Arm of Saint Francis Xavier in 1949

Relics are parts of the bodies, or objects. associated with,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.”

Joanne M. Pierce of the College of Holy Cross wrote: By the end of the medieval period, there was an overwhelming number of stories associating relics with miracles, such as unexpected healings or protection from the dangers of weather. Many ordinary Christians treated the relics as a kind of lucky rabbit’s foot, owned or reverenced for personal protection. [Source: Joanne M. Pierce, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross, The Conversation]

During the Reformation of the 16th century, many European Protestant writers objected to the Catholic veneration of relics. Most felt that it was a practice not found in the Bible; others felt that many believers were worshipping saints as if they were divine, and that many devotional practices involving relics involved fraud and superstition, not genuine prayer. The Protestant theologian John Calvin suggested that if all of the supposed fragments of the “True Cross” were gathered together, they would fill an entire ship. Even some Catholic scholars of the period, notably Erasmus of Rotterdam, criticized the fraudulent manipulation of believers for cash offerings when visiting shrines, and questioned the authenticity of many relics.

In 1563, the Catholic Council of Trent responded to all of these criticisms by clarifying the Catholic view of relics in an official decree. In the document, the assembled bishops stressed that devotional activities involving relics should not border on superstition in any way, that “filthy lucre” — buying and selling of relics — be “abolished” and that veneration ceremonies not devolve into “revellings and drunkenness.”

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 on Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Internet Medieval Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Lives of the Saints: Catholic.org catholicism.org ;

Hierarchy of Relics

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

Joanne M. Pierce wrote: Until very recently, Catholic tradition divided relics into several classes, depending on their relationship to Christ or the saints. A first-class relic was a fragment of a saint’s actual body, like a tooth, hair clipping, or sliver of bone. Pieces of objects involved in the Passion of Christ were also included in this class, since traditional theology teaches that Jesus Christ rose again from the dead after three days in the tomb and ascended bodily into heaven 40 days after. [Source: Joanne M. Pierce, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross, The Conversation]

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Religious relics are objects that have a particular physical relationship to saints and other religious figures. Often these are bone fragments or the tufts of hair of religious figures (the Latin reliquiae just means “remains” or “what is left over”), but sometimes they are items that are closely tied to the holy deceased person. Examples of these second-class relics include clothes, jewelry, and significant personal possessions. In Roman Catholicism, objects (usually small pieces of fabric) that have come into contact with the remains of a saint are considered to be a lower (“third class”) form of relic. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 23, 2022]

In Christian denominations that utilize relics, these items are clearly hierarchized: a relic associated with Jesus, like the True Cross, is considered to be more powerful than a relic of a less-popular saint. These hierarchies extend to body parts: the head of John the Baptist, which “resides” in at least four locations, is special precisely because the New Testament has a whole story about it. If you were a Christian in the Middle Ages you could not enter a church without hearing a story about the saints whose relics were housed there. Everyone loved relics and there was fierce competition for possession of the remains of those closest to Jesus or most widely renowned for their holiness. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, May 2, 2021]

Famous Relics

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.

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. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 5, 2012]

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

Veil of Veronica is a piece of cloth associated with Jesus's death. Stephanie Pappas wrote in Live Science Holy Grail: 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.|[Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 5, 2012 |]

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."” |

True Cross

The True Cross generally refers to a piece of the the cross on which Jesus was crucified. We say piece in part because several of them are purportedly in existence. With that said, the cross that Jesus died on is a powerful symbol for Christians, so it follows that the actual cross on which this happened would be an object of great veneration. St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, is credited with finding the True Cross in Jerusalem in the 4th century. She 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.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:“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 wood of the Cross found by St. Helen had been distributed piecemeal and had filled the whole world According to accounts by fourth-century church historian Socrates Scholasticus, Helena demanded that the church built on Christ's supposed crucifixion site be demolished. After that she uncovering three crosses below. Hundreds of pieces of wood venerated as pieces of the True Cross spread across Europe. French theologian John Calvin of Protestant Reformation fame noted that "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 |]

