What would be a historically accurate costume for one of the Wise Men (aka Magi)?

In my church’s little Christmas pageant I was volunteered to be one of the Magi ( http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09527a.htm - 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia ). It’s my choice whether I will be Gaspar, Balthasar or Melchior. If I understand the article correctly, the best guess is that they were Zoroasterian priests from Persia around year 0. What would be a historically accurate costume? Bonus points if it’s something I can whip up at home using old curtains or a bedspread. :wink:

If history is no guide, then what would be the most typical look as depicted in Christian religious art? Can anyone give some examples?

I’ll be searching myself later tonight, but in the meantime if anyone has any great ideas, thank you in advance.

Up through the Middle Ages, the Magi (and any other historical figures) were generally shown as wearing whatever was fashionable for noble people in the depictor’s culture at the time. In later eras there was a tendency to put Balthasar and Caspar into more-or-less imaginary “exotic” dress, with Balthasar as a Moor/Perisan/Arab and Caspar in whatever the artist thought might pass as “Oriental”. The “Adoration of the Magi in Art” page on Wikipedia has a bunch of links to major paintings.

In reality, assuming they were in fact Persian, they’d probably be dressed in highly decorated tunic and trousers, with perhaps a cape or robe on top, along these general lines:
These guys (from a c. 500 AD depiction of the Magi)
This young man (c. 250 AD)
Fancy hats


Since the Parthians ruled Persia at the time of Christ’s birth, examples of Parthian dress might give you some ideas. This site includes some pictures (can’t find any of priests, however): http://www.parthia.com/parthia_arts.htm

As for depictions of the magi in Christian art, check out paintings by Gentile da Fabriano, Hieronymus Bosch (better detail here), Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Gozzoli, Massys, Rogier van der Weyden … quite a variety of costume, although, as JR Brown points out, the artists typically just put Caspar and Balthasar in whatever passed as exotic, “Eastern” dress by medieval and Renaissance European standards.

It’s also interesting to point out that in many of the paintings, each magus is associated with a different age of man–Balthasar representing “Youth,” Caspar “Maturity,” and Melchior “Old Age.” Some artists would also associate each figure with a different region of the world, and give that figure what were considered the typical racial features for the respective region (Balthasar = Africa, Caspar = Asia, Melchior = Europe). Not all artists did this, though–I think it was more common in Northern Europe. capybara could explain it better than I can (and will hopefully be along soon with some additional examples).

Edited to add: if you haven’t selected a magus yet, Balthasar would give you more opportunities to vamp it up, at least if you’re going according to his depiction in Renaissance art–since he’s usually the youngest magus, he tends to dress the most flamboyantly. Just something to consider.

If you want to do a costume on the cheap, you need to pick Caspar. That way, you only need an old sheet with two eyeholes cut in it.

Surely you’ve heard of Caspar the Friendly Ghost?

The Gospels say they were magi from the East. In Wikipedia’ we see them in tights, cloaks & phrygian caps. But then we’re referred to the Three Kings of Medieval legend–representing Europe, Asia & Africa. In which case exotic robes would work; see above for artists who’ve depicted the scene. A brocade bathrobe, perhaps? A fringed shawl or two?

Saint Francis began the custom of nativity scenes. They were not historic depictions–but ways of making the story come alive for the Italian peasants. Your parish would probably be happy seeing what they imagined when they sang “We Three Kings” as children.

Ah–an excuse to link to the late John M Ford’s A Holiday In The Park. Especially meaningful for those who first visited Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye courtesy of T E White.

If they were Persian, how the hell did they get to the Roman Empire, Those two empire had a few disgareements which lasted for a millenium.

I have generally seen them represented with beards but while Jews did wear beards I believe most other peoples in the East did not. Maybe the beards just make them look exotic. Otherwise it’s “hey, look, it’s Joe from accounting dressed funny!”.

Setting the historicity of the Nativity accounts aside, Judea was on the Eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. Persia was not very far, really. And it’s not like Rome had a picket line of centurions 20 feet apart along the entire border, even if the crossing of three (or whatever indeterminate number of) Persian priests would even raise an alarm. A Persian army, sure, but itinerant clerics? Probably not.

