reliquary said to contain the blood of Christ in Santa Maria della Scalla, Siena, Italy

Relics are parts of, or objects associated with, the bodies of saints. They have been important since the earliest days of Christianity — as well as the earliest days of other religions — because they "provided the only physical link to a holy person after death." For some Christians the worship of relics seems macabre and smacks of superstition. Why were paintings of saints considered sacrilegious and the relics and body parts of saints not?

Holy relics were highly sought after by churches. The remains of saints were said to have miraculous healing powers and churches used the relics to attract worshippers and bring prestige. The relics included pieces of the True Cross, Judas' pieces of silver and bones from saints. There were so many relics floating around that one church in Paris had three crown of thorns, another said it had one of Christ's baby teeth and yet another possessed an "authentic relic of the Lord's circumcision.”

Crusaders brought back two heads of John the Baptist and it is said there were enough pieces of the true cross to fill the hold of a good-size ship. Touching the true cross was supposed to give people the power to bring back the dead. In Canterbury it was possible to see stains of Thomas Beckett's brains on paving stones where he was murdered. Most of these relics were stored in gold and silver reliquary boxes outfit with a small opening so you can see the relic inside. ["Life in a Medieval City" by Joseph and Frances Gies, Harper Perennial]

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: “The word relics comes from the Latin reliquiae (the counterpart of the Greek leipsana) which already before the propagation of Christianity was used in its modern sense, viz., of some object, notably part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint. The veneration of relics, in fact, is to some extent a primitive instinct, and it is associated with many other religious systems besides that of Christianity. At Athens the supposed remains of Oedipus and Theseus enjoyed an honour which it is very difficult to distinguish from a religious cult (see for all this Pfister, "Reliquienkult in Altertum", I, 1909), while Plutarch gives an account of the translation of the bodies of Demetrius (Demetr. iii) and Phocion (Phoc. xxxvii) which in many details anticipates the Christian practice of the Middle Ages. The bones or ashes of Aesculapius at Epidaurus, of Perdiccas I at Macedon, and even—if we may trust the statement of the Chronicon Paschale (Dindorf, p. 67)—of the Persian Zoroaster (Zarathustra), were treated with the deepest veneration. As for the Far East, the famous story of the distribution of the relics of Buddha, an incident which is believed to have taken place immediately after his death, seems to have found remarkable confirmation in certain modern archaeological discoveries. (See "Journ. of R. Asiatic Society", 1909, pp. 1056 sqq.). In any case the extreme development of relic-worship amongst the Buddhists of every sect is a fact beyond dispute. [Source: New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia ^\^]

Book: Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead by Peter Manseau is a tale of the authors travels around the globe in search of the “dismembered toes, splinters of shinbone stolen bits of hair, burned remnant of anonymous rib cage, and other odds and ends” belonging to saints and other sacred figures.

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar catholicsaints.info ; Saints' Books Library saintsbooks.net ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection colecciondeverda.blogspot.com ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Lives of the Saints: Catholic.org catholicism.org

Famous Relics

Arm of Saint Francis Xavier in 1949

Rome's Sant Croce in Gerusalemme basilica reportedly contains pieces of the true cross, a crucifixion nail, two thorns from the crown, and the finger which St. Thomas used to touch the rejected Jesus. A piece of the true cross lies at center of a jeweled, silver-gilt Cross of Emperor Justin II. The ruler of Saxony once claimed he had 17,000 relics, including a feather from the wings of the angel Gabriel.

Many churches in Europe claim to have all or part of Christ's penis. His circumcised prepuce — the Holy Prepuce, also known as the Holy Foreskin, the only part of him that didn't ascend to heaven — has been treasured as a fertility aid. There are 13 prepuces in Europe and at least one in Jerusalem. The one at the Abbey Church in Chatres has been credited with producing thousands of pregnancies of infertile women.

Stephanie Pappas wrote in Live Science Holy Grail: “Jewish tradition would have called for Jesus to be circumcised, and the apocryphal text the Arabic Infancy Gospel holds that the foreskin was saved in an alabaster box. In the Middle Ages, foreskin "relics" multiplied like rabbits, with as many as 18 circulating in Europe at the same time. Clearly sick of controversy, the Catholic Church declared in 1900 that anyone even talking about the Holy Prepuce would be excommunicated. As far as anyone knows, there are no more Holy Foreskins in existence. [Source:Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 5, 2012]

Christ's cradle is reportedly kept at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. It consists of five pieces from the manger and a feed box used as a cradle for infant Jesus. The crown of thorns is reportedly kept in Saint Chapelle in Paris. It was found by St. Helen in the 4th century and sold to Frances Louis IX in the 13th century. Veronica’s Veil, it is said, was used to wipe sweat and blood from Jesus while he was dying on the cross. Jesus ‘s face is said to have been imprinted on it. The Catholic church claims it possesses the veil and that it was given by Veronica herself to Pope Clement.

St. Xavier's arm has been displayed all over the world. In Goa, a pious Portuguese woman in fit of religious ecstacy bit off the little toe of the saint at his resting place in Goa. A look at the body reveals that at least three toes or missing, raising the questions that maybe others took bites or the Portuguese woman bit off than she was given credit for.

Body parts of Mohammed—including many whiskers and hairs—and Buddha—primarily teeth and bones—are found in parts of the world where Buddhism and Islam are observed

Famous Relics Associated with the Death of Jesus

Byzantine reliquary from around AD 800 said to contain the True Cross

St. Helena said the true cross was part of the Titulus, a headboard with the famous inscription (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”). An analysis of the true cross fragment dated it to between the 10th and 12th centuries. Stephanie Pappas wrote in Live Science Holy Grail: “ The True Cross: The cross Jesus died on is a powerful symbol for Christians, so it makes sense that the actual cross would be an object of great veneration. According to accounts by fourth-century church historian Socrates Scholasticus, the Roman emperor Constantine's mother demanded that the church built on Christ's supposed crucifixion site be demolished, uncovering three crosses below. True or not, hundreds of scraps of wood venerated as pieces of the True Cross spread across Europe. French theologian John Calvin of Protestant Reformation fame once dryly noted the sheer volume of these relics. "In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load," Calvin wrote. "Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it." [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 5, 2012 *|*]

