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The Golden Relics of Cologne

by Duncan J.D. Smith

The Middle Ages in Europe was a time when the mortal remains of saints, as well as things purported to have been touched by saints, were believed to be imbued with supernatural healing powers. Churches containing such relics became centres of pilgrimage and inevitably generated income for the surrounding area. Splinters of saintly bone, fragments of the True Cross, stone from the Holy Sepulchre, and even water from the River Jordan all found their way from the Holy Land back to Europe. Before long, the procurement of holy relics for churches in Europe became an industry in its own right.

The Three Kings

Sancta Colonia – Holy Cologne – was no exception. Indeed the Germany city on the Rhine became the archetypal European pilgrimage centre after relics claimed to be those of the Three Kings arrived in the city in 1164. They were brought from Milan as war booty by the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel (c. 1120-1167). The relics were installed in a highly ornate golden reliquary, the so-called Dreikönigsschrein. The largest reliquary to survive from the medieval period, it can still be seen today behind the High Altar of Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom). The construction of the massive cathedral itself in 1248 was a response to the huge influx of pilgrims that resulted from the presence of the relics in the city.

Heribert and Severin

Inspired by the cathedral, many parish and monastic churches in Cologne subsequently secured their own relics, some of which were displayed in golden reliquary boxes similar to that of the Three Kings. A good example is Saint Heribert’s reliquary (Heribertschrein) created in 1170, which can be found in the Church of St. Heribert (St.-Heribert-Kirche) on Templestrasse across the river in Deutz. Back in the Altstadt, another example is the Church of St. Andrew (St.-Andreas-Kirche) at Komödienstrasse.

Dating from the sixteenth century, it contains the skulls of the seven Old Testament Maccabean brothers and their mother, who were martyred in the second century BCE. Another Altstadt reliquary, one said to contain the authenticated fourth century remains of Saint Severin, can be found in the chancel of the Church of St. Severin (St.-Severins-Kirche) on Severinskirchplatz.

The Golden Chamber

So important have the relics of the Three Kings been to the livelihood of Cologne that three crowns appear on the city’s coat of arms. But look beneath the crowns and one sees eleven black flickering flames. These recall an earlier set of relics, namely those of Saint Ursula and her ten virginal companions. Ursula was a Romano-British princess martyred with her companions in Cologne in 383 by invading Huns. Their intended capture of the city, however, was ultimately prevented by divine intervention as a result of Ursula’s sacrifice.

The Church of St. Ursula (St.-Ursula-Kirche) in which the relics are stored stands on Ursulaplatz in the Altstadt. A parish church since 1804, it was first constructed in 1135 on the site of a Late Roman cemetery. It was in the cemetery according to local legend that the remains of the martyrs were discovered in 1106, and subsequently venerated.

In the seventeenth century, the interior of the church was subject to a Baroque refurbishment during which the extraordinary Golden Chamber (Goldene Kammer) was installed. A place to store the church’s rich collection of relics, including those of Saint Ursula and her companions, this lavishly decorated room contains a series of gilt-edged shelves on which reliquaries in the form of busts are placed. The upper surface of the walls, as well as the ceiling, is entirely covered with a mosaic made from the bones of corpses exhumed from the old cemetery.

An indication of just how popular relics once were can be gained by the fact that in order to satisfy demand from churches elsewhere, the number of Ursula’s companions (and with it the number of bones) was subsequently inflated by relic traders from eleven to eleven thousand!

The Black Madonna

To see today’s pilgrims and parishioners seeking divine help, head to the Church of St. Maria in der Kupfergasse (Kirche-St.-Maria-in-der-Kupfergasse) on Schwalbengasse in the Altstadt. Here, in a Baroque church completed in 1715, a steady stream of believers comes to pray before a 17th century Black Madonna (Schwarze Muttergottes). As with Black Madonnas in chuches elsewhere, no-one really knows the reason for the Virgin’s dark skin.

Whilst in some countries it is possible that the images were intentionally painted to resemble the physiognomy and skin pigmentation of the local population, in Cologne it is more likely that that the paint has simply darkened over the years due to the deterioration of lead-based pigments, smoke from votive candles and the accumulation of dirt. It has also been suggested that some Black Madonnas, perceived to be ancient because of their colour, might convey to onlookers a certain authenticity since Mary herself likely had dark skin. Whatever the reason, the Black Madonna’s presence here has made the church a revered place of pilgrimage.

Adapted from the book Only in Cologne: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects by Duncan JD Smith (published by The Urban Explorer).


Also in this series by Duncan J.D. Smith:


Explorer and travel writer Duncan JD Smith first got the history bug when his grandfather unearthed the grave of a Roman soldier. He opened his own museum aged eleven and went on to study archaeology at Birmingham. After many years in travel publishing, in 2003 he relocated to Vienna, where he writes and publishes his Only In Guides, a series of city guides for independent cultural travellers. Duncan is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. and


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