Homage of the Three Magi in the Cologne Cathedral

Jolanta Wylezynska

The cathedral in Cologne is regarded as the most magnificent work of the Gothic architecture in Germany. We also associate it with the feast of the Three Kings: there were two world-class monuments referring to this theme: gold monumental Mediaeval reliquary, known in the entire Christian world as the Shrine of the Three Magi, and a huge altar, triptych by Stephan Lochner, about 1440, having a rich iconography, subtle colouring and gilding.
The cathedral in Cologne was built for a long time but in spite of that it is a compact monumental work of art. The construction began after 1248. Their masters, builders, worked for it, giving up their lives for it. In the years 1308-30, Master Johannes, son of Master Arnold, directed the works. The construction was slowed down till the 16th century. The work was stopped until 1842, the year when the plans of the cathedral were found and the building work started again. The cathedral was completed in 1880. The building was enormous, very richly decorated and had two irregular towers. Fr Prof. Janusz Pasierb called the cathedral in Cologne 'symbol of the German soul'. The German musician Richard Wagner called some part of his musical piece 'Cathedral in Cologne' and regarded that title as the most national one.
The famous monument of the mediaeval goldsmithery, the Shrine of the Three Magi, was made at the turn of the 12th and the 13th centuries. Such works were made slowly. In many respects it is a unique work of art. The Cathedral Chapter ordered the work and invited the great artist goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun. After his death other masters continued the work for many years. That monumental shrine was to house the relics of the Three Magi and the relics of St Felix, St Nabor and Gregory of Spoleto. Bishop Reinald von Dassel offered those holy relics. The reliquary was designed as a large oak chest (220 cm. long, 153 cm. high, and 110 cm). It was covered with gold sculptures and low reliefs as well as ancient precious stones, gems and enamels. The sculptures of the reliquary are placed in the arcades. In the central arcade there is Madonna with Child and in the next arcades there are the Three Kings, and on the left we can see the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.
The general character of these beautiful sculptures reminds us of the ancient art: harmony of proportions, peace and grandeur, and the folding of the robes is taken directly from the antiquity. Moreover, one can see features related to the monumental sculpture of the French Mediaeval portals, e.g. in Amiens. The artist, goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun, signed only two of his works. His name, his signature, is not on the Cologne Reliquary but his participation in this work is evident on the basis of the cathedral documents and the analysis of the style.


Many artists made efforts to present the Homage of the Three Magi, the New-Born Child and his Mother in a 'poor manger'. This miracle is still being performed in human hearts.
The snow- covered Poland the feast of the Three Kings smells of incense, nuts and dried fruit, gingerbread and fragrant spruce branches laid on the table as decoration (the Christmas tree has already withered and loses its needles). It is a joyous holiday although there is some sadness in it, the prophesy of the Passion, which is symbolised by myrrh to anoint the body after death. We are trying not to think about that because Mary and the Child are paid homage on that day, and they are radiant with the light of the Star that brought the Magi to Bethlehem.
The entire Christian tradition discerns the beginnings of pagan nations in the Magi from the East and the prophesy of Isaiah, which we read in the Mass reading on this day, speaks about Jerusalem 'Rise up in splendour! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you [...] Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance'.
Jerusalem is understood as the Church to which all nations come, receiving light of true faith. For us, Christians, distance in time and distance on the earth stop existing on the day of the Epiphany, which we are joyfully celebrating.
The feast of the Three Kings, the Epiphany, smells of incense that also symbolises prayer. Let us not forget that.

"Niedziela" 1/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl