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  • The Journeys of the Magi: A Textual Analysis of Two Epiphany Autos in Sixteenth Century Mexico
  • Penelope Reilly (bio)

Story is central to everyday theology, translating concepts into images which reach into our deepest psyche. This is graphically illustrated in the story of the Magi which conveys in dramatic form essences of belief and understanding. St. Francis appreciated the power of drama and imagery and the Franciscans, nurtured in this tradition, carried it with them to Mexico. Of all these stories introduced after 1524, one of the most enthusiastically received by the Aztecs was the story of the feast of the Epiphany. It is a testament to its popularity that we have inherited two almost contemporaneous autos, La Adoración de los Reyes and La Comedia de los Reyes. Horcasitas comments on this phenomenon: “The Feast of the Epiphany would appear to have eclipsed that of Christmas, judging by the number of theatrical representations.”1 Motolinía, one of the original ‘twelve’ Franciscans to arrive in Mexico,2 explains it by suggesting that in the story of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles the Aztecs may have seen themselves as the ‘new Gentiles’ called out of the ‘darkness of paganism’ to experience their own ‘Epiphany.’3 For the friars, too, the Epiphany is both a manifestation that the Christian message is intended for all people and an inspiration for their missionary work in all parts of the world.

The purpose of this article is threefold. It will begin by a brief survey of the history and development of the European tradition of religious theatre out of which the Mexican auto evolved. Secondly, it will examine the texts of the two autos in detail. It will look at construction, presentation, use of language, characterization, plot development, and underlying [End Page 225] themes, noting both the differences and similarities between them. Having identified these themes, it will attempt to consider the uses to which the Franciscan put them in imparting the Christian message and how they exploited the differences between them. It will also take note of the compromises and concessions in terms of language and reference which the friars might have had to make in order to render the autos more readily accessible to their audiences. Finally, it will ask whether the autos reveal anything about the Franciscans themselves, about their principal beliefs, the nature of their mission, their relations with the indigenous people and about the Franciscan ‘identity’ or Franciscanism.

The origins of the Epiphany

Before starting out on this study, however, it would be useful to examine the origins of the great feast of the Epiphany itself. Its roots go back to the earliest records of Judeo-Christianity. Attempts have been made to trace it even further and to link the Epiphany to the pagan Gnostic rites celebrated in Alexandria where followers celebrated the birth of Aeon to the virgin Core, seen as early versions of Christ and the Virgin Mary.4 It seems more likely that the Epiphany had its roots in Jewish tradition and is connected to one of the festivals of the religious year, the Feast of Tabernacles, stated by St. Ephrem, the Syrian saint (306–373), to be the greatest of all. This festival, known to the Jews as ‘sukkoth,’ marked God’s appearance in the temple of Solomon in the form of cloud and fire, the same God who led the Israelites out of captivity with the ‘fiery, cloudy pillar.’

A marked difference between the earliest forms of celebrating the Epiphany and the later medieval practices was the emphasis placed upon baptism. In the Syriac tradition the birth, baptism of Christ and baptism of new believers are all combined in the one festival. It is not the birth of a baby in a manger and the arrival of mystics and seers that demanded the attention of the early Orthodox Christians but the notion of Christ descending to earth and entering the waters of baptism. Thus the earliest celebration of the Epiphany referred as much to the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the water of the River Jordan as to the birth of the Infant in Bethlehem.

The background of the...


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