What Götterfunken said (and, shucks, I got invoked!). When the subject starts being painted a lot in Europe it starts out with a ‘three ages of man’ element, but by 1500 or so (especially in Flanders/Netherlands, as G says) a lot of artists have arrived at what we would see as “an old guy, a young guy, and a black guy” (Balthasar; I think someone has a dissertation out there on this)

Dürer, say.
or Memling
Hugo van der Goes
And that stays the case into the seventeenth century:

But before 1430 or so three white-ish guys of varying ages was still very common (and continued to be, in Italy). So, generally, anything that could count as rich-looking and ‘exotic’-- turbans, bright clothes, ridiculous shoes, and you should probably pick up a baby jaguar or camel a monkey or something. That would help.

So you are a Roman Legionairre on the Euphrates; what are you going to say “Oh dominus, three Persians on the eastern bank? Nah let them through!”.

The empires did NOT like each other.

No, but trade was critical to both their economies. People definitely got through. Besides, if they really wanted to get by, they clearly had the means to bribe a guard.

This. They didn’t like each other, no, but there was no way to enforce a general quarantine. As I noted, there wasn’t a picket line of legionnaires 20’ apart the entire length of the frontier.

The two empires weren’t in a *constant *state of warfare. I’m sure that the moment cease-fires were signed, thousands of traders and other travelers would pass the borders freely.

Hell, I’m sure that that there was active trade even during conflicts. Those ancient empires were pretty decentralized - even if the legions were clashing in Antalia, that doesn’t mean you can’t do business in Nabataea. Total war, as a concept, had yet to be invented.

Thank you to all who came up with good information. By my age and cultural / racial background, I think I am best suited to portray Melchior, the middle-aged European. There’s no way I could pass for an Asian old man or a young black man. Let’s hope that I get that part!

I think I’ll try the medieval king approach, that seems easier than the Persian or Parthian costume. Or, as capybara said, “anything that could count as rich-looking and ‘exotic’”. Now all I have to do is contact the local pet shops for a camel and a pet cheetah that I can lead on a leash.

P.S. Bridget Burke - you mentioned “your parish” so I thought I should clear that up so people don’t think I am getting advice under false pretences. My church is not a Catholic Church, it’s a Unitarian Universalist church.

On second thought, I think you should go with the Byzantine image, and wear a Phrygian cap and tights.

And you must post photos of yourself in said garb.

Yes Götterfunken I’ll get right on that. As long as you promise to not copy my photo for entering me into a “Hot or Not?” contest.

It also wasn’t Roman territory yet, technically (although when Rome said “Jump”, Herod asked “How high?”) Judea and Samaria didn’t get annexed by Rome until 6AD, when the Romans finally decided they were sick of Archelaus’ screwups.

The Galilee didn’t become Roman until the death of Herod Agrippa in 44 AD.

Given the uncertainty as to where the three came from, and a lack of hard evidence as to what dudes wore in those days, I’d said you have plenty of wiggle room for being either exotic or thrifty. Or, with luck, both at once.

It is generally assumed that the three wise guys were astronomers / astrologers / priests, the three categories being very fluid in the days before precise job descriptions and modern science as we know it. There does not seem to be any agreement on their ethnicity, but I personally have my doubts that they were an ethnically mixed group in the PC sense. I mean; which airport lounge could they have met up in, about 200 years ago? I therefore discount the token black. I also see no reason for them to be of any specific age, although I would tend to argue that they were more likely to be older if they were considered wise.

So, I suggest that they were Middle Eastern and past their first youth, and by some. Nationality? Arab, Parthian, Persian, Greek, Egyptian, pretty much whatever you want. A light tan, maybe a beard, and you are set up. The borders were relatively fluid in those days and the guards would not have cared about a few guys, what they were told to look out for were raiding parties intent on pillage and rape, or long-term conquest. Any problems about a missing visa, if the average centurion even knew what such a thing was, could have been settled with a few sesterces changing palms.

Did this thread get linked to from somewhere else? It seems to me I’d just read it recently, before Brayne Ded’s bump.

Ah, wait, it was on the front page as one of the related threads for a column, wasn’t it?

I think that the idea behind the diverse magi is that scholars from all over the world all saw the signs in the Heavens and all came to the same conclusion, and so independently set out to pay tribute, and then met each other on the road relatively close to their destination. And if you ask if it actually historically happened that way, well, there’s not much historical evidence that it happened at all, anyway.

If they *were *Parthian, they’d likely have been rocking sweet moustaches, like this guy. Belted tunic, pants, bobbed hair would be the fashion.