The History and purpose of relics in the Church

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In Jewish law, to come into contact with a corpse made a person instantly impure - unclean for 7 days and needing purification. But the Jews always showed deep respect for the bodies of their forefathers: the Book of Joshua records that Moses took Joseph's bones out of Egypt, and there were some 50 tombs revered in Judea, especially those of the eight patriarchs. So after Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was murdered he was buried and 'left in peace' as one might expect since Christianity sprang from Judaism, his relics supposedly not discovered until 400 yrs later. Yet when Bishop Ignatius of Antioch was martyred by the Emperor Trajan only 80 years later those parts of him that had escaped the lions were carried off and put in a coffin, "because of the grace remaining in the martyr they were an inestimable treasure for the congregation of the faithful". In short his corpse became a relic.

We have evidence that by AD 177 the authorities were well aware that relics were venerated: corrupt officials had to be bribed in Lyons to prevent martyrs' bodies being thrown into the Rhone. But generally the Romans, like the Jews, also believed that bodies should be properly buried, even if crucified as had happened to Jesus, and there were severe penalties for tomb violation. Indeed a law of Valentinian III describes bishops and priests as grave-robbers because of this desire for relics. It may be that as Christianity grew away from its Jewish roots, and moved across the Med, it became more influenced by classical Greek culture which revered the ancient heroes - such as the head of Orpheus buried at Smyrna, and Theseus in Athens. Indeed in the middle of the 5th century a bishop explicitly compared the two sorts of cult, whilst pointing out that the pagan relics were worthless delusions.

There were many saints to provide relics but again early in the Church's history St John Chrysostom had said that "The virtue of the saints is so great that Christians venerate not only their words and bodies but also their garments". He quoted the New Testament which describes in Acts how God had wrought miracles through Paul and "unto the sick were carried away from his body handkerchiefs and aprons, and the diseases departed from them." So when Honoratus, Archbishop of Arles, died in 429 so keen were people to obtain secondary relics that his body was almost stripped naked. Similarly when Cyprian was beheaded in Nicomedia in 258 his followers mopped up the blood, as did those of Vincent, the first Spanish martyr, 60 yrs later. (The same happened with the blood of King Charles I when he was executed).

The Church Fathers warned against fake relics and also that the saints were not to be worshipped as gods but they are to be venerated to better adore Him whose martyrs they are, to incite emulation and be aided through their prayers. When Gregory the Great commissioned Augustine to convert pagan England he supplied him with relics and suggested that having feast days for the saints could supplant annual pagan celebrations. This was clearly a prime purpose when the Church was establishing itself, often building churches on pagan sites and temples.

If you asked a medieval man what relics do he might have said: visibly join heaven and earth, the natural and supernatural, repel enemies and defend cities; heal the sick; undergird the law and promote justice, bringing evil ones to repent; force men to keep oaths and punish perjurers; confer prestige and renown on those who protect sacred bones; promote morality and perform miracles. And because relics could do so much the sin of covetousness was induced.

In the late 400s the Emperor Leo I asked the city of Antioch for the body of St Simon Stylites who had just died. Simon had famously spent 36 years living on a pillar, 60' above the ground. Antioch bravely refused. The Emperor Justinian asked the Pope in 519 for relics of Peter, Paul and Laurence and was refused, as was the Empress who in 594 asked Gregory the Great for St Paul's head. The West long held out against moving bodies and, especially, against dividing them. The only good reason to move relics was to save them from capture or destruction by invaders: Pope Paul moved more than 100 bodies from the catacombs in the mid 700s ostensibly because dogs and other animals were snacking on the bones. Eastern Christians took a more relaxed attitude. The Emperor Constantine took the body of Timothy in 356 to his new city on the Bosphorus, and in the next year he obtained those of Andrew and Luke. Constantine hoped to gather relics of all the Apostles before his death, so that he could be buried amongst them and help ensure his 'safety' in the next world. Given that he had his eldest son and second wife put to death (we don't know why), he probably felt he needed some holy insurance.