Veil of Veronica is another famous piece of cloth. It “is supposed to bear an image of Jesus' face. The legend goes that as Jesus carried the cross before the crucifixion, Saint Veronica wiped sweat from his brow with her veil. Miraculously, Christ's face appeared on the fabric. The problem is that this legend doesn't show up in writing until the Middle Ages. There was certainly a veil with Jesus' face hanging in Rome by the 13th century that was said to be the Veil, but the history of that cloth is spotty. Copies of the Veil were made until the 1600s, when the Pope forbade further copying and ordered all existing copies destroyed. Today, St. Peter's Basilica holds a veil said to be the one displayed in the Middle Ages, but it is not on public display.*|*

“Crown of Thorns: Biblical accounts state that Roman soldiers mocked Jesus by placing a crown of thorns on his head before his death. Today, this very crown is allegedly housed at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. According to Notre Dame officials, the crown cannot be authenticated, but it is still revered. Today, the crown is kept bundled in gold thread and is presented to believers for veneration on the first Friday of each month and every Friday during the pre-Easter period of Lent. *|*

“Sudarium of Oviedo: At the Cathedral of San Salvador in Spain rests a bloody cloth said to have been wrapped around the head of Jesus after he died. Put on public display only three times a year, the Sudarium has been posited to be a matching set with the Shroud of Turin, though its authenticity is just as debated. *|*

“Crucifixion Nails: Believers debate whether three or four nails were used to crucify Jesus, but according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, no fewer than 30 nails have been venerated as relics of Christ's death. Early Christian Theodoret wrote that Constantine's mother made her son a gift of a "portion of the nails" to insert into his helmet and into the bridle of his horse to protect him from harm. The Iron Crown of Lombardy, an ancient circlet kept in a cathedral outside Milan, is rumored to be made of one of the original "Holy Nails."” *|*

Blood of St. Gennaro

Pope Francis with the Blood of Saint Gennaro

The Cathedral of San Gennaro in Naples contains a reliquary with the severed head blood of San Genarro (St. Janauius), Naples’s patron saint. Reportedly, the blood is dry most of the year, but mysteriously liquefies three times a year, on days associated with his life and deeds. At those times pilgrims rush forward to kiss the container of the saint's dried blood when it miraculously turns to liquid. A nun sells packets of flower petals that have touched the saints remains. It also known as the duomo.

What is called St. Gennaro’s blood is contained in two hour-glass-shaped vials. On the saint's feast day these relics are taken in a procession from the vault where they are stored to the alter of the church in a procession. As thousands watch the archbishop at the church raises the vial and the powdery dark solid changes into a red liquid.

Scientist have no explanation for this phenomena and the Roman Catholic church has never let the substance be analyzed. The ceremony has been done for over 600 years and only on a few occasions has the blood not liquified and thus was said to portend natural catastrophes. San Gennaro, according to legend, saved Naples from plague and cholera. In 1631 the relic was paraded in the streets during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius and a few hours later the wind changed direction sparing Naples from being smothered by volcano's ash.

Holy Grails

The Holy Grail (Cup) was drunk from by Jesus at the Last Supper and then handed around to the Apostles. The Last Supper was held in the house of St. Mark. After Jesus was crucified Joseph of Arimathea collected some of his blood and put it in the grail. According to legend the grail was taken to Rome by St. Peter and was used as the Papal Chalice until it was taken to Spain in 713 and became a possession of the King of Aragon. It was kept in Huesca, Jaca, and in 1437 taken Valencia cathedral, where it purportedly resides today. In the early 2000s, the book The Da Vinci Code popularized the theory that Mary Magdalene was the Holy Grail.

Holy Grail in Valencia

Stephanie Pappas wrote in Live Science Holy Grail: “The subject of both a Monty Python and an Indiana Jones movie, the Holy Grail is supposed to be a chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper before his death. Traces of the Grail legend can be found in Celtic myth, which occasionally featured miraculous cauldrons. The first written legend of the Grail dates from the 1100s as an incomplete poem that tells the story of a knight named Perceval who saw the sacred object at a mystical feast. The Grail inspires inventive storytelling even today: In Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," the Grail is (spoiler alert!) the remains of Mary Magdalene, buried beneath the Louvre in Paris. [Source:Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 5, 2012]

At least three churches in Europe and a pub in Ireland claim to house the Holy Grail In 1995, a British man said he found the grail wrapped in a newspaper in box of old teacups. he said the cup was brought to Britain in the 5th century for safekeeping when the Huns overran Rome and fell into the hands of his descendants, Welsh rulers.

The Holy Grail housed in Valencia's 13th century Gothic cathedral is carved from violet-greenish agate (chalcedony). The coffee-cup-size, seven-inch-high cup has an inverted cup base with pearls and emeralds, with gold handles. It is held together by a gold and jeweled bands. The church pamphlet asserts the gold may have been applied after Jesus used it.

Relic Banks and Feasts

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: “It has long been customary especially in churches which possessed large collections of relics, to keep one general feast in commemoration of all the saints whose memorials are there preserved. An Office and Mass for this purpose will be found in the Roman Missal and Breviary, and though they occur only in the supplement Pro aliquibus locis and are not obligatory upon the Church at large, still this celebration is now kept almost universally. The office is generally assigned to the fourth Sunday in October. In England before the Reformation, as we may learn from a rubric in the Sarum Breviary, the Festum Reliquiarum was celebrated on the Sunday after the feast of the Translation of St. Thomas of Canterbury (7 July), and it was to be kept as a greater double "wherever relics are preserved or where the bodies of dead persons are buried, for although Holy Church and her ministers observe no solemnities in their honour, the glory they enjoy with God is known to Him alone." [Source: New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia ^\^]

replica of the Holy Grail in Valencia

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “Although relics are often considered "medieval", they are still widely used as objects of devotion in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. In fact, it is possible to obtain a relic (if you have a letter from Catholic priest) from a "relic bank" in Rome. It is illegal under church law to charge for a relic, but there is a charge for the required relic case. In most cases the relix acquired is a very small piece of bone or skin. Such relics are placed in a reliquary, and sealed. Each is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity. [Source: sourcebooks.fordham.edu]


“Universis et singulis praesentes litteras inspecturis fidem facimus ac testamur, quod Nos ad maiorem Omnipotentis Dei gloriam suorumque Sanctorum venerationem recognovimus sacras particulas Ex Ossibus S. Georgii Mil. M. quas ex authenticis locis extractas reverenter collocavimus in theca metallica rotundae formae crystallo munita, bene clausa et funiculo serico coloris rubri colligata, ac sigillo nostro signata, easque tradidimus cum facultate apud se retinendi, extra Urbem transmittendi et publicae fidelium venerationi exponendi. [To all and each who will see these present letters we give our faithful assurance and we attest that, to the greater glory of Almighty God and the veneration of His Saints, we have recognized the sacred particles "From the bones of Saint George, Soldier [or Knight], Martyr" which, taken out of their authentic places, we have gathered in a "metal chest of round shape," decorated with crystal, tightly closed and tied with a silk cord of red color, marked with our seal; and we have sent them with permission to keep them, to send them out of the City, and to expose them to the public veneration of the faithful.]

