The Magi


Nicolas of Verdun, Adoration of the Kings, with Otto IV, and the Baptism of Christ, Reliquary of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, c 1181.

The Shrine of the Magi, a large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus, is the largest reliquary in the western world.  The exterior is covered in a total of seven feet of gilded silver and jewels.  Images of Old Testament prophets line the bottom while the twelve apostles decorate the top.  It is considered the high point of Mosan art.  In 1864 the shrine was opened and three skeletons were found inside; one of a young man, another of a middle aged man, and the third of an older man.

I. The Magi in Cologne, Germany 1162-2012

Art provenance is the documentation history of a work of art, its creation and ownership, that establishes the works authenticity. There is no  doubt that the Shrine of the Magi was made by Nicolas of Verdun in the 12th century. However, questions arise about the contents.

The last I remember from childhood Christmas pageants were the Wise Men riding camels and singing "We Three Kings of Orient Are." after visiting the baby Jesus.  How did the remains of the Three Wise Men end up in Germany in a sarcophagus made in 12th century Belgium?  To answer the question we must start with an Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Fredrick Barbarossa.

Fredrick attacked the city of  Milan after the Milanese revolted from his rule.  The city surrendered on March 6, 1162, and was sacked on the emperor's orders.  Fredrick sent the relics of the Magi back to the Archbishop of Cologne. As such relics had great religious significance they could be counted upon to draw pilgrims from all over Christendom. Occasionally, there was competition for such relics resulting in theft or in the case of Mary Magdalene a dispute between the Cluniac Benedictines of Vezelay and the Dominicans of Saint-Maxime that occasioned a rash of miraculous literature supporting one or the other site as the true repository of the saints relics.  We must remember, for medieval man faith made a relics, not the other way around.

II. The Magi in Milan, 344-1162
The second question is, obviously, how did those bones find their way to Milan?  This account written almost nine hundred years after the move, states that  the Relics of the Magi were originally brought to Milan by Eustorgius I, Bishop of Milan, in 344 from Constantinople.

At that time Eustorgius lived, Greek birth, a very informed man, nobly and piously, of pleasing exterior, eloquently, for the service to God quite been suitable and in this service turned, a guard of the faith, and also chaste, and a native from Constantinople, before the times of bishop Saint Ambrose of Milan. He came as an ambassador of the emperor Manuel to Milan, and the people of Milan selected him to bishop. Therefore Eustorgius returned to Constantinople, said thanks to the emperor and spoke:  My father and emperor Manuel, I thanks you that you have appreciated the honour towards me up to now and that you have sent me into the holy city Milan, your metropolis. You should know that I have achieved everything, faithfully and after your will, the deliveries are always secured for you, but I am however the chosen one of the city, because you, in honor of God and to praise his charitableness.  I unworthy one was urgent asked to return and to announce, what in the view  on our God and on you your you faithfully resulted people have done at me and like the people delegated these envoys with me to you.  Intend mine and instruct, what I am to do.  The emperor answered:  Become bishop, worthy man.  Eustorgius answers:  I thank God and you; but allow, dearest gentleman, that I can carry forward and can take away to the holy city of Milan anything of the sanctuaries, which me liked, if God's benignity permits it, in order to honour the church with holy relics, and as a gratification for your tributary people. The emperor answers:  Select, receive, carry forward, which you would like.  Be as if you are, or, is it possible, become still better.  Greet my people and announce that from now on the whole delivery is issued. Thus Eustorgius went pleased, and he manufactured a marmorean coffin with large effort, and put into it the bodies of the Three Kings, who had brought Christus their gifts - gold, frankincense and myrrh.  With trouble under many nights in which he was awake, and through God's assistance and amicability he transported it towards Milan into the city.  The sarcophagus became buried outside of the city-wall closely beside the city in a church, which later was sanctified to honor holy Eustorgius.  Also there is a famous and very holy source, where the neophytes had received the holy baptism, all Christians pious veneration with dignity. ..."

                                                    -The Vita Beati Eustorgii Confessoris reports around the year 1200


Note: the Emperor in Constantinople at that time was Constantios, who ruled from 337-61 AD. Manuel I was a 12th century emperor.

eustorigio transfer
              Sant Eustorigio, Milan Stone relief in
 Sant Eustorigio. St Eustogio hauls the relics of the Three Magi to Milan

By tradition, the remains of the  Magi were brought from Constantinople to Milan by Saint Eustorgio in an ox-cart and enshrined in a Roman sarcophagus in the church named after their transporter. Together with the holy relicts a craved stone slab with the Latin inscription SEPVLCRVM TRIVM MAGORVM (which can be translated as, Sepulcher of Three Magi) was brought to Milan. 

