In my Dark Apostle series about medieval medicine and magic, my secret society of witches refers to themselves as “Magi,” (singular: magus) from the Persian word for one with knowledge of Oriental magic and astrology (according to my OED). Interestingly, the root for the word “magic” itself, which seems to be related, is actually Latin, magica or magicus. I still suspect there is a relationship, but the OED is not helping me out this morning. . .
But I digress (as usual). This is, of course, the season in which many are celebrating Christmas, and re-telling the story of the Magi, those three kings from the Orient who traveled to worship and give gifts. While I was in Germany a couple of years ago, I had the chance to visit the cathedral at Koln (Cologne) and view the Shrine of the Magi, which supposedly houses the bones of those very kings.
The cathedral is so awesomely tall and crowded into its place in the city that it’s very hard to take a good photo without going far out of your way (perhaps in a helicopter). And yes, I climbed the hundreds of steps up into one of those towers. It is a marvel and a classic of Gothic architecture that makes most of the churches in Rome look rather plain.
So how did the Magi get to Germany? The relics of the Magic were originally kept at Constantinople (you may recall that the Emperor Constantine, when he converted to Christianity, dispatched his mother to the Holy Land to find evidence of his new religion and bring back its symbols. This she did with a diligent effort, returning with the true cross and a number of other things she located via divine inspiration, and with the assistance of the locals–in the classic fashion, probably taking advantage of a wealthy tourist by showing her all the sights and convincing her to bring home some impressive souvenirs).
Around 344, Constantine entrusts the relics of the Magi to the bishop of Milan, from whence they were stolen by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1184 who had them sent to Koln where they have remained ever since. Wait–did I say “stolen?” Saint’s relics are, more properly, translated–that is, they are taken from a holy location to a more profane one. However, the medievals figured that, if the saint didn’t really want to move, he or she would have prevented the act of theft, so, if the relics successfully arrive in the new shrine, then clearly it had been time for a change of venue.
King Otto gave three golden crowns to the cathedral in 1199 for the three kings. The shrine itself was completed in 1225, with the labor of many artisans.
The reliquary is entirely gilded, and richly carved with images from the Bible and various regal symbols to remind us of both the earthly and spiritual power of the Magi. Whether or not you believe that the bones belong to right people (or even to the right period), they have served as an inspiration for wonder, healing, and art for over a thousand years.