Museum Schnuetgen,Anbetung der Hl. 3 Koenige,Hochaltar,Köln,Inv.Nr. K210

The Three Magi in Cologne 1164 – 2014

This year Cologne celebrates the 850th anniversary of the arrival of the three Magi with several exhibitions

The city of Cologne in Germany has been celebrating its magnificent trademark – the Three Magis – all year. The occasion is the 850th anniversary of the arrival of the relics in the city.

The remains of the Magi were brought to the Cathedral in Cologne in 1154 after having been pillaged from the Italians by the Archbishop Rainald of Dassel. During the Middle Ages their relics transformed the city into one of the most beloved pilgrimage centres in the Western World. This year the city celebrates the 850-anniversary with a series of events and several exhibitions.

Caspar – Melchior – Balthasar

Caspar-melchior-Balthasar in Cologne 2014
The Treasury in the Cathedral of Cologne. © Dombauhütte Köln / Foto: Matz und Schenk

The Cathedral in Cologne, where the relics of the three Magi are still revered, celebrates the anniversary with an exhibition focusing on the history of the veneration of the three saints. This is accomplished by showing the different locations of the famous reliquary by Nicholas Verdun in the Cathedral as well as exhibiting the impressive collection of other golden treasures belonging to the Cathedral. In the entrance hall to the Domforum visitors may get an introduction to the full story. In the library a series of manuscripts are exhibited, amongst those the Limburger Evangeliar.

Foremost, however, an exhibition in Museum Schnütgen on “The Magi” tells the story and shows the art, which these three symbols of generosity stimulated.

The earliest piece of art in the exhibition is a 3rd century tomb slab from the Vatican Museum; one of the most recent is an 18th century Neapolitan nativity scene with about 300 figures from the Diözesanmuseum (Diocesan Museum) in Freising . Whether it is a 5th century ivory diptych from the Milanese Cathedral Treasury, marvelous 10th and 11th century Ottonian book illuminations from libraries in Bremen, Rome and Göttingen or a unique 14th century Madonna from the Metropolitan Museum in New York – practically all of the exhibited works are in and of themselves worth a trip to Cologne.

A Reliquary from Limoges ca. AD 1200 © National Museum of Copenhagen
A Reliquary from Limoges ca. AD 1200 © National Museum of Copenhagen

The earliest reliefs and objects still adhered to the traditions set by ruler portraits from the Antiquity. However, the scene soon became imbued with almost fairytale-like qualities. The Wise Men mentioned in the Gospels became kings and the Virgin Mary in the stable of Bethlehem was transformed into a sumptuously clothed queen sitting upon a throne, while her divine child received both adoration from the shepherds and gifts from the Magi.

Since the 10th century at the latest the representation of the Mother of God sitting on the “Throne of Wisdom” became one of the most important cult images to grace the interior of churches. Highlights in this section of the exhibition are precious examples of wooden and ivory sculpture, but also the stone Romanesque choir screens from the Rheinisches Landesmuseum (Rhenish State Museum) in Bonn.

The central theological significance of the Adoration of the Magi is reflected in compositions depicting them next to scene of Crucifixion. The two themes were often placed in juxtaposition to each other, be it on a 12th century book cover or in 14th and 15th century panel paintings. The exhibition features a number of especially ornate examples.

Many representations also use the star as a leitmotif to embody the cosmic dimension of Christmas. These include the mitre from Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, one of many loans from the Musée de Cluny, and a diptych from the Museo del Bargello in Florence.

Royal affluence, oriental splendour and exotic paraphernalia came to predominate later on, particularly in paintings from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The exhibition shows this by exhibiting prominent works from all over Europe. Several valuable and rare textiles and works of goldsmiths, among them pieces from the Musée des Tissus in Lyon and the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) in Dresden, make it possible to experience three-dimensionally objects like those portrayed in the paintings.

An extensive catalogue has been published for the exhibition, also in English. It can be purchased at the museum for the special price of 39 €, in stores for 49.90 €.


Die Heiligen Drei Könige. Mythos, Kunst und Kultur
Cologne, Museum Schnütgen
25.10.2014 – 25.01.2015,

Caspar – Melchior – Balthasar. 850 Jahre Dreikönigenverehrung im Kölner Dom
Cologne Cathedral
19.07.2014 – 25.01.2015


1164 -2014 in Köln. Reich Beschenkt…

Der Schrein der Heiligen Drei Könige


Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige vom Hochaltar des Kölner Domes, Köln, um 1310-1322, Museum Schnütgen, Köln © RBA / W. Meier