In antiquity, the feast of the Epiphany at once celebrated the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem, as well as at least two other important theophanies in the life of our Lord; namely, the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana, all seen as “epiphanies”.
Today, “the Epiphany” is understood as only the “Visitation of the Magi”. And it can be seen as the first great manifestation of Christ as Savior not only to the Jews, but to men of all nations.
For this reason, we included an artistic depiction of this great mystery on the walls of the abbey church — the art proclaims this truth to our eyes, and invites our heart and mind to a deeper meditation. As you will see, the richness of this chapel underscores the festive spirit of the great feast which the Roman Church celebrates every year on January 6th.
And the message is as resonant as the color is vibrant: in Christ is the salvation of all men!
Proceed with Confidence
The postmodern mind — cultivated in the mephitic ferment of materialism and consumerism — has been trained to writhe and convulse at “historic inaccuracy”.
All the more reason, then, to flex an opposing virtue: we weren’t there to take a picture, we are here to tell a Story.
The exercise of sacred art is not “historicity”, strictly speaking, but “value”. The art asks and answers a different question, for example, “When we encounter nature and the divine, how do we respond to it? How should we respond to it?”
This question is the ‘stuff’ of all great sacred art, and in a wider sense of all the great stories which myths and civilizations have passed down… they speak, first and foremost, of values.
A ‘Guided’ Tour
While the lateral chapels in the abbey Church were designed to be read in a specific manner, they can certainly be appreciated as they are. Since we’re together now, allow me to lead you through a brief “itinerary”.
Looking into the domed area above the altar of each chapel, we are presented with the central Christic mystery proposed for contemplation. In this particular chapel, the Epiphany of the Lord is represented by a prominent star. This star is, of course, none other than the star of Bethlehem.
Reading below the dome, the depictions on the apse flanking the central window, speak to and “lean into” that central Mystery.
Starting from the left, in a scene of great symbolic significance, the Magi are opulently dressed – indeed the richest clothing depicted in the entire Abbey mural cycle. Yet, they humbly lean forward and present their equally rich gifts to the Virgin and Child.
As our attention is led to the right, we encounter the Blessed Virgin framed by an ædicule, evoking a royal baldacchino or throne, with her feet on a footstool, clearly symbolizing the dignity of royalty. We portray her dignity, her predestination, her incomparable privilege as “throne” of Christ’s divinity through her flesh. Seated as Queen Mother, she is, in a sense, the cradle, or “Theotokos” — the keeper or living tabernacle of the Savior.
The layering of symbols as parallels and intersecting concepts, such as these two visions of “throne”, is an important aspect of traditional composition for sacred art — just like it is a fruitful device for story telling.
The gesture of the Child describes both an act of “blessing”, and is a gesture proper to the character who is speaking in the scene — in this case, the Christ Child Himself. But with Jesus as our subject, the gesture also alludes to the spoken word in the scene, as well as the Word (of God), which of course He incarnates.
What a great moment to recite the ‘pétillante’ doctrine of St. John Chrysostom, “For by gold, the power of a king is signified, by frankincense the honor of God, by myrrh the burial of the body – and accordingly they offer Him gold as King, frankincense as God, myrrh as Man.”
Eppur Si Muove
Setting the scene in motion in this manner, we legibly, intentionally, and unequivocally affirm and proclaim Christ as God, implying our joyful submission to all the rights and privileges of His kingship.
While we contemplate the Epiphany’s tones through the dancing hues of this mural, we also peer into the particular triumph of the Catholic church to call all nations – men and women of all ethnicities and cultures through every age – to recognize and pay homage to their savior, our eucharistic Emmanuel.
When a church dons images that point to the divinity of Christ, the glory of His Saints, and our fealty to His holy will, the very walls sermonize Christ’s presence and salvation which continues on, each day, on the altars of that temple.
Through Art, chiefly music, we imitate our Creator and redeem our body through the work of our hands. Brute materials like stone, plaster, and pigments become an amplifier of God’s own designs that resonate through our materiality.
Mr. Selvaggi is Creative Director for Saint Michael’s Abbey and is the designer of the sacred art cycle in the Abbey Church. Mr. Selvaggi’s firm, Heritage Liturgical, was commissioned to design the mosaics, murals, statuary, and organ cases in the Abbey Church, among other furnishings and artwork. He speaks and writes regularly on Sacred Art and traditional architecture.