It is said that after presenting the Baby Jesus with their gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, the Three Kings returned east, where they gave up their thrones and distributed their wealth amongst the poor. Together, they continued to journey eastwards, finally settling in India, where some forty years later they were baptized by the Apostle Thomas.
All three were then ordained as priests, after which they went their separate ways to proclaim the Good News. Ten years later, the three met up once more to spend their last Christmas together. After celebrating Mass on Christmas Day, they died. Their bodies were taken to Israel and buried in the city of Jerusalem. Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, discovered their graves during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She brought their bodies back to Constantinople where they were housed in the Church of Santa Sophia.
Shortly after the death of the Empress, her son presented the bones of the Wise Men as a gift to the bishop of Milan. By now, the relics were housed in a huge marble sarcophagus. The bishop transferred the sarcophagus to Milan on a wooden cart pulled by a team of oxen, As soon as the cart entered the city it sank into the mud. The bishop took this as a sign from God, and built a basilica on the site.
In 1162, the Holy Roman Emperor, Friedrich Barbarossa, captured the city of Milan and sent the relics to Cologne. It is said that the bones were transported to Germany in three ships.
For the next 50 years, the workshops of Cologne's goldsmiths were occupied with the crafting of a magnificent golden shrine for the relics. Such a fabulous shrine needed an equally splendid church to house it. The people of Cologne set about rebuilding their cathedral on a grand scale. Construction began in 1248 and the new High Altar was consecrated 80 years later. After this, the pace of construction slowed considerably, eventually grinding to a halt due to a lack of funds. It was not until 1842 that construction was resumed by the King of Prussia. It took another 32 years to finish the Cathedral, with the very last of the stonework being put in place in 1880.
During the Second World War the city of Cologne and its Cathedral were severely damaged by Allied bombing. However, the golden shrine itself escaped undamaged. Today it can still be seen behind the High Altar.
After taking 632 years to complete, Cologne Cathedral is the largest Gothic structure in northern Europe. It is currently the most visited building in Germany with more than 15 million pilgrims and tourists every year. Amongst the people of Cologne the Cathedral is popularly known as the Dreikoenigenkirche - "The Church of the Three Kings".