views updated


The material remains of a saint or holy person after his death, as well as objects sanctified by contact with his body. Only late in its history did the word relics, or reliquiae, assume a religious meaning. The Greek word leipsana and the classic Latin reliquiae originally signified any mortal remains; but the Catholic Church employs the word to distinguish the body or whatever remains of a holy person after death, as well as objects that had actual contact with the saint's body during his lifetime. Real (or first-class) relics include the skin and bones, clothing, objects used for penance, instruments of a martyr's imprisonment or passion; while representative relics are the objects placed in contact with the body or grave of a saint by the piety of the faithful or by circumstance.


Veneration for the dead, or the religion of remembrance, was common among almost all peoples. In many instances some attempt was made to render the departed present by means of an object in which it was believed something of the deceased remained. Among certain ancient peoples this developed into the custom of erecting elaborate funereal monuments and using them for commemorative gatherings, frequently with some religious significance. Though no special honor was paid their relics, care was taken to preserve the ashes or bodies of deceased in graves, tombs, or urns.

Early Christian Practice. Scriptural texts supporting the cult of relics are few and not explicit (Ex 13.19; 1 Kgs 13.21). While the Mosaic Law recognized the veneration of the dead, especially of deceased heroes, it is not certain that this practice had a religious character. The instances of Elisha (2 Kgs 13.21) and Elijah (2 Kgs 2.14) offer certain grounds for such cult; but Jewish fear of contamination by idolatrous practices finally suppressed human representation and material attachment in such matters. One looks in vain to seek a justification for the cult of relics in the Old Testament; nor is much attention paid relics in the New Testament. In the Book of Revelation the author recommends that the faithful and martyrs be left to rest in peace (Rv 11.13). Despite this, although the Apostles inherited Jewish diffidence regarding relics, the new converts in the time of St. Paul disputed about objects that belonged to the Apostles and recognized as miraculous agents clothing that they had touched (Acts 19.12).

St. Polycarp. In the middle of the second century there was an unambiguous instance of the veneration of relics in the history of the martyrdom of St. polycarp. The authenticity of this passio is beyond question, for the document was written soon after the martyrdom (156 or 157). As the pagans had great respect for the dead, ordinarily they allowed burial even to condemned criminals. But in the case of a crime against the majesty of the state or its ruler, that is, treason, the magistrates could forbid surrender of the body to claimants. As Christians were accused of this crime in refusing to worship the emperor or other state gods, claimants often had to resort to stealth to obtain the bodies of martyrs for burial. Christians and pagans alike showed respect for the dead, but in the recital of Polycarp's martyrdom a new note appears: from a private and implicit veneration there is a change to a public and explicit cult of the remains of the saint. The citizens of Smyrna proclaimed their devotion to the relics of their holy bishop before the whole Church in the Roman Empire.

The magistrate had refused to surrender the body because he did not think it proper to allow Christians "to create a new Christ." Then, having succeeded in obtaining the remains, the Christians of Smyrna felt required to justify their action; and this they did by underlining the subordinate character of the veneration rendered to the martyrs. Polycarp's relics were honored in a religious context in consideration of his holiness as "a disciple and imitator of Christ." Each year, on the anniversary of his martyrdom, the faithful celebrated his memory in the place where he was buried.

Ritual Development. During the persecutions the veneration of the relics of martyrs spread quickly and does not seem to have been opposed by the Christian hierarchy. However, no liturgy accompanied this development until the third century. Relics were simply collected and piously buried. In the mid-third century cyprian of carthage justified the veneration of the instruments of the martyrs' sufferings by saying the bodies of Christ's prisoners sanctified their chains (Epist. 13); and in the fourth century St. basil of caesarea described the official ceremonies held on a martyr's anniversary.

The Alexandrian theologians, on the other hand, were reticent about the veneration of relics since their teaching avoided anything having to do with external cult. origen seems to have regarded the practice as a pagan sign of respect for a material object. At Rome, however, in the course of the persecutions relics were soon associated with liturgical cult. Since the veneration of the dead was the only cult that could be practiced freely at Rome during times of persecution, the Christians assembled near the tombs to render homage to their dead. Occasionally these gatherings were accompanied by a liturgical celebration. After the peace of Constantine I this practice grew, and churches were built over the graves of the martyrs beginning with the basilicas of St. Peter on the Vatican and that of St. Paul on the Via Ostia. It is not known, however, whether the Eucharist was celebrated on the tombs of the martyrs before the end of the third century.

Theological Consideration. In the course of the 4th and 5th centuries the veneration of martyrs' relics grew as a liturgical cult and received theological justification through recourse to the doctrine of the mystical body by maximus of turin (Sermo 77). At the same time evidence is available for the veneration offered by the faithful

to relics that is on a par with modern practices. The tombs of martyrs were opened, and relics were distributed in the form of brandea, or objects that had touched the actual body or bones. These brandea were enclosed in little cases and hung round the neck (see reliquaries).

