How the Three Wise Men landed in Cologne - Hindustan Times
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How the Three Wise Men landed in Cologne

By, New Delhi
Jan 06, 2024 03:00 PM IST

The Cologne Cathedral houses the Shrine of the Three Kings, a reliquary which tradition says holds the bones of the Biblical Magi. But how did they get there?

The long journey of the Three Wise Men to the Rhineland begins with the history of the Roman Catholic Church — and an emperor's mother, who was an avid collector of holy relics. In the year 313, Emperor Constantine the Great, ruler of the Roman Empire, issued the Edict of Milan, a declaration that legalized Christianity across the Roman Empire. (Also Read | Earth's Rotations Day 2023: Date, history and significance of the day)

According to Christian tradition, the Three Wise Men followed the Star of Bethlehem to find Jesus. (DW/Dmitry Rukhlenko/Imagebroker/picture alliance)
According to Christian tradition, the Three Wise Men followed the Star of Bethlehem to find Jesus. (DW/Dmitry Rukhlenko/Imagebroker/picture alliance)

Many Romans renounced the gods of antiquity and embraced the new faith. Among them was Helena, the emperor's mother. She also embarked on finding all possible places and objects that had something to do with Jesus of Nazareth.

In Jerusalem, she allegedly discovered his grave and also the cross on which he is said to have died. During her search for relics, she is said to have found the grave of the Three Wise Men.

Magi on the ox cart

Christians from all over the world revere them as the "Three Wise Men from the East" who followed the star of Bethlehem to Jesus' manger and paid homage to him as the newborn son of God.

Although the three visitors are popularly referred to as kings, in the Bible they are rather described as wise men, in some translations astrologers or magi — priests specialized in the study of the stars.

But whether they were kings or not, the relics were valuable enough for the emperor's mother to bring them to Constantinople (now Istanbul). But Helena didn't get to enjoy her find for long: The emperor gave it to the Milanese bishop Eustorgius, who embedded it in a marble sarcophagus and had the reliquary transported to Italy on an ox cart.

At the end of the arduous, almost 2,000-kilometer (1,250-mile) journey to Milan, the exhausted animals are said to have collapsed just outside the city gates. According to legend, that precise location is where Eustorgius built a basilica to keep the remains of the Three Wise Men.

Saints as spoils of war

And the bones lay there for over seven centuries, until Emperor Frederick I, known as Barbarossa, besieged Milan in 1162. At his side was the Cologne Archbishop Rainald von Dassel, who was not only a man of the church, but also imperial chancellor and military leader for Barbarossa.

When the Italian city finally fell, von Dassel asked for the Three Kings' remains as spoils of war.

"The archbishop was certainly aiming to gain prestige for Cologne," says Matthias Deml, press spokesperson for the Cologne Cathedral Builders' Works, adding that such important saints from biblical times had an inestimable value for pilgrims.

'An incomparable treasure'

When the archbishop entered Cologne with his troops on July 23, 1164, the city's residents cheered them enthusiastically, celebrating their precious cargo — which von Dassel described at the time as "an incomparable treasure, more valuable than all gold and precious stones."

"The amazing thing is that there were no sources about the existence of these relics before 1162," Deml told DW. "When they arrived in Cologne, however, they became world famous, because Dassel advertised everywhere he went that he was now in possession of the bones of the Three Wise Men."

However, that marketing strategy turned the transport of the remains into a risky journey; the relics would have been worthwhile loot for any prince. It is said that different tricks were used to deceive potential robbers, such as nailing horseshoes on backwards to avoid being tracked, or declaring the remains to be plague corpses, carried over the Alps in tin coffins.

A legend created by a monk from Hildesheim

None of the stories about how Helena or Bishop Eustorgius came into possession of the relics were ever officially documented, nor were the archbishop's precautions to protect the remains on their journey to Cologne.

The first documents about the remains date back to their celebrated arrival in Cologne.

According to Deml, a Carmelite monk named Johannes von Hildesheim wrote down the legend of what happened to the Three Kings after their biblical apparition.

In his telling, the Magi did not want to separate after visiting Jesus' manger. One day, Thomas the Apostle came by to visit them, and told them about Christ's life and impact, and ordained them bishops.

The monk then also included a "miracle" in their burial story: The deceased eldest king, Johannes von Hildesheim wrote, moved to the side of the grave to leave space for the second one when he also died. And both of them slid aside for the youngest of the three when the grave was opened again to bury him next to his companions.

To thank the monk, the Archbishop of Cologne bequeathed the saints' finger bones to the city of Hildesheim. "And this was not a small, insignificant part of the body, because the Three Kings used their index fingers to point to the Star of Bethlehem," Deml explained.

Before Johannes von Hildesheim's writings on "the Wise Men from the Orient," it was around the year 500 that their names — Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar — first appeared, along with an interpretation of their role in the story. According to the Catholic Church, they each represented one of the continents that were known 2,000 years ago — Africa, Asia and Europe — and symbolized the idea that the whole world would adore Jesus.

Pilgrims flock to Cologne, hoping for miracles

In any case, the precious relics ended up in the Romanesque cathedral of the city of Cologne. Philipp von Hochstaden, the successor to von Dassel, who died on another campaign in 1167, commissioned a golden shrine. It was made by one of the most artistic goldsmiths of the Middle Ages, Nicholas of Verdun.

Every day, countless pilgrims flocked to the Shrine of the Three Kings. In the morning, a door in the shrine would be opened to allow the saints' skulls to be seen. Persuasive clergymen took plaques, coins or even printed silk fabrics from the believers, which they would hold onto the shrine to turn them into so-called "contact relics." These were believed to help against things like epilepsy, house fires, feverish illnesses, robbers, pirates and more, Deml said.

A new cathedral was needed

Emperors and kings also travelled to pay their respects to the Three Kings. It didn't take long before the old Cologne cathedral could no longer accommodate the hordes of pilgrims from all over Europe.

So in 1248 the people of Cologne began building a new, more fitting church.

Its completion took an impressive 632 years. The cathedral was not completed until 1880.

'A matter of faith'

The Three Wise Men have survived the centuries unscathed, although of course the question has repeatedly been asked over time: Are those really the remains of the Three Wise Men?

"It certainly isn't a blatant forgery," says Matthias Deml. The shrine was opened in the 19th century and the bones were found to be wrapped in old, valuable silk fabrics from Palmyra (today's Syria), which date back to late antiquity.

"So whoever is in the Shrine of the Three Kings, they have definitely been revered for many centuries," points out Deml. "Whether they are the Magi is ultimately a matter of faith."

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