“Monemus autem fideles in quorum manus hae sacrae reliquiae nunc vel in posterum venturae sunt, nullo modo licere eas vendere, neque cum iis rebus quae mercimonii speciem praeseferant [prae seferant], commutare. [But we warn the faithful into whose hands these sacred relics shall come now or later, that they are in no way permitted to sell them nor to exchange them with such things as show the appearance of marketing].

“In quorum fidem has litteras testimoniales a Nobis seu ab Exc.mo Vicesgerente subscrptas [subscriptas] nostroque sigillo firmatas per infrascriptum Sacrarm [Sacrarum] Reliquiarum Custodem expediri mandavimus Romae ex Aedibus nostris die *V* mensis *Martii* Anni MCMLII. [In witness of those things we have ordered these testimonial letters, signed by us or by our Most Excellent Substitute, and sealed with our seal, to be sent by the undersigned Keeper of Sacred Relics. At Rome, from our palace, 5 March 1952]

Relics, Reliquaries and Art

Head of Mary Magdalene in Saint Maria Maddalena

In a review of the “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe” exhibition at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Blake Gopnik wrote in Newsweek, “The gem-studded crosses, golden caskets, and finely carved ivories that got the modern art world started, back in the Middle Ages, were about as beautiful as anything could be. But most of them also had more important, vitally practical functions: they cured illnesses, won battles, protected infants, and helped farmers bring in crops. Good looks and precious materials were symbols of those works’ amazing functionality rather than their central point. [Source: Blake Gopnik, Newsweek, February 27, 2011 ^^^]

“The true “working parts” of the golden objects at the Walters are hidden deep inside them: all these artifacts either contained actual remnants of the bodies of Christianity’s holiest figures, or held lesser objects—oil, bits of cloth, or even instruments of torture—that had come in contact with the figures or their relics. Two carved and painted busts of beautiful young girls, dressed and coiffed for a holiday Sunday near Brussels in the 1520s, conceal chunks of skull said to have come from martyred Christian virgins. Each bust has a discreet trap door on top to reveal its sacred bone. The Walters is keeping them closed. ^^^

“Several ornately gilt caskets and crosses contain fragments of the True Cross, which Christ was believed to have died on, while one of several rock-crystal vessels in the show still contains the “Tooth of John the Baptist,” as its inscription informs us. (The gold casings for these relics also functioned as cash reserves for their owners, to be melted down in tough times. This is one of several fascinating facts in an essay by co-curator Martina Bagnoli, from the show’s gorgeous and comprehensive catalog.) ^^^

“The art collecting that went on to become a hobby for the rich and powerful, such as the Walters’s founder, had its roots in the equally eager relic collecting of earlier times. By 1520, Prince Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, had amassed 19,013 precious relics in his collection. At the tail end of the Middle Ages, churches and chapels were crowded with stunning objects of virtue, and people flocked to them—to pray, of course, but also for the sheer wonder of it all. One object at the Walters is a fabulous, yard-long “Griffin’s Claw” said to have come from a griffin companion of Saint Cuthbert of England. (Spoiler alert: it’s actually a mountain-goat horn.) As Europe secularized, such objects migrated to the “cabinets of wonder” of the wealthy, which in turn begat our modern museums, which function more like wondrous, relic-filled halls than we tend to acknowledge. After something like 2 million years of living from the artifacts we make, humans may be hard-wired to show them respect.” ^^^

Relic Tales

head of Mary Magdalene carried in a procession

In “Relics of St. Martin Healed Two Beggars Against Their Will”, Jacques de Vitry wrote in the 13th century: “Moreover, although poverty and other tribulations are advantageous, yet certain ones abuse them. Accordingly we read that when the body St. Martin was borne in procession it healed all the infirm who met blind, Now there were near the church two wandering beggars, one began to converse together and said, "See, the body of St. Martin is now being borne in procession, and if it catches us we shall be healed immediately, and no one in the future will give us any aims, but we shall have to work and labor with our own hands.', Then the blind man said to the lame, "Get up on my shoulders because I am strong, and you who see well can guide me." The y did this; but when they wished to escape, the procession overtook them; and since, on account of the throng, they were not able to get away, they were healed against their will. [Source: “Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History,” published for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania., Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]. Vol II, No 4, pp. 11-14, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

In “Articles Wrought by Bridle Falsely Called a Relic,” Caesar of Heisterbach wrote: “A certain knight loved most ardently the above-mentioned martyr, St. Thomas of Canterbury, and sought everywhere to obtain some relic of him. When a certain wily priest, in whose house he was staying, heard of this he said to him, "I have by me a bridle which St. Thomas used for a long time, and I have often experienced its virtues." When the knight heard this, and believed it, he joyfully paid the priest the money which the latter demanded and received the bridle with great devotion. [Source: Dist. VIII, Cap. LXX. (Vol. II p. 140, Op. Cit]

“God truly, to whom nothing is impossible, wishing to reward the faith of the knight and for the honor of his martyr, deigned to work many miracles through the same bridle. The knight seeing this founded a church in honor of the martyr and in it he placed as a relic the bridle of that most wicked priest.

Harlot Sells Arm of St. John the Baptist to Merchant

In “Concerning a Merchant to Whom a Harlot Sold the Arm of St. John the Baptist,” Caesar of Heisterbach wrote in in the 13th century: “Not long ago a certain merchant of our country, crossing the sea, saw the arm of St. John the Baptist in his hospital, and desired it. Knowing that the custodian of the relics was following a certain woman, and knowing that there is nothing which women of that class cannot extort from men, he approached her and said, " If you will procure for me the relics of St. John the Baptist of which your lover has the charge, I will give you a hundred and forty pounds of silver." She, craving the sum offered,' refused to consent to the hospitaler until he obtained the sacred arm. This she immediately delivered to the merchant and received the promised weight of silver. [Source: Dist. VIII, Cap. LIII. (Vol II, pp. 125-26), “Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History,” published for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania., Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]. Vol II, No 4, pp. 11-14, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

“Do you perceive how great a mockery? just as formerly the head of St. John was delivered by Herod to a lascivious girl as a reward for dancing, and by her was given to an adulterous mother, so at this time, the hospitaler, no less wicked than Herod, gave the arm of the same saint to a base woman as the price of fornication, and by her it was sold to the merchant.

head of John the Baptist

“The latter, not consigning it to the ground like Herodias, but wrapping it in purple, fled almost to the extremities of the earth and arrived at the city of Gröningen, which is situated at the entrance to Frisia. There he built a house and, hiding the arm in one of the columns, began to grow exceedingly wealthy. One day when he was sitting in his shop, some one said to him, '- The city is burning and the fire is now approaching your house." He replied, "I do not fear for my house, I have left a good guardian there." Nevertheless he arose and, entered his house. When he saw the column unmoved he returned to his shop. All wondered what was the cause of so great confidence.

“When questioned about the guardian of his house, he replied ambiguously; but when he realized that his fellow-citizens noted it, fearing lest they might employ violence against him, he took out the arm and delivered it into the care of a certain hermitess. She, unable to keep the secret, told a man of her charge, and he told the citizens. They immediately took the relics and carried them to the church. When the merchant tearfully requested his relics, they replied harshly. When they asked him of what saint these were the relics, he not wishing to betray the facts said he did not know. Nevertheless in grief he deserted the city and, falling into poverty, he became very ill not long after. When he feared death, he disclosed to his confessor what the relics were and how he had obtained them.

“When the citizens learned this, they made a receptacle in the form an arm, of silver and gilt, adorned with precious stones, and placed the relics in it. I saw the same arm two years ago and it is covered with skin and flesh. I also saw there among the relics a small gold cross of Frederick the Emperor, which had been given to the above mentioned merchant at the same time as the arm.”

Since no one of the saints is believed to be greater than St. John the Baptist, why is it that we do not read of any miracle in his life ? “So that God may show that holiness does not consist in miracles, but in right living. For after death he was illustrious by innumerable and great miracles. The aforesaid citizens, in truth, fearing for the relics of St. John, built of planks a very strong little house behind the altar, and by night they had a priest sleep in the top of it. The house was so shaken under him on the first night that he felt no slight horror. In the second night truly it struck him when asleep and hurled him onto the pavement. When one of the rulers of the city fell sick, at his request Theodoric, the priest of the church, carried the arm to his house and unwrapped it. He found the arm, as well as the purple in which it was wrapped, covered with fresh blood, He told me this with his own mouth. A priest cut off a small piece of flesh from the same arm, and when he carried it off secretly in his hand, he felt as much heat from it as if he had been carrying burning coal. Many miracles and hearings indeed were wrought in that city b the same relics through the merits of St. John the Baptist.

Relics 'Could Be of John the Baptist'

head of John the Baptist

In June 2012, University of Oxford reported that a knucklebone claimed to be of John the Baptist was dated to A.D. first century by Oxford researchers working the National Geographic channel. The dating of that bones, which were found under a church floor in Bulgaria, place them at the around the same time period as Biblical John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. According to Oxfird University, “A team from the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at Oxford University dated a knucklebone from the right hand. The researchers were surprised when they discovered the very early age of the remains adding, however, that dating evidence alone cannot prove the bones to be of John the Baptist. [Source: University of Oxford, June 15, 2012]

“The bones were originally discovered in 2010 by archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov, excavating under an ancient church on an island in Bulgaria known as Sveti Ivan, which translates into English as St John. The knucklebone was one of six human bones, including a tooth and the face part of a cranium, found in small marble sarcophagus under the floor near the altar. Three animal bones were also inside the sarcophagus. Oxford professors Thomas Higham and Christopher Ramsey attempted to radiocarbon date four human bones, but only one of them contained a sufficient amount of collagen to be dated successfully. \::\

“Professor Higham said: 'We were surprised when the radiocarbon dating produced this very early age. We had suspected that the bones may have been more recent than this, perhaps from the third or fourth centuries. However, the result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD. Whether that person is John the Baptist is a question that we cannot yet definitely answer and probably never will.' \::\

“Former Oxford student Dr Hannes Schroeder and Professor Eske Willerslev, both from the University of Copenhagen, also reconstructed the complete mitochondrial DNA genome sequence from three of the human bones to establish that the bones were all from the same individual. Significantly, they identified a family group of genes (mtDNA haplotype) as being a group most commonly found in the Near East, which is better known as the Middle East today - the region where John the Baptist would have originated from. They also established that the bones were probably of a male individual after an analysis of the nuclear DNA from samples. \::\

“Dr Schroeder said: 'Our worry was that the remains might have been contaminated with modern DNA. However, the DNA we found in the samples showed damage patterns that are characteristic of ancient DNA, which gave us confidence in the results. Further, it seems somewhat unlikely that all three samples would yield the same sequence considering that they had probably been handled by different people. Both of these facts suggest that the DNA we sequenced was actually authentic. Of course, this does not prove that these were the remains of John the Baptist but nor does it refute that theory as the sequences we got fit with a Near Eastern origin.' \::\

Salome with the head of John the Baptist by Titian

“The Bulgarian archaeologists, who excavated the bones, also found a small tuff box (made of hardened volcanic ash) close to the sarcophagus. The tuff box bears inscriptions in ancient Greek that directly mention John the Baptist and his feast day, and text asking God to 'help your servant Thomas'. One theory is that the person referred to as Thomas had been given the task of bringing the relics to the island. An analysis of the box has shown that the tuff box has a high waterproof quality and is likely to have originated from Cappadocia, a region of modern-day Turkey. The Bulgarian researchers believe that the bones probably came to Bulgaria via Antioch, an ancient Turkish city, where the right hand of St John was kept until the tenth century. \::\

“In a separate study, another Oxford researcher Dr Georges Kazan has used historical documents to show that in the latter part of the fourth century, monks had taken relics of John the Baptist out of Jerusalem and these included portions of skull. These relics were soon summoned to Constantinople by the Roman Emperor who built a church to house them there. Further research by Dr Kazan suggests that the reliquary used to contain them may have resembled the sarcophagus-shaped casket discovered at Sveti Ivan. Archaeological and written records suggest that these reliquaries were first developed and used at Constantinople by the city's ruling elite at around the time that the relics of John the Baptist are said to have arrived there. \::\

“Dr Kazan said 'My research suggests that during the fifth or early sixth century, the monastery of Sveti Ivan may well have received a significant portion of St John the Baptist's relics, as well as a prestige reliquary in the shape of a sarcophagus, from a member of Constantinople's elite. This gift could have been to dedicate or rededicate the church and the monastery to St John, which the patron or patrons may have supported financially.' \The scientific analysis of the relics undertaken by Tom Higham and Christopher Ramsey at Oxford, and their colleagues in Copenhagen was supported by the National Geographic Society. The documentary 'Head of John the Baptist', featuring the scientists' work is due to be shown at 8pm on 17 June 2012.” \::\

Catholic Church Doctrine Regarding Relics

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: “The teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to the veneration of relics is summed up in a decree of the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV), which enjoins on bishops and other pastors to instruct their flocks that "the holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ—which bodies were the living members of Christ and 'the temple of the Holy Ghost' (1 Corinthians 6:19) and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men, so that they who affirm that veneration and honour are not due to the relics of the saints, or that these and other sacred monuments are uselessly honoured by the faithful, and that the places dedicated to the memories of the saints are in vain visited with the view of obtaining their aid, are wholly to be condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned, and also now condemns them." Further, the council insists that "in the invocation of saints the veneration of relics and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed and all filthy lucre abolished." Again, "the visitation of relics must not be by any perverted into revellings and drunkenness." To secure a proper check upon abuses of this kind, "no new miracles are to be acknowledged or new relics recognized unless the bishop of the diocese has taken cognizance and approved thereof." Moreover, the bishop, in all these matters, is directed to obtain accurate information to take council with theologians and pious men, and in cases of doubt or exceptional difficulty to submit the matter to the sentence of the metropolitan and other bishops of the province, "yet so that nothing new, or that previously has not been usual in the Church, shall be resolved on, without having first consulted the Holy See." [Source: New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia ^\^]

Saint Oliver Plunket's head

“The justification of Catholic practice, which is indirectly suggested here by the reference to the bodies of the saints as formerly temples of the Holy Ghost and as destined hereafter to be eternally glorified, is further developed in the authoritative "Roman Catechism" drawn up at the instance of the same council. Recalling the marvels witnessed at the tombs of the martyrs, where "the blind and cripples are restored to health, the dead recalled to life, and *devils?* expelled from the bodies of men" the Catechism points out that these are facts which "St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, most unexceptionable witnesses, declare in their writings that they have not merely heard and read about, as many did but have seen with their own eyes", (Ambrose, Epist. xxii, nn. 2 and 17, Augustine, Serm. cclxxxvi, c.v.; City of God XXII, "Confess.", ix). And from thence, turning to Scriptural analogies, the compilers further argue: "If the clothes, the kerchiefs (Acts 19:12), if the shadow of the saints (Acts 5:15), before they departed from this life, banished diseases and restored strength, who will have the hardihood to deny that God wonderfully works the same by the sacred ashes, the bones, and other relics of the saints? This is the lesson we have to learn from that dead body which, having been accidentally let down into the sepulchre of Eliseus, "when it had touched the bones of the Prophet, instantly came to life" (2 Kings 13:21, and cf. Sirach 48:14). We may add that this miracle as well as the veneration shown to the bones of Joseph (see Exodus 13:19 and Joshua 24:32) only gain additional force from their apparent contradiction to the ceremonial laws against defilement, of which we read in Numbers 19:11-22. The influence of this Jewish shrinking from contact with the dead so far lingered on that it was found necessary in the "Apostolical Constitutions" (vi, 30) to issue a strong warning against it and to argue in favour of the Christian cult of relics. ^\^

“According to the more common opinion of theologians, relics are to be honoured; St. Thomas, in Summa III:25:6, does not seem to consider even the word adorare inappropriate—cultu duliae relativae, that is to say with a veneration which is not that of latria (divine worship) and which though directed primarily to the material objects of the cult—i.e., the bones, ashes, garments, etc.—does not rest in them, but looks beyond to the saints they commemorate as to its formal term. Hauck, Kattenbusch, and other non-Catholic writers have striven to show that the utterances of the Council of Trent are in contradiction to what they admit to be the "very cautious" language of the medieval scholastics, and notably St. Thomas. The latter urges that those who have an affection to any person hold in honour all that was intimately connected with him. Hence, while we love and venerate the saints who were so dear to God, we also venerate all that belonged to them, and particularly their bodies, which were once the temples of the Holy Spirit, and which are some day to be conformed to the glorious body of Jesus Christ. "whence also", adds St. Thomas, "God fittingly does honour to such relics by performing miracles in their presence [in earum praesentia]." It will be seen that this closely accords with the terms used by the Council of Trent and that the difference consists only in this, that the Council says per quae—"through which many benefits are bestowed on mankind"—while St. Thomas speaks of miracles worked "in their presence". But it is quite unnecessary to attach to the words per quae the idea of physical causality. We have no reason to suppose that the council meant more than that the relics of the saints were the occasion of God's working miracles. When we read in the Acts of the Apostles, xix, 11, 12, "And God wrought by the hand of Paul more than common miracles. So that even there were brought from his body to the sick, handkerchiefs and aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the wicked spirits went out from them" there can be no inexactitude in saying that these also were the things by which (per quae) God wrought the cure. ^\^

reliquary with Christ's shroud

“There is nothing, therefore, in Catholic teaching to justify the statement that the Church encourages belief in a magical virtue, or physical curative efficacy residing in the relic itself . It may be admitted that St. Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 347), and a few other patristic and medieval writers, apparently speak of some power inherent in the relic. For example, St. Cyril, after referring to the miracle wrought by the body of Eliseus, declares that the restoration to life of the corpse with which it was in contact took place: "to show that even though the soul is not present a virtue resides in the body of the saints, because of the righteous soul which has for so many years tenanted it and used it as its minister". And he adds, "Let us not be foolishly incredulous as though the thing had not happened, for if handkerchiefs and aprons which are from without, touching the body of the diseased, have raised up the sick, how much more should the body itself of the Prophet raise the dead?" (Cat., xviii, 16.) But this seems rather to belong to the personal view or manner of speech of St. Cyril. He regards the chrism after its consecration "as no longer simple ointment but the gift of Christ and by the presence of His Godhead it causes in us the Holy Ghost" (Cat., xxi, 3); and, what is more striking, he also declares that the meats consecrated to idols, "though in their own nature plain and simple become profane by the invocation of the evil spirit" (Cat., xix, 7)—all of which must leave us very doubtful as to his real belief in any physical virtue inherent in relics. Be this as it may, it is certain that the Church, with regard to the veneration of relics has defined nothing, more than what was stated above. Neither has the Church ever pronounced that any particular relic, not even that commonly venerated as the wood of the Cross, as authentic; but she approves of honour being paid to those relics which with reasonable probability are believed to be genuine and which are invested with due ecclesiastical sanctions.

Early History of Relic Veneration

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Few points of faith can be more satisfactorily traced back to the earliest ages of Christianity than the veneration of relics. The classical instance is to be found in the letter written by the inhabitants of Smyrna, about 156, describing the death of St. Polycarp. After he had been burnt at the stake, we are told that his faithful disciples wished to carry off his remains, but the Jews urged the Roman officer to refuse his consent for fear that the Christians "would only abandon the Crucified One and begin to worship this man". Eventually, however, as the Smyrnaeans say, "we took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom." This is the keynote which is echoed in a multitude of similar passages found a little later in the patristic writers of both East and West. Harnack's tone in referring to this development is that of an unwilling witness overwhelmed by evidence which it is useless to resist. "Most offensive", he writes, "was the worship of relics. It flourished to its greatest extent as early as the fourth century and no Church doctor of repute restricted it. All of them rather, even the Cappadocians, countenanced it. The numerous miracles which were wrought by bones and relics seemed to confirm their worship. The Church therefore, would not give up the practice, although a violent attack was made upon it by a few cultured heathens and besides by the Manichæans" (Harnack, "Hist. of Dog.", tr., IV, 313). [Source: New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia ^\^]

bones of Saint Nicholas

“From the Catholic standpoint there was no extravagance or abuse in this cult as it was recommended and indeed taken for granted, by writers like St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and by all the other great doctors without exception. To give detailed references besides those already cited from the Roman Catechism would be superfluous. Suffice it to point out that the inferior and relative nature of the honour due to relics was always kept in view. Thus St. Jerome says ("Ad Riparium", i, P.L., XXII, 907): "We do not worship, we do not adore [non colimus, non adoramus], for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate [honoramus] the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are." And St. Cyril of Alexandria writes ("Adv. Julian.", vi, P.G. LXXVI, 812): "We by no means consider the holy martyrs to be gods, nor are we wont to bow down before them adoringly, but only relatively and reverentially [ou latreutikos alla schetikos kai timetikos]." Perhaps no single writing supplies a more striking illustration of the importance attached to the veneration of relics in the Christian practice of the fourth century than the panegyric of the martyr St. Theodore by St. Gregory of Nyssa (P.G., XLVI, 735-48). Contrasting the horror produced by an ordinary corpse with the veneration paid to the body of a saint the preacher expatiates upon the adornment lavished upon the building which had been erected over the martyr's resting place, and he describes how the worshipper is led to approach the tomb "believing that to touch it is itself a sanctification and a blessing and if it be permitted to carry off any of the dust which has settled upon the martyr's resting place, the dust is accounted as a great gift and the mould as a precious treasure. And as for touching the relics themselves, if that should ever be our happiness, only those who have experienced it and who have had their wish gratified can know how much this is desirable and how worthy a recompense it is of aspiring prayer" (col. 740). ^\^

“This passage, like many others that might be quoted, dwells rather upon the sanctity of the martyr's resting place and upon that of his mortal remains collected as a whole and honourably entombed. Neither is it quite easy to determine the period at which the practice of venerating minute fragments of bone or cloth, small parcels of dust, etc., first became common. We can only say that it was widespread early in the fourth century, and that dated inscriptions upon blocks of stone, which were probably altar slabs, afford evidence upon the point which is quite conclusive. One such, found of late years in Northern Africa and now preserved in the Christian Museum of the Louvre, bears a list of the relics probably once cemented into a shallow circular cavity excavated in its surface. Omitting one or two words not adequately explained, the inscription runs: "A holy memorial [memoria sancta] of the wood of the Cross, of the land of Promise where Christ was born, the Apostles Peter and Paul, the names of the martyrs Datian, Donatian, Cyprian, Nemesianus, Citinus, and Victoria. In the year of the Province 320 [i.e. A.D. 359] Benenatus and Pequaria set this up" ("Corp. Inscr. Lat.", VIII, n. 20600). ^\^

reliquary of Saint Valentine in Poland

“We learn from St. Cyril of Jerusalem (before 350) that the wood of the Cross, discovered c. 318, was already distributed throughout the world; and St. Gregory of Nyssa in his sermons on the forty martyrs, after describing how their bodies were burned by command of the persecutors, explains that "their ashes and all that the fire had spared have been so distributed throughout the world that almost every province has had its share of the blessing. I also myself have a portion of this holy gift and I have laid the bodies of my parents beside the ashes of these warriors, that in the hour of the resurrection they may be awakened together with these highly privileged comrades" (P.G., XLVI, 764). We have here also a hint of the explanation of the widespread practice of seeking burial near the tombs of the martyrs. It seems to have been felt that when the souls of the blessed martyrs on the day of general were once more united to their bodies, they would be accompanied in their passage to heaven by those who lay around them and that these last might on their account find more ready acceptance with God. ^\^

“We may note also that, while this and other passages suggest that no great repugnance was felt in the East to the division and dismemberment of the bodies of the saints, in the West, on the other hand, particularly at Rome, the greatest respect was shown to the holy dead. The mere unwrapping or touching of the body of a martyr was considered to be a terribly perilous enterprise, which could only be set about by the holiest of ecclesiastics, and that after prayer and fasting. This belief lasted until the late Middle Ages and is illustrated, for example, in the life of St. Hugh of Lincoln, who excited the surprise of his episcopal contemporaries by his audacity in examining and translating relics which his colleagues dared not disturb. In the Theodosian Code the translation, division, or dismemberment of the remains of martyrs was expressly forbidden ("Nemo martyrem distrahat", Cod. Theod., IX, xvii, 7); and somewhat later Gregory the Great seems in very emphatic terms to attest the continuance of the same tradition. He professed himself sceptical regarding the alleged "customs of the Greeks" of readily transferring the bodies of martyrs from place to place, declaring that throughout the West any interference with these honoured remains was looked upon as a sacrilegious act and that numerous prodigies had struck terror into the hearts of even well meaning men who had attempted anything of the sort. Hence, though it was the Empress Constantina herself who had asked him for the head or some portion of the body of St. Paul, he treated the request as an impossible one, explaining that, to obtain the supply of relics needful in the consecration of churches, it was customary to lower into the Confession of the Apostles as far as the second "cataract"—so we learn from a letter to Pope Hermisdas in 519 (Thiel, "Epist. gen.", I, 873) ] a box containing portions of silk or cloth, known as brandea, and these brandea, after lying for a time in contact with the remains of the holy Apostles, were henceforth treated as relics. Gregory further offers to send Constantina some filings from St. Peter's chains, a form of present of which we find frequent mention in his correspondence (St. Gregory, "Epist.", Mon. Germ. Hist., I, 264 -66). It is certain that long before this time an extended conception of the nature of a relic, such as this important letter reveals, had gradually grown up. Already when Eusebius wrote (c. 325) such objects as the hair of St. James or the oil multiplied by Bishop Narcissus (Church History VII.39, and Church History VI.9) were clearly venerated as relics, and St. Augustine, in his City of God (XXII.8), gives numerous instances of miracles wrought by soil from the Holy Land flowers which had touched a reliquary or had been laid upon a particular altar, oil from the lamps of the church of a martyr, or by other things not less remotely connected with the saints themselves. Further, it is noteworthy that the Roman prejudice against translating and dividing seems only to have applied to the actual bodies of the martyrs reposing in their tombs. It is St. Gregory himself who enriches a little cross, destined to hang round the neck as an encolpion, with filings both from St. Peter's chains and from the gridiron of St. Laurence ("Epist.", Mon. Germ. Hist., I, 192). Before the year 350, St. Cyril of Jerusalem three times over informs us that the fragments of the wood of the Cross found by St. Helen had been distributed piecemeal and had filled the whole world (Cat., iv, 10; x, 19; xiii, 4). This implies that Western pilgrims felt no more impropriety in receiving than the Eastern bishops in giving. ^\^

