The Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral

Cologne became one of Europe’s prime pilgrimage destinations in the 12th century, when Emperor Frederick Barbarossa gave the relics of the Three Kings to Cologne Archbishop Rainald von Dassel. The Emperor had just appropriated them after besieging the city of Milan, where they had been kept since the beginning of the 4th century. Work on an appropriate shrine reliquary was immediately commenced and entrusted to goldsmith Nicholas de Verdun, and was completed in 1225, 20 years after his death.

Following the tradition of the Mosan style chasse reliquaries, built with pitched roofs reminiscent of miniature buildings or sarcophagi. In this case, being a reliquary built for the Three Kings, the design combined three such chasses atop each other, resulting in a shape that resembles a basilica with side naves. With a length of over 7 feet, the Dreikönigenschrein, as it is called in German, is the largest reliquary in the world.

The core structure of the reliquary is built out of oak, with several compartments. This wooden structure is entirely clad with a profuse decoration consisting of gold-plated metal with colorful fire enamels and jewels. This spectacular ornamentation has a very complete iconographic program, the sides being divided by arches into smaller sections, each containing cast and chiseled figures and scenes. The total weight of the reliquary is over half a tonne.

The main façade is dominated by Christ in Majesty, accompanied by Archangels and Angels, while in the lower arches we find a double scene, the Epiphany, with the Theotokos in the center, and the Baptism of the Lord. This is due to the fact that during the time both were celebrated on January 6. A central panel is removed on the feast day to reveal the skulls of Melchior Caspar and Balthazar. The opposite side presents scenes of the Flagellation and Crucifixion, surmounted by the Resurrected Christ.

Each of the arches on the sides contains a single figure representing the union of the Old and New Testament. On the lower level we see kings David and Salomon presiding each side, accompanied by prophets and patriarchs. The second level features the twelve apostles, each holding a miniature church in their hands. Like in many other cases, Matthias has been replaced with Paul. The roofs of both levels once bore scenes of the life of Christ and the Apocalypse, now lost.

The Epiphany. Enamel, filigree, precious stones, pearls and even roman cameos adorn the gilded scenes.


The facade with the open panel, revealing the relics of the Three Kings.

The Crucifixion

St John the apostle, holding a model church or city.
Busts of virtues decorate the spaces between the arches.

King Solomon flanked by prophets and patriarchs. 
The round medallions on the roof contained at one time scenes from the life of Christ.

King David, missing his harp.

The prophet Joachim on the lower tier.

Images: Köelner Dom

The reliquary was initially placed in the old Romanesque cathedral, but the ever growing number of pilgrims and prestige soon made the modest-sized building obsolete. Construction on the present high-gothic cathedral began in 1248. The cathedral was consecrated in 1322, with only the chevet, choir and east nave completed and a temporary wall closing the transept arch. The relics were then enshrined in the central deambulatory chapel within an aedicule. This allowed pilgrims to enter the cathedral through the southern portal and venerate the relics while the choir was used as the main liturgical space.

Construction ground to a halt in the 1600s, with the nave still incomplete. The next century saw the introduction of new baroque styles and a new marble shrine was built completely enclosing the reliquary, which remained only visible through a grille.

After almost three centuries, building was finally resumed during the 19th century. According the gothic revival tastes of the time, the baroque shrine was dismantled and the reliquary moved to the choir. Plans were drawn by architect August Rincklake for a new high altar shrine, elevating the relics on a platform 25feet above the nave, and included a monumental ciborium and Lettner (rood screen). These ambitious designs were never realized and since then the Reliquary has been displayed in a simple glass case above the high altar.

The first shrine in the "new" Gothic Cathedral.
Dombauarchiv.

The baroque shrine, completed in 1690, was dismanteled in 1889.
It has since been re-installed in the Cathedral as a side altarpiece.
Dombauarchiv.

August Rincklake's unexecuted designs. 19th century.
Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln.

1950, Priestly Ordinations by Cardinal Frings. 
Robert F. Berger Archive.

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