Relic Madness

January 19, 2017

The mania for holy relics—in Catholicism objects once connected with the body of a saint—stems from belief that a relic is imbued with miraculous power including supernatural healings. Not surprisingly, this superstition has led to many excesses.

So intent were relic mongers on securing coveted bones or other relics that they kept watch on live potential saints. After Thomas Aquinas became ill at a French monastery and died, greedy monks decapitated him, taking his head as holy booty, then boiled away his flesh to secure his bones for many more treasured relics. Reportedly, when Saint Romuald of Ravenna visited France and learned he was in peril of his life—so valuable were his bones—he fled home feigning madness.

Churches vied for original relics. At least three claimed to have the very corpse of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ followers, while, alas, another had only her foot. Voltaire took delight in noting that no fewer than six churches had Jesus’ foreskin. Mark Twain wryly observed that whereas one fragment of the crown of thorns was in Rome and another in Milan, “they have a whole one at Notre Dame.” Protestant John Calvin found at least four sites claiming to have the Holy Lance. A number of churches boasted the skull of John the Baptist. An old joke tells of a pilgrim who began to wonder a bit when he encountered a second head of John. Asking how this could be, he was told, “The other one was from when he was a boy.” The historian Guibert of Nugent (1053–1124) had a different idea; he asked, “Was this saint then bicephalous?”

Even by the time of St. Augustine (about 400 CE) the sale of relics had become such a corrupt business that he condemned “hypocrites in the garb of monks for hawking about the limbs of martyrs,” adding skeptically, “if indeed of martyrs.” (Ironically, I have in my collection an antique locket-type reliquary with a relic of St. Augustine—if indeed, that is of St. Augustine.) By this time, reputed pieces of the True Cross—allegedly discovered by St. Helena after a divine vision—had spread throughout Christendom. John Calvin would come to say that there were enough to “form a whole ship’s cargo,” while a pious legend even claimed the cross could miraculously replenish itself!

One of the greatest excesses occurred centuries after the legendary St. Ursula had allegedly been martyred—along with her 11,000 virgin companions. That figure was reportedly a transcription error that magnified the original number, 11. As a consequence, an entire cemetery was despoiled to provide a monastery with the requisite vast number of relics. Commented one researcher: “The fact that many of these bones were unquestionably those of men did not affect their curative value.”

Such was the mania for relics that it resulted in various destructions such as that of the Holy Face of Lucca, Italy—not technically a relic but a miraculous wooden figure of Jesus on the cross, ca. eleventh century. Relic seekers chipped at it until it was beyond repair, and so the present carving is a copy from the thirteenth century. Perhaps fittingly, such practices helped destroy the very fakes that were so dishonestly foisted upon the credulous. (See my Relics of the Christ, 2007, University Press of Kentucky.)