Thursday, March 27, 2008


Back to the decorations by the sculptor Gislebertus on the cathedral at Autun, France. As you can see here, they are really quite marvelous. Whimsical, gentle, with a keen eye to human nature. Even the horrific Last Judgment on the west tympanum -- which was clearly meant to scare the bejesus out of any poor soul who looked upon it -- has about it a fairytale quality. I love especially the sequence associated with the birth of Jesus on the interior capitals. None more delightful than the angel awakening the Magi (click to enlarge).

The kings are nestled all snug in their bed, their crowned heads resting on a single pillow as if it is the most natural thing in the world for such royal personages to sleep together. (Are they naked beneath the cover? We see one bare arm and shoulder.) The sweet-faced angel gently touches the little finger of one of the kings. His eyes pop open. Look! Look! says the angel. There in the sky. The star. The star.

The story was as familiar and endearing in the 12th century as it is today. All of us who were raised Christian know it by heart. The kings. The camels. The gold, frankincense and myrrh. The visit to Herod, The flight into Egypt. The slaughter of the innocents. It was part of the intellectual furniture of our youth. And a lovely story it was too, never more beautifully told than on the capitals at Autun.

And the star? Might it have been real? Astronomers, professional and amateur, never tire of proposing candidates for the Christmas star. Forget for the moment that the whole story is likely apocryphal. Forget that the actual year of Christ's birth was probably sometime between 7 B.C., when Augustus ordered a census of Judea, and 4 B.C., when Herod died. Forget that the season of birth may have been spring, when shepherds watched their newborn lambs by night. Let's pick the traditional place and time, Bethlehem in Galilee, on the night of December 24-25 in the year 1 B.C. (as historians reckon). With my astronomy software I can reconstruct what the kings might have seen as they approached the stable where Mary has given birth. The night is bright. A waxing gibbous moon stands near the Pleiades in Taurus. Saturn is in Gemini, and Venus is the evening star. As the long night progresses, the moon moves with spangled winter constellations to its western setting several hours before sunrise. As the moon sinks below the horizon, Jupiter rises in the east with the stars of Virgo. The sky grows bright. Peace on Earth, good will to men. It is the first Christmas morning.