But we know that cracks were appearing in the Western Church's attitude too. In 565 Pope John III sealed relics of St James the Less and St Philip into an altar in the basilica of Santi Apostoli in Rome. (In 1872 a savage fire led to extensive restoration. The altar was opened and amongst them was a single tooth. It proved to be the missing tooth from the supposed jaw of St James which must have gone to Ancona before 565!). Later the Crusaders greatly increased the flow of relics into Europe, not least by stealing parts or whole bodies, such that a Lateran Council in 1215 tried to put a stop to it. And westerners followed their lead. (St Hugh of Lincoln cut a sinew from St Oswald's arm in Peterborough Abbey and scandalised the monks of Fecamp by biting two pieces of bone from Mary Magdalene's arm. When rebuked he replied that if he was worthy to partake of the body and blood of Christ during mass........).

The sack of Constantinople in 1204 led to a great influx of relics.

By the 800s there were middlemen trading in relics and the fame and finance from pilgrims that the possession of famous saints could bring encouraged the trade. When Deusdona, the most famous middleman of the time, persuaded the Pope to let him take St Sebastian to France and sell it to Soissons cathedral, the monks at a neighbouring abbey asked another relic trader to find them relics equal in fame. He brought back the bodies of 2 saints that we know actually existed - one of the popes had met and talked with their executioner and wrote the epitaph for their tomb. But it didn't work - Sebastian was more famous and the abbey went into decline. In 1032 St Augustine suffered the ignominy of having his body sold to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Having a famous relic could enhance the prestige of the place that possessed it in other ways. One only has to think of St Mark and Venice. Mark is high on the list of 'most important saints' through being a Gospel writer. Tradition makes him the young man who ran away naked when Christ was arrested in the Garden. When he went to Alexandria and tried to convert the Egyptians from their gods, a rope was placed round his neck and he was dragged through the streets until he was dead. (This was in 68AD). In 828 two Venetian merchants decided that it was inappropriate that his body should remain in a city now controlled by Muslims (though they respected his tomb, not least because of the income pilgrims brought to the city, something that may have been in the merchants' mind!). They therefore stole it, and to ensure that the Muslims wouldn't search their ship covered the body in joints of pork. The arrival of St Mark in Venice led to his supplanting of the city's previous (but less famous) patron saint, Theodore and so the latter didn't get much of a mention when the new basilica was built.

Relics of martyrs, apostles and the passion of Jesus were considered to have the greatest power. Of the latter the most iconic of course was the Cross. By the early 420s it was said that Constantine's mother St Helena had discovered it a century earlier. She knew that it was the real thing when a sick woman placed on it was cured. The Holy Sepulchre had been covered in earth and a temple of Venus built on top by the Romans, but the site had continued to be venerated by Christians. Constantine had the temple demolished and the site cleared for a church, and after completion the Cross is recorded to have been placed in it. One beam seems to have gone to Constantinople. When the King of Persia captured Jerusalem in 614 he took the other back to his capital and set it up in a throne standing to the right of his own. 13 years later the Emperor Heraclius recovered it after a battle and it was carried to Constantinople by elephant. Two years later it was returned to Jerusalem and the Emperor took off his imperial robes to carry it on his own shoulders to Calvary. When Saladin finally defeated the Crusaders he either hid or destroyed the beam, despite Richard the Lionheart offering to buy it. Hubert Walter, later Archbishop of Canterbury, was given permission to kiss it and then it disappeared forever. But we don't know how much of the beam was left: King Baldwin of Jerusalem had certainly whittled away at it. In 1127 the King of Norway had offered part of his navy to help capture the port of Sidon in return for a piece. After Baldwin's death one of his chaplains took another piece to England and it ended up with the impoverished Cluniac community in Bromelholme, Norfolk. The many miracles it wrought there brought great wealth. On Mount Athos there is a piece 7" long given by one of the Emperors, housed in a superb reliquary covered in gems. The largest piece is in Brussels cathedral. Fashioned into a cross it is 18" by 11", and with a silver band running round the edge bearing an Anglo Saxon inscription which bears a close relationship to the Old English poem "The Dream of the Rood", it may well be the piece given by the Pope to King Alfred. Perhaps the most famous piece is at the Cistercian monastery of La Boisserie near Bauge (which is near Tours). Given by a crusader in 1241 it is in the form of a double beamed cross. Its fame led to Duke Rene II of Anjou taking it as the symbol for his banner and by his marriage to Isabelle of Lorraine it became called the cross of Lorraine. This was the symbol of the Free French in the Second World War.

