The worship of saints' relics is closely tied to the growth of the Christian church. The reverence shown for relics has roots in the celebration of the Eucharist over the graves of the first Christian martyrs. Theological definition of the holiness of the relic is absent from both the Old or New Testament, but was perpetuated as Christianity grew, as a basis for seeking intercession, often in healing bodily ills. The reverence of early Christians for bodily remains of martyrs during the Age of Persecution (c.200–313) mirrored the healing powers of the belongings of the Apostles in the New Testament, but the holiness of martyrs' bodies derives from their being seen as instruments of their faith. While other Christian traditions separated the body from the self, Church fathers assimilated remains of saints to the spiritual body of Christ. They described fragmentary parts of the body — an arm, a finger, or a head — as a synecdoche for the person of the saint after death, and as forecasting Christ's promise of eventual resurrection. Encased in iron or under glass, such relics were especially esteemed for their power to reverse the course of the body's eventual decay by effecting cures or allaying physical pain.
The cult of relics soon won a prominent place within the Church. If Jerome argued that the physical remains of martyrs were to be worshipped out of honour for Christ as records of individual faith, by Augustine's time (354–430) the cult of relics expanded to include objects associated with martyrdom or with the individual person. Early churches were built over the tombs of martyrs, and in 401 the Council of Carthage decreed that all churches not honouring the relics of saints should be destroyed. In the Eastern Church, worship of relics receded in the face of the growing cult of icons, but in 787 the second council of Nicaea required that relics be present in the altars of consecrated churches and gave a liturgical role to the salutation of relics after the celebration of the Mass. While the exhuming of bodies faced fewer restrictions in the East, the increased need for relics led prohibitions against the spoliation of graves to be relaxed. Relics were increasingly translated, or transported into, churches from sites of martyrdom, and as the basis for Christian burial ad sanctos. Their charismatic value played a prominent role in European conversion. The church distinguished primary relics, parts of bodies which had suffered torture or martyrdom, from ‘secondary’ relics, objects valued for their contact with the body of a saint and as memories of a worldly presence. Secondary relics might be privately owned, and were believed to have power as protective charms.
Worship of saintly relics became a pressing theological concern in the high Middle Ages. The church emerged as a house of worship, as well as a place of the veneration of saints, at the same time as the number of relics in the West increased. Relics continued to be considered a treasure of towns and congregations, and as the papacy authorized translation of a large number of relics from the East during the Crusades, instruments of the passion, vials of Mary's milk, and relics of the apostles flooded Europe. Relics were treasured by towns and congregations, and the cult grew so rapidly that by 1274 the veneration of relics was forbidden without papal approval. The scholastic Thomas Aquinas emphasized the importance of relics as manifestations of the Godhead. He confirmed the doctrine of saintly intercession and also saw relics as confirming the promise of future resurrection. The combined emphasis on relics' divinity and physicality paralleled theologians' increased location of individuality in the human body.
The prominent place that relics came to occupy as material objects of veneration in medieval Christianity led reformers such as Jan Huss (d.1415) and Martin Luther (d. 1546) to question their worth as points of access to the divine. In arguing that true faith was independent from the cults of saints, Luther condemned the worship of relics as a money-making invention of the worldly Church. In response, Catholic theologians argued for the importance of relics as signs of religious faith, reaffirming their role as illustrations of the continual presence of saints within the Church. Cults of relics regained a prominent role in counter-reformation religiosity. While earlier relics were associated with Christ, the Virgin, and the apostles, the Catholic reformers confirmed worship of existing relics and encouraged veneration of parts of the saintly body: arms, hearts, tongues, throats, hands, and blood of saints were prominently exhibited on altars. Pope Sixtus V responded to accusations about the worship of false relics when he gave juridical form to the authentication of sainthood and of relics in 1588. This preserved the doctrinal basis of relics in Catholicism, established uniform guidelines for reviewing claims to sanctity, and created norms for the exhibition of relics. New guidelines for the display of relics were drafted in the late nineteenth century, to ensure their accessibility to the individual believer.
Daniel A. Brownstein
Brown, P. (1981). The cult of the saints: its rise and function in Latin Christianity. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Geary, P. (1978). Furta Sacra: thefts of relics in the central Middle Ages. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
See also saints.
The veneration of relics is most usually associated with European popular Catholicism, although relics also have a place in Buddhism and Islam. Some Buddhists in Sri Lanka, for example, worship relics of the Buddha, believing that he is present in a relic of his tooth, notwithstanding Buddhist belief that the Buddha has transcended this world. In Roman Catholicism, relics are objects that claim to contain actual physical remains (e.g., bones, teeth, blood) of Christ, Mary, the saints, and other holy people, or clothing and other objects worn or touched by the holy person. Relics are venerated because it is believed that the object itself is sacred and not solely a symbol of something sacred. The object's intimate association with the holy person is sufficient to make the actual relic worthy of veneration. Believers use the relic to invoke special favors—for example, touching a relic of a saint (e.g., a piece of clothing that is purported to have touched the saint in question) to heal an illness or as protection against danger. Perhaps the most famous relic today is the Shroud of Turin, which is alleged to be Christ's burial sheet.
In the early church, the tombs of the martyrs were used as altars for the celebration of the Eucharist, with the open tombs exposing the bones of the buried saints for viewing and touching by the people gathered. Belief in the sacredness of relics was encouraged by successive popes. They approved of the removal and transfer of the physical remains of various saints to Rome and other Catholic sites in Europe, and subsequently of relics to American churches, where, as in Europe, they were frequently used in the dedication of churches to Christ or to particular saints. The popularity of relics in Europe during the Middle Ages was advanced in part by returning Crusaders, who brought back relics they had pillaged as part of their conquests. The trade in relics, although historically encouraged by church officials, was also a source of concern. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) prohibited both the transfer and the sale of relics. Abuses continued nonetheless, and during the Reformation the reformers included relics in their criticism of the use and sale of indulgences in the church. In response, the Council of Trent (1545–1563) enacted new and more restrictive rules for the veneration of relics but also reaffirmed their role in bestowing divine favors. The popularity of relics continued during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Carroll 1996, pp. 170–175), and their veneration is still an important part of the devotional life of many Catholics throughout the world, indicated, in part, by the numerous tourists who visit holy shrines and places of pilgrimage hoping for a cure from an illness or relief from some other burden. Although the Vatican approves of relics, church officials also caution that the veneration of relics should not be used to displace the centrality of the sacraments and a Christ-centered focus on the theology of redemption in Catholicism. The 1917 Code of Canon Law required that relics be authenticated by local bishops, and rules concerning the preservation and veneration of relics are enforced by the Vatican. The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) noted that the use of relics should not eclipse worship of God in Catholic devotion. A subsequent revision of the calendar of the saints by Pope Paul VI resulted in a more critical approach to the study of relics and saints and in the removal of some popular saints, including St. Christopher, who was the patron of travelers. Notwithstanding Vatican concerns that relics not assume too great an importance in Catholic life, it is evident that their material presence, whether displayed in churches, cars, or living rooms, or more privately in scapulars or as attachments to medals, still provides many believers with a source of comfort and an immediate and visible reminder of the accessibility of sacred grace.
Carroll, Michael. Veiled Threats: The Logic ofPopularCatholicism in Italy. 1996.
Moran, J. Anthony. Catholic Shrines andPlacesofPilgrimage in the United States. 1994.
Nolan, Mary Lee, and Sidney Nolan. ChristianPilgrimage in Modern Western Europe. 1989.
rel·ic / ˈrelik/ • n. an object surviving from an earlier time, esp. one of historical or sentimental interest. ∎ a part of a deceased holy person's body or belongings kept as an object of reverence. ∎ an object, custom, or belief that has survived from an earlier time but is now outmoded: individualized computer programming and time-sharing would become expensive relics. ∎ (relics) all that is left of something: relics of a lost civilization.