Where have all the wise men gone… made redundant every one?
Recently the shepherds seem to have upstaged the wise men. Inside St Luke’s in Chelsea where Charles Dickens was married, even a kangaroo, a yellow tortoise and a large dinosaur of the meat-eating kind are doing their best at the crib scene. Perhaps the proximity of the Natural History Museum adds its own dimension.
The story of the Magi is touched on by William Dalrymple in his book In Xanadu when he follows in the footsteps of 17 year old Marco Polo who boarded his father’s galley and sailed from the lagoons of Venice on a journey through Arabia and Persia and on to the court of the Kubla Khan. On his way Polo passed through the ancient town of Saveh, which lies southwest of Teheran, and discovered three mounds said to be the burial places of some ancient astronomers. According to Marco Polo the astronomers led by a star, took gold, frankincense and myrrh to a baby prophet in order to decide who he truly was. Depending on which gift was accepted, he was either an earthly King or a Physician, or in fact God.
William Dalrymple discovered Saveh was the site of one of the most important astronomical observatories in Asia. More telling is that there is no precedent for gold, frankincense and myrrh grouped together in the Old Testament but the three are often recorded together as Persian temple offerings. So it’s possible there's truth in Marco Polo’s account and the Magi were Zoroastrian priests who practiced medicine and astrology in Saveh.
Inspired by this, I wrote a picture book, THE STONE, illustrated by Jude Daly. At the time of it going to print in 1998, I sent a copy to William Dalrymple. He replied with an enthusiastic postcard that showed the Magi in all their Byzantium glory from the Basilica of Sant’Appolonare Nuovo in Ravenna wearing animal print tights, Phrygian caps and ermine cloaks.
Last night on the back of his postcard dated 24th Jan 1998, I discovered something William Dalrymple had written that I'd quite forgotten. He said my story had replaced his daughter’s Jane Ray Christmas Story. In 1998 when I first received the postcard, I'd just arrived in the UK and the idea that Jane might one day illustrate two of my stories was way, way beyond my imagination. I love these sorts of connective threads that bind us.
This year, seventeen years later, I eventually visited the Basilica of Sant’Appolonare Nuovo in Ravenna. My slightly wobbly photographs taken with a long lens from far below are an attempt to capture just a smidgen of the true magnificence of the mosaics of Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar high up in the left hand corner.
So a happy feast of Epiphany to celebrate the three Magi on 6th January and perhaps you'll find a feve in your slice of cake. Originally the trinket in the cake was a real bean, now replaced by a small porcelain charm. I once bought some feves in the market of L’Isle sur la Sorgue in the south of France. Apart from the usual angels, Magi and shepherds, the most unusual of them a girl called Peau d'ane who according to legend wore the skin of a donkey to prevent her widowed father from falling in love with her. When she baked a cake her tiny ring fell into the mix and was found by a prince who vowed to marry the girl it fitted.
Happy Epiphany and a happy Twelfth Night too!