The Shrine of the Three Kings (GermanDreikönigsschrein) 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.
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 Gothicchurch 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:
"In a special compartment of the shrine now there showed - along with remains of ancient old rotten or moulded bandages, most likely byssus, besides pieces of aromatic resins and similar substances - numerous bones of three persons, which under the guidance of several present experts could be assembled into nearly complete bodies: the one in his early youth, the second in his early manhood, the third was rather aged. Two coins, bracteates made of silver and only one side striken, were adjoined; one, probably from the days of Philipps von Heinsberg, displayed a church (See Note), the other showed a cross, accompanied by the sword of jurisdiction, and the crosier (bishop's crook) on either side."
Note: "Just as the coin of Philipp in Hartzheim, historia rei nummariae coloniensis Table 3 No. 14, 16, (1754), yet without its circumscription; the other (coin) is in square form, showed in the center a cross, accompanied by the sword of jurisdiction, and the crosier (bishop's crook) on either side, also without transcription, most certainly it is not younger and can be assumed perhaps to turn out to be a coin by Rainald [of Dassel].")
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.
"Temporibus domini Philippi episcopi, qui successit Reinoldo, fabricata est eis capsa ... sicut nobis narraverunt qui presentes erant eorum translatoni ... " (Floss, Dreikoenigenbuch, 1864, page 116-122 (Latin); copy in MGH 25, 108)
"In einer besonderen Abteilung des Schreins zeigten sich nun mit den Resten uralter vermoderter Binden, wahrscheinlich Byssus, nebst Stuecken aromatischer Harze und aehnlicher Substanzen die zahlreichen Gebeine dreier Personen, die mit Beihilfe der anwesenden Sachverstaendigen sich zu fast vollstaendigen Koerpern ordnen liessen: der eine aus erster Jugendzeit, der zweite im ersten Mannesalter, der dritte bejahrt. Zwei Muenzen, Bracteaten von Silber und nur auf einer Seite gepraegt, lagen bei; die eine, erweislich aus den Tagen Philipps von Heinsberg, zeigt eine Kirche (See Note), die andere ein Kreuz, das Jurisdictionsschwert an der einen, den Bischofsstab an der anderen Seite. (Floss, Dreikoenigenbuch, 1864, page 108)
^Hartzheim, Josephus, Historia Rei Nummariæ Coloniensis, Et Dissertationes De Eadem: Pars prima, De Nummis Archiepiscoporum Coloniensium, Pars Secunda, De Nummis Ducum Juliacensium & Montensium, & Agnatorum Genti Juliacensi, Pars Tertia. De Nummis Civitatis Coloniensis, 1754
"Ganz so wie die Muenze Philipps bei Hartzheim historia rei nummariae coloniensis Tafel 3 Nr. 14, 16, doch ohne die Umschrift; die andere in viereckiger Form, in der Mitte ein Kreuz, das Jurisdictionsschwert an der einen, den Bischofsstab an der anderen Seite, auch ohne Umschrift, ist jedenfalls nicht juenger und duerfte sich vielleicht als eine Muenze Rainald's erweisen." (Floss, Dreikoenigenbuch, 1864, page 108)