The Rest of the Magi
There is an enormous sarcophagus in the basilica. According to tradition, for centuries it contained the remains of the three wise men who were eyewitnesses to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth
BY GIUSEPPE FRANGI
The enormous stone casket sits in the chapel at the end of the right aisle. It seems to want to hide in the shadows of that corner of Sant'Eustorgio, as though embarrassed by its size and its current uselessness. As a sarcophagus, it is truly huge: 7 ft. by 12 ft. at its base and 7 ft. high, not counting the gigantic pitched roof. It is dug out of one block of Proconnesio marble and has no equal in the world of Roman art to which it belongs. Scholars emphasize that similar pieces are found only in the Asian world. A little window open on one side indicates that it was in all probability used as a reliquary: this is a finestra confessionis like those found in Byzantine altars. In a word, this is a sarcophagus, but it is at the same time a treasure chest. We can trust the archaeologists about its dating, which they set around the 2nd or 3rd century after Christ, but its function is not as clear, and we have to advance by hypotheses. Who had it made? To contain what? Did this tomb really contain the remains of the three Magi?
To answer this, we must refresh our memory about the history of this basilica. It was dedicated to a great Milanese archbishop, confessor, and saint, Eustorgius, a protagonist of the two councils opposing the Arian heresy held in Milan in the 4th century. St. Ambrose quotes him and venerates him as the second head of the Church of Milan after the Edict of Constantine in 313. Eustorgius was probably buried in the cemetery on the grounds, located outside the Roman walls along the road to Pavia. And very early, a church must have risen on this site. It was a piece of land that was important to the city, because in the area in front of it, where the public square is now, stood the well where converted Milanese came to be baptized by St. Barnabas, the follower of Paul who, tradition says, was the first Bishop of Milan. It is no coincidence that Federico Borromeo had a tomb built over the well, which was later demolished during Napoleon's raids. Nor is it a coincidence that the procession initiating the ceremony of installment of new bishops of the city began on this spot. In sum, this is an important part of the history of the Milanese Church. But is this because of the reasons juststated, or are there other ones too?
From Persia to Milan...
At this point, we cannot avoid the entrance of the Magi onto the stage. We left them in Matthew's recount as they set out for home without going back to Herod, as the Angel had told them to do. Then, it is said, once back in Persia they were reached by the apostle Thomas who had come to evangelize the East, and were converted to faith in that Child whom they had been among the first to see in Bethlehem. They lived to be old and died as Christians.
Helena, the mother of Constantine, was the one who brought back their memory and established their cult. Born poor ("stabularia," Ambrose says of her) but the wife of the emperor Constantius Chlorus, she was converted to Christianity after her son's victory over Massentius. In 324 she followed Constantine to Palestine. He had removed Licinius from power, concentrating everything in the emperor's hands. She ordered the construction of two basilicas, one dedicated to the Nativity and one to the Ascension, and gathered together relics to take back to the West. She kept the beam of the Cross of Christ in her house in Rome (where it is still venerated in the basilica of Santa Croce di Gerusalemme-Holy Cross of Jerusalem-which was erected on the site). She left the relics of the Magi to the other city that was so important to her son's destiny: Milan.
Was the enormous sarcophagus set beneath the vaults of Sant'Eustorgio used to hold these relics? No one confirms this, but certainly its great size leads one to suspect at least that it must have been destined to hold something out of the ordinary. If it had been simply the sarcophagus to hold the body of the Milanese saint, it would be hard to explain its dimensions. If it were intended, instead, as the sarcophagus for the three wise men whom the Roman martyrology in the meantime had venerated as saints, everything would be logical. But there is another enigma that weighs on this identification. Why, in the course of the centuries, has no source mentioned the presence of relics of such great importance? It was not until 1158 that the Magi are suddenly mentioned again in Milan. A French chronicler, Robert de Mont Saint-Michel, wrote that in that year the Milanese had found "in a chapel near the city" the remains of the bodies of the three Magi. Paradoxically, this discovery occurred in terrible circumstances. Federico Barbarossa was at the gates, and the Milanese, in order not to provide a base for the assailants, had razed the suburbs to the ground, as is reported by another chronicler, this time Anglo-Saxon, William of Newbury, who lived in the second half of the 12th century. William wrote that the relics were found "compact of bone and tendon... and when they were found, a gold band encircled their bodies, uniting them one to the other." Naturally, these precious remains were taken inside the walls and placed for safekeeping in the bell tower of San Giorgio al Palazzo.
... to Cologne
But on June 11, 1164, surrender was inevitable. Federico entered the city as conqueror. Milan was virtually destroyed and could do nothing to resist the claims of Rheinhold of Dassel, Imperial Chancellor and Archbishop of Cologne, who wanted for his diocese the presumed remains of the three Magi. Certainly if the story of the relics until then had been practically unknown, at that point it was front-page news. Their transport and deposition in St. Peter's Cathedral in Cologne took place with great pomp, and Rheinhold's successor, Philip of Heinsberg, had a very valuable casket of gold and silver made to contain them. Pilgrimages multiplied, to the point that Pope Innocence IV established indulgences for those who made a pilgrimage to venerate the bodies of the Magi. But what about Milan? The city, which had been defrauded of its relics, began its own veneration of the three kings. Every year on Epiphany, beginning in 1336, a celebratory procession started and ended at Sant'Eustorgio and included a sacred drama of the story of the Magi, a tradition that still survives today in the fun-loving, nocturnal quarter of Porta Ticinese. In the city, too, there was always someone who would not give in to the theft to which they had been victim. In 1495, Ludovico il Moro, armed with a letter from Pope Alexander VI to the Archbishop of Cologne, attempted to request the return of the relics. The attempt failed. Less than a century later in 1580, St. Charles Borromeo tried again, with able diplomacy asking advice from the papal legate in Cologne on how to proceed. From his answer Borromeo understood that it was not the right moment, thus he avoided sending an official request which would only have been turned down. Cardinal Ferrari, in 1903, was a bit more successful. His request was answered by granting a few fragments of bone from the bodies, which are still today preserved in Sant'Eustorgio.
The last act in this exciting drama is very recent. Toward the end of the 1980s the relics in Cologne were submitted to scientific analysis. The clothes were determined to belong to three different fabrics, two of damask and one of silk taffeta, all Eastern in provenance and datable between the 2nd and 4th centuries. There is no denying that there are too many coincidences here to be able to dismiss the story of the relics of the Magi as a legend.