Roman Catholic cathedrals throughout the world have for centuries stood as grand testaments to the religion’s profound influence on architecture. St. Peter’s Basilica, in the Vatican City; St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in Melbourne, Australia; and Notre Dame de Paris, in France, are but a few examples of the Church’s many contributions to architectural design, engineering and construction, contributions that continue to this day.
Another example, the Cologne Cathedral, in Germany, was one of the architectural wonders of its day. When it was finally completed in the 19th century, after more than 600 years of construction, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world.
“The Cologne Cathedral is one of the rare cathedrals that is gothic from top to bottom,” says Mark Paone, principal of MJPaia Architecture and president of the American Institute of Architects’ Orange County chapter. “It was common among cathedrals under construction to adjust their architectural style to that of a given period as the years went by. Someone with a trained eye can see the styles of a church change in the same way a geologist can see the changing layers of the earth through time.
“But the Cologne Cathedral is different. The builders committed to the gothic style throughout its construction. You can see this extraordinary dedication in the building itself.”
Although the cathedral – the largest gothic church in Northern Europe – was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, its 20,000 daily visitors are primarily there to see what’s inside of the building: the Shrine of the Three Kings, a dazzling artifact that honors one of the most influential events in world history.
Located behind the cathedral’s high altar, the shrine is reputed to contain the remains of the Three Kings, also known as the Three Wise Men or the Magi, who visited the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem.
For centuries the shrine has had a far-reaching influence, due to its direct connection to a cornerstone of Christianity. “It speaks of the centuries-old desire by Christians to have some physical contact with biblical events,” says Rev. Msgr. Arthur Holquin, the Diocese of Orange’s Episcopal Vicar for Divine Worship and Pastor Emeritus of Mission Basilica, in San Juan Capistrano. “It is also tied to the ancient Christian notion of ‘pilgrimage’ that became a living metaphor for the essential dynamic of the ‘Christian journey.’”
We all know the story of the Three Kings, of their journey guided by the Star of Bethlehem and of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But what most of us don’t know is how the shrine eventually wound up in Germany. After the three travelers left Bethlehem, they came to the Hill of Vaws, located in the Land of Ind. There they agreed to build a tomb to house their remains after they died. After each one passed, they were buried in the tomb by their followers.
Some 200 years later, Saint Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, traveled to the Hill of Vaws, where she recovered the Three Kings’ remains and had them transported to Constantinople. The relics were moved to Milan, Italy, in the late sixth century. The remains stayed there until the 12th century, when the people of Milan rose up against the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I. Fearing his demise, the emperor requested help from the Archbishop of Cologne, who was a key figure in the recapture of the city. In 1164 the grateful emperor gave the relics to the archbishop, who later had the bones of the Three Kings transferred to Cologne.
Composed of three sarcophagi and shaped like a basilica, the shrine is 87 inches long, 43 inches wide and 60 inches high. It is made of wood with gold and silver overlay decorated with enamel, filigree and more than 1,000 jewels and beads. Seventy-four high-relief figures portray the prophets, the apostles and evangelists, the Adoration of the Magi, Mary with the infant Jesus, the Baptism of Christ, Christ enthroned in the Last Judgment, His crucifixion and His resurrection.
“When I first saw the shrine, chills came over my body,” Paone says. “It’s awe-inspiring. It really blows your mind, when you think of its value and the importance the Church placed on it.”
The shrine will always remain important, whether or not it actually houses the Three Kings’ remains. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling subject.
In 2004, an Egyptologist working with The Learning Channel examined the bones to determine whether or not they were those of the Three Kings. The team discovered that the three skulls’ cranial sutures indicated that they were from people of different ages. This age difference is consistent with the portrayal of the Magi in the Ravenna mosaic, a sixth-century artwork located at the New Basilica of Saint Apollinaris, in Italy.
“I believe that the shrine contains the actual remains,” Paone says. “Many Catholic relics are clearly authentic; there’s no question about it. And there are others that you just have to take on faith. And this is one of those I take on faith.”
“As with so many relics, absolute proof eludes us,” Msgr. Holquin says. “Shrines of this nature are valued, not so much because of pinpointing their exacting historicity, but by being reflections of the faith of God’s people, seeking to reverence the innumerable ways that God, in His loving kindness, has broken into our world to touch our lives.”