A common jibe has been that if all the pieces of wood supposed to be relics of the Cross were gathered together one could make an Ark of them (this originated with Calvin). But it modern times someone has researched the matter and concluded that it isn't true, that there were not enough even to reconstruct the Cross. The pieces that remain weigh less than two kilos.

Crown of Thorns: In 1238 King Baldwin of Jerusalem found himself in severe financial difficulties and offered Jesus' Crown of Thorns to King Louis IX. It reached Paris on 19th August 1238. The last payment for it was 21,000lb silver. Housed by Louis in the beautiful Sainte Chapelle he built for it (the largest reliquary of all), it is now in the treasury of Notre Dame. No thorns remain on the reeds - all were removed and given away over the centuries.

Nails: No less that 29 places in Europe claim to have nails. How many were there? We tend to think of three but all the earliest crucifixes show the Saviour's feet separated, so that would mean four. Legend has it that St Helena had the four made into 12 and its obvious from those that remain that they are not whole nails. The Venetians of course, being Venetians, claim to have three. In Moscow there is one sent by Constantine to the Russians, and in Monza one given in the early 600s by Pope Gregory the Great to Queen Theodolinda, to thank her for converting the Lombards from the Arian heresy, was hammered out to form a band inside her crown. Unless you had been crowned with it you could not be recognised as King of Italy, so Napoleon made sure of a proper coronation by placing it on his head when he invaded the country 1200 years later.

Christ's Seamless Coat: for which the soldiers at the crucifixion diced. For over 1200 years the basilica of St Denis in Argenteuil (a suburb of Paris, much painted by the Impressionists) preserved a seamless woollen robe given to it by Charlemagne that scientific tests proved could be of the right date. In 1983 it was stolen by a French terrorist group. I haven't been able to find if it was returned. The other western contender is in the cathedral of Trier, where Constantine lived for some years. It is rarely shown and when it was last in 1996 over 1 million pilgrims visited. The Russians also claim to have it.

Shroud of Turin: Perhaps the most famous relic in modern times, which I therefore won't talk of!

English saints:

The shrine of Thomas Becket was one of the most profitable in Europe. And legends were tod to make sure he was properly honoured. A knight promised to walk barefoot to Canterbury, but started out on horseback: a knife pierced his foot. A farmer called Elias was commanded in a vision to offer his best bullock to the shrine: when he refused the beast dropped down dead. In 1120 the shrine brought in over 1000 pounds, an enormous sum at that time. And money, as ever, corrupted. The monks of Glastonbury persistently claimed to have the body of St Dunstan, who had been buried at Canterbury. The abbot was rebuked by the pope. Needing funds to rebuild their church in 1184 they dug and happened to find the bones of Arthur and Guinevere. As a consequence Wells cathedral 7 miles away was deserted by pilgrims who flocked to Glastonbury.

It wasn't just offerings that brought money. Clerical authorities also held markets as another source of profit. The word tawdry derives from Audrey, another name for St Etheldreda of Ely, at whose market souvenir trinkets were sold

One of our greatest saints is little known in the UK. St Boniface, Patron saint of Germany, was martyred by the Frisians on June 5th 754, a long way from his birthplace of Crediton in Devon and is buried in a great basilica bearing his name in Fulda.

For the Scots: St Magnus, joint Earl of Orkney with his cousin Haakon, met with him in 1114 to settle their differences. Magnus offered to 'resign' and go to the Holy Land, but Haakon and his advisers weren't sure whether to believe him. Magnus feel to prayer. None of Haakon's followers were prepared to kill Magnus, so the cook Lifolf was ordered to do it. Magnus told him to cleave his skull since it wasn't right for a chief to have his head cut off as if he were a punished thief. Soon after the bones began to perform miracles, and a new cathedral was built in Orkney to house them. Ultimately they were hidden high in the apse, safe from harm. Not until 1919 did they come to light, the skull showing evidence of an axe blow.

During road works in Douai,Belgium in 1924, on the site of a college set up in the reign of Elizabeth I to train Catholic priests to be sent back to England, a stone coffin was uncovered which contained a body that had been cut into quarters. A plan at Douai Abbey in Berkshire showed that it was the tomb of St John Southworth, executed at Tyburn in 1654. He had ministered in this very area, Westminster, and his body can now be seen in Westminster Cathedral. The silver facemask is based on the features seen when the coffin was opened. The coffin had also contained what one of the workmen had initially thrown out as a piece of old carpet. It was realise just in time that it was St Thomas Becket's hairshirt.

