The Shrine of the Three Kings (German Dreikönigsschrein) is a reliquary said to contain the bones of the Biblical Magi, also known as the Three Kings or the Three Wise Men. The shrine is a large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus placed above and behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral. It is considered the high point of Mosan art and the largest reliquary in the western world.
The alleged "relics of the Magi" were originally situated at Constantinople, but brought to Milan by Eustorgius I, the city's bishop, in 344. The relics of the Magi were taken from Milan by Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa and given to the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel in 1164. The Three Kings have since attracted a constant stream of pilgrims to Cologne.
Parts of the shrine were designed by the famous medieval goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun, who began work on it in 1180 or 1181. It has elaborate gold sculptures of the prophets and apostles, and scenes from the life of Christ. The shrine was completed circa 1225.
Around 1199, King Otto gave three golden crowns made for the three wise men as a present to the church of Cologne: "Otto rex coloniensis curiam celebrans tres coronas de auro capitibus trium magorum imposuit"; MGSS 17, 292. Because of the importance of the shrine and the cathedral for the later development of the city, the Coat of Arms of Cologne still shows these three crowns symbolizing the Three Kings.
Construction of the present Cologne Cathedral was begun in 1248 to house these important relics. The cathedral took 632 years to complete and is now the largest Gothic church in northern Europe.
On July 20, 1864, the shrine was opened, and remains of the Three Kings and the coins of Philip I, Archbishop of Cologne were discovered. An eyewitness report reads:
The bones were wrapped in white silk and returned to the shrine.
Size and construction
The Shrine of the Three Kings is approximately 43 inches (110 cm) wide, 60 inches (153 cm) high, and 87 inches (220 cm) long. It is shaped like a basilica: two sarcophagi stand next to each other, with the third sarcophagus resting on their roof ridges. The ends are completely covered, so there is no space visible between the sarcophagi. The basic structure is made of wood, with gold and silver overlay decorated with filigree, enamel, and over 1000 jewels and beads. The latter include a large number of cameos and intaglio pieces, some pre-Christian.
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