Reliquary of the True Cross in Jerusalem

“During the Merovingian and Carlovingian period the cultus of relics increased rather than diminished. Gregory of Tours abounds in stories of the marvels wrought by them, as well as of the practices used in their honour, some of which have been thought to be analogous to those of the pagan "incubations" (De Glor. Conf., xx); neither does he omit to mention the frauds occasionally perpetrated by scoundrels through motives of greed. Very significant, as Hauck (Kirchengesch. Deutschl., I 185) has noticed is the prologue to the text of the Salic Laws, probably written, by a contemporary of Gregory of Tours in the sixth century. "That nation", it says, "which has undoubtedly in battle shaken off the hard yoke of the Romans, now that it has been illuminated through Baptism, has adorned the bodies of the holy martyrs with gold and precious stones, those same bodies which the Romans burnt with fire, and pierced with the sword, or threw to wild beasts to be torn to pieces." In England we find from the first a strong tradition in the same sense derived from St. Gregory himself. Bede records (Hist. Eccl., I, xxix) how the pope "forwarded to Augustine all the things needful for the worship and service of the church, namely, sacred vessels, altar linen, church ornaments, priestly and clerical vestments, relics of the holy Apostles and martyrs and also many books". The Penitential ascribed to St. Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, which certainly was known in England at an early date, declares that "the relics of the saints are to be venerated", and it adds, seemingly in connexion with the same idea, that "If possible a candle is to burn there every night" (Haddan and Stubbs, "Councils", III, 191). When we remember the candles which King Alfred constantly kept burning before his relics, the authenticity of this clause in Theodore's Penitential seems the more probable. Again the relics of English saints, for example those of St. Cuthbert and St. Oswald, soon became famous, while in the case of the latter we hear of them all over the continent. Mr. Plummer (Bede, II, 159-61) has made a short list of them and shows that they must have been transported into the remotest part of Germany. After the Second Council of Nicaea, in 7 87, had insisted with special urgency that relics were to be used in the consecration of churches and that the omission was to be supplied if any church had been consecrated without them the English Council of Celchyth (probably Chelsea) commanded that relics were to be used, and in default of them the Blessed Eucharist. But the developments of the veneration of relics in the Middle Ages were far too vast to be pursued further. Not a few of the most famous of the early medieval inscriptions are connected with the same matter. It must suffice to mention the famous Clematius inscription at Cologne, recording the translation of the remains of the so called Eleven thousand Virgins (see Krause, "Inscrip d. Rheinlande", no. 294, and, for a discussion of the legend, the admirable essay on the subject by Cardinal Wiseman.

Relics Handed Down in Gregory's Family

The “Book in Honor of the Martyrs: I shall now describe what was brought to pass through the relics which my father carried with him in former times. When Theodobert [note: Theodobert I, 534―548.]t gave orders that sons of men in Auvergne should be taken as hostages, my father, at that time lately married, wished to be protected by relics of the saints, and he asked a certain bishop kindly to give him some, thinking he would be kept safe by such protection when absent on his distant journey. Then he enclosed the holy ashes in a gold case the shape of a pea―pod and placed them around his neck; but the man did not know the blessed names. He was accustomed to relate that he was saved by them from many dangers; for he bore witness that by their miraculous power he had often escaped attacks of highwaymen and dangers on rivers and the furies of civil war and thrusts of the sword. And I shall not fail to tell what I saw of these with my own eyes. After my father's death my mother always wore these precious things on her person. Now the grain harvest had come and great grain stacks were gathered at the threshing places. And in those days when the threshing was going on, a cold spell came on, and seeing that Limagne [note: One of the most fertile spots in France. Cf. Lavisse, Histoire de France, I, pp 296-301] has no forests, being all covered with crops, the threshers made themselves fires of straw, since there was nothing else to make a fire of. Meantime all went away to eat. And behold, the fire gradually increased and began to spread slowly straw by straw. Then the piles suddenly caught, with the south wind blowing; it was a great conflagration and there began a shouting of men and shrieking of women and crying of children. [note: "Insequitur clamor virorum strepitusque mulierum, ululatus infantum,"- a reminiscence of Vergil, Aen. I, 87, "Insequitur clamorque virum stridorque rudentum."] Now this was happening on our own land. My mother, who wore these relics hanging on her neck, learned this, and sprang from the table and lifted up the holy relics against the masses of flame, and all the fire went out in a moment so that scarcely a spark of fire could be found among the burnt piles of straw and it did no harm to the grain which it had just caught. [Source: Book in Honor of the Martyrs: Chap 83]

Girdle of Mary carried in a procession in Maastricht, Netherlands

“Many years later I received these relics from my mother; and when we were going from Burgundy to Auvergne, a great storm came upon us and the sky flashed with many lightnings and roared with heavy crashes of thunder. Then I drew the blessed relics from my bosom and raised my hand against the cloud; it immediately divided into two parts and passed on the right and left and did no harm to us or any one else thereafter. But being a young man of an ardent temperament I began to be puffed up with vain glory and to think silently that this had been granted not so much to the merits of the saints as to me personally, and I openly boasted to my comrades on the journey that I had merited by my blamelessness what God had bestowed. At once my horse suddenly shied beneath me and dashed me to the ground; and I was so severely shaken up by the fall that I could hardly get up. I perceived that this had come of vanity, and it was enough to put me on guard thenceforth against being moved by the spur of vain glory. For whenever it happened after that that I had the merit to behold any of the miracles of the saints, I loudly proclaimed that they were wrought by God's gift through faith in the saints.