III. Magi to 327-344

John of Hildesheim (born in 1310/1320, died in 1375) continues the story of the wise men:  A star appears above the cities in which the kings dwell just before Christmas, indicating to them that their lives were nearing an end.

"Then with one consent they built, at the Hill of Vaws, a fair and large tomb, and there the three Holy Kings ... died and were buried in the same tomb by their sorrowing people."

Assuming that this happened, that all three died at the same place at the same time, then it happened in the mid-first century (since the kings were adults in Bethlehem).  If so, the kings had two centuries of rest in their tomb before beginning yet another journey. 

 "Queen Helen...began to think greatly of the bodies of these three kings, and she arrayed herself, and accompanied by many attendants, went into the Land of Ind ... after she had found the bodies of Melchior, Balthazar and Casper, Queen Helen put them into one chest and ornamented it with great riches, and she brought them into Constantinople ... and laid them in a church that is called Saint Sophia".

There is no mention in Byzantine history of Helen bringing back the bones of the Magi, only that, guided by Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, she found the True Cross in a cistern beneath a temple to Aphrodite. Historians place St Helen's visit to the Holy Land around 327.

IV. Marco  Polo and the Magi
 Marco Polo in his famous journey  claimed that he was shown the three tombs of the Magi at Saveh south of Tehran in the 1270s:

"In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they came to worship Jesus Christ.  Here, too, they lie buried in three sepulchres of great size and beauty.  Above each sepulchre is a square building with a domed roof of very fine workmanship.  The one is just beside the other.  Their bodies are still whole, and they have hair and beards.  One was named Beltasar, the second Gaspar, and the third Melchior .."
(Book i).

When he asked the inhabitants who the three kings were, he was told that nobody knew exactly; they were kings and the tombs had been there for many years.  As Polo continued his investigation about the Kings another story emerged; three days farther on, he found a town called Kala Atashparastan, that is "Town of the Fire-worshippers".

"And that is no more than the truth; for the men of this town do worship fire. And I will tell you why they worship it.  The inhabitants declare that in days gone by three kings of this country went to worship a new-born prophet and took with them three offerings - gold, frankincense, and myrrh - so as to discover whether this prophet was a god, or an earthly king or a healer.  For they said : If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh, a healer."


V. The Source



And when they were come into the house, they
saw the young child with Mary his mother, and
fell down, and worshipped him and when
they had opened their treasures, they presented
unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
                                          -Matthew 2:11 KJ




In the church calendar, this event is commemorated in Western Christianity as the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). The Orthodox Church  commemorates the Adoration of the Magi on the Feast of the Nativity (December 25). Christian iconography has considerably expanded the bare account of the Biblical Magi  given in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (2: 1-22) and used it make the point that Jesus was recognized, from his earliest infancy, as king of the earth.

VI. The Magi in Art  (linked)

Sant Apollinare Ravenna

  • Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.  The Magi (Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar).
     526 AD by the  "Master of Sant'Apollinare".

The mysterious, but simple account of the wise men in the Book of Matthew evolves over the centuries to a full narrative saga of remarkable complexity.

giotto Giotto's 1305 fresco 'Adoration of the Magi' in the Arena Chapel in Padua. Notice the comet.

When commissioned by a church to produce an object for worship, the artist was closely advised by clerics.  The artist was more like a modern architect who must work in harmony with the client who is paying the bill.  For two centuries the basic theme of the Magi story is maintained but the increased level of sophistication and complexity is evident in this painting by Jan Gossaert.  The barn has become a ruined palace, but everyone is well dressed. Mary, rather than the wife of a poor carpenter, is dressed as the queen of heaven.

adoration of the magi

The Adoration of the Kings

Jan Gossaert, National Gallery, London

This large picture was painted as the altarpiece of the Lady Chapel of the Abbey of St Adrian's, Geraardsbergen, near Brussels.  Behind the kneeling king, Caspar, stands Melchior with a retinue of attendants.  Balthazar is on the left, and Gossaert has signed his name on the border of his headdress and again on the collar worn by his attendant.

The dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, descends to the infant Christ from the brilliant star in the sky, and angels approach from a great distance through a series of arches, giving the scene a spectacular sense of space and depth.

St Joseph  stands off to the side of the action. Artist seem never know what to do with him, if he not leading a donkey.

Analysis of the Gossaert Painting

Over the centuries the Magi were given names and came to represent the universality of Christianity;  Caspar: Europe, Balthasar: Africa, Melchior: Asia.

