RELICS (Lat. reliquiae, the equivalent of the English “remains” in the sense of a dead body), the name given in the Catholic Church to, (1) the bodies of the saints, or portions of them, (2) such objects as the saints made use of during their lives, or as were used at their martyrdom. These objects are held by the Church in religious veneration, and by their means it hopes to obtain divine grace and miraculous benefits (Conc. Trid. sess. 24).
These ideas had taken shape, in all essentials, during the early days of the Church, underwent further development in the middle ages, and were maintained by the Catholic Church in the face of the opposition of the Reformers, while all the Protestant Churches rejected them.
The origins of the veneration of relics lie in the anxiety for the preservation of the bodies of the martyrs. Nothing is more natural than that the pious solicitude felt by all men for the bodies of their loved ones should in the primitive Christian Churches have been turned most strongly towards the bodies of those who had met with death in confessing their faith. The account given by the church at Smyrna of the death of their bishop Polycarp (155) gives us an insight into these feelings. The church collected and buried the remains of the martyr, who had been burnt, in order duly to celebrate the anniversary of the martyrdom at the place of burial. The possession of the relics seemed to assure the continuation of the common life of the church with their bishop, of the living with the dead (Mart. Polyc. c. 17).
The custom of which we have here for the first time an account had become universal by the 3rd century. In all parts the Christians assembled on the anniversary of the martyrs' death at their graves, to celebrate the Agape and the Eucharist at this spot. It was a favourite custom to bury the dead near the graves of the martyrs; and it was the highest wish of many to “rest with the saints.” It was the body lying in the tomb which was venerated (see Euseb. Hist. eccl. vii. n, 24; viii. 6, 7).
But these customs soon underwent a further development. About the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century it became customary for the bodies of the martyrs not to be buried, but preserved for the purpose of veneration. Already individual Christians began to possess themselves of portions of the bodies of martyrs, and to carry them about with them. Both these practices met with criticism and opposition, especially from the leading men of the Church. According to the testimony of Athanasius of Alexandria, the hermit Anthony decided that it should be held to be unlawful and impious to leave the bodies of the martyrs unburied (Vita Ant. 90). In Carthage the archdeacon and later the bishop Caecilianus severely blamed a certain Lucilla for carrying about with her a relic which she used to kiss before receiving the Eucharist (Optatus, De schism. Donat. i. 16). The compiler of the Acta S. Fructuosi, a Spanish ecclesiastic, represents the martyred bishop as himself requesting the burial of his relics. But energetic as the opposition was, it was unsuccessful, and died out. For in the meantime opinion as to the efficacy of relics had undergone a transformation, parallel with the growth of the theory, which soon predominated in the Church, that material instruments are the vehicles of divine grace. When the Christians of Smyrna decided that the bones of the martyrs were of more worth than gold or gems, and when Origen (Exh. ad mart. 50) spoke of the precious blood of the martyrs, they were thinking of the act of faith which the martyrs had accomplished by the sacrifice of their life. Now, on the other hand, the relic came to be looked upon as in itself a thing of value as the channel of miraculous divine powers. These ideas are set forth by Cyril of Jerusalem. He taught that a certain power dwelt in the body of the saint, even when the soul had departed from it; just as it was the instrument of the soul during life, so the power passed permanently into it (Cat. xviii. 16). This was coming very near to a belief that objects which the saints had used during their life had also a share in their miraculous powers. And this conclusion Cyril had already come to (loc. cit.).
We can see how early this estimate of relics became general from the fact that the former hesitation as to whether they should be venerated as sacred died out during the 4th century. The Fathers of the Greek Church especially were united in recommending the veneration of relics. All the great theologians of the 4th and 5th centuries may be quoted as evidence of this: Eusebius of Caesarea (Praep. Ev. xiii. 11), Gregory of Nazianzus (Orat. in Cypr. 17), Gregory of Nyssa (Orat. de S. Theod. mart.), Basil of Caesarea (Ep. ii. 197), Chrysostom (Laud. Drosidis), Theodoret of Cyrus (Inps. 67, 11), &c. John of Damascus, the great exponent of dogma in the 8th century, gave expression to the result of a uniform development which had been going on for centuries when he taught that Christ offers the relics to Christians as means of salvation. They must not be looked upon as something that is dead; for through them all good things come to those who pray with faith. Why should it seem impossible to believe in this power of the relics, when water could be made to gush from a rock in the desert? (De fide orthod. iv. 15).
Such was the theory; and the practice was in harmony with it. Throughout the whole of the Eastern Church the veneration of relics prevailed. Nobody hesitated to divide up the bodies of the saints in order to afford as many portions of them as possible. They were shared among the inhabitants of cities and villages, Theodoret tells us, and cherished by everybody as healers and physicians for both body and soul (Decur. Graec. aff. 8). The transition from the true relic to the hallowed object was especially common. Jerusalem, as early as the time of Eusebius, rejoiced in the possession of the episcopal chair of James the Just (Hist. eccl. vii. 19); and as late as the 4th century was discovered the most important of the relics of Christ, the cross which was alleged to have been His. Cyril of Jerusalem already remarks that the whole world was filled with portions of the wood of the cross (Cat. iv. 10).
The development which the veneration of relics underwent in the West did not differ essentially from that in the East. Here also the idea came to prevail that the body of the saint, or a portion of it, was possessed of healing and protective power (Paulinus of Nola, Poem. xix. 14 et seq., xxvii. 443). The objection raised by the Aquitanian presbyter Vigilantius (c. 400) to the belief that the souls of the martyrs to a certain extent clung to their ashes, and heard the prayers of those who approached them, appeared to his contemporaries to be frivolous; and he nowhere met with any support.
