Medici-Riccardi Palace, Chapel of the Magi, Florence
In 1054, year of the schism between the churches of East and West Rome, there were more Christians of the East than of the West, but that was before attack by Seljuk Turks, defense then conquest of the Crusades, the retaking then loss of Jerusalem, and that final battle (1453) when Christendom lost Constantinople (now Istanbul). The martyr of the battle, Constantine XI Paleologos, last emperor of East Rome, is the youngest brother of Emperor John VIII Paleologos, the king you see handsomely pictured atop his white horse in the Medici’s Magi Chapel.
You will recall that the schism, the Great Schism that divides Christianity to this day, was caused by Pope Leo IX closing Orthodox churches in Italy that refused practices favored by the pope’s Vatican church. Language, doctrine, politics, and geography deepened the schism until Islam again extended its reach into Christendom. In response to Islam’s conquests, an attempt to strengthen Christendom by healing the schism with negotiation, cooperation, and financial assistance. The attempting healing, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the “Council of Florence” (1431–1449), was in large part hosted by Cosimo de’ Medici, patriarch of a Medici family whose dynasty survived centuries, whose model of patronage survives to this day.
It is estimated that Cosimo commissioned over half-a-billion dollars (2023 equivalent) of pictuary, statuary, and associated arts. Among the many great works that Cosimo caused, the “Procession of the Magi” found in the Medici’s private chapel of their Florentine palace. Here, a sacred place, a treasure box, a memory of what was and what might yet be. And here, portraits of those whose successes and failures yet mark the world.
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Florentines enjoyed spectacle, as who does not, especially parades, costumes, curiosities and wonders, alike the Festa dei Magi, the Festival of the Magi, where Florentines in costumes of the East would promenade the streets from an imagined oriental home to Herod’s Palace in rickety façade, then to the Manger of Bethlehem set prettily in a Florentine piazza, and there conclude with the bloody reenacting of the Massacre of the Innocents. Imagine if your circus parade of a sudden became real, that the Premier of China on his dragon followed by the American president on his eagle was ushered to the sacrament of abortion in a crooked glass chapel on the Boston Common, and you will approximate the effect of East Rome magnificent Emperor entering beautiful Florence, a spectacle realized without today’s impulse to Evil.
The Medici’s Magi Chapel pictures the occasion of Emperor John VIII Paleologos and his retinue of scholarly priests in procession with Cosimo de’ Medici, his family, scholars and artists to Bethlehem that all might bring gifts to Christ King, God born of woman in the manger. The Medici and Paleologos are costumed as Magi kings, rich in gold, finely drawn with that engraved character of cameos by the Florentine master, Benozzo Gozzoli, goldsmith and former assistant to Fra Angelico.
Here is Cosimo in his plain red cap almost one with the crowd of Florentines, tightly tucked between his servant and his son Piero. The pictured Magi king leading the Florentines, Lorenzo, Cosimo’s grandson, later to be known as “The Magnificent” for his patronage, intellectual and political leadership. Almost pretty in gold, white, and red. Lorenzo, more than any other man forms our idea of the Renaissance and the Renaissance gentleman.
The kingly looking Magi king is Emperor John VIII, diplomat and warrior, patron, foresighted leader who too early died. See him in turban-crown, the very image of what recent historians had in mind when they invented the term, Byzantine. Next to the emperor, Georgios Gemistos Plethon, tutor and great scholar who brought from Constantinople the Greek language and literature that revived Classive Civilization in a West Rome that was becoming Europe. * Next to Plethon, Gozzoli, perhaps an unintended metaphor of the enrichment of art by classical scholarship.
The third magi king, looking to me like old Ulysses or aged Nestor, is either Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople (who died in Florence during the Council) or the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund who inherited Charlemagne’s scepter (which you have seen in portraits of Napoleon). There are of course others, the sisters of Lorenzo, and there are birds and beasts and trees and Tuscan villas looking alike precious goldwork of the Byzantine, and there are tiny leaves of pure gold that glisten in the flickering candlelight as if phrases of some Yeats’ verse come to life.
Centered in the exquisite Renaissance chapel, next to the tabernacle that contains the Eucharist, affixed to the alter a copy of Fra Filippo Lippi’s “Adoration of the Christ Child”, magical and otherworldly. In the apse on either side, Gozzoli’s humble, beautiful, devout “Angels in Adoration”.
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Each year in my homey creche I delight in setting Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar (the Magi kings) around a little manger in adoration of the Christ Child. As with the Medici, as with me, and as with you, I suppose, a personal devotion, each in our own way, each by our own means. For others, I have composed frames for sacred pictures that I cannot afford, and have even designed exquisite chapels beyond my means. Medici connoisseurs are rare in these days of twisty metal public art and ominous Progressive altars. Even so… I can see Cosimo in his failing days kneeling before the altar, offering himself humbly in devotion to God, as all who exercise power should do, as once most did. Centered above the kneeling place atop the chapel in the fine carved ceiling, the letters “JHS”, the Christogram “Jesus Hominum Salvator”, Jesus, Savior of men.
The Council of Florence concluded in reunification of the churches East and West; the Papal Bull of union was signed 6 July 1439. Constantinople fell to the Muslim Turks 29 May 1453; the Turks claimed to be the New Romans. In 1459 Benozzo Gozzoli painted the “Procession of the Magi”. Cosimo, who yet hoped to retake Constantinople and unify Christendom in all lands once Rome, died in 1463. The Council of Florence’s Papal Bull was not enacted, and the Christian churches of East and West remain ununified. Today, an ecumenical Vatican is coming to fusion with the powers of the world, with Protestants and Islam, with pagans, spiritual atheists, and the less egregious Satanic sects so that the world can become one, ordered in the common good.
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* Just in time: for the most part, Islam torched what was left of Classive literatures original documents and close copies. Most of what we have of Plato and other classical ancients (less than 1% [some 550 books … from which our modern culture was created] and less than 5% of the important work) comes to us through Constantinople and greater East Rome.
Featured image, Chapel of the Magi, Procession of the Magi, detail, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Medici-Riccardi Place, Florence.
For more on the Houses of God, see The Beautiful Home: American Sacred Architecture
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