival comes at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, when the Protestant work ethic was already kicking in hard during the last four centuries. And also...what to make of them? Were they actual Kings? I suspect the reality is more that they were more likely (possibly Zoroastrian) 'Wise Men' - astronomers, investigators, explorers, seekers after truth(s), questioners, asking 'who is this?' and 'what does this mean'? - Always a recipe for suspicion and a possible run-in with authority. Though they do certainly look pretty on Christmas cards, these guys have been under suspicion in certain quarters for a very long time.
It seems to me that many of the same questions asked 2000 years ago are asked today - with the same variety of answers, different ones appropriate for different individuals. Perhaps it is the questioning, the hard journey, the uneasy answers that are the important things..prompting us to continually make that journey, think hard, dig deep, not turn away from being confronted with other questions as a result of our own exploring?
T.S.Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi' - (who I envisage more closely resembling those of Breughel than Fabriano) expresses to me quite strikingly this concept of hard journeying and continuing questioning, ...but also the never-ending need that we human beings have to do so - to question and seek for Truths that will shine in the darkness and make sense of the complications of the world for us, while at the same time revealing that some things may never be explained. What thoughts and questions does it bring up for you?
"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
hat this was folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation,
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky.
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all the way for
Birth or Death ? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
You may care to explore this poem more deeply by listening to the episode dedicated to it in the excellent, 30 minute BBC 'Adventures in Poetry'
And since hard journeying and constant questioning is not comfortable, but constantly prompts new questions from any answers we may think we have found, here is an image that certainly jolts me out of my own illusions of prettiness and complacency.
What questions does this modern image leave with you? ( This essay may illuminate your thinking and questioning...) What thoughts, what feelings, what indignations or protests? What truths and actions and further journeying does it present to you?
It seems to me that the journey is never easy...but what makes it worthwhile are the questions - and the continuing desire to seek for answers to some of therm.
May you all experience your own Epiphanies in 2011...and may you be energised by the adventure of your own journeys required to do so.