Saints of the Day – The Three Wise Men

detail of 'Epiphany', by Fernando Gallego, c.1480, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OhioArticle

1st century; feast day formerly January 6. It is related, in Matthew 2:1-2, that wise men came from the East to worship the Infant Jesus. They were queried by Herod as to the child’s whereabouts, found the child, “did him homage,” and “offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

Warned in a dream, they returned to their own country by a different route so that they did not have to report to Herod where Jesus could be found. Ancient tradition calls them “magi” and says there were three of them – probably because of the three gifts – named Balthasar, Caspar (Gaspar), and Melchoir.

The Old Testament foretells that ‘The kings of Tarshish and the islands shall bring tribute, the kings of Arabia and Seba offer gifts. May all the kings bow before him, all nations serve him. For he rescues the poor when they cry out, the oppressed who have no one to help . . . ” (Psalm 72:10-12). By connecting this prophecy with the wisemen, Christians have decided that they must have been kings. Modern scholars, however, believe they were astrologers from Babylonia or Arabia.

These three are the first non-Jews to have worshipped Jesus. Very early in the Christian era they became a favorite subject of Christian art, painted on the walls of a catacomb in the early second century. Early in the next century they were given their names. Artists began to paint one as a young king, another in mid- life, and the third as an old man. Later the artists reasoned that if they came from the east, at least one of them must have been a black man. A magnificent Medieval shrine in Cologne, Germany, contains their reputed bones.

Soon Christians began to speculate on the significance of the three gifts. Gold obviously symbolized Jesus as a king himself. Frankincense for the devotion of the wise men to Jesus. But myrrh was used to embalm bodies: This gift foreshadowed Jesus’s death on the Cross, the means of our salvation (Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 20 July 2020. Web. 18 April 2021. <>