In 2022, the Russian missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea fleet, sunk after it was heavily damaged. Joanne M. Pierce wrote: Several media reports noted that the ship might have been carrying a relic of the “true cross”. A collector is said to have donated the relic in 2020 to the Russian navy, which planned to place it in the Moskva’s onboard chapel. It is unclear, however, whether the relic was on board the ship in its chapel when the vessel went into combat. But the widespread interest in the possibility of this ancient relic being on board points to its importance for many Christians. [Source: Joanne M. Pierce, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross, The Conversation]

After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, Jerusalem became an important center for Christians who wanted to make religious trips to visit the places where Jesus and his apostles lived and preached. The term pilgrimage, meaning journey, originated at the time. During this time, what was believed to be a piece of the “True Cross” was brought back to Europe — supposedly by St. Helena, the emperor’s mother — and broken up into smaller pieces. Another section remained in Jerusalem and was venerated there, until in the early seventh century a Persian emperor, a Zoroastrian, conquered the city and removed the relic among the spoils of war. Several years later, the Persians were themselves conquered by the Christian emperor Heraclius, who returned the relic to Jerusalem. There it remained, even after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem later that century.Many ordinary Christians treated the relics as forms of personal protection. This was true for relics of the true cross as well. In Venice, for example, several miracle stories of the true cross, especially of it saving ships from storms, circulated widely.

Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: Fragments of the True Cross are said to reside in churches and basilicas all over Europe. Is it possible that any of them are the real deal? In a satirical piece on pilgrimage, the world-renowned sixteenth century humanist Erasmus wrote, “So they say of the cross of Our Lord, which is shown publicly and privately in so many places, that, if all the fragments were collected together, they would appear to form a fair cargo for a merchant ship.” Clearly not every one could be authentic. As it turns out, Erasmus was being hyperbolic. A survey of extant pieces of the cross, published in 1870 by de Fleury, concluded that actually the volume of fragments in circulation was not even enough to reconstruct a cross, much less build a boat...But are they real? [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 23, 2017]

Holy Prepuce Jesus’ Foreskin

a relic

Jewish Law would have required Jesus to be circumcised. The apocryphal text, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, says that the foreskin was saved in an alabaster box. In the Middle Ages, iy seemed lik foreskin "relics" were everywhere, with as many as 18 circulating in Europe at one same time. The Catholic Church became so fed up withe fad that it declared in 1900 that anyone even talking about the Holy Prepuce would be excommunicated. Reportedly there there are no Holy Foreskins in existence anymore. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 5, 2012]

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: In the 12th century, when medieval Christians regularly venerated relics in churches, a new kind of relic appeared on the market. The Holy Prepuce, or foreskin of Jesus, suddenly cropped up in monasteries and Cathedrals all over Europe. Each holy site had its own legend of how it was that the foreskin (and sometimes umbilical cord) of Jesus had been preserved by Mary, given to an apostle for safekeeping, and then miraculously gifted to its current owner. As a Jew, Jesus was certainly circumcised (Luke 2:21), but it is highly unlikely that his foreskin was preserved by anyone. Most of the so-called holy prepuces were bits of old leather, which is reassuring given how regularly people used to kiss and taste the foreskin of Jesus as part of pilgrimage practices. (There were several nuns who reported dreams and visions in which they consumed the holy foreskin. Apparently, it was sweet. And Catherine of Siena envisioned the foreskin as a wedding ring for virgins married to Christ.) [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 1, 2018]

The Bible doesn’t tell us, but for medieval Christians who were fascinated with the power and intimacy of relics, the idea that a piece of Jesus’ body was still on Earth was ripe with potential. One later apocryphal infancy gospel tells us that the foreskin (and umbilical cord) was taken away by an “old Hebrew woman” and preserved in an alabaster box of oil. According to tradition it then somehow ended up in the bottle of perfume that the sinful woman used to anoint Jesus’ body before his death in Mark 14. This is the earliest example, Jacobs said, of Christians thinking about the kinds of unique Jesus-relics that might still be around. Other abandoned body parts like toenail clippings or hair might also be out there: one divine man’s trash, as they say, is a regular person’s treasure.

