CathBlog - Magi relics in Cologne Cathedral


After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. “Where is the infant king of the Jews?” they asked. “We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage”. (Matthew 2:1-2)

In the first week of January, I was in Germany and visited relatives in Cologne.

Its majestic cathedral to Sts Peter and Mary, the largest Gothic church in northern Europe, has a shrine within the sanctuary with relics believed to be the remains of the three kings. Thus the feast of the Epiphany, the revelation of Jesus to the magi, which is commemorated on 6 January, is a major celebration in the Archdiocese of Cologne.

It is a long way from the homeland of the magi to the City of Cologne on the River Rhine in north-west Germany. How did their remains come into the possession of the Cologne Cathedral?

The relics were given to the Prince-Elector Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel, in 1164 by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.  Originally located in Persia, the bones of the three kings are said to have been taken to Constantinople by St Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity.  

In the mid-fourth century they were then transferred to Milan, from where they were brought by ship to Cologne on the command of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.  The English Christmas carol, “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day in the morning” has its origins in this occurrence.  

The relics were of great significance for the Church and would draw countless pilgrims to Cologne.  Construction of the Cologne cathedral as a fitting resting place for such significant relics commenced in 1248 but was not completed until 1880.   The three kings’ shrine itself is a large gilded casket.  Dated from the thirteenth century, it is the largest reliquary in the Western world.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh are the three gifts associated with the magi’s visit to the infant king and thus it is often assumed that there were three wise men who had been given the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, although the actual number is unknown.  

When the shrine in Cologne was opened in 1864, it is recorded that almost complete skeletons of three persons could be reconstructed and these were identified as belonging to a youth and a young and an aged man (In 1903 some of the relics were returned to Milan).

In Germany some 500,000 young people dressed as the three biblical kings and called Sternsinger (star singers) are sent out from their local church and go from house to house in the first days of January singing and collecting for a specified charity.  Above the front door of the houses which receive them, these boys and girls write the following in chalk previously blessed in the church:

20 + C + M + B + 12

This blessing upon the house consists of the current year encompassing an abbreviation of the names attributed to the kings.  At the same time the C+M+B is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase, “Christus mansionem benedicat” – “Christ, bless this house”.  

The symbols remain over the lintel until the next year’s visit or they are removed by the elements.  The German Bishops" Conference reports that in 2011 the Sternsinger collected almost 42 million euro  [ca. $A52 million] which supported  over 2100 projects in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Oceania and Eastern Europe. 

Guided by a heavenly light, the wise men journeyed to Bethlehem to pay homage to the Christ child. They were the first gentiles to whom the Son of God was revealed.  May they be an inspiration to us so that 2012 also brings us closer to Jesus.

Pictured: Shrine of the Magi, Cologne Cathedral

Gabrielle McMullenProfessor Gabrielle McMullen is Emeritus Professor, Australian Catholic University.

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