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Object of the Month: Post-Byzantine Nativity Scene

What exactly are frankincense and myrrh, and why would the three kings gift them to baby Jesus? What is an epigonation, and how do you write 1696 in ancient Greek?

The Three Kings kneel before baby Christ in a nativity scene on a 17th Century Epigonation (1696), currently on display in the Gods, Myths and Mortals exhibition at the Hellenic Museum, Melbourne.

The object above is an epigonation, dated to the year 1696, which you can see written at the end of the border text as 'ΑΧϘϚ'. (For those Hellenes reading this, the last two letters are not part of the modern Greek alphabet!)

An epigonation is a decorative pad which was worn over the bishop’s knee in the Greek church (the word in Greek literally means “little thing over the knee!”). Its use can be traced back to the Byzantine era when emperors would present swords to military commanders, accompanied by decorative thigh-shields which protected the leg from the constant bump of the sword while walking.

This epigonation from the Hellenic Museum depicts the Three Kings or Magi approaching baby Jesus with gifts. The text around the edge describes them kneeling before Jesus and presenting him with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is familiar to most of us, but what in the world are frankincense and myrrh?

Frankincense is a resin used in incense and perfume. The ancient Greeks called it “Lebanon” (λίβανος) as they sourced it along a spice trading route from Arabia and across Mount Lebanon. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus said that it was dangerous to harvest, since the trees it was taken from were surrounded by snakes with wings!

Myrrh is another resin used in incense and perfume, but it was also used in medicine, most notably by the ancient Egyptians to embalm mummies. It was introduced to Egypt from other regions of Africa – along with frankincense, cheetahs, giraffes and baboons!

These were highly prized gifts and are symbols of the exotic lands from which the Three Kings traveled to meet baby Jesus.

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