Patristic Doctrine. With SS. Basil and John Chrysostom in the East and SS. Ambrose and augustine in the West the theology of the cult of relics received its formal development, but adversaries of the practice were not lacking. A principal attack came from Vigilantius of Toulouse in Gaul, who criticized the basic principles of the cult of relics, declaring that it constituted nothing less than idolatrous adoration, even though Christian authors had already pointed out the explicit difference between the cult of latria (worship) and of doulia (veneration). St. jerome (347420) in his Contra Vigilantium answered the main objections, defending the cult of relics with an appeal to Scripture, ecclesiastical tradition, and the miracles worked by God through the relics of the saints.

After Jerome, the Fathers attempted to clarify the relation between God and the saints and their earthly relics. Four different points of view are proposed in justification of this veneration: The faithful see the saints in the relics they venerate; this is the thought of St. ephrem the syri an, theodoret of cyr, Maximus of Turin, and many others. As the martyrs were saints on earth, their bodies were likewise sanctified. John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea insist rather on the blood of the martyrs and the sensible record of their sufferings as stimuli to the courage of the faithful. The excellence of the martyrs renders their relics precious, and the relics are a reminder that these saints should serve as models for all.

gregory of nazianzus, St. Augustine, Paulinus of Nola, Ambrose, and Pope leo i (440461) justify relics on the testimony of the miracles God works through their instrumentality. Glory is to be given to God alone; but since God's power is manifest in relics, they can be venerated. This idea resulted in two opposing developments in hagiography: the legends that had no other purpose than edification of the faithful; and the notion that the more extraordinary the miracles, the holier were the relics and the more efficacious the intercession of the martyr with God. Historical criticism in the patristic period busied itself with establishing the authenticity of the miracles since the power of the relics rested not so much on the presumed sanctity of the martyrs as on the miraculous signs that God worked in their favor. The final justification rests on a human appraisal of relics: they are the remains of friends who as saints are close to God. Both Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa emphasize this aspect of the cult of relics.

Middle Ages. In the 7th century isidore of seville made a résumé of patristic teaching in his De Ecclesiae officiis (1.25.16). But in practice, among the barbarian peoples recently Christianized, the principal interest of relics centered on the miracles and prodigies associated with their cult, particularly on the day of a martyr's commemoration, as attested by gregory of tours in his De gloria martyrum (31). The Council of Gangra in Asia Minor (a.d. 343) excommunicated those who despised the cult of relics (c.20); and the Council of Carthage (401) counseled the destruction of churches in which no relics were honored (c.14). But in 675 the Council of Braga called the attention of the bishops to abuses connected with relics.

Eastern Christian Practice. The care for the relics of martyrs and saints differed considerably in the West and East. In the Christian East the holy bodies were exhumed, dismembered, and transported from place to place, as in the case of the transferal of relics of St. Babylas in 351. Already in the 4th century such translations were surrounded with solemn ceremonies; and emperors desired to have their reigns marked by such occasions. The great cities of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch were enriched with relics taken from lesser sanctuaries. By the fifth century the dismemberment of body and of bones became an accepted practice.

Western Practice. In the West a different development took place. The Theodosian Code contained severe penalties against the spoliation of graves. Hence transferal of remains was considered the equivalent of the violation and profanation of tombs, and the popes became strong advocates of this point of view. Hence translation of the remains of a saint was an exceptional happening and had to be dictated by strong reasons or effected clandestinely, as in the case of the four crowned martyrs brought from Pannonia in the 5th century. Certain churches in Italy, however, did not accept the strict Roman discipline in this matter, and at Brescia St. gaudentius enriched his church with a treasury of relics (Patrologia Latina 20:959971).

In the 8th century Roman severity was relaxed and Paul I (757767) and Paschal I (817824) authorized a large number of translations. This practice quickly spread through Italy and beyond and resulted in the dismemberment and dispersal of the bodies of the saints. Outside Italy, where martyrdoms had been rare, the matter became complicated by a proliferation of brandea or substitute relics in private and public cult until the Carolingian Age, when the cult of relics of confessors or non-martyr saints became frequent. Likewise the acclaim of relics that accompanied the translations in the East was achieved by pilgrimages in the West and had a great influence on the economic, cultural, and social development of Western Europe.

