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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Business of Relics

Updated: May 15, 2022

Henry III of England carrying the Relic of the Holy Blood by Matthew Paris 1247

Recently, a study announced that bone fragments purporting to belong to Saint James are not, in fact, from the saint. The bones reside at the Basilica dei Santi Apostoli in Rome. Scientists extracted collagen and strands of amino acids from the bone. Utilizing radiocarbon dating techniques, they determined the bones were of the 3rd or 4th century CE. Saint James, sometimes referred to as James the Younger, is believed to have been the brother of Jesus. This places the bone fragments at the wrong time period. ("Bones Venerated as Saint James the Younger's Don't Belong To The Apostle, Study Says", Smithsonian Magazine). This is not the first time a relic was not exactly as advertised. The Medieval world was full of them.

The basilica in Rome was not the only one to house the so-called remains of Saint James. The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was the focal point of a great Medieval pilgrimage. Even today, travelers can make the trek across the Camino de Santiago, the original route of the pilgrimage. Relics drew the faithful who sought whatever blessings the object bestowed. Relics were tourist attractions that brought in money for the town, city, or monastery that housed them. Relics were big business.

The Bones of St. Nicholas

Religious relics were an important part of the spiritual life of Medieval Christians. The word relic derives from the Latin word "reliquiae" meaning "remains". There were two types of relics: the actual physical remains of a saint or an object that came in contact with the saint during his or her lifetime. The veneration of saints and their relics is as old as Christianity, and it developed alongside the new religion during those formative first centuries. During the first two centuries, at the height of Christian persecutions, martyrdom became an important part of Christian identity. So much so that many early church leaders and bishops had stories of martyrdom attached to them. Many of these stories passed into legends. Because they had faced death in the name of their faith, martyrs reached perfection, and most of the early saints were martyrs. In turn, this meant their remains were holy, and people began to ascribe to them any number of miracles and powers. Through the veneration of relics, people sought the intercession of the saint who had direct contact with God.

By the fourth century, Christianity had attained the status of a state-sanctioned religion. This initiated a church building spree. Many of these early churches were situated on what was the site of a saint's burial or place of martyrdom. St. Peter's in Rome for example is built upon the tomb of St. Peter. In time, other churches were being built especially to house the remains or other relics of a particular saint. This resulted in the plethora of churches that claimed to have the same relics. A large number of churches claimed to have a piece of the "True Cross" - seemingly more than what is physically possible. The transferring of the remains of a martyr to a church within the town's walls (despite being taboo) was a defining moment for any Christian community. A town with a relic believed it had garnered the protection of that particular saint not unlike their pagan ancestors who had talismans and other objects to curry the favor of protective spirits. In the later Middle Ages, saints and their relics would become part of emerging national identities (ex. St. George - England, St. Denis - France, St. James (Santiago) - Spain). Relics not only brought pilgrims but they brought prestige and honor.

Religuary Shrine, 14th century (Met Musuem of Art)

Since the pilgrimage trade had a substantial impact on local economies, the ownership of relics became a competition resulting in a relics arms race. Localities went to great lengths to obtain the best relics. This lead to a proliferation of frauds, conflicting claims, and outright theft. There arose a whole class of professional relic dealers, mostly operating through what we would consider the black market. Chaucer's pardoner, in The Pardoner's Tale, is a seller of relics among other things. He claims to have the veil of the Virgin Mary which is actually a simple pillowcase. A ninth-century relic merchant Deusdona and his two brothers carried on a thriving trade in the remains of saints. Little did their customers know, the brothers had a habit of raiding the abandoned catacombs of Rome for human bones. Church leaders bought relics with no questions asked. If proof of their power was required, it somehow came after the relic was bought. Many institutions crafted elaborate public relations campaigns and guarded their relics with great care.

Thefts were inevitable between rival churches, and from other holy sites. Many relics were located in the former Holy Lands now under Muslim control. In 828 CE, two Venetians decided that it was a travesty that the remains of Saint Mark resided in Muslim-held Alexandria. They stole the body and disguised it among joints of pork to fool Muslim inspectors. Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice was originally built to house the remains, and Venice adopted Saint Mark as patron of the city. When not selling fakes or stealing, crafty merchants resorted to double-dealing. The best merchants were able to sell the same relic multiple times. The Lateran Council of 1215 admonished enterprising prelates who deceived pilgrims with false tales and documentation. Conflicts over who claimed a particular relic were settled by the papacy in Rome. At one extreme, a relic merchant was submerged in boiling water in the belief that the relic he was selling would keep him from harm.

12th century chasse, Met Musuem of Art

Once a relic was obtained it needed to be stored and/or displayed. These special containers are called reliquaries. This resulted in the cultivation of art. Reliquaries were adorned with gold, silver, and precious gems. These were housed in special rooms or sections of a church, the rooms themselves highly decorated and painted with artwork that told the story of the saint and how the relic might have come into possession. Reliquaries resembled coffins (also known as chasses) or they mimicked the relic they encased. A relic could be continually on display, access could be restricted, or taken out on the feast day of the saint. Many reliquaries were designed so that the relic could be carried in a procession honoring the saint. Saints with great authority and a local association received reliquaries fashioned into full-bodied statues or imposing busts. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, viewing windows were added to reliquaries so that the faithful could gaze upon the actual relic.

Yet by the 15th century, the allure of relics began to fade. The general population was beginning to wise up to the number of frauds and scams among relic dealers. Due in large part to the Black Death, people grew skeptical of relics having any actual power. They lost faith in a relic's ability to intervene in their lives. Others began criticizing the Church over the illicit trade that was bringing in large sums of money. The reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther questioned the authenticity of relics. Luther exclaimed “What lies there are about relics! … how does it happen that eighteen apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only twelve?” Veneration of relics and images of saints became equated with idolatry. Henry VIII attacked pilgrimages and his break with the Catholic Church resulted in many shrines, tombs, and reliquaries being pillaged and destroyed. Relics were tossed away like trash. Many relics, especially in Protestant-dominated countries, saw their way into private collections. The Catholic Church eventually made the selling and buying of relics illegal.

Relics may not be the big business it was during the height of the Middle Ages, but even today, their allure remains among the faithful. Catholics still flock to holy objects and holy sites like Lourdes in France or Santiago de Compostela in Spain in the hope of obtaining the goodwill of a saint. Many Catholic communities, not only in Europe but in Latin America, still hold festivals where the image or reliquary of a saint is carried out in a procession through the streets. Even in non-Christian areas, pilgrimages are still the main part of one's religious life.

Fesitval of San Gennaro procession, Naples, Italy

The bone fragments might not be from Saint James the Younger. Ultimately, it does not matter. The power of a relic for the faithful comes not from its authenticity, but from the power of belief. And that's all that mattered back in the Middle Ages as well as today.


Further Reading:

Relics and Reliquaries in Medival Christianity: Barbara Drake Boehm, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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