The mystery of the Epiphany

Blasco de Grañén, a Spanish artist from Zaragoza in the kingdom of Aragon, painted Nativity in the 15th century to depict the Magi adoring the Christ Child. Presumably it was created as one panel in a much larger retablo, an elaborate assembly of images that filled the wall behind an altar of sacrifice.

Spanish art of this era has a fascinating and peculiar mix of stylistic influences. A school of painters influenced by Italian masters such as Duccio and Simone Martini was established in Catalonia in the 14th century. Still strongly Byzantine in many aspects, its enduring influence can be seen in Grañén’s backgrounds of tooled gold leaf.  

Yet Grañén (circa 1400–1459) also clearly knew the great innovations of his Flemish contemporaries in late Gothic painting. Like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, he worked on wooden panels using oil paints. The newly invented method of applying oil paint in translucent layers allowed artists to depict greater depth, subtlety, and detail than ever before. Grañén’s works are not nearly so elegant as those of the Flemish masters, but they display the same attention to minute detail, even in mundane objects. How charming are the trapdoors in the thatched roofs of the stable, and how lovingly rendered the rustic wattle fence!

The artistic tradition to which these international influences were introduced was itself varied. Spanish expressions of Romanesque, Cistercian, and Gothic art existed alongside the material culture remaining from Moorish rule. Although Zaragoza had been reconquered some three centuries before Grañén’s artistic career, the influence of Islamic art was still seen in the Mudéjar style of architecture used to build many of the finest churches and palaces of Aragon. Grañén worshipped and worked in these, and he undoubtedly learned some of his sense of pattern and color from them.  

How fitting that an artistic style of such international character was used to depict the Adoration of the Magi, an event in which men of different races and ages together offer their treasures to the Christ Child. The mystery here represents the art as well as the art represents the mystery!

One curious detail, characteristic of Spanish art of this era and seldom seen elsewhere, is a halo in the shape of a cusped octagon. It adorns the head of St. Joseph, who stands or sits behind the wattle fence. In other retablos, this kind of halo is seen on Sts. Joachim and Anne, and on Simeon, Adam, Abraham, and Moses. 

“Nativity” by Blasco de Grañén, 15th century. Photo: Public Domain

What is the connection between these persons? All of them were undeniably holy and thus deserve to have a halo indicating their sanctity. Yet all of them died before the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and therefore their souls did not ascend directly to heaven. Instead they descended to the Limbo of the Patriarchs (a medieval term describing the place of the dead, where the righteous awaited the savior), to await the coming of Jesus Christ, who burst the gates of hell and released its captives after his death on the cross; this is the mystery that we profess in the Apostles’ Creed when we say that “he descended into hell.” 

The Golden Legend, a medieval encyclopedia of saints’ lives, remarks:

It is worthy of note that the Eastern Church celebrates the feasts of saints of both the Old and New Testaments. The Western Church, on the other hand, does not celebrate feasts of saints of the Old Testament, on the ground that they descended into hell — exceptions being made for the Holy Innocents, in each of whom Christ was put to death, and for the [seven] Maccabees. … The number seven is the number of universality. In these seven saints are represented all the Old Testament fathers who deserve to be celebrated. 

Another exception, not mentioned because it is so obvious, is John the Baptist. Although he descended into hell, he acted there as a forerunner, announcing the Good News just as he did on earth. The distinction between saints of the Old Testament and saints of the New Testament was carefully maintained in the theologically minded Middle Ages. It explains one aspect of medieval Catholicism that is most surprising to the faithful of the present day: the near absence of specific devotion to St. Joseph before the late 15th century. 

The distinction between saints of the Old Testament and saints of the New Testament was carefully maintained in the theologically minded Middle Ages.

This peculiar kind of halo indicates visually the distinction between the two categories of saints. Why did Spanish artists of the 15th century develop this device when no others did? Perhaps it was because the Catholic faithful at the time included many converts from Judaism. Juan de Levi, a painter who trained Grañén, was one of them. So was Esperandeu de Santa Fe, one of his major patrons. To such men, the salvation of persons such as Abraham, Moses, and Simeon, and the special manner in which it was achieved, was more likely at the forefront of their minds. 

Daniel MitsuiEpiphanyWay of Beauty
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