Abuses of Relic Veneration

The making of forged holy relics was big business in medieval times. Crusaders that returned from sacking Constantinople after the 4th crusades where the ones who came back with two heads of John the Baptist not just one. In 1300 Pope Boniface VIII based an edict prohibiting the mutilation of bodies to reduce the sale of bones as fake holy relics.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Naturally it was impossible for popular enthusiasm to be roused to so high a pitch in a matter which easily lent itself to error, fraud and greed of gain, without at least the occasional occurrence of many grave abuses. As early as the end of the fourth century, St. Augustine denouncing certain impostors wandering about in the habit of monks, describes them as making profit by the sale of spurious relics ("De op. monach.", xxviii and cf. Isidore, "De. div. off.", ii, 16). In the Theodosian Code the sale of relics is forbidden ("Nemo martyrem mercetur", VII, ix, 17), but numerous stories, of which it would be easy to collect a long series, beginning with the writings of St. Gregory the Great and St. Gregory of Tours, prove to us that many unprincipled persons found a means of enriching themselves by a sort of trade in these objects of devotion, the majority of which no doubt were fraudulent. At the beginning of the ninth century, as M. Jean Guiraud had shown (Mélanges G. B. de Rossi, 73-95), the exportation of the bodies of martyrs from Rome had assumed the dimensions of a regular commerce, and a certain deacon, Deusdona, acquired an unenviable notoriety in these transactions (see Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script., XV, passim). What was perhaps in the long run hardly less disastrous than fraud or avarice was the keen rivalry between religious centres, and the eager credulity fostered by the desire to be known as the possessors of some unusually startling relic. We learn from Cassian, in the fifth century, that there were monks who seized upon certain martyrs' bodies by force of arms, defying the authority of the bishops, and this was a story which we find many times repeated in the Western chronicles of a later date. [Source: New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia ^\^]

piece of the seamless rove of Jesus

“In such an atmosphere of lawlessness doubtful relics came to abound. There was always a disposition to regard any human remains accidentally discovered near a church or in the catacombs as the body of a martyr. Hence, though men like St. Athanasius and St. Martin of Tours set a good example of caution in such cases, it is to be feared that in the majority of instances only a very narrow interval of time intervened between the suggestion that a particular object might be, or ought to be, an important relic, and the conviction that tradition attested it actually to be such. There is no reason in most cases for supposing the existence of deliberate fraud. The persuasion that a benevolent Providence was likely to send the most precious pignora sanctorum to deserving clients, the practice already noticed of attributing the same sanctity to objects which had touched the shrine as attached to the contents of the shrine itself, the custom of making facsimiles and imitations, a custom which persists to our own day in the replicas of the Vatican statue of St. Peter or of the Grotto of Lourdes, all these are causes adequate to account for the multitude of unquestionably spurious relics with which the treasuries of great medieval churches were crowded. In the case of the Nails with which Jesus Christ was crucified, we can point to definite instances in which that which was at first venerated as having touched the original came later to be honoured as the original itself. Join to this the large license given to the occasional unscrupulous rogue in an age not only utterly uncritical but often curiously morbid in its realism, and it becomes easy to understand the multiplicity and extravagance of the entries in the relic inventories of Rome and other countries. ^\^

“On the other hand it must not be supposed that nothing was done by ecclesiastical authority to secure the faithful against deception. Such tests were applied as the historical and antiquarian science of that day was capable of devising. Very often however, this test took the form of an appeal to some miraculous sanction, as in the well known story repeated by St. Ambrose, according to which, when doubt arose which of the three crosses discovered by St. Helena was that of Christ, the healing of a sick man by one of them dispelled all further hesitation. Similarly Egbert, Bishop of Trier, in 979, doubting as to the authenticity of what purported to be the body of St. Celsus, "lest any suspicion of the sanctity of the holy relics should arise, during Mass after the offertory had been sung, threw a joint of the finger of St. Celsus wrapped in a cloth into a thurible full of burning coals, which remained unhurt and untouched by the fire the whole time of the Canon" (Mabillon "Acta SS. Ord. Ben.", III, 658). ^\^

“The decrees of synods upon this subject are generally practical and sensible, as when, for example, Bishop Quivil of Exeter, in 1287 after recalling the prohibition of the General Council of Lyons against venerating recently found relics unless they were first of all approved by the Roman Pontiff, adds: "We command the above prohibition to be carefully observed by all and decree that no person shall expose relics for sale, and that neither stones, nor fountains, trees, wood, or garments shall in any way be venerated on account of dreams or on fictitious grounds." So, again, the whole procedure before Clement VII (the antipope) in 1359, recently brought to light by Canon Chevalier, in connexion with the alleged Holy Shroud of Lirey, proves that some check at least was exercised upon the excesses of the unscrupulous or the mercenary. ^\^

tunic of Saint Francis

“Nevertheless it remains true that many of the more ancient relics duly exhibited for veneration in the great sanctuaries of Christendom or even at Rome itself must now be pronounced to be either certainty spurious or open to grave suspicion. To take one example of the latter class, the boards of the Crib (Praesaepe)— a name which for much more than a thousand years has been associated, as now, with the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore—can only be considered to be of doubtful. In his monograph "Le memorie Liberiane dell' Infanzia di N. S. Gesù Cristo" (Rome, 1894), Mgr. Cozza Luzi frankly avows that all positive evidence for the authenticity of the relics of the Crib etc., is wanting before the eleventh century. Strangely enough, an inscription in Greek uncials of the eighth century is found on one of the boards, the inscription having nothing to do with the Crib but being apparently concerned with some commercial transaction. It is hard to explain its presence on the supposition that the relic is authentic. Similar difficulties might he urged against the supposed "column of the flagellation" venerated at Rome in the Church of Santa Prassede and against many other famous relics. ^\^

“Still, it would be presumptuous in such cases to blame the action of ecclesiastical authority in permitting the continuance of a cult which extends back into remote antiquity. On the one hand no one is constrained to pay homage to the relic, and supposing it to be in fact spurious, no dishonour is done to God by the continuance of an error which has been handed down in perfect good faith for many centuries. On the other hand the practical difficulty of pronouncing a final verdict upon the authenticity of these and similar relics must be patent to all. Each investigation would be an affair of much time and expense, while new discoveries might at any moment reverse the conclusions arrived at.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except Pope Francis with the Blood of St. Gennaro, Catholic.org

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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