On the capital above Caspar's head is a representation of the Sacrifice of Isaac, which prefigures the Crucifixion. Though there are nine angels in the upper half of the painting, which suggests that they represent the Nine Orders of angels.


The text for many such paintings came from The Golden Legend.  Accordingly, the star might represent the Holy Ghost, or the angel that appeared to the shepherds, or the  newly-created body which returned to the underlying matter after its mission was accomplished?.  Because the shepherds in the distance appear to be looking towards the star rather than at any of the angels, perhaps Gossaert favored the idea that the star is the angel, especially as the dove, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit, is also present.

The gifts of the kings may be interpreted in various ways. The most popular interpretation is: gold  for tribute, frankincense for sacrifice, and myrrh for burying the dead. The gifts denoted Christ's roles as king, God, and man.

The Adoration of the Kings is from Saint Matthew's Gospel, 2:11 (see below).  The palatial buildings are in ruins and are overgrown with plants.
 The architecture seems to act as a stage set, providing  depth to the scene.

 The frieze above the Virgin bears a relief of  dancing  putti.  Four capitals are also decorated with putti: at the top left, above the head of the first angel; at the top right, above the head of the angel in pink; on the left, between the scroll and the left wing of the angel in green; and on the right, between the angel in white and the praying hands of the angel in pink.

On the capital above the eldest king is a relief of the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22: 9?13).  Abraham seems to be improbably nude; the angel grasps his right hand; Isaac, who is kneeling, is dressed in a long robe; the ram appears in front of Isaac.

The floor is made up of slabs of colored chipped and broken stone.

The floor is made up of slabs of colored chipped and broken stone arranged in geometrical patterns, with weeds  between the stones. The two dogs have been adapted from prints. The dog on the right is from Durer's ?Saint Eustace?.


1) The eldest king, Casper, has offered  gold coins in a golden goblet. The Child takes one of the coins in his left hand.  The cover of the goblet, inscribed with the king's name: [L]E ROII IASPAR, lies at the feet of the Virgin; the goblet is ornamented with columns, lions and roundels of men?s heads.  In front of Caspar are his hat and his scepter, which incorporates two babies holding ropes and a figure of Moses holding the Ten Commandments.

2) The second king, Melchior stands behind Caspar and carries his frankincense in a golden vessel.   Behind him are four attendants.

3) The third king, Balthasar, approaches from our left.  His elaborate hat is inscribed with his name, BALTAZAR, and with the artist's signature.  Balthasar's boots are made of leather so thin that his toes and toenails can de distinguished. Around his neck he wears a fringed stole inscribed with the opening words of the 'Salve regina misericordiae', a prayer or hymn to the Virgin.  His gift of myrrh is contained in a golden vessel ornamented at the top with three figures of  putti.  Behind him are three attendants; the black attendant wears a silver collar inscribed with the painter's name.

4) Through the window on the left are two men in exotic clothes, perhaps attendants of the kings.  On the far right, the horseman wearing a turban and holding a heavy ornamented hammer is another of the retinue, along with other mounted attendants who appear in the distance


5) Between Balthasar and the Virgin, is Saint Joseph dressed in a red cloak.  Behind him, the head of the ox appears through a doorway in which stands an angel.

6) The donkey, between the Virgin and Caspar, is eating weeds.  Directly behind Caspar are two shepherds. The one on our left carries a musical instrument similar to a recorder; the other holds a straw hat and a tool of some kind.  Hanging from his neck on a twisted cord is a small horn. The four men between the shepherd and the Virgin are more shepherds, and behind them even more shepherds receiving the news of Christ?s birth.

7) Above, Nine Angels are floating.  The two on the left wear headbands and the second holds a scroll inscribed: Gloria in excelcis deo. The angels and not like some Biblical angels described as fiery wheels or with several heads, but are humanized and in no way frightening.

8) At the top edge of the picture the star that guided the kings brightly shines. Below the star hovers the dove of the Holy Ghost.


End Note: For a hilarious take on the Magi story being moved from Milan to Koln see chapter 10, "Baudolino finds the Magi and canonizes Charlemagne" in Umberto Eco's novel, "Baudolino".  Agents of Fredric Barbarossa discover the Magi's well preserved bodies in the church during the sack of Milan. But as the bodies are dressed in clothes like those depicted in the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo (above), the thieves don't think anybody back in Germany will believe they are the Magi. So they dress the corpses in holy vestments worn by contemporary bishops and place the bodies in wooden coffins for transport to Cologne.

Also, for another artist's take on the Magi story see Bosch's "Epiphany".