Front Right: Picture of the MAGI
Gyfu gumena byþ gleng and herenys,
wraþu and wyrþscype and wræcna gehwam
ar and ætwist, ðe byþ oþra leas
Generosity brings credit and honour,
which support one's dignity
it furnishes help and food
to all broken men who have nothing else.
A Christian icon ...
With the representation of the Magi our carver chooses a motif, which is functional in two ways. As for one it stands for the gifts his client may receive and hand out generously, as for the other, it indicates the birth into a noble family. In this regard, it is used emblematically for the descent of our hero. The fact that the carver still clung to pagan belief, though, of course, acquainted with the new creed, is no contradiction to the choice of this topic, as the old faith was not dogmatic in any way. On the contrary, it was open to all successful "newcomers".
With his presentation of the scene, the artist follows a well-known iconographic tradition. Here like there we have the Virgin sitting on the throne, her child on her lab, the bodies reduced to a "face medallion" framed by a nimbus each, nevertheless, the traditional foot stool (suppedaneum) kept.
From the left the three astrologers approach, not kings yet, rather representatives of the three stages of life (from youth to manhood and old age. An inscription in runes, MÆGI, refers to them, the Magi. As an explanation this was unnecessary, because they were popular even with the pagans. It was their role which mattered. So this word meant to cite them and their famous gifts: Gold, incense, and myrrh. Gold symbolizes 'worldly power' (King Jesus), incense stands for the 'spiritual component' of the Saviour (thus it was the attribute of god-like worldly oriental and Roman emperors) and myrrh as ointment for 'death and resurrection'.1
A rosette between the visitors and the holy family takes the place which is reserved for the star of Bethlehem, which is often rendered in a similar way. In Christian symbolism it refers to Christ as Lord of Heaven and Earth; Last Day Judge and Redeemer. In ancient Mesopotamia and elsewhere it was commonly understood as the symbol for the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, a cycle, which is reflected in the gifts of the Mægi. The 8-leaf-rosette used to be the emblem of the fertility goddess Ishtar and her planet Venus. Like Ishtar, who descends into the underworld in order to return with new fertility, Venus disappears from the evening sky in order to come back as morning star. - In the iconographic tradition of this picture a rosette of eight leaves was the rule, as Christ was compared to the sun (Sol invictus), which was equated with 8 while Mary "ruled" the moon with the 9 as symbolic number.
Where we would expect an angel we detect a bird, some kind of goose or swan. Depending on the type it would either be the guiding angel, leading the travellers to the site of the family, or it is the 'master of ceremonies'The rosette stands for the Star of Bethlehem, though in ancient Mesopotamia and elsewhere it was commonly understood as the symbol for the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, a cycle, which is reflected in the gifts of the Mægi.
... harnessed to Pagan practice
If we have a closer look at this picture we can detect a number of pagan elements:
The rosette was a holy symbol for pagans as well, standing for the moon, most likely, symbolizing the cycle of life, death and rebirth. As such it can be found on tomb stones. Different from what we know are the 13 rays or leaves, where according to iconographic tradition we would expect 8 or 9, or perhaps 12. But 13 rays make sense, if we remember the Magi as astrologers and astronomers, who knew to figure 'holy days' by the lunar calendar, which consisted of 13 months of 28 days each, and 13 or 12 lunations, depending on leap years. The fact that adding up the numbers from 1 to 13 results in 91 (a perfect quarter i.e. season of the year), may have been an interesting ferature of this calendar.
There is a bird between magi and throne, where we would normally find an angel. Certainly, the artist did not mistake a winged being in human shape for a bird. Even if he was pagan, he knew Christian patterns. So why did he depict a swan-like creature? According to the bible, angels are God's messengers, but with the common people belief guardian angels were (and still are) more popular. This matches with the Germanic creed, where man had a tutelary genius. In case of the hero it is his Valkyrie, one of Woden's swan maidens. She accompanies the warrior from birth (present then, but invisible or in animal shape, often a bird) to death (visible only to him, a frightening, paralysing monster then). But during his life span she is his fylgja, the female that follows him unnoticed, his sigewif, who helps him at battle. She will wake him from death, is his lady-love then and takes him to Valhalla, where he joins the circle of Woden's warriors.2 - If the carver really has substituted the angel by that fylgja, this - along with trefoil knot (Woden's valknut) and rosette - is the perfect proof of his pagan view, becoming obvious by his way of transforming traditional Christian topics.
Very strange is the symbol over the back of the third visitor. It is the Germanic (valknut), the "knot of death", which refers to the end of a warrior's life and his entry into Valhalla; and if we consider that the gift of this man is myrrh, a symbol of death, the setting is well reflected. We may comprehend this composition - beginning with mother and child (rosette) and ending with the myrrh bringing visitor (knot of death)- as miniature course of life from birth to death. And, indeed, the valknut is shown at two other instances here, right panel and lid which are connected with death and the life thereafter in the realm of Woden.
Finally, there are 3 symbols, which look a bit like question marks. They may be interpreted as yew-runes, and if so, they express the same topic: life, death and resurrection, derived from the nature of that particular tree, which seems to be immortal and able to regenerate itself out of its own tree trunk.
Perhaps the relation to pagan ideas is even closer than this. If the rosette with its 13 rays does not stand for the Star of Bethlehem but for the moon (13 months of the lunar calendar), the Virgin may be seen on the same level with the "Great Mother Earth" (Erce, Erta, Perchta, Berta, Herta, Nerthus etc.). Numerous statues of this "Black Madonna" - just like her sanctuaries - were adopted into the cult of the Virgin. Waterfowl, as here on the casket, was associated with the pagan goddess of fertility.3 Like Mary she was frequently depicted with a baby son in her arms and - prior to the Virgin - the Day of Judgement was hers. People those days may have seen the one in the other, especially as Pope Gregory in a letter to abbot Mellitus (601) recommended to tolerating pagan customs if only they now venerated a "correct" saint.
If Mary was equated with that "Great Mother", (Erce or Erta), one may have seen the Virgin as an incarnation of the eorþan modor, and it would be she, who opens the program with 'birth' (F-Panel as Mary) and concludes it with 'death' (H-Panel as Erta)
1 In Christian Scriptures, Myrrh was one of the gifts of the Magi to the infant Jesus according to Matthew, and is cited in Mark as an intoxicant that was offered to Jesus during the crucifixion: "Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh." (Matthew 2:11b, RSV); "And they brought him to the place called Gol'gotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mingled with myrrh; but he did not take it." (Mark 15:22,23 RSV).
Because of both of these contexts, myrrh is a common ingredient in incense offered during Christian liturgical celebrations (see Thurible). In Roman Catholic liturgical tradition, pellets of myrrh are traditionally placed in the Paschal candle during the Easter Vigil.- In Eastern Christianity, the use of incense is much more frequent than in the West. In some traditions, special emphasis is placed on the offering of incense at Vespers and Matins, because of the Old Testament regulation regarding the evening and morning offering of incense. - Because myrrh was the primary ingredient in the anointing oil God commanded Moses to make (Exodus 30:23-33), it is used in the preparation of chrism which is used by many churches, both Eastern and Western. (Source: Wikipedia)
2 Cf. Wolfgang Golther, Germanische Mythologie (1895), pp. 98 - 116
3 Cf. Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (1989)