ALITTLE AFTER his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, the king of Bohemia and of the Romans, Charles IV, was depicted as the middle-aged Magus on the left wing of the so-called “Morgan Diptych.” A similar crypto-portrait is also found on an altarpiece finished in 1464–1465 for the chapel of St. Agatha of the royal palace of Barcelona. In this painting, the youngest Magus bears the physical traits of Peter, Constable of Portugal and pretended king of Aragon (1463–1466). Kings also pursued identification with the Magi by offering gold, frankincense, and myrrh on January 6, as registered in documents for the kings of England, Edward III (1327–1377), and Richard II (1377–1399), for the king of France, Charles V (1364–1380), for the king of Aragon, Pedro IV (1336–1387), and for Felipe II of Spain (1556–1598). Other types of written sources also mention the similitude between medieval kings and the Magi in different contexts. For example, a sermon given in 1273 by Gilles of Orleans at the Saint-Chapel in Paris, in the presence of king Philippe III (1270–1285): “Indeed, I dare say that he is not a real king on Earth the one who did not make this pilgrimage; I mean the one at the place where the King of kings was born, either on the strength of devotion or to bring military help.”
These are only some examples in which medieval kings were compared to the biblical Magi, but the phenomenon appears in at least twelve kingdoms between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries. The identification between the sovereign and these ill-defined biblical figures brings in various important issues related to royal authority and the perception of the king in medieval society. We’ll focus here only on the means of accommodating the idea of the king's unique authority with the particular setting of three crowned characters. How can a king be perceived as the ultimate figure of authority in a kingdom, while being depicted as a Magus, among at least two other Magi and in the presence of the Virgin and Child?