The Magi, mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) and recognized as the first people to travel long distance to pay homage to Christ, have long been venerated in the Christian imagination as the prototype of Christian pilgrimage. Less known, however, is that the Magi — at least, their relics — have spent more time in Milan than Bethlehem and that their connection with Milan long predates their better known association with the German city of Cologne.
Central to the Milanese legend are two historical events. In the 1160s, the Holy Roman Emperor, Fredrick Barbarossa of Germany, sacked the city of Milan, and rewarded the relics of the Magi, which were housed in the Basilica di Sant’Eustorgio in Milan, to the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald von Dassel, as a reward for providing the emperor with an army. Today, the relics of the Magi sojourn in both Cologne and Milan as a portion of the relics were returned to Milan and solemnly restored to the Basilica di Sant’Eustorgio on Epiphany, January 6, 1904.
But how did the relics of the Magi get to Milan in the first place? The confused legend has four main events: 1) the death of the Magi, 2) the discovery of the Magi’s relics in the Holy Land by St Helena, the mother of Constantine, 3) the translation of these relics to the Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople, and 4) the subsequent translation of the relics from Constantinople to Milan.
According to ancient tradition, the Magi, assumed to be three in number, returned to Jerusalem thirty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, where they subsequently died as martyrs in the span of a couple of days around the Feast of Epiphany. Another legend says that the Star of Bethlehem reappeared to the Magi in their old age beckoning them to re-gather at the spot where they had previously departed from each other upon their return home from Bethlehem. These versions disagree over whether the Magi were buried in the same tomb at the time; however, they all agree that the Magi died together in the same location.
Approximately two centuries later, St Helena went to the Holy Land on pilgrimage (326 – 328 CE), where she is said to have discovered the locations and relics of numerous biblical events. Her trip to Jerusalem is historical but many additional legends quickly became associated with the empress, including the discovery of the Magi’s relics. The legends consistently claim that Helena then transferred the relics to the Church of Saint Sofia in Constantinople.
The main protagonist in the Milanese legend is Saint Eustorgio, the first bishop of Milan (presided 344 – 350 CE). When Eustorgio was in Constantinople to be installed as the Bishop of Milan, the Emperor Constans (ruled 337 – 350 CE) gave the relics of the Magi to the new bishop. While still in Constantinople, Eustorgio carved a marble ark, or sarcophagus, for the relics and sailed back to Italy with the treasure in tow. Upon landing on the coast, Eustorgio placed the ark in an ox-drawn cart, which carried the relics to Milan. Near the Ticinese Gate, the heavy cart became stuck in the mud, and there, the bishop ordered a church to be built for the relics of the Magi on the location now presumed to be the Basilica di Sant’Eustorgio.
Whether the relics of the Magi were associated with Milan as early as the middle of the fourth century is uncertain; however, relics of the Holy Cross were already being reported throughout Italy, and Western Christians of the fourth century were very much aware of the discovery and promulgation of Holy Land relics. In any case, the Milanese Magi became a fact in the religious imagination of Western Christians, making the Basilica di Sant’Eustorgio an important pilgrimage station in the Early Medieval period.
Although stripped of its prestigious relics in the twelfth century, since 1904, the Basilica di Sant’Eustorgio has reassumed its legendary place in the legend of the Magi. Today, the relics can still be seen above the altar in the Chapel of the Magi next to the large, though empty, Sarcophagus of the Three Magi. The church contains other pictorial references to the legend, and the bell tower (pictured left) greets pilgrims with an eight-pointed star rather than the traditional form of a cross.
Among the many sources for the legend of the Magi are two rather late texts: Vita Beati Eustorgii Confessoris, or The Life of the Blessed Confessor Eustorgio, from around the year 1200 and the fourteenth-century Historia Trium Regum, or History of the Three Kings, by John of Hildesheim. Early interest in the cult of the Magi in Italy is evidenced by the sixth-century mosaic of the Magi in the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (see below).