Adoration of the Magi – Gentile da Fabriano
Grant us your favour, My Lord, show us this day your star, the one once you showed to the Magi. The star that led the Magi to Christ, may lead us to Christ’s mysteries. Marsilo Ficino – De Stella Magorum
“Now these things never happened, but always are.” Sallustius – On the Gods and the World
The Star of the Magi
De Stella Magorum written in 1482 by Marsilio Ficino was probably one of the lectures held by the members of the Florentine Platonic Academy to the Compagnia de’ Magi (Fellowship of the Magi). In Florence, for all the fifteenth century, it was the brotherhood of the Magi (or “The Star”, referring to the star mentioned in the Gospel), that organizes every three years (since 1447 every five ) a solemn procession with sumptuous equipment in order to reenact the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem, in search of the Messiah King.
The first mention of this partnership is in a document from 1417, the year in which the Signoria of the Republic decides to subsidize the Compagnia de’ Magi, which gathered in the Florentine church of St. Mark of the Dominican friars. In the golden age of the Medici family, all members of that florentine family were part of the brotherhood, as well as people close to the Lords of Florence, as humanists Cristoforo Landino and Donato Acciaioli, the poet Luigi Pulci and, probably, the man of letters and canon of Santa Maria del Fiore Angelo Poliziano.
As a further demonstration of the veneration of the Medici to the Magi, is the Procession of the Magi, the famous and allegorical journey of the Three Kings, frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459 on commission by Cosimo, in the chapel of the palace of Via Larga. In the fresco some family members, including Giuliano and probably Lorenzo, appears in guise of depicted characters. Moreover, even when Cosimo retired to St. Mark monastery for religious meditations, he was housed in a cell with frescoes made by Fra Beatus Angelicus depicting the Magi.
The Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli
Marsilio Ficino was a neoplatonic philosopher and a priest and he was learned about astrology as well. In De Stella Magorum  he tried to investigate about the nature of the star of the Magi and to reveal the sky which watched over the distinguished nativity of the Savior.
The sermon leaves us surprised because it does not present the nativity of Jesus but instead it contains contradictory astrological elements about the Savior’s geniture from which it is impossible to determine the time of nativity used by Ficino to compose his oration. In fact he says firstly that
So, when Eastern astronomers, in December, saw a comet rising in the beginning of Sagittarius, they judged it a benevolent apparition, because it shed golden rays, being of Sun nature; silver rays because of Jupiterian nature, mixed rays because of Venusian nature. Jupiter too was in that moment in the beginning of Sagittarius. The Sun, if we are right in calculations, was in the middle of the sign. Maybe Venus, always near to the Sun, was in the last degree of the sign: likely this is the sky configuration at Jesus birth, in the month of December, if he was born after the first half of the night. In fact we read in the Gospel that while shepherds kept their night vigils, the Angel said: this day he is born.
and right after he adds:
Considering Jupiter rising in the angle of the geniture, they judged the nativity very favorable; but sterile because of the Moon in the first facie of Virgo, being the stress on a virgin rather than a pregnant woman.
But this elements don’t occur neither in the nativity calculated for the traditional birth date of 25th December of the zero year at midnight nor for the time of the Jupiter Saturn conjunction before the nativity.
Probably Ficino purpose was not to describe the real nativity of Jesus but only to point out that the sky showed signs of the extraordinary event and that the wise astrologers were able to decipher those signs to forecast the new king’s birth. In fact Marsilio in the last part of his speech mentions to Virgo as the possible Jesus’ horoscope:
What we told about Sagittarius, because of calculation of someone’s else, could be in my opinion be told more rightly about Virgo and midnight. While Christ was born, necessarily one of the twelve signs was rising. I don’t know which sign I should give to the One is born from a Virgin, more than Virgo. And mostly the first facie of this sign. In fact every sign has three facies. In the first facie of the Virgo, like Albumasar states, Indians and Egyptians have contemplated the image of a virgin girl, very beautiful, sitting, feeding a child. The rising of this facie agrees perfectly with the child born from a Virgin, and if one well compute, the first facie of Virgo is rising in the month of December at midnight.
