Balthazar (magus)

Saint Balthazar; also called Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea,[1] was according to Western Christian tradition one of the biblical Magi along with Caspar and Melchior who visited the infant Jesus after he was born. Balthazar is traditionally referred to as the King of Arabia and gave the gift of myrrh to Jesus.[2] In the Catholic Church, he is regarded as a saint (as are the other two Magi).

Balthazar in The Adoration of the Three Kings by Girolamo da Santacroce
Three Magi, Three Kings, Three Wise Men
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Church
Anglican Communion
Lutheran Church
Major shrineShrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral
Feast6 January (Epiphany)
6 January (date of his death)
AttributesKing bearing gifts, king on a camel, three crowns
PatronageEpilepsy, thunder, motorists, pilgrims, playing card manufacturers, sawmen, sawyers, travellers, travelling merchants, Cologne, Germany, Saxony


The Gospel of Matthew does not give the names of the Magi (or even how many there were), but their traditional names are ascribed to a Greek manuscript from 500 AD translated into Latin and commonly accepted as the source of the names.[3] In this original manuscript, Balthazar is called Bithisarea, which later developed into Balthazar in Western Christianity.[1] Balthazar was described in the 8th century by Saint Bede as being "[of] black complexion, with [a] heavy beard" with the "myrrh he held in his hands prefigured the death of the Son of man".[4]

As part of the Magi, Balthazar followed the Star of Bethlehem first to the palace of Herod the Great who instructed them to return to him when they had found the Child Jesus. When they arrive at the house,[5] the Magi worshipped him and presented their gifts. Balthazar gave the gift of myrrh, which symbolised the future death of a king, as myrrh was an expensive item at the time.[6][7] Following his return to his own country, avoiding King Herod, it is purported that Balthazar celebrated Christmas with the other members of the Magi in Armenia in 54 AD but later died on 6 January 55 AD, aged 112. The feast day of Balthazar is also 6 January, as the date of his death.

Balthasar and Gaspar are characters in the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and the various film adaptions of the novel, which chronicles his later years.


Balthazar, along with the other Magi, are purported to be buried in the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral following his remains being moved from Constantinople by Eustorgius I in 344 AD to Milan. In 1164, Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa moved them to Cologne.[8] Balthazar is commemorated on Epiphany with the other members of the Magi but in Catholicism, Balthazar's feast day is on 6 January because it was the day that he died.[9]

Blackface controversy and traditional iconic representation

A black man parading as Balthazar in Zaragoza in 2009.
The three magi in Massalfassar in 2019. Balthazar and his servant are played by white people in blackface.

Many traditionally Christian countries stage pageants that include roles for the three wise men. In mainland European countries it is customary for Balthazar, based on Saint Bede's description of him, to be portrayed by a person in blackface. In a tradition dating from the Middle Ages dark skinned people were described as bringers of gold. In the 21st century, a number of campaigns in Spain pushed for a black person to play Balthazar rather than a person in blackface, which potentially goes against the tradition that local city councillors play the role.[10]

Adorazione dei Magi (Adoration of the Magi) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1655 (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio)

Since King Balthazar, in traditional pictorial representations from the Late Middle Ages, is represented as a black person (as an integrating or cosmopolitan graphic symbol, in the tradition that the "wise men" or "magi" who worshipped Jesus in Bethlehem represented the peoples of the whole world), fitting in with this traditional icon motivated his representation in the cavalcades of Three Wise Men by a person made up in black. In many Spanish towns that custom continues, while others now ask a prominent resident of African descent to take on this role in the cavalcades.[11]

See also

  • San Baltasar


  1. "Excerpta Latina Barbari: 51B". Retrieved 2016-01-01.
  2. "Balthasar". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2023-01-20.
    • Metzger, Bruce, New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic, Volume 10, 1980, BRILL, ISBN 9004061630
  3. "Three Kings Balthazar, Gaspar, Melchior". CNN. 2013-01-06. Retrieved 2016-01-01.
  4. Matthew 2:11
  5. Tischler, Nancy (2010). All Things in the Bible: M-Z. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 476. ISBN 978-0313330841.
  6. Freeman, Margaret (1978). The story of the Three Kings: Melchior, Balthasar and Jaspar. Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 67. ISBN 9780870991806.
  7. David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), xvi.
  8. "Magi". Catholic Encyclopedia. 1910-10-01. Retrieved 2016-01-01.
  9. "¡¡Guerra al Baltasar pintado!!" (in Spanish). 2012-02-13. Archived from the original on 2016-01-08. Retrieved 2016-01-01.
  10. "El rey Baltasar de Pamplona seguirá siendo un blanco pintado de negro" (in Spanish). 2015-12-30. Retrieved 2018-12-15.
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