What is the identification of the true saint

The great silence

It was only when the relics of the Three Wise Men were transferred to Cologne that they became the focus of religious and political interest. But why hadn't a rooster crows at them in Milan before? Were there any doubts about its authenticity? Or was the whole story just a skilful staging of Friedrich Barbarossa and his chancellor Rainald von Dassel?

The story of the Three Kings relics before they were transferred to Cologne in 1164 shows many gaps. Significantly, the Middle Ages seem to have had only limited interest in the fate of the wise men from the Orient. Certainly, if the gospel accounts are to be believed, they were the first to worship the newborn Christ Child in Bethlehem as King of Kings. But that already seemed to have exhausted their salvation-historical significance. For a long time there was obviously hardly anything to add to the statement of the evangelist Matthew "And they went back to their country on a different path" (Mt 2.12). The further fate of the magicians remained in the dark.

Jacobus de Voragine, who around 1263/1267 with his “Legenda aurea” put together the most powerful collection of saints' lives that was influential far beyond the Middle Ages, devoted only a few dry lines to them in his remarks on the feast of the apparition of the Lord (Epiphany, 6 January). The fact that around 100 years after the translation of their relics from Milan to Cologne the story of the wise men from the Orient was simply ignored by one of the greatest hagiographers of all time or considered unworthy of larger written explanations is basically what has been characteristic since late antiquity Silence gone.

The figure of St. Helena (249 / 50–328 / 29), the mother of Emperor Constantine I, is of central importance for the early history of the healings. Her name is inextricably linked with the discovery and miraculous identification of the "True Cross" in 326. This legend, handed down by St. Ambrose of Milan, had been known in the eastern part of the Roman Empire since 390 and was subsequently embellished more and more by Greek church historians of the 5th century such as Theodoret and Sozomenos. The legendary exaggeration did not, of course, meet with unreserved approval everywhere: In a legal decree from the end of the 5th century, there was an express warning against reading writings about the finding of the Holy Cross.

Helena used her pilgrimage to the Holy Land to search for further relics: the fruits of her almost archaeological flair that she developed in the process were the veil of the Virgin Mary and the holy skirt, which is said to have been transferred to Trier later. All early sources are silent about the discovery of Epiphany relics. The connection that was established between Helena and the first Epiphany is much more recent, comes suspiciously close to the "discovery" of the holy objects in Milan in 1158, and in most cases only becomes tangible after they have been transferred to Cologne.

In addition to Helena, St. Eustorgius, Bishop of Milan between 344 and 350, is of eminent importance for the early history of the Epiphany relics. In his biography ("Vita Eustor‧gii"), written anonymously around 1200, there are substantial statements about the fate of the relics for the first time. In this context, the time and place of origin of the source are important. According to the current state of research, it was not written until the end of the 12th century in the Cologne area, i.e. clearly after the final translation of the relics in 1164 to a city that must have had an increased interest in intensive cult propaganda for the newly acquired relics, via the plain not that much was known yet.

In this vita, Helena appears as a woman "who has developed an uncommon zeal in collecting holy relics". She also succeeded in locating the "bodies of the three wise men who were buried in different places" and transferring them to Constantinople. Abbot Isingrim von Ottobeuren, who in his contemporary chronicle was clearly interested in the topographical location of the original graves, citing older sources generally speaks of them being in the Orient. In later descriptions, the Orient would even become India. We owe this information to Johannes von Hildesheim, prior of the Carmelite monastery in Marienau near Hameln, who wrote a legend around 1364 - possibly on the occasion of the 200th return of the transfer of the Three Kings relics to Cologne - which was one of the most popular and most widespread of the entire late Middle Ages, the "Historia trium regum" ("History of the three kings"). It actually tells of the discovery of the bones by Helena. After her archaeological miracles in Jerusalem, she went to India and received the bones of the Three Kings in exchange for the body of St. Thomas ...

Dr. Ralf Lützelschwab

November 18, 2010

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