Reimagining the three kings as queer or female gives fresh meaning to Epiphany, a holiday celebrating the visit of the Magi – or Three Wise Men- to the baby Jesus. It is observed on Jan. 6 and is the traditional end of the festival period called12th Night in the UK & the three Kings in Europe.
The word “epiphany” also refers to a sudden, intuitive perception. By looking at church history from a LGBTQ viewpoint, people can experience their own personal “epiphanies” of understanding. New interpretations of the wise ones known as the Magi include:
- Queer Magi. LGBTQ church leaders suggest that the Magi may have been eunuchs — people who today would be called gay, queer or transgender. Intriguing questions are raised by the artistic tradition of showing the of three Magi together in bed.
- Female Magi appear in various books, videos and artwork, including a beautiful Epiphany painting by Janet McKenzie. Three Wise Ones embody different races — and some perceive a trans person among them. Epiphany is also known as Women’s Christmas.
- Queer gifts are presented to the Christ child in an icon by William Hart McNichols.
Queer Magi for Epiphany: Bed sharing and fabulous clothing
Although they are often called the “three kings,” the Magi stand in contrast to worldly King Herod who sought world domination by massacring the “holy innocents” who might grow up to take his throne. The wise Magi who followed the star to find the newborn Jesus were more likely wizards who provide a higher wisdom or astrologists with expertise in cosmic balance.
The Magi played the shamanic role often filled by eunuchs, an ancient term for LGBTQ people, says Nancy Wilson in her book Outing the Bible: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Christian Scriptures.” She writes:
“They were Zoroastrian priests, astrologers, magicians, ancient shamans from the courts of ancient Persia. They were the equivalent of Merlin of Britain. They were sorcerers, high-ranking officials, but not kings—definitely not kings. But quite possibly, they were Queens. We’ve always pictured them with elaborate, exotic, unusual clothing—quite festive, highly decorated and accessorized! …Also, the wise eunuchs, shamans, holy men were the only ones who had the forethought to go shopping before they visited the baby Jesus!
They also have shamanistic dreams. They deceive evil King Herod and actually play the precise role that many other prominent eunuchs play in the Bible: they rescue the prophet, and foil the evil royal plot against God’s anointed.”
One of the Magi’s shamanic dreams is recorded in the Bible. The gospel of Matthew says that after the Magi found the baby Jesus, God came to them in a dream and warned them not to return to King Herod. They went back home another way, thus thwarting Herod’s plan to locate and kill the infant Messiah.
The dream of the Magi was a common motif in medieval European art. These little-known images startle today’s viewers by showing the three kings together as an interracial male trio in one bed — sometimes even nude (but always wearing their crowns).
This looks like a homosexual liaison to many people now, but bed-sharing was a common custom in the Middle Ages. Back then people usually engaged in communal sleeping, not sexual activity, when sharing a bed with travelling companions, family members, colleagues and others. Still these historic artworks do provide a visual aid for considering the queer side of the Magi. Read more about the three wise men in bed here:
As Wilson pointed out, the Magi are often depicted wearing gorgeous, elaborate attire. Eunuchs and cross-dressers were surprisingly common in the ancient Mediterranean world.
By happy coincidence, a Drag King saint happens to have a feast day on Jan. 5, the day before Epiphany. Apollinaria of Egypt, put on men’s clothing and presented herself as a eunuch named Dorotheos in order to live as a monk.
The concept of the queer Magi is amplified by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, author of Omnigender. “My guess is that they were people who today might identity as trans.”
The idea of queer Magi is taken farther in this video “We Three Queens” by American drag queens Manila Luzon, Peppermint and Alaska.
Female Magi for Epiphany
Female Magi have been envisioned by artists in a gender-bending move that sometimes causes controversy. Epiphany itself is celebrated as “Women’s Christmas” (Nollaig na mBan) in Ireland, where men assume the household duties for the day so women can celebrate together at the end of the holiday season.
A multi-racial trio of female Magi visits the baby Jesus and his mother in “Epiphany” by Vermont artist Janet McKenzie. Instead of the traditional three kings or three wise men, the artist re-interprets the Magi as wise women from around the world.
“More than a few people have asked about the gender of the tallest Magi in Janet’s ‘Epiphany’ image. Male? Female? Trans? I find that stunningly wonderful because possibly three minority groups might be embodied in this portrait in the eyes and imaginations of so many viewers!” said Barbara Marian, who commissioned the McKenzie painting.
The unconventional portrayal of the Magi makes good theological sense. Marian explains: “The story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew allowed the Jewish followers of Jesus to imagine the unthinkable — God’s grace extending to the outsiders, the gentiles. Who are the outsiders in our world? Can we imagine this divine favour extending beyond the human boundaries of race, class, nationality, ethnicity, religious devotion, and gender?”
Queer gifts for Epiphany
Father William Hart McNichols paints another kind of queer Epiphany. McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Roman Catholic priest whose gay-positive icons have caused controversy. He worked at an AIDS hospice in New York City from 1983-90, when many in the gay community were dying of the disease. During that period he painted “The Epiphany: Wisemen Bring Gifts to the Child.”
St. Francis and St. Aloysius are the wise men visiting the baby Jesus in this icon. Instead of the usual gold, frankincense and myrrh, the “gifts” they bring to the Christ child are people with AIDS, perhaps gay men. The baby Jesus reaches eagerly to receive these gifts. The child and his mother appear in a form popular in Mexico and other Latino cultures as Our Lady of Guadalupe and El Santo Niño de Atocha. The halo around them echoes the colors of the rainbow flag of the LGBT community.
This article is drawn from original material on QSprit who have a LGBTQ Calendar series by Kittredge Cherry. The series celebrates religious and spiritual holidays, events in LGBTQ history, holy days, feast days, festivals, anniversaries, liturgical seasons and other occasions of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people of faith and our allies.