The only doubt which was felt was as to whether the bodies of the saints should be divided, and removed from their original resting-place. Both practices were forbidden by law under the emperor Theodosius I. (Cod. Theodos. ix. 17, 7), and the division of the bodies of martyrs into pieces was prohibited for centuries. Even Pope Gregory I., in a letter to the empress Constantia, disapproved it (Ep. iv. 30). Ambrose of Milan, by the discovery of the relics of Protasius and Gervasius (cf. Ep. 22 and Augustine, Confess. ix. 7), started in the West the long series of discoveries and translations of hitherto unknown relics. His example was followed, to name only the best known instances, by Bishop Theodore of Octodurum (now Martigny in the Vaud), who discovered the relics of the Theban legion which was alleged to have been destroyed by the emperor Maximian on account of its belief in the Christian faith (see Passio Acaun. Mart. 16), and by Clematius, a citizen of Cologne, to whom the virgin martyrs of this city revealed themselves (Kraus, Inschriften der Rheinlande, No. 294), afterwards to be known as St Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins.
The West was much poorer in relics than the East. Rome, it is true, possessed in the bodies of Peter and Paul a treasure the virtue of which outshone all the sacred treasures of the East. But many other places were entirely wanting in relics. By the discoveries which we have mentioned their number was notably increased. But the longing for these pledges of the divine assistance was insatiable. In order to satisfy it relics were made by placing pieces of cloth on the graves of the saints, which were afterwards taken to their homes and venerated by the pilgrims. The same purpose was served by oil taken from the lamps burning at the graves, flowers from the altars, water from some holy well, pieces of the garments of saints, earth from Jerusalem, and especially keys which had been laid on the grave of St Peter at Rome. All these things were not looked upon as mementoes, but the conviction prevailed that they were informed by a miraculous power, which had passed into them through contact with that which was originally sacred (cf. Greg. Tur. De Glor. mart. i. 25; Greg. I. Ep. iv. 29, No. 30). A dishonest means of satisfying the craving for relics was that of forging them, and how common this became can be gathered from the many complaints about spurious relics (Sulp. Sev. Vita Mart. 8; Aug. De op. mon. 28; Greg. I. Ep. iv. 30, &c.).
But in the long run these substitutes for relics did not satisfy the Christians of the West, and, following the example of the Eastern Church, they took to dividing the bodies of the saints. Medieval relics in the West also were mostly portions of the bodies of saints or of things which they had used during their lives. The veneration of relics also received a strong impulse from the fact that the Church required that a relic should be deposited in every altar. Among the first of those whom we know to have attached importance to the placing of relics in churches is Ambrose of Milan (Ep. 22), and the 7th general council of Nicaea (787) forbade the consecration of churches in which relics were not present, under pain of excommunication. This has remained part of the law of the Roman Catholic Church.
The most famous relics discovered during the middle ages were those of the apostle James at St Jago de Compostella in Spain (see Pilgrimage), the bodies of the three kings, which were brought from Milan to Cologne in 1164 by the emperor Frederick I. (Chron. reg. Colon. for the year 1164), the so-called sudarium of St Veronica, which from the 12th century onwards was preserved in the Capella Santa Maria ad praesepe of St Peter's in Rome (see Dobschütz, Christusbilder, p. 218 seq.), and the seamless robe of Christ, the possession of which lent renown to the cathedral of Trier since the beginning of the 12th century (Gesta Trevir., Mon. Germ. Scr. viii. p. 152).
The number of relics increased to a fabulous extent during the middle ages. There were churches which possessed hundreds, even thousands, of relics. In the cathedral of Eichstätt were to be found, as early as 1071, 683 relics (Gundech, Lib. pont. Eist., Mon. Germ. Scr. vii. p. 246 seq.); the monastery of Hirschau had 222 in the year 1091 (De cons. mai. mon., Mon. Germ. Scr. xiv. p. 261); the monastery of Stedernburg 515 in the year 1166 (Ann. Sted. Scr. xvi. p. 212 seq.). But these figures are trifling compared with those at the end of the middle ages. In the year 1520 could be counted 19,013 in the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg, and 121,483 in the Schlosskirche at Halle in 1521 (Köstlin, Friedrich der W., und die Schlosskirche zu Wittenberg, p. 58 seq.; Redlich, Cardinal Albrecht und das Neue Stift zu Halle, p. 260). There were also collections on the same scale belonging to individuals; a patrician of Nuremberg named Muffel was able to gain possession of 308 relics (Chroriken der deutschen Städte, xi. p. 745).
It is curious that while the popular craving for relics had passed all bounds, medieval theology was very cautious in its declarations on the subject of the veneration of relics. Thomas Aquinas based his justification of them on the idea of reverent commemoration; since we venerate the saints, we must also show reverence for their relics, for whoever loves another does honour to that which remains of him after death. On this account it is our duty, in memory of the saints, to pay due honour to their relics and especially to their bodies, which were the temples and dwellings of the Holy Ghost in which He dwelt and worked, and which in the resurrection are to be made like to the body of Christ; and in likewise because God honours them, in that He works wonders in their presence (Summa theol. iii. qu. 25, art. 6)., The great scholastic philosopher abandoned the theory that the relics in themselves are vessels and instruments of the divine grace and miraculous power. But these ideas were revived, on the other hand, by the Catholicism of the counter-Reformation, which again taught and teaches that God grants many benefits to mankind through the sacred bodies of the martyrs (Conc. Trid. sess. xxv.). The doctrine has adapted itself to the popular belief.
- (A. H.*)