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Adoration of the Magi (detail), Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, oil on panel (1517), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Adoration of the Magi (detail), Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, oil on panel (1517), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The story of the Magi, or the three kings, is a celebrated part of the Christmas story and a popular motif in Western culture. The story can be found in the Gospel of Matthew, though most details of the Magi’s visit derive from a more obscure fourteenth-century source known as the Historia Trium Regum. Matthew’s gospel describes the mysterious star of Bethlehem; the arrival of “wise men from the East”; the Magi’s reception with King Herod; the Magi’s visit to the infant Jesus; their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and the warning the wise men received to return home by another way.1 Other details, however, are omitted from Matthew’s Christmas tale. Exactly how many wise men arrived from the East? Who were they? What were their names? And what happened to them after they returned from Bethlehem? Ultimately, although clearly outside the scope of Matthew’s gospel, how did the bodies of the three kings come to be laid to rest in Cologne, Germany?

The Historia Trium Regum, or History of the Three Kings, by John of Hildesheim elaborates on Saint Matthew’s story and provides an intriguing coda to the narrative, one that explains how the relics of the three kings were brought to the ancient city of Cologne.2 From the Historia we learn that there were three wise men and that the three men were actually kings from the East—from the lands of Ind, Chaldea, and Persia. The three kings, named Melchior, Balthazar, and Jasper,3 did not initially know each other before individually setting out to “seek and worship the Lord and King of the Jews.”

Window of the Adoration of the Magi, Cologne Cathedral

Window of the Adoration of the Magi, stained glass (1846), Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom), Cologne, Germany. The Adoration Window actually combines two events related to the birth of Jesus: the Adoration of the Magi and the Adoration of the Shepherds.

The Star of Bethlehem and the Journey of the Magi

According to the Historia, the star that heralded the birth of Jesus had long been prophesied and watched for by the people of Ind. The Historia states, “Now, in the time when Balaam prophesied of the Star that should betoken the birth of Christ, all the great lords and the people of Ind and in the East desired greatly to see this Star of which he spake.”4 Consequently, the people gave gifts to the keepers of the Hill of Vaws, a tall hill in the Kingdom of Ind that was used as a lookout point, and bade the sentinels, “if they saw by night or by day any star in the air, that had not been seen aforetime,” to send word to the people of Ind.5

Adoration - Tiepolo (detail) 2Eventually, the star appeared. “When Christ was born in Bethlehem, His Star began to rise in the manner of the sun, bright shining. It ascended above the Hill of Vaws, and all that day in the highest air it abode without moving, insomuch that when the sun was hot and most high there was no difference in shining betwixt them.” Following the day of the nativity, “the Star ascended up into the firmament, and it had right many long streaks and beams, more burning and brighter than a brand of fire; and, as an eagle flying and beating the air with his wings, right so the streaks and beams of the Star stirred about.”6

The star guided each of the kings from his native land. We are told that “[w]hen they stood still and rested, the Star stood still; and when they went forward again, the Star always went before them . . . and gave light all the way.” As the three kings and their retinues converged on Jerusalem, they finally met. “[N]otwithstanding that none of them ever before had seen the other, nor knew him, nor had heard of his coming, yet at their meeting each one with great reverence and joy kissed the other.” They continued as a group into Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem, which they entered on “the sixth hour of the day.” Together they rode through the streets until they came to a little house. There, “the Star stood still, and then descended and shone with so great a light that the little house was full of radiance, till anon the Star went upward again into the air, and stood still always above the same place.”7

The Adoration of the Magi and the Feast of the Epiphany

The kings “fell down and worshipped” Jesus at the house and offered him magnificent gifts.8 In addition to silver, jewels, and precious stones, Melchior gave Jesus “a round apple of gold” and thirty gilt pennies; Balthazar gave Christ incense; and Jaspar gave him myrrh, which he offered “with weeping and tears.”9 In art, this event is often referred to as the “Adoration of the Magi,” while their visitation to the infant Jesus is celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany, or “manifestation.”10

Adoration - Munich (detail) 2

Columba Altar (detail), Rogier van der Weyden, oil on panel (c. 1455), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

The Magi remained in Bethlehem for some time before preparing to return home. In a dream, the three kings were told not to return to Herod, so they chose to return to their homes by another route. When they left Bethlehem, “the Star that had gone before appeared no more.” Journeying together for many days, they eventually came to the Hill of Vaws, where they built a chapel “in worship of the Child they had sought.” They agreed to meet at the chapel once a year and “ordained that the Hill of Vaws should be their place of burial.”11

