Sunday, January 4, 2009


A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices ringing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

No, that is not by Goethe, though he did write a poem, not his most inspired, on the subject of the Epiphany, today's feast in the Western and Eastern Catholic churches. For those who are interested, Goethe's poem is called "Epiphanias" and can be found here. Goethe did write about the three kings, "Die heiligen drei Könige," in another context, and on the occasion of today's feast I have looked into the background of that seemingly strange text, which appeared in Kunst und Alterthum in 1820 (see WA I, 41.1, 168-82 and 194). Goethe describes there in great detail a Latin  manuscript, dedicated to a bishop, "probably in Cologne." Goethe estimated that the manuscript was from the 15th century, but later discovered that it was by Johannes von Hildesheim, a Carmelite monk who died in 1372. John wrote on philosophical, theological, and literary subjects, but his 1364 Historia trium regum represented in the Middle Ages one of the major strands of the magi legend.  Goethe also later discovered that the Historia was executed at the behest of Domherr Florentius von Wevelinghoven on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the transposition of the relics of the three kings to Cologne from Milan in 1164.

Goethe obviously read the text very carefully, for in Kunst und Alterthum he describes the narrative in great detail. We get an indication of his interest in a letter to Sulpiz Boisserée on October 22, 1819:

Ich erwerbe zufällig ein altes Manuscript, klein Quart, 84 Blätter, mit Abbreviaturen, consequent und also leserlich geschrieben, wenn es mir glecih stellenweise noch Mühe macht. Es enthält die Legende der heiligen drey Könige und ihres Sternes, vom Ausgang der Kinder Israel aus Aegypten an bis zur fortwährenden Verehrung ihrer Reste in Cöln.

He goes on to describe his fascination with the contents of the manuscript:

Geschichte, Überlieferung, Mögliches, Unwahrscheinliches, Fabelhaftes mit Natürlichem, Wahrscheinlichem, Wirklichem bis zur letzten und individuellsten Schilderung zusammen geschmolzen, entwaffnet wie ein Mährchen alle Kritik. ... Weder Pfaffthum noch Philisterey noch Beschränktheit [important categories for Goethe!] ist zu spüren, die Art, wie der Verfasser sich Glauben zu verschaffen sucht und dann doch auf eine mässige Weise das Zutrauen seiner Hörer [!] missbraucht, ohne dass man ihn geradezu für einen Schelm halten kann, ist allerliebst; genug ich wüßte kein Volksbuch neben dem dieses Büchlein nicht stehen könnte.

Goethe's enthusiasm was merited, for it turns out that the Historia trium regum, with its fantastic, detailed, and expansive narrative was indeed one of the most widespread legends of the Middle Ages, becoming the model for the Legenda aurea. According to John of Hildesheim's account, the star of Bethlehem was first sighted in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus from "Mount Vaus." An observatory had been built there by heathen astrologers, because of the Old Testament prophecy of Balaam, and for generations they had watched for a sign of the Messiah.

Unlike in accounts familiar to me, after reports of the star the three magi departed from different lands to follow it. Caspar, for instance, was the king of Tarsis; Balthasar was king of "Godolia and Saba"; while Melchior was king of Nubia and Arabia. (Is this why Melchior was frequently portrayed as black in medieval and Renaissance art, as in this painting by Jan Gossaert in the National Gallery in London? Certainly art historical research has revealed this already.) Each following his own path, they arrived at the outskirts of Bethlehem in thirteen days and were able to understand each other's language (a foreshadowing of Pentecost?). All this and more can be found in Goethe's summary of the manuscript. He also speculates that Mount Vaus should be Mount Kaus, perhaps referring to the Caucasus.

Despite the fame of the manuscript, it had been forgotten by the time Goethe came across it. He was responsible for the publication by Cotta in 1822 of an edition of with a translation by Gustav Schwab. This University of Cologne site details its transmission and publication history. Also of interest is the material provided by the Dutch Institute for "Natuur- en Sterrenkunde" (from which comes the image -- click to enlarge -- at the head of this post).

Let me allow T.S. Eliot to have the final word on the journey of the magi:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.

No comments: