Cologne Cathedral: The Shrine of The Magi

The German city of Cologne on the Rhine houses one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Central Europe. In it, visitors will find one of the most extraordinary works of art in existence: The shrine of the three holy Magi. Shrine and cathedral draw thousands of worshipers as well as art lovers from all over the world.

In legend, the relics of the Magi were brought to Cologne by the Roman Empress and Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Church history gives them a different traveling schedule, though. According to the Catholic Church, the Magi (or rather their corpses) appear first in the 4th century when they left Constantinople for Milan as a gift to Bishop Eustorgius. In the constant up and downs of the Holy Roman Empire, they were relocated by Emperor Barbarossa and entrusted to the bishop of Cologne.

In Cologne, they were sumptuously enshrined. But they went traveling again in 1794. Before the French occupied the Rhineland, the shrine was evacuated and went as far abroad as Prague before being brought back after the fall of Napoleon. Surprisingly, very few pieces are missing from the shrine, considering how precious it is in even purely material terms. One of the major thefts was done 1574. A cameo showing Pharaoh Ptolemy which had been worked into the shrine later resurfaced in Vienna and is in a museum there.

The shrine itself is a contraption of three stacked wooden sarcophagi encased in precious metals. It is richly bedecked with over 1,000 precious stones and pearls. Add to this about 300 antique gems and cameos, by themselves the largest medieval collection of pictorial stones, and you start to guess at the importance the Prince Bishops of Cologne gave to these relics. It made Cologne one of the most important church centers in the known world. It is easy to see why to people it was sheer magic: Something as important and richly enshrined could only have been brought to Cologne by no one less than Empress Saint Helena herself.

The pictures on the shrine are fairly straightforward. The lower tier depicts the biblical prophets on the two lower long sides. The sides of the upper tier show the apostles. The front shows at the bottom Mary at the center being approached from the left by the three kings. The fourth king depicted is King Otto IV of Germany, who received this honor for an enormous bribe he paid to the Prince Bishop for his vote in the electoral assembly. On the right hand side Christ’s baptism is shown.

Just over these scenes a removable plate has been attached which when removed will give access to the interior of the shrine. The plate holds three cameos (one would have been the Ptolemy cameo), the remaining two showing the coronation of Nero on one and Venus and Mars on the other. The top of the front is dominated by Christ the Judge accompanied by two angels.

The backside shows at the bottom the prophet Isaiah flanked by the two scenes of the flagellation and crucifixion of Christ. Over these are shown the figure of Patience with two angels and an angel with the cross with Sol and Luna. The top shows Christ handing martyrs’ crowns to Saint Felix of Africa and Saint Nabon. These two saints have been tucked in with the Magi as well as Saint Gregory of Spoleto.

My favorite interpretation of the importance of the shrine of the Magi for today comes from American author cum Catholic priest Andrew M. Greeley. He suggested that a pilgrimage to the shrine might help you to follow your own star. While his observation is meant in a (unorthodox) religious context, I would apply the same interpretation for everybody of any faith. The Magi followed their star to reach the goal they headed for, and that is something everybody is not only entitled to, but should actively strive for. I therefore recommend a visit to the shrine to everybody, no matter what your religious convictions are.

Further reading