We already know that at midnight of 25th December is rising the first face of Libra and not of Virgo, as for sure Ficino knew, because it was previously pointed out by Cecco D’Ascoli and other astrologers and commentators. But the perfectly well-fitting symbolic image of the virgo with the child exerts a charm too powerful to be eluded.
The first decan of the Virgo was firstly mentioned by Albertus Magnus in Speculum Astronomiae when he reports a passage from the Introductorium of Albumasar:
Et ascendit in prima facie illius (scilicet Virginis) puella quam vocat Celchnis Darostal; et est virgo pulchra atque honesta et munda prolixi capilli,et pulchra facie, habens in mano sa duas spicas, et ipsa sedes supra sedem stratam et nutrit puerum, dans ei ad comedendum ius in loco qui vocatur Abril. Et vocat ipsum puerum quaedam gens Iesum, cuius interpretatio est arabice Eice…
And in the first decan (of Virgo) there arises a girl who Celchnis calls Darostal; and she a beautiful, honorable, pure virgin with log hairs and a beautiful face, holding two ears of wheat in her hand; and she seats on a covered bench, and she nurse a male child, giving broth to him in a place called Abril. And a certain people call this child Jesus, which is translated as Eice in Arabic.
This symbolic image was the perfect argument to support the idea of stars as sign and not cause of events. The virgo and the child in the first facie of Virgo is the manifest sign, the epiphany of the birth of the Savior, the light that comes to the world.
As far as we keep meditating on De Stella Magorum we understand that Ficino’s speech is about the epiphany of the Light. His text is scattered with mark of that theophany of light. In his sermon Ficino presents the hypothesis that the star of the Magi was of supernatural origin, created by the angel Gabriel condensing the air to the extent that it was a sufficiently dense medium to make his light visible to humans. As he says:
But why did the Angel condense air? Because the light he was going to impress in the air could be perceived by the human eye. In fact a very rare substance always escapes to the eyesight. Where did he take the light to transmit to that body? From the light of his mind. In it in fact there is an invisible and intellectual light, which transmitted in the air, becomes visible; in the subtler air is visible to the Saints; in the denser, to the others too.
Adoration of the Magi – Giotto
Ficino clearly states that Gabriel under the visible form of a star guided the Magi to the epiphany of the light of the Saviour.
And under the form of a star informed the students of stars, and through the light of the star, derived from the Sun he guided them towards the Sun.
The astronomers brought gold to the just born king , because they judged him having a Sun nature; with perfumed incense they indicated the grace of Venus, with myrrh they indicated a life under the influence of Jupiter, unaware of putrefaction. In the same time these gifts are converged in another secret. In fact with the gold they helped him because he was a poor; with the myrrh they gave strength to the tender flesh; with the incense they perfumed the stable. The gave him the gold because he was a king; the incense because he was a priest, the myrrh because he was God.
The child, the Christ is the eternal Sun born to save the mankind, the intelligible Sun which enlightens the intellect of every man. In the words of Ficino
Light which from Good is spread through all the spirits, is benefic. It grants us to direct towards the Good and quieten in it and makes possible we love the good and rejoice in it. Whatever particular good has with him the image of the good itself.
The Star and the Cave of the World
And there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.And the angel said unto them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people:for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.
There is a tradition which tells us that the manger was a cave.
Icone of the Nativity – Bethlehem – Church of the Nativity
But looking at the cave where the new born Sun is placed and at the star hanging from the sky above the cave, the On the Cave of the Nymphs of the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry comes in our mind.
Porphyry reports a passage from the Homer’s Odyssey:
High at the head a branching olive grows
And crowns the pointed cliffs with shady boughs.
A cavern pleasant, though involved in night,
Beneath it lies, the Naiades delight:
Where bowls and urns of workmanship divine
And massy beams in native marble shine;
On which the Nymphs amazing webs display,
Of purple hue and exquisite array,
The busy bees within the urns secure
Honey delicious, and like nectar pure.
Perpetual waters through the grotto glide,
A lofty gate unfolds on either side;
That to the north is pervious to mankind:
The sacred south t’immortals is consign’d.
And he comments:
That theologists therefore considered caverns as symbols of the world, and of mundane powers, is through this, mainifest. And it has been already observed by us, that they also considered a cave as a symbol of the intelligible essence; being impelled to do so by different and not the same conceptions. For they were of opinion that a cave is a symbol of the sensible world because caverns are dark, stony, and humid; and they asserted that the world is a thing of this kind, through the matter of which it consists, and through its repercussive and flowing nature. But they thought it to be a symbol of the intelligible world, because that world is invisible to sensible perception, and possesses a firm and stable essence. Thus, also, partial powers are unapparent, and especially those which are inherent in matter. For they formed these symbols, from surveying the spontaneous production of caves, and their nocturnal, dark, and stony nature; and not entirely, as some suspect, from directing their attention to the figure of a cavern. For every cave is not spherical, as is evident from this Homeric cave with a twofold entrance. But since a cavern has a twofold similitude, the present cave must not be assumed as an image of the intelligible but of the sensible essence. For in consequence of containing perpetually flowing streams of water, it will not be a symbol of an intelligible hypostasis, but of a material essence.
And he adds about the gates of the cave:
Theologists therefore assert, that_these two gates are Cancer and Capricorn; but Plato calls them entrances. And of these, theologists say, that Cancer is the gate through which souls descend; but Capricorn that through which they ascend. Cancer is indeed northern, and adapted to descent; but Capricorn is southern, and adapted to ascent. The northern parts, likewise, pertain to souls descending into generation. And the gates of the cavern which are turned to the north are rightly said to be pervious to the descent of men; but the southern gates are not the avenues of the Gods, but of souls ascending to the Gods. On this account, the poet does not say that they are the avenues of the Gods, but of immortals; this appellation being also common to our souls, which are per se, or essentially, immortal. It is said that Parmenides mentions these two gates in his treatise “On the Nature of Things”, as likewise that they are not unknown to the Romans and Egyptians. For the Romans celebrate their Saturnalia when the Sun is in Capricorn, and during this festivity, slaves wear the shoes of those that are free, and all things are distributed among them in common; the legislator obscurely signifying by this ceremony that through this gate of the heavens, those who are now born slaves will be liberated through the Saturnian festival, and the house attributed to Saturn, i.e., Capricorn, when they live again and return to the fountain of life. Since, however, the path from Capricorn is adapted to ascent, hence the Romans denominate that month in which the Sun, turning from Capricorn to the east, directs his course to the north, Januanus, or January, from janua, a gate. But with the Egyptians, the beginning of the year is not Aquarius, as with the Romans, but Cancer. For the star Sothis, which the Greeks call the Dog, is near to Cancer. And the rising of Sothis is the new moon with them, this being the principle of generation to the world. On this account, the gates of the Homeric cavern are not dedicated to the east and west, nor to the equinoctial signs, Aries and Libra, but to the north and south, and to those celestial signs which towards the south are most southerly, and, towards the north are most northerly; because this cave was sacred to souls and aquatic nymphs. But these places are adapted to souls descending into generation, and afterwards separating themselves from it.
We know that the star Sirius or Sothis, the star sacred to Isis, the most bright star in the sky, was used by Egyptians to determine the beginning of their calendar which was calculated by the helical rising of Sirius. This phenomenon occurred in the sign of Cancer in July around the beginning of the vulgar era. On the other hand in the middle of December the star Sirius made the midnight culmination.
The picture is complete. Here we contemplate the image of the Cavern of the World where the Sun born from the Virgo lies. The Star Sirius is shining over the Cavern in the middle of the night. The gate of the Cavern is open to all men to see the new born Sun rising up again in the sky through the door of Capricorn, the door of Gods, leading to the heavens. And we see the Magi, the wise men, who saw the star Sirius appearing at dawn before the Sun in the East at the beginning of the summer through the door of Cancer, the door of men, of generation and now after a long journey have reached their destination and under the culminating star can adore the child, the intellective principle, the immortal nous which starts to ascend to heaven again.
Therefore we can say with Saturninus Secundus Sallustius, friend of the Emperor Julian:
Now these things never happened, but always are. And intellect sees all things at once, but speech expresses some first and others after. Thus, as the myth is in accord with the cosmos, we for that reason keep a festival imitating the cosmos, for how could we attain higher order?
1 The complete translation of De Stella Magorum can be found in Marsilio Ficino and the Star of the Magi: “De Stella magorum”