Given that Jesus had ascended into heaven the closest you could get to the Savior was the body of one of his relatives or followers, right? Well, not exactly. There was one rather sensitive piece of Jesus’ body that some believed had remained on Earth: his foreskin.[Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, May 2, 2021]

History of Jesus’ Foreskin

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: As with all relics, the holy foreskin (or prepuce as it is loftily known) began to multiply. The first example showed up at the beginning of the ninth century when Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, presented Pope Leo III with one. According to St Birgitta’s The Lord’s Foreskin, the Virgin Mary had kept Jesus’ foreskin in a leather pouch before bequeathing it to the Apostle John. It then languished for 700 years before it ended up in Charlemagne’s hands. By the 13th century it was on display at the Vatican. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, May 2, 2021]

Circumcision of Christ

Charlemagne’s relic was not the only one; during the Middle Ages at least 12 could be found in European churches. One famous example includes a holy foreskin from France that was placed in the marriage bed of Henry V of England and Catherine of Valois on their wedding night as a fertility charm (and you thought finding an old band-aid in your bed was gross). Over the centuries, however, many of the holy foreskins went missing or were stolen. The last known example was stolen out of a church in Calcata, Italy, in 1983. Interestingly, the local bishop didn’t attempt to recover it and let the whole matter slide. Some have speculated that the Vatican itself had stolen the relic in order to stop people talking about Jesus’ penis.

Many Christians, though, were skeptical of the claims about the foreskin of Jesus. The sixth century Severus of Antioch was the first, Jacobs told me, to argue what would later become the standard view: that the foreskin rose with Jesus at the resurrection and is now in heaven. This view is not just about protecting the integrity of Jesus’ resurrection, it’s about the resurrection of everyone else as well. Early Christians worried about the aesthetics effects of people leaving bits and pieces of themselves behind after Judgment Day. They wanted to ensure that amputated limbs, hair lost through male pattern baldness, and so on all made its way to heaven. Leaving pieces of you behind presents a philosophical problem: Have “you” really been resurrected if your body—in its entirety—isn’t raised from the dead?

With Jesus, What happened to his baby teeth, hair, toenail clippings, exfoliated skin cells and so on? Many medieval theologians recognized how problematic the idea of non-resurrected parts was and found ways around it, but we are still left with the hypothetical question; if the body of Jesus was resurrected, are parts of it missing?

Ingesting and Joking About the Holy Prepuce

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: As with all relics, the holy foreskin (or prepuce as it is loftily known) began to multiply. The first example showed up at the beginning of the ninth century when Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, presented Pope Leo III with one. According to St Birgitta’s The Lord’s Foreskin, the Virgin Mary had kept Jesus’ foreskin in a leather pouch before bequeathing it to the Apostle John. It then languished for 700 years before it ended up in Charlemagne’s hands. By the 13th century it was on display at the Vatican. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, May 2, 2021]

As a relic, the holy foreskin was the object of religious veneration. Medieval Christianity was a sensory religion in which participants communed with God in an embodied way. Somatic encounters with the remains of saints and the body of Jesus were a common occurrence and even today Catholic Eucharist services involve ingesting the body of Christ. There is a precedent, therefore, for tasting the body of Jesus. The Swedish nun St. Birgitta records a vision in which she ate the then-millennium-old holy foreskin. Chapter 37 of her Revelationes describes the experience in some detail: “Now she feels on her tongue a small membrane, like the membrane of an egg, full of superabundant sweetness, and she swallowed it down…And she did the same perhaps hundreds of times. When she touched it with her finger the membrane went down her throat of itself.”

