Wednesday, January 6

We Three Kings of Orient Germany?

I visited Cologne, Germany when I was 16 years old and I could kick myself for not paying better attention. I was on a month long school trip to Europe and I was busying trying to find the nearest H&M and figuring out how to sneak beer in Munich the next day. I was so stupid not to fully appreciate this:

Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Mary, Cologne, Germany
Started in 1248, Completed in 1880
Photo from Planet Ware

I don't remember a whole lot about Cologne. I remember singing "Danke Schoen" in the McDonald's situated in the shadow of the Cathedral's left tower. Oh, go ahead.

No, Thank you Wayne

(Now that will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. You are so welcome!)

I remember looking up at the massive 750+ year old High Gothic Cathedral and thinking that it really needed to be pressure washed. I also remember being disappointed that it was surrounded by utilitarian office buildings and parking decks and that a cold, gray field of concrete and asphalt stretched out around it in every direction. I don't remember seeing a single tree.

Of course, the area surrounding the Cathedral took a real beating during WWII and that explains why there are so many new buildings nearby. 16 year old me couldn't totally wrap my head around the fact that the center of Cologne was completely flattened by bombing. The Cathedral itself endured 14 direct bomb hits and remarkably, it stood tall--a result of exceptional engineering and divine intervention.

View of Cathedral from a US B24 Bomber on May 7, 1945,
the day before V-E Day, by Sgt. Robert Harned
of 578th Squadron
. Photo from

What I am most mad at myself for is not insisting that we go inside. Yes, you read that correctly. I just saw the Cathedral, one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in the world, from the outside... sigh. I can't remember if it was under construction or if we just had a crappy tour guide. But, since Michael the German tour guide will probably never read this, I'll just blame him.

If I had gone inside, I would have seen this:

Shrine of The Three Kings
Nicholas of Verdun c. 1190
Photo from Cathedral's Official Website

Yeah, I know. It's spec-tac-u-lar. What kind of tour guide does not take a Catholic school tour group to see the most significant relic in all of Christendom!?! Gah!!!

Okay, sorry.

Since today is the Feast of the Epiphany, let's talk about how these three faithful kings from the Orient found their way to a massive cathedral in west-central Germany.

The Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantega
c. 1500, The Louvre, Paris

The Kings' remains were brought from Milan to Germany by crusaders and given as a gift to the Bishop of Cologne sometime in the mid 12th century. The Bishop commissioned silversmith Nicholas of Verdun to build a silver, bronze and gold gild sarcophagus in the shape of a early Romanesque Basilica. This design was probably chosen intentionally to pay homage to the early Christian heritage of Cologne. (The site on which the Cathedral of Cologne stands was once home to two earlier structures--a 4th century Roman Temple and a Early Christian Church. (3) )

Early Christian Basilica Layout
(aka St. Peter's before the dome was added)

The finished masterpiece is nearly seven feet long, making it the largest reliquary in the world. (1) It contains the remains of the Three Magi who visited the Christ Child in Bethlehem. This relic is so important that the Cathedral, once the tallest building in the world, was specifically built to hold it. (2)

Shrine, Front View

Along with gilding, carving, filigree and enamel work, the technique of repoussé would have been employed some in decorating this reliquary. Repoussé (French for 'pushed back') is when designs are pushed into metal from the backside by hand. It was used often in making religious icons and is still used by artists today. You can find more primitive examples of it at your local flea market--just look for old handmade tin signs. You can also make your own repoussé art very easily at home; just gently draw on the flat side of a piece of aluminum foil with a dull pencil, flip it over and your design will raised on shiny side. Ta da!

Shrine, Detail
Photo by ?

Nicholas of Verdun adorned the reliquary with precious and semi-precious cabochons (polished, unfaceted stones). I see rubies, amethysts, sapphires, emeralds, garnets, pearls and citrons in the picture above. The large cameos embedded in the Shrine are also very impressive. According the the Cathedral's historians, kings and princes throughout Europe donated gold, jewels and cameos for tomb.

Detail of Colorful Enamel Work and Cameo
Photo from Cathedral's Official Website

I'd say this amazing final resting place is definitely fit for a King (or three). One of these days I'll see it in person...

Have a blessed Epiphany!

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