Friday, 9 January 2009

The Dream of the Magi

Despite having passed the 6th of January, traditionally recognised as the Feast of the Epiphany, the saga of the Wise Men continues to fascinate me. This astonishing image of the Magi being visited by an angel is to be found on a column at Autun Cathedral in Burgundy. It is perhaps one of the most unique and pervasive interpretations of their story, showing as it does, the recumbent forms of the Magi in their collective bed, an annunciating angel raising a finger to the star that hovers above them. Whilst one is awakened by the sight, the other two slumber on, the bed linen that covers them so finely-wrought from the cold stone that it almost appears soft and warm. One of four major capitals at Autun cathedral, the image of the sleeping Magi was carved by Gislebertus, and as merely one among hundreds of scenes from of the life of Christ, the carvings represent the sculptor's life's work. Emerging from centuries of neglect, a brilliant piece of combined Anglo-French research rescued Gislebertus from historical obscurity and re-instated him as one of the greatest artists of the mediaeval period in Europe. The four primary capitals which Gislebertus carved at Autun relate to scenes from the infancy of Christ-chiefly the arrival of the Magi from the East, their adoration, and the subsequent dream in which they were warned to go home by another route. It is the dream of the Magi that this haunting image represents, and it captivates me greatly. There is also a depiction of the Flight into Egypt, the sequel in stone to the carving of the Magi's visitation and their resulting dream. Gislebertus of Autun lived and worked in an age of faith; no artist has equalled the sense of wonder with which these images of the Holy Family and their mysterious visitors from the east were invested. It is believed that the remains of the Magi are preserved in an elaborate catafalque in Cologne cathedral, thus making the city the primary focus of Epiphany celebrations, and drawing pilgrims from the world over to their shrine. The Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) gave his unique and contemporary slant to the story of the Magi;

'They endured a season
of ice and winter swans.
Delicately the horses
Grazed among the snowdrops
they traded for fish, wind
fell upon crested waters.
Along their track
daffodils lit a thousand tapers.
They slept among dews.
A dawn lark broke their dream.
For them, at solstice
The chalice of the sun spilled over.
The star was lost.
They rode between burnished hills.
A fiddle at a fair
Compelled the feet of harvesters.
A glim on their darkling road.
The star!
It was their star.
In a sea village
Children brought apples to the horses
They lit fires
By the carved stones of the dead,
A midwinter inn.

Here they unloaded their treasures.


  1. Dear Graham,

    Searching for a picture of Autun on the web this morning, I found your blog post, and wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading your description of the Magi capital. I've been working for several years on a poem about it, which I've pasted below. Beverley Brahic


    They stopped in Autun Cathedral.
    The sculptor helped them
    off with their robes and drew a sheet

    around them, as wrinkled as a pond
    when you skip a pebble
    and shock rings expand,

    fray a little, like a bedtime story.
    Three kings, one pillow
    as crusty as a loaf of wine country bread—

    they’ve kept their crowns.
    How would we know them
    without their crowns?

    . . .

    One stares into the dark
    with pupil-less eyes; it’s how we look when we wake
    in a strange place and try
    to remember how we got there.

    He doesn’t see the angel
    whose hand touches his, whose other hand
    gestures at the star carved
    in the sky, more like a daisy

    flowering in a stubble field.
    It must have gone behind a cloud,
    so they lay down to wait
    for it to clear up, so tired

    from all their journeying that the angel,
    whose wings are like the fish-scale tiles
    of a Burgundy mansion,
    has come to wake them.