While this might seem somewhat extreme, Harvard academic Marc Shell writes that tasting Jesus’ foreskin was one of the few ways to test the authenticity of a holy prepuce. Whereas we might perform carbon dating tests, ancient physicians, known as croques-prépuces would taste the “shriveled leather in order to determine whether it was wholly or partly human skin.” Shell notes that the foreskin was just one of many Jesus cast offs to make a splash on the relic scene: sweat from the Garden of Gethsemane, lost baby teeth, breast milk from the Virgin Mary, and even urine and faeces made appearances. The 12th-century Cistercian monk St. Bernard was famous for drinking the breast milk of the Virgin. Digestive practices like these give a whole new meaning to the phrase “cafeteria Catholic.”

Even so, the holy foreskin has elicited more than its fair share of humor and criticism. Martin Luther was a skeptic; Voltaire made fun of the concepts in the 18th century; and even BuzzFeed has explored the story. The somewhat liminal view of the 17th century theologian Leo Allatius that the foreskin of Jesus left Earth only to expand and form one of the bands of Saturn has particular comic appeal. Over time, therefore, the Roman Catholic church became concerned. In 1900 the Vatican issued a ruling that anyone referring to the “true sacred flesh” could be subject to excommunication. In its 2,000-year history the foreskin of Jesus has shifted from from biological debris, to controversial identity marker, to relic, and, finally, sacred taboo. The cultural journey of this small piece of skin marks Christianity’s own passage from Jewish sect to medieval socioeconomic powerhouse to modern religion.

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.

Stephanie Pappas wrote in Live Science:: “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.

Holy Grail in Valencia Cathedral '

Holy Grail in Valencia

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.

There are some at Valencia Cathedral that say the cup is the real Holy Grail. "I always say [the evidence] is like twigs from a tree," José Verdeguer, Valencia Cathedral's Historical-Artistic Heritage Curator, told the BBC. "If you only have one stick, it breaks easily. But if you join 50 together, you can no longer break them. Here, there are many arguments together and it is no longer easy to break them."

According to the BBC: Verdeguer was referring to a collection of evidence that some believe proves the authenticity of the chalice on view at the cathedral. The Grail itself is comprised of two parts: a cup made of reddish-brown agate stone, and a carved gold reliquary into which the cup is set. In the 1960s, an archaeological study concluded that the cup portion dated back to the 2nd or 1st Century B.C. and was made by hand in a location between ancient Palestine and Egypt, the only place where that type of agate is found. [Source: Izabela Cardoso & Fernando Teixeira, BBC, April 16, 2022]

Via her research, art historian and author Dr Ana Mafé learned that the gold stand dated to the 11th Century, suggesting that the artisans of that time knew that the top cup was a special relic and wanted to showcase it. Dr Mafé's research also determined that the chalice is the same size and volume as a traditional Jewish kiddush cup — a blessing cup — which is what Jesus would have used at the Last Supper.

To explain how the Grail made its way from Jerusalem to Valencia, Verdeguer refers to the Christian belief that the Last Supper took place in the house of St Mark, a disciple of St Peter. He posits that when St Mark had to flee Jerusalem in 70 CE due to the Roman invasion, he took the valuable cup with him. From there, St Mark settled in Rome where the cup was passed on to various Popes and eventually to St Lawrence, who sent it to Spain for safekeeping from further wars. Eventually, it ended up in Valencia, the capital of the Kingdom of Aragon in the 1400s.

Since then, the revered relic has had a place of honour in the Cathedral. And although it's only been used to celebrate mass by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, it can be viewed by all visitors, along with the Cathedral's other relics, which include a supposed thorn from Jesus's crown and piece of the cross on which he was crucified. "If there is any chalice that, according to tradition, was in the hands of Jesus, without a doubt, the only cup that fulfils all the requirements when subjected to a scientific analysis that can be replicated anywhere in the world with the same results is the Holy Chalice of the Valencia Cathedral," said Dr Mafé.

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.” ::\

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

Text Sources: Internet Medieval Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ 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; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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