Friday, December 25, 2015

“Ein Held solle geboren werden”

 Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, ca. 565

It’s hard to write about Goethe and Christmas. One has the feeling that he seldom celebrated it, certainly not as a religious feast. But there is one lovely discussion (in Kunst und Altherum) of the origins of the story of the Three Wise Men (WA 41,1). It is from that piece that the above post title comes. The essay describes a Latin ms. from the 15th century of Historia trium regum, ca. 1390, by Johannes von Hildesheim.

 Goethe seems fascinated with the long-standing astronomical prophecies in the East concerning the hero to be born and the star that will appear. He writes factually, as if summarizing a historical account. The world awaits the birth of the "hero." Finally the time arrives. God has mercy on the sinful world. “Die Fülle der Zeit erscheint; ein Gebot des römischen Kaisers geht aus; Joseph und Maria kommen in Bethlehem an; eine zur Stallung benutzte Höhle nimmt sie kümmerlich auf … Christus wird geboren und den Hirten verkündigt.”

The star has also appeared in the East, competing in splendor during the day with the sun. It is accompanied by other strange phenomena. Without knowledge of one another, three kings make plans for departure. One, Kaspar, is even English. A path is cleared for them: “Berg und Thal, Sumpf und Wüste gleichen sich vor ihen aus; ohne Speis’ und Trank kommen sie und die Ihrigen in dreizehn Tagen nach Judäa.” The star leads them through Bethelehem, “eine lange bazarähnliche Straße hin,” and comes to rest over the inn. The splendor of the star increases, permeates the darkness with glorious phophoresence. “Die Höhle gleicht einem glühenden Ofen.”

They present their fabulous gifts. They are, after all, carrying nothing less than Alexander’s entire treasure. Warned in a dream to avoid Herod, they depart for their own countries by a different route. The return journey takes two years, during which time the great wonder that they had seen is announced to the entire world.

It is a lovely story, and one understands Goethe’s fascination with it.

The pictures with the lovely star-like ornaments were sent to me by friends this Christmas.

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