The Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ

When you see the word, Epiphany, what comes to your mind?

When I see that word as a proper noun, I tend to think of the Three Wise Men, or the Three Kings, or Magi coming to visit Christ. After all, we celebrate the Magi coming to the Christ Child on January 6, or what is commonly called the Feast of the Epiphany!

So, imagine my surprise when I was studying artwork and found that many of the artworks that were titled Epiphany had nothing to do with the Magi. At all. Instead, the artworks (usually icons!) depict the Baptism of Christ.

Take a look at this icon!

Epiphany, by Iconographer of The Armoury Chamber, c. 17th century. Museum of Fine Arts of Tatarstan, Kazan, Russia. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
Epiphany, by Iconographer of The Armoury Chamber, c. 17th century. Museum of Fine Arts of Tatarstan, Kazan, Russia.

As with many icons, there are other scenes that can be seen on the outer edge. For example, if you look really hard, you can see the tiny pictures of John the Baptist presenting Jesus to his disciples, the temptations of Christ, Christ with the woman and the well on the left side. On the right side, you can see Jesus preaching, Jesus cleansing the temple, and… something else I can’t quite make out.

But! The main image is that of the Baptism of Christ. Angel attendants surround John the Baptist and Jesus while Jesus is baptized with a column of water behind Him to symbolize the importance of water and the ways that God has used water to demonstrate His plans. Above Jesus is the dove of the Holy Spirit as well as God’s words that He speaks during the Baptism to represent the Father.

So why are these artworks (and there are many other icons of the Baptism labeled like this as well!) entitled Epiphany?

First, let’s look at the meaning of the word!

The word comes from the Greek word “epiphainein” which means, “reveal.” If I had a (lowercase!) epiphany in the secular sense, I would have a moment in suddenly I received some sort of insight or had some sort of revelation that seems like it came from somewhere other than my brain. In the more religious sense of the word, it is a manifestation of the divine, aka God manifesting Himself to us.

When we celebrate the Magi coming to see the Christ Child, we call it the Epiphany — and indeed, it is! It is the fulfillment of so many prophecies in the Old Testament. Jesus could have just been born and then make Himself known later. But the Magi came!

And yes, this was probably a huge deal. While the modern depictions of the Magi journeying typically only depict the three solitary Magi on camels, the older pictures of the Magi hint at what a spectacular scene this must have been… and why Herod was so afraid when they finally came to him to ask for directions.

Here is Tissot painting of the Magi and their entourage that they brought with them:

The Magi Journeying, by James Tissot, c. 1886-94. Brooklyn Museum, New York, New York, United States. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
The Magi Journeying, by James Tissot, c. 1886-94. Brooklyn Museum, New York, New York, United States.

Here is another cool painting of the journey that the Magi took, with their entire entourage:

The Journey of the Magi, by Sassetta, c. 1433-35. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, United States. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
The Journey of the Magi, by Sassetta, c. 1433-35. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, United States.

And another one!

The Meeting of the Three Kings, with David and Isaiah, by Master of the St. Bartholomew Altarpiece, c. 1480. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California, United States. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
The Meeting of the Three Kings, with David and Isaiah, by Master of the St. Bartholomew Altarpiece, c. 1480. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California, United States.

The last one even has reference to the prophecies that were fulfilled by the Magi coming! Isn’t that cool?

So! The idea of three solitary Magi coming on camels is probably not true, even though it admittedly is a poignant image. Instead, it was probably a big group of people led by the Magi. Big enough for King Herod to receive the Magi into the palace, listen to them, consult the Sanhedrin on their behalf, and actually take them seriously.

And so, the Magi is the fulfillment of the prophecies of old, in which God allows His Presence in Jesus Christ to be known to the people before He even grows up to be a man! Thus, God reveals Himself to us! It’s an Epiphany!

However! The Baptism of Christ is also an Epiphany. Consider this: when Christ is baptized, God the Father speaks!

NABRE

Matthew 3

16 After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. 17And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

And so! As we conclude the Christmas season with the celebration of Christ’s Baptism, may we remember that God speaks to us and continues to speak to us in a variety of ways. May we open up our hearts to receive Him!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of three, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer

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