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10 December 2019Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh - Why these gifts?
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Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh - Why these gifts? Tom Duncan Tuesday 10 December 2019

When the "three wise men" came to do homage to the newly born Jesus, what did they bring as gifts? Gold is perhaps not too difficult to comprehend - a gesture of honour made at great cost, but frankincense and myrrh? These are more exotic items, the purpose of which is less well understood.

This lecture will trace the development of cult worship within the ancient world from earliest times, with its parallel development of religious ritual. For example, in Egypt and Mesopotamia there arose the practice of burning frankincense in front of cult images as a mark of respect. Myrrh was more normally employed in the ritual preservation of the dead, the process of mummification. Both substances were natural crystalline products derived from the sap of trees growing mainly in southern Arabia and in Somalia. The control of this trade led to great wealth, particularly amongst tribes such as the Nabateans, who build Petra on their profits. Thus, these gifts offered to the infant Jesus are entirely within long established local traditions and it is this exciting story that will unfold.

Within the earliest context of the emergence of early Christian art we will also trace the first appearance of this story as a depicted subject in its own right. Sarcophagi, engraved finger rings and other unlikely objects are some of the places where the earliest depictions are found. As the early church emerged from the era of persecution to eventual toleration and eventually to that of total domination of the religious life of the late Empire, the image of the Magi presenting their gifts came to have unusual prominence within the depiction of the Infancy narrative found in the Biblical text of Matthew. How and why this came forms the final part of the lecture.

Tom Duncan

After a generation in University life, Tom has now retired from teaching to concentrate on lecturing to a wider public, and to leading tours to his major areas of interest: the architecture and archaeology of Ireland, and the Mediterranean basin.