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The Magi had Arrived. New exhibition project by Efim Rezvan in the State Museum of Religion History (Saint-Petersburg)

«Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?  < > and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.»

St. Mathew, 2: 1–12

 [Isa /Jesus] said, “Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. < > And peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I will die, and the day I am raised alive.”

Qur’an, 19: 16–34

 The literature of the antiquity long held the conviction that the wise men from the east were Persians. That being said, the testimony of the gospels that the Magi hailed from the east does not necessarily denote that east as geographically opposed to the west in contemporary understanding. The matter is that the Greek text of Mathew's Gospel written in the Hebrew milieu is in fact a translation from Old Hebrew, and the geographic orientations in Semitic and Greek traditions are not the same, as the cardinal directions of the Semitic peoples were oriented towards the east. The material testimony thereto is the enormous floor mosaic map created in 560 AD, of which some significant fragments today can be seen in the Church of St. George in Madaba (Jordan). The map is oriented towards the east and, in order to see the world as we know it, you need to look from its left flank. The original Old Hebrew version of Mathew's Gospel tells us that they had indeed arrived in Bethlehem from the South, travelling along the well-known Incense Route, of which the principal avenue set off from Dhofar. This trade route linked the south of the Arabian Peninsula with the countries of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia to which highly prized aromatic substances, predominantly frankincense and myrrh (aromatic gum resins). Huge demand for incense in practically all ancient civilizations was related to their paramount religious significance: specific smells were people's companions from the moment of birth till they drew their last breath.

Recent research reveals a necessity to seriously reconsider the translation into Greek of the basic terms, which for us have come to be traditionally known as «gold, frankincense and myrrh». There are serious grounds to assume that in fact the Gospel relates the offering of frankincense collected in spring, which has a bronze tinge, of frankincense collected in autumn, characterized by milky whiteness, and of myrrh. Those substances were used in various forms (including being parts of more complex preparations) both in temple rituals and life cycle rites, which meant that the gifts of the Magi possessed highest symbolic meaning properly understood by contemporaries. The matter evidently was concerned with worshipping God, with life and death.

In blazing merciless heat of Arabia the best time for travel is at night. Whilst journeying, the travellers would navigate by the stars. In the dead of night, in pitch-black darkness a rider astride a camel saw only the myriads of stars, whose light, it seemed, shone through tiny apertures in the dense fabric of the firmament: «[I swear] by the sky and the night comer. And what can make you know what is the night comer? It is the piercing star.» Or: «And it is He who placed for you the stars that you may be guided by them through the darknesses of the land and sea. We have detailed the signs for a people who know.» (Qur’an, 86: 1–3 and 6: 97)

“The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him” (Qur’an, 4: 169).Venerating Jesus/Isa as the Word of God (Qur’an, 3:39, 45) and the Spirit from Him (4:171), as a great prophet, who will bear witness on the Judgement Day (5:116–120), recalling Maryam, who conceived and gave birth to Jesus in a miraculous way (19: 22; 21: 91; 66: 12), the Muslims, in strict adherence to the Qur’an can undoubtedly celebrate Christmas as their own religious festival. These days the only thing that stands in their way is the centuries of political and ideological confrontation.

The multinational trade route was a kind of a catalyst which melted together, directed, and transformed ideas, images and assumptions related to religion and culture, as it was by far the most important place for storing and sharing information. That was how the way of trade morphed into a way to God, the way that had proved to be most instrumental in creation of Islam and served the descendants of the Magi as a foundation for establishing a new faith.

The season is now upon us when very soon most of you shall be buying and giving presents to your loved ones, when your eyes will rejoice by seeing delight on faces of children and thankfulness in the gaze of the elderly, when you will be laying the festive tables creating your comfy cosy Christmas worlds… Remember then, even if very briefly, the incredible spiritual revolutions that shook the world many centuries ago and so strongly conditioned not only the destinies of humankind as a whole, but also the destinies of each and every one of us, our simplest daily wishes, words and deeds, our day to day lives and our celebrations.

This exhibition is organized by the State Museum for the History of Religion, Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (The Kunstkamera) of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the International Centre for Islamic Research. It is one of the first results of the historico-ethnographic expedition that worked from 15 until 31 March 2017 within the framework of the project «Material world of the Qur’an (daily life in Arabia at the time of the Prophet)», undertaken jointly by The Kunstkamera, Leiden Research Institute for Rational Monotheism and the Journal Manuscripta Orientalia, with the aid of the Ministry for Endowments and Religious Affairs of the Sultanate of Oman.

Efim Rezvan – author of the exhibition project

Tatiana Soloveva – director of the exhibition movie

Dmitry Ivashintzev and Tatiana Fedorova – exhibition design 

«Adoration of the Magi». The circle of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1470 ? —1533). Amsterdam. Oil on wood, 59 × 77,5, the State Museum of Religious History, invent. No. А-12-III (Figure 14). Since 1946 there has been a painting in the repositories of the State Museum of Religious History entitled «Adoration of the Magi» — a fine specimen of Dutch mastery from the early 16th century possessing signature features of artistic style specific to masters of Northern Mannerism. For a number of years, this painting, combining some elements of the mediaeval tradition with a number of certain Renaissance trends was attributed to Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1470 ? — 1533) «the preeminent master of Amsterdam». Recent research suggests that the painting might have been produced by his closest disciple, who created the masterpiece under stewardship of the maître.

Frankincense harvested in spring (dhb = χϱυσός), frankincense harvested in autumn (’fzh = λίβανος) and myrrh (tyb = σμύϱνα), bought in a bazaar in Salalah in spring 2017. The incense is placed into traditional baskets (21,0 × 6,5 cm, 19,5 × 6,0 cm, 18,5 × 5,5 cm, weaving, palm straw, leather) acquired in the same bazaar. The primary purpose for such baskets (karma) is being milk receptacles when milking camel cows. It is no coincidence that the word karma derives from the root stem with the overall meaning of «being generous, venerate someone, being noble, being hospitable». Such lightweight, handy and sturdy vessel could be put to multiple purposes, it accompanied travellers on their journeys being used as a travelling cup. It seems reasonable to assume that similar vessels are depicted in the adoration scene, portrayed on a 4th century AD sarcophagus panel from the Cemetery of St. Agnes in Rome.

Crib (25 × 21 × 21 cm, dried pumpkin, palm straw, wood, cowry shells) and Christmas bauble (D = 6,5 cm, papier-mâché, painting, varnish). Nizwa, (Oman), 2017. In Oman the story of «the Magi from Dhofar» is not only very well known but also forms the background for a series of original souvenirs sold to foreign tourists. Both the crib and the bauble were purchased in a bazaar in Nizwa, an Omani town known for its entrenched traditionalism. The town, which is also known as «A Jewel of Islam» was announced the capital of Islamic culture in 2015.

The exhibition opening

Photographs by Tatiana Fedorova and Evgeniy Belyaev,

Video by Evgeniy Belyaev



The Exhibition movie by Efim Rezvan and Tatiana Soloveva