The Shrine Of The Magi
The Shrine Of The Magi
Origins and Significance
The Shrine of The Magi – Origins and Significance
The Epiphany Mass celebrates the wise men arriving at Christs nativity. It is a sacred ritual performed at Catholic churches and cathedrals across the globe. It is awesome that the faithful believe that the bones of those same wise men, called the Magi, are on display in Cologne Cathedral, Germany today. And for those who do not believe, there are ancient bones displayed in a golden, bejewelled reliquary that is the largest and most valuable in the world.
St Matthew And The Nativity
The story begins with the Gospel of Matthew in the 1st century – the only gospel to mention the wise men – the Magi - in the Nativity. Matthew is writing his gospel for a Jewish audience who may well be familiar with the predictions about the birth of the King Of The Jews. So Matthew tells the tale of the wise men meeting Herod, travelling onward following a star, venerating the infant Jesus, giving gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and then going away. We then get the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents.
St Helena And The Relics
Let's move the story forward. Around 300 AD the Roman Empire is on the verge of adopting Christianity as it’s state religion. Constantine is the Emperor and his mother is Helena. Helena presumably believes that praying to the physical remains of a holy person or their possessions can bring you closer to God. That is to say she believes in veneration of relics. So, Helena goes on a trip collecting relics including the true cross, holy robes, nails, ropes, Christ's blood and setting up churches including the birthplace church.
The closer to Jesus in concept the relics are the more holy and valuable they are. So there are huge numbers of relics found of the true cross and the nails. There aren’t any relics of Jesus himself since the tradition is that he ascended physically to heaven.
Helena sends these relics home and to other places. One of the relics were the bones of the Magi. For that to happen the Magi had to have been buried together and stories arise as to how that could have happened. The bones of the Magi end up in Constantinople – the newly formed city founded by here son Constantine.
The Trip To Milan
Now, a few years later, in about 330, a cultured Greek called Eustorgio was rewarded with the relics by the Emperor Constans to take back to Milan. While still in Constantinople, Eustorgio had a sarcophagus made for the relics and sailed back to Italy. The relics were placed on the cart to transport them back to Milan. However, the cart got stuck and Eustorgio decreed a church be built there – the Basilica di Sant’Eustorgio.
Onward To Cologne – 800 Years Later
The relics would have stayed in Milan but Central Europe in the early medieval period was a series of city states. Some were ruled over by Bishop Princes who wielded both spiritual and temporal power. Which means that they had armies. So when the Holy Roman Emperor, Fredrick Barbarossa of Germany, sacked the city of Milan, he handed the relics to Rainald von Dassel, Archbishop of Cologne, as a reward for providing the emperor with an army. This was in the 1164.
The work began on the reliquary and was completed around 1225 – 60 years of work! It is effectively 3 shrines stacked one on another, the lowest contain the supposed bones of the Magi, there are also possibly the bones of 2 early Christian martyrs, Felix and Nabor, within the reliquary.
What About The Cathedral?
Cologne needed a church to live up to the grandeur of their relics and so it was in 1248 – only 23 years after the reliquary was completed that they commenced building the most epic of Cathedrals. It would be the largest structure ever and stand as a monument for eternity. So ambitious was the plan that it took until 1322 to make a section useable for services.
Work carried on for a further hundred or so years until by 1473 it was pretty much abandoned, although spasmodic efforts were made into the 16th century. With a revival in German patriotism the work began again in 1840. It was eventually finished and a massive ceremony held in 1880. It took just over 600 years to complete!
The reliquary was restored in 1904 and some of the relics were restored to Milan.
The reliquary was removed from Cologne Cathedral during the war. The Cathedral suffered heavily under bombing in the second world war. In an amazingly short the citizens of Cologne restored the Cathedral. Then, in a massive ceremony attracting over a million faithful, the relics were restored to the newly reopened Catherdral in 1948.
Finally, the reliquary was restored for 13 years between 1961 and 1974.
So there it is – the largest, most holy artefact on the globe today and it is free for all to see.