Is it possible that the bones of the Magi — Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar — are kept in a golden tomb in the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe? An ancient tradition recounts the tale of how the bodies of the Magi who visited the Christ child found their way to their final resting place in Germany’s Cologne Cathedral.
The story is told in 14th-century John of Hildesheim’s Historia Trium Regum or “The History of the Three Kings.” John says Balthasar, Melchoir and Caspar were from India, Persia and Chaldea (present-day Iran and Iraq). They set off separately, met at the birthplace in Jerusalem and then journeyed together to Bethlehem. After worshipping Christ, they returned together to India, where they built a church, and after another vision that revealed that their earthly life was about to end, they died at the same time and were buried in their church in India.
Two hundred years later, John of Hildesheim explains, St. Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, travelled to India and recovered their bodies. She put them into a beautifully ornamented casket and placed them in the great church of St. Sophia in Constantinople. In the late sixth century, the emperor Mauricius had the relics moved to the Italian city of Milan.
The bones of Balthasar, Melchior and Casper remained in Milan until the 12th century, when the city of Milan rebelled against the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa. In need of assistance against the Milanese, Frederick appealed to the archbishop of Cologne, who recaptured Milan for the emperor. In gratitude, and “at the archbishop’s great entreaty,” the emperor transferred the relics to the archbishop of Cologne who, in 1164, transported the bones to Cologne where a Gothic cathedral was eventually build to house them. The bones are there to this day in a beautiful gold reliquary in the cathedral.
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