Wednesday, January 5, 2011


The elaborate story that we know today can be found in the Historia Trium Regum, the History of the Three Kings, which is attributed to the fourteenth-century cleric John of Hildesheim. In this compilation of the legend, we are told much more about the star: "When the day of the nativity was passed the Star ascended up into the firmament, and it had right many long streaks and beams, more burning and brighter than a brand of fire; and as an eagle flying and beating the air with his wings, right so the streaks and beams of the Star stirred about." And we are told that the three wise men, named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, are the kings of "Ind, Chaldea, and Persia." They only meet on the outskirts of Jerusalem having traveled from their own lands "in great haste" and without stopping. And so they reach Bethlehem and present their gifts. When the kings depart, they continue together until the reach the Hill of Vaws, or Hill of Victory, on the border of Ind, where a watchtower was maintained (it was here that the Star was first sighted). There, before departing to their own countries, the three made "a fair chapel in worship of the Child they had sought. Also they agreed to meet together at the same place once in the year, and they ordained that the Hill of Vaws should be the place of their burial."

John of Hildesheim continues the story of the wise men: "after many years" a Star appears above the cities in which the kings dwell just before Christmas, indicating to them that their lives were nearing an end. "Then with one consent they built, at the Hill of Vaws, a fair and large tomb, and there the three Holy Kings...died and were buried in the same tomb by their sorrowing people." If we were to assume that this actually happened, that all three died at the same place at the same time, it might have been in the mid-first century (since the kings were adults already in Bethlehem). If so, the kings had little more than two centuries of rest in their tomb before beginning another journey. Their tour director would be Helena, the mother of Constantine and now St. Helena. After 323-324, when he defeated his last rival, Constantine began rebuilding the city of Byzantium. He rededicated it as Constantinople in the year 330. One of the new buildings was the church Saint Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the first of three that would have that name. In the same period, Helena went to the Holy Land and collected various relics, including the true cross, and brought them home to Constantinople (see Cynewulf for an unusual retelling of this). The relics of the wise men were among her trophies: "Queen Helen...began to think greatly of the bodies of these three kings, and she arrayed herself, and accompanied by many attendants, went into the Land of Ind...after she had found the bodies of Melchior, Balthazar, and Casper, Queen Helen put them into one chest and ornamented it with great riches, and she brought them into Constantinople...and laid them in a church that is called Saint Sophia."

John of Hildesheim is rather brief about the wise men's later career. On Constantine's death, he says a persecution of Christians led to the relics being moved by the emperor Mauricius, who had them placed in a church in Milan. This may refer to the attempted pagan restoration under Julian (361-363), but Mauricius is a bit later (582-602). Much later, Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor, was at war in Italy and requested aid against Milan, which the Archbishop of Cologne Rainald von Dassel provided in the form of an army. The grateful Frederick rewarded him with the relics of the wise men in 1164. And to Cologne the relics were taken, and there--whoever the bones belong to--they remain today. more

A merry feast day to all!

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