The Three Kings and how they came to Cologne

The story of the Three Kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, begins with the Gospel of St. Matthew: It tells that three wise men came from the East to praise the new-born child in Bethlehem. These three personages – who may have been magi, astrologers or stargazers – were only described as kings for the first time in the 3rd century. The religious teacher Origines (185-254) concluded that there were three of them from the gifts that it is said that they brought of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The familiar names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar eventually emerged in the 8th and 9th centuries.

According to tradition, Caspar is the oldest, Balthasar the middle one and Melchior the youngest king. The Three Kings represented the three parts of the globe known at that time: Europe, Asia and Africa. In addition, they represented the three ages of mankind: youth, adulthood and old age.

The wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. With the gift of gold, Jesus is honoured by the most precious substance on earth and recognized as God’s son. Myrrh, with its bitterness and healing properties, refers to the suffering and death of Christ, but also to resurrection and new life. Frankincense, which is considered a godly fragrance, indicates the godliness of the recipient.

The relics of the Three Kings are said to have been found by Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I., who brought them to Constantinople. The relics apparently only moved to Milan in the 12th century. After the conquest of the city by Emperor Frederick I., the Imperial Chancellor and Cologne’s Archbishop Rainald von Dassel transferred them to Cologne, where they arrived on 23/07/1164.

The Shrine of the Three Kings, designed to store the relics, and one of the most important examples of the goldsmith's art, was built between 1180 and 1230. Its design is linked to the goldsmith Nikolaus von Verdun. The front shows the enthroned Madonna and child while the Three Kings approach from the left. Remnants of the tissues in which the bones were wrapped proved to be an ancient silk material from the Orient, which may prove that the relics date back to biblical times.

The high level of interest in the European region led to the Shrine of the Three Kings becoming a popular pilgrimage destination. However, political intentions also played a not inconsiderable role.

The high profile transfer of the relics of the Three Kings to Cologne by Frederick I. Barbarossa and his Chancellor Rainald von Dassel was politically motivated. After the victory of Frederick I. over the city of Milan, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I, who saw himself as a second Christ and the son of God, tried to achieve the political isolation of the Western empire. Faced with this claim, Friedrich I was able to present himself as a legitimate successor of the first rulers to pay homage to Christ. A demonstrative gesture was needed to underpin the claim of a new sacred foundation for the empire. "Through their proximity to the holy child of Bethlehem, the Three Kings represented a certain degree of God-given kingship and – Charlemagne cannot quite be separated from the story of the transfer of the relics - a strengthening of imperial rule in the Western world."

No other ruler held the relics of the Three Kings in such high esteem. From 1164, the year in which the bones were moved to Cologne, until 1531, when the last German king was crowned in Aachen, the empire had 28 rulers, of which 13 visited Cologne following their coronations in Aachen. Maximilian l. and Ferdinand l. each spent time in Cologne before and after their Aachen coronation. Before his coronation in 1531, Ferdinand was elected Roman-German King in Cologne Cathedral. Ruprecht was crowned in Cologne rather than Aachen in 1401 after the city of Aachen refused him entry. However, the Three Kings were never Imperial Saints.

It is no coincidence that the Cologne Archbishop Rainald von Dassel brought the relics to Cologne. He wanted to ensure that his Cathedral city was equipped with a significant treasure of relics so that it would play a central role in the empire. The Archbishop may have believed he was creating a focus on the religious element of the imperial representation. Finally, a third power (in addition to the Emperor and the Archbishop) raised a claim to the political use of the relics of the Three Kings. For the emerging city of Cologne, the relocation of the relics and the ensuing attraction for mass pilgrimage formed the basis for its political, economic and cultural advancement. The city chose the Three Kings to sit alongside St. Ursula with her companions and St. Gereon as the city’s patron saints. When the city awarded itself a coat of arms in the 13th century, the golden crowns of the Three Kings were included in the red and white design.

Honouring the Three Kings

Cologne was one of the largest late-medieval pilgrimage sites; the most well-known destinations were the Shrine of the Three Kings and St. Ursula and her companions. High-ranking secular and spiritual personalities endowed the royal saints with rich foundations, pilgrimage travellers from all classes and social standings were drawn to the precious Shrine of the Three Kings and spread the reputation of the holy figures.


Source: (Status: 21/09/2018), "Three Kings"
Alois Döring


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