Three Magi

Three Magi (Relics)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

One of the most beloved stories in Christendom is the account of the three Zoroastrian astrologers (also called magi or kings) who observe a new star and travel from their homeland to find the child whose birth has been heralded by the stellar phenomenon. In 326, Saint Helena (c. 248-c. 329), the mother of the Emperor Constantine (c. 272–337) and recent Christian convert, made a trip to the Holy Land to find any artifacts directly connected with Jesus. While the True Crosss upon which Jesus was crucified was her greatest find, she also found numerous additional items, among them the relics (bones) of the Three Magi.

The relics of the Three Magi were taken to Constantinople and subsequently sent to Milan, Italy. (Alternate sources indicate that the relics were brought from ancient Persia to Constantinople by the Emperor Zeno in 490 CE.) Then, in 1164, they were taken by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarosa (1152–1190) to Cologne, where they would be housed in the city’s cathedral. An artist named Nicholas of Verdun was commissioned to design a proper reliquary for the Three Magi (as well as several notable saints). The box he designed, measuring 86 inches by 60 inches by 43 inches, was made out of gold and numerous pearls and precious stones. The gold was fashioned to depict scenes from the Bible, and the jewels were clustered to show the location of the heads of the Three Magi. It is the single most valuable manifestation of the medieval art of goldsmithery in existence today.

In Cologne, the legend of the three wise men spread. Names were associated with the wise men in the seventh century, and new details of their lives emerged. According to a calendar printed in Cologne at the time, the three men met in Armenia in 54 CE to celebrate Christmas, which was not yet a Christian holiday. A few days later, all three died—Melchior on January 1 at age 116; Balthasar on January 6 at age 112; and Caspar on January 11 at age 109. After they were named saints, the Magi were honored with feast days associated with these death dates.

Sources:

Abou-El-Haj, Barbara. The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Cruz, Joan Carroll. Relics. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1984.
Saunders, William. “The Magi.” Arlington Catholic Herald (January 8, 2004). Posted at http://www.catholic herald.com/saunders/04ws/ws040108.htm. Accessed March 31, 2007.
Whatley, Gordon. “Constantine the Great, the Empress Helena, and the Relics of the Holy Cross.” In Thomas Head, ed. Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology. New York: Garland, 2000: 77–95.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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