Whilst Southworth returned home from abroad many English relics went abroad and didn't return.

Edmund, King of East Anglia, was slain by the Danes at Thetford in 869. They shot arrows into him and then cut his head off. He was buried at Bedricesworth, henceforth known as Bury St Edmunds, a town which he consequently protected: when King Sweyn, Cnut's father, threatened to burn the town if it didn't pay ransom, he was struck dead. And Cnut made sure that it wasn't going to happen to him, by richly endowing the Abbey. In 1294 Edward I proposed to tax the town and was sent a nightmare reminding him what the saint had done to a previous king. One might assume that the relics were destroyed, along with the shrine, at the Reformation. However in 1216 King John's opponents offered the English crown to the French Prince Louis. He came over to lead them and his soldiers fought for control the area around Bury. The relics were never seen again, though the shrine remained and the monks said nothing. The body of the recently canonised Gilbert of Sempringham was certainly stolen at the same time from the monastery he had founded. In 1218 Prince Louis was in Toulouse. A few years later Gilbert and Edmund were listed amongst the relics in the basilica there and during the French Revolution they were hidden away. In 1901 the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster asked for them, to be put in the high altar of the new cathedral, but Toulouse refused. On appeal, the Pope sided with the Archbishop and the body was sent over, the decapitated head staying behind. But then historians started to cast doubts and the body was left in the care of the Duke of Norfolk, and so still remains in the private chapel at Arundel. That is a great pity. Westminster Abbey at least has the consolation of still holding the body of its patron, St Edward the Confessor.

When people express scepticism about the veracity of relics they often forget not only the strength of oral tradition in earlier ages when many were illiterate, but also how early some Church writings are. St Polycarp (d.155 AD) for example, met St Ignatius (mentioned in the first paragraph) on his way to martyrdom, and in his youth had talked to John and other disciples.

Nor is it the case that other major world religions do not revere relics: I have seen hairs from the head of the Prophet in Istanbul and visited the Temple of Buddha's tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Many people think that relics are grisly things (although I must admit I have occasionally shared that view when, for example, I beheld the tongue of St Anthony in Padua!) and belong to an age of superstition when items of clothing or pieces of bone were thought to retain the sanctity of those they belonged to. But that implies we are 'modern' and above such things. Yet would you wear Fred West's old cardigan? Yes, he may have worn it when he murdered, but it has been washed and its just knitted wool so… Richard Dawkin values objects owned by Darwin. Why in 2000 was someone prepared to pay $666,000 for a pair of ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz? When the relics of the Serbian prince St Lazar, defeated on the Field of Blackbirds on June 28th 1389, were displayed in 1989 some one million Serbs came to pay their respects, including Mr Milosovic. June 28th is a national holiday - hence the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in a procession on that day in 1914. Such things defeat rational explanation.

The irrational can perform a valuable social function, by binding us together in ways of which reason alone is incapable. To imagine a world in which only things acceptable to pure reason are deemed legitimate is to imagine an impoverished cultural and emotional desert. These common non-rational reactions are a foundation of human solidarity.

There was doubtless a lot of dubious practises associated with relics in earlier ages, forgery and idolatory amongst them. But to me, when I see a relic of one of the saints, it continues to represent several things: the continuity of faith, the bringing to mind the holiness of one individual and, perhaps, their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice of dying for what they believed in, an object through which to channel thoughts, often housed in a wonderful work of art and craftsmanship.

If you are interested in reading further on this subject I recommend looking up on the internet the article on St Swithun (whose skull is now in Evreux cathedral, Normandy) by David Keys in Church Times edition number 72407;the Telegraph for 18th June 2004 on the discovery of the body of St John Southworth; an article on the Corporal of Orvieto in Time June 19th 1950;the Abbaye of Saint-Maurice, on the borders of France and Switzerland which has wonderful ancient reliquaries, including one to house a Thorn given by St Louis;

Conques is one of the most beautiful French villages I have ever visited and its cathedral has famous reliquaries;Aachen in the far west of Germany has an extremely unusual church built by Charlemagne and used for the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperors. It has the largest collection of relics north of the Alps.Cologne Cathedral houses the magnificent golden shrine of the Magi. The bones of the Three Kings had been sent to the West by the Empress Helena and were taken by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa from Milan when he defeated that city in 1164.

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