The Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio, among the most important churches in the city, is home to the remains of the Magi, the object of uninterrupted worship and devotion to date.
According to an ancient tradition, the Magi went back to Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion and died there as martyrs. Their bodies were later allegedly moved by Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine, to Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. Then, Emperor Constans reportedly donated the remains to Eustorgius, who travelled to Constantinople before becoming the bishop of Milan.
The sacred remains were allegedly transferred to the city inside a large and heavy marble sarcophagus pulled by two oxen, which, having reached the gates of Milan, collapsed exhausted. In that place, Eustorgius therefore decided to build a church.
The bodies placed inside a marble ark, after a long journey on a wagon pulled by oxen (see the fifth capital on the right of the central nave of the basilica, depicting these events), having reached Porta Ticinese, could no longer advance.
During Frederick Barbarossa’s raid of Milan in 1164, the devotees, fearing that the holy remains would be violated, hid them in the neighbouring church of San Giorgio in Palazzo, inside the city walls. However, Archbishop Rainald von Dassel, Barbarossa’s imperial chancellor, uncovered the deceit and took possession of the bodies of the Magi, transferring them to Cologne, where they are kept to this day, inside a valuable reliquary made by goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun.
On the other hand, the large sarcophagus remained at the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio; on its cover, a star and the eighteenth-century inscription Sepulcrum trium Magorum are carved.
Over the following centuries, the people of Milan tried in vain to recover the relics. Only in 1903, thanks to the intervention of Cardinal Ferrari, a few fragments of the sacred remains returned to the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio. To date, the relics are kept inside a shrine above the Magi altar, in the right transept of the basilica, on display for the devotees.
To date, on the Epiphany, a large procession of thousands of worshippers leaves from the Cathedral of Milan to reach the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio.
The ‘wise men’ represent the dynamism of going beyond oneself – intrinsic to religions – a dynamism that is search for the real God and, as such, philosophy in the original meaning of the word… They represent the journeying of religions toward Christ… These men are forerunners, truth-seekers who concern all the times!
(Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives)
THE HISTORICAL PROCESSION OF THE MAGI
Since 1336, as documented in the book by friar Allegranza, in Milan, on Epiphany day, the parish of Sant’Eustorgio holds the ‘historical procession of the Magi’.
This procession is enlivened by volunteers wearing precious period costumes, aiming at commemorating the path of the Magi on a quest for the Creator, the Light of the World, with the final homage paid to the Holy Family – the gifts that have been passed down by history – gold (as a symbol of kingship), frankincense (as a symbol of deity) and myrrh (foretelling the Passion of Jesus Christ).
This procession has reached the present day almost uninterruptedly. It was suspended by Saint Charles during the Great Plague of Milan for serious and justified reasons. After being resumed by Giovanni Battista Montini, the Archbishop of Milan and later Pope Paul VI, it has never been interrupted again.
The procession walks the streets of the city centre, leaving from Piazza del Duomo to reach Piazza Sant’Eustorgio, where the Magi pay homage to a living Nativity scene.
Throughout the years, the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio, which has housed the tomb and relics of the Magi since its building (the latter were stolen by Fredrick Barbarossa in 1164 and only partly returned to Milan in 1904, thanks to Cardinal Ferrari’s intervention) has taken the task of celebrating, merrily and publicly, a centuries-old event that has become well-established in the hearts of Christian worshippers all around the world, and therefore a key feature of the Ambrosian tradition.
The devotees that attend the show every year are able to see with their own eyes the reason why this happens – looking up at the top of the bell tower, unlike any other church, there is a star instead of the usual cross, giving evidence of the presence of the remains of the Magi inside.