The Death of the Wise Men

Many years later, “a little before the feast of Christmas, there appeared a wonderful Star above the cities where these three kings dwelt, and they knew thereby that their time was come when they should pass from earth.” Together, they agreed to build “a fair and large tomb” at the Hill of Vaws, “and there the three Holy Kings, Melchior, Balthazar, and Jasper died, and were buried in the same tomb by their sorrowing people.”12 As Mark Rose observed in an article for Archeology, “If we were to assume that this actually happened, that all three died at the same place at the same time, it might have been in the mid-first century (since the kings were adults already in Bethlehem).”13

Two centuries later, the Historia explains that Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, journeyed to Ind and recovered the bodies of the three kings from their tomb on the Hill of Vaws. She put them into a single chest ornamented with great riches and brought the relics to Constantinople and the church of Saint Sophia, also known as the Hagia Sophia. In the late sixth century, under the Emperor Mauricius, the relics were translated to Italy, where “they were laid in a fair church in the city of Milan.”

Shrine of the Three Kings (detail), Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

Shrine of the Three Kings (detail), Nicholas of Verdun, gold, silver, and semi-precious stones (1190-1220), Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

The relics of the three kings remained in Milan until the twelfth century when the city of Milan rebelled against the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I, also known as Frederick Barbarossa. In need of assistance against the Milanese, the emperor appealed to Rainald von Dassel, Archbishop of Cologne, who recaptured Milan and delivered the city to the emperor. In gratitude, and “at the Archbishop’s great entreaty,” the emperor transferred the relics to the Archbishop in 1164. The Archbishop, “with great solemnity and in procession,” carried the bodies of the three kings from Milan to Cologne, where they were placed in the church of Saint Peter. “And all the people of the country roundabout, with all the reverence they might, received these relics, and there in the city of Cologne they are kept and beholden of all manner of nations unto this day.” The Historia concludes, “Thus endeth the legend of these three blessed kings—Melchior, Balthazar, and Jasper.”14

The Relics of the Magi at Cologne Cathedral

John of Hildesheim may have thought he had had the last word on the three kings, but the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral (pictured above) and the precious relics it purportedly contains has continued to fascinate modern visitors.15 Are the bones sealed in the reliquary really those of Melchior, Balthazar, and Jasper?

One of the earliest and most intriguing depictions of the Magi is a late sixth-century mosaic located at New Basilica of Saint Apollinaris (Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo) in Ravenna, Italy. The Magi appear dressed in Eastern clothing, carrying traditional gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.16 Additionally, the three kings are portrayed as men of different ages: Jasper is depicted as an older man with white hair and beard; Balthazar is shown as a middle-aged man with dark hair and beard; and Melchior is represented as a beardless young man.  (In contrast, the Venerable Bede, writing in the 8th century, identifies Melchior as an “old man, with long beard,” Jasper as “young, beardless, [and] of ruddy hue,” and Balthazar as “with heavy beard” and “middle aged.”)

Mosaic of the Magi, Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.  Courtesy of Nina Aldin Thune, Wikimedia Commons.

Mosaic of the Magi, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. Courtesy of Nina Aldin Thune, Wikimedia Commons.

In 2004, Egyptologist Bob Brier and The Learning Channel examined whether the bones in the Shrine of the Three Kings could possibly be the bones of the Magi, and their investigation revealed something remarkable.17 Scrutinizing the cranial sutures of the three skulls kept in the shrine, Brier’s team concluded that the skulls appeared to be from individuals of different ages: one older (the sutures were completely fused), one middle-aged (the sutures were mostly fused), and one younger (the sutures were incompletely fused). The relative ages of the skulls appeared to corroborate the depiction of the Magi in the Ravenna mosaic.

Coat of Arms of CologneThe three skulls in the shrine were also graced with golden crowns, apparently given to the church by King Otto IV of Brunswick in 1199. Incidentally, in recognition of the importance of the kings’ relics, three golden crowns appear on the coat of arms of the city of Cologne. As Gerald J. Brault explains in Early Blazon: Heraldic Terminology in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries with Special Reference to Arthurian Heraldry, “Three crowns were frequently an allusion to the Three Wise Men whose relics were brought by Frederick I Barbarossa from Milan to Cologne in 1164. Commemorating this event, three crowns are featured in the arms of the City of Cologne dating from the end of the thirteenth century as well as on the seal of the University of Cologne from 1392 onwards.”18

King of Kings

For those who have visited Cologne Cathedral, the impressive and stately Shrine of the Three Kings serves as a visual reminder of events that transpired over two thousand years ago, when three men left the comfort of their homes to worship at the feet of an infant. Pope Saint Leo, writing in the fifth century, helps keep the meaning of their visit in perspective: “When a star had conducted them to worship Jesus, they did not find Him commanding devils or raising the dead or restoring sight to the blind or speech to the dumb, or employed in any divine action; but a silent babe, dependent upon a mother’s care, giving no sign of power but exhibiting a miracle of humility.”19 In the din of our modern world, this message of hope and faith may strike some as something of an epiphany.

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

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To all our readers, we wish you a merry Christmas and a joyous and safe holiday season. We hope to see you back in 2014 and look forward to sharing further posts with you at Reliquarian.com in the new year.

. . .

Three Kings Group - Nuremburg 1

Die Heiligen Drei Könige (The Three Holy Kings), oak (originally polychromed) (1490), Nuremberg, Germany. These figures are rare examples of Dutch medieval sculpture and were originally displayed on the pillars of a church, along with the Virgin Mary. The physiognomy and lively pose of the sculpture on the left identify him as King Balthazar, who is often depicted as a dark complexioned, “exotic” figure from either Africa or Arabia.

Three Kings Group - Nuremburg 2

Die Heiligen Drei Könige (The Three Holy Kings) (detail), oak (originally polychromed) (1490), Nuremberg, Germany

Adoration - Cologne

Adoration of the Magi, oil on canvas, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany

Adoration of the Magi (detail), painted wood (late 15th century), Archdiocesan Musem, Krakow, Poland

Poklon Trzech Króli (Adoration of the Magi) (detail), painted wood (c. 1450-1475), Archdiocesan Musem, Krakow, Poland. This sculpture was originally displayed in Saint Mary’s Church in Krakow and was probably the central scene of a lost triptych. According to the Archdiocesan Museum, it is an example of the “angular” late Gothic style of sculpture in Krakow that preceded the later, more “expressive” work of Wit Stwosz (Veit Stoss). See Andrzej Jozef Nowobilski, Origin Collection Activity 70 (2011).

Adoration of the Magi - Metropolitan Museum

Adoration of the Magi (detail), oak with paint and gilding, South Netherlandish (1520), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany. During the Middle Ages, the shrine was kept in the crossing. Today, it is displayed above the high altar, at the rear of the inner choir.

1 Matthew 2:1–16.

2 See The Early English Text Society, The Three Kings of Cologne: An Early English Translation of the “Historia Trium Regum” by John of Hildesheim (C. Horstmann ed., 1886); Steph Mineart, The Three Kings of Cologne—A Legend of the Middle Ages, CommonPlaceBook.com (Mar. 3, 2004), http://commonplacebook.com/culture/the_three_kings/ (featuring a modernized translation of the story by H.S. Morris). John of Hildesheim was a Carmelite friar who lived in the Prince-Bishopric of Hildesheim in what is not present-day Germany.

3 Balthazar is sometimes spelled Balthasar.  “Jasper” sometimes appears as “Gaspar” or “Caspar.”

4 The Three Kings of Cologne—A Legend of the Middle Ages, supra note 2.

5 Id. The Hill of Vaws is also known as the Hill of Victory.

6 Id.

7 Id.

8 Id.

9 Id.

10 George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art 78 (1961). The Feast of the Epiphany was traditionally celebrated on January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmas.

11 The Three Kings of Cologne—A Legend of the Middle Ages, supra note 2.

12 Id.

13 Mark Rose, “The Three Kings & the Star,” Archeology, Dec. 21, 2004, available at http://archive.archaeology.org/online/reviews/threekings/.

14 The Three Kings of Cologne—A Legend of the Middle Ages, supra note 2.

15 See Der Kölner Dom, http://www.koelner-dom.de/ (last visited Dec. 21, 2013) (official website of Cologne Cathedral).

16 Ferguson, supra note 10, at 78. As George Ferguson points out in Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, the three gifts apparently hold a symbolic meaning: “gold to a King, frankincense to One Divine, myrrh, the emblem of death, to a Sufferer.” These gifts “represent the offering to Christ of wealth and energy, adoration, and self-sacrifice.” Id.

17 Mummy Detective: The Three Kings (The Learning Channel television broadcast Dec. 23, 2004); see also Rose, supra note 13.

18 Gerald J. Brault, Early Blazon: Heraldic Terminology in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries with Special Reference to Arthurian Heraldry 45 (2nd ed. 1997).  The eleven black “tears” on the escutcheon of the coat arms, more formally known as gouttes of tar, have come to represent Saint Ursula (Cologne’s other patron saint) and the eleven thousand virgins with whom she was martyred.  In reality, they are likely representations of the black spots commonly found on ermine fur.  See Cologne Coat of Arms, Cologne Tourist Board, http://www.cologne-tourism.com/attractions-culture/city-history/coat-of-arms.html.

19 See 1 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 40 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).