John Damascene. With the outbreak of iconoclasm, the diversity of thought and practice in the Christian East and West became more marked. In the East, after the theological settlement of the Iconoclastic dispute at the Council of nicaea ii (787), the cult of relics as well as of images had a considerable development. St. john damascene brought stability to the doctrine of the veneration of relics in the East. He taught that God gave the relics of saints to the Church as a means of salvation and that it was necessary to give them honor as representing the saints, the friends of Christ, the sons and daughters of God. So the cult of relics was actually an extension of the honor due to God alone. This became the viewpoint of orthodox theologians generally, and the remains of the saints received an honor secondary to the cult due to God. Only the sects springing from manichaeism thereafter attacked the principle involved in this veneration. In the 11th century, however, the cult of icons in Byzantium became more important than that given to relics, and the theology of relic veneration, as well as the folklore, poetry, and homiletic development, received no further stimulus. Not until the 17th century did an Orthodox theologian, Stephan Yavorsky, show an interest in the question of relics.

Translations and Dispersals. In the West the cult of relics advanced with the development of the Middle Ages. Relics were multiplied by division of larger pieces, by the discovery of new relics, and by falsifications. In the 11th century the Church was forced to protect relics by legislating for the authorization of translations, particularly in consideration of the Norman and Mongol invasions. This dispersal occasioned an increasing number of relics as is illustrated by the case of St. Philibert of Beaulieu, whose remains were carried by the monks fleeing before the Norman invasion and parceled out in the various monasteries they founded before coming to rest at Tours. It likewise gave rise to an extraordinary commerce. Translations of relics at times assumed the proportions of an export enterprise, then of a regular trade, particularly as regards Rome.

Pilgrims and Princely Visitors. During the eighth and ninth centuries guidebooks for pilgrims in Rome gave visitors indispensable indications for their visits to

the city's all but abandoned suburban cemeteries. Visitors to the catacombs were led to believe by their own piety or the suggestion of charlatans that they stood in the midst of great collections of the bodies of the saints. The catacombs were thus considered an inexhaustible mine for relics, which until the time of gregory i (590604) had been protected by the civil laws. This reserve was succeeded by great audacity. Popes now gave royal and important visitors whole bodies of the martyrs, and monastic founders were convinced that the stability and celebrity of their foundations depended on the relics in their treasury. Likewise it was considered necessary to strengthen the faith of new nations, such as the Saxons, recently won to the faith by introducing the cult of relics among them as a stimulus to their piety and a preventative against their reversal to the cult of their old idols.

Papal authority made an effort to prevent or control this dispersal, but popes frequently were powerless to prevent such phenomena as the formation, in the ninth century, of a corporation that specialized in the discovery, sale, and transport of relics to all parts of Europe. This was possible because the ancient Roman cemeteries had been abandoned at this epoch and were visited only occasionally by pilgrims. One of the more successful of these entrepreneurs of relics was the deacon Deusdedit, who showed a deep sympathy for the importunings of barbarian princes and ecclesiastics so desirous of possessing relics that were evidently misprised in Rome. Deusdedit had the administration of the third cemeterial region of Rome, which covered the areas of Casalina (Labicana ), Prenestina, and Tiburtina, with the cemetery of SS. Peter and Marcellinus. In 827 he made his first journey through the Germanic countries with a listing of the relics possibly transferable. einhard and rabanus maurus were among his more important clients.

But Deusdedit and his brothers who continued the practice did not always have honest partners or imitators. Thus in the case of the martyr St. hyacinth, whose bones were considered a primary treasure in the Abbey of Seligenstadt for over 1,000 years, it was discovered in 1845 that the true Roman martyr's remains were still intact in a grave in the cemetery of St. Hermes. Paschal I finally ordered the abandonment of the catacombs and the transfer of relics to the churches of Rome; but the transport was not conducted with proper care and many of these bones are now unidentifiable.

Crusaders. During the Crusades the commerce in relics reached a new high. In 1204, with the taking of Constantinople, a great number of relics were captured by the Latin army; and successively, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Edessa were sacked, and the relics sent back to enrich the churches and cathedrals of medieval Europe. Actually the Crusaders were more interested in the possession of the relics themselves than in their commercial value. This is evidenced by the fact that frequently they did not carry off the rich reliquaries in which they discovered the relics. But false relics were also multiplied in increasing numbers, both by enterprising charlatans and in the course of transport, theft, and exchange of captured relics. To offset this practice, horror stories and legends concerning the fate of relic falsifiers were put into circulation. In 1274 the Council of lyons prohibited the veneration of new relics without the approbation of the pope.

Late Medieval Practice. Once a relic was discovered and authenticated it was placed as close as possible to the altar in a church or chapel. The tombs of the martyrs were actually considered altars; and the bodies of saints were no longer buried but exposed to be seen and touched in tombs made into sumptuous reliquaries and placed above or behind the altar. It soon became indispensable for the dedication of an altar that it contain relics of the martyrs; and the proprietor of a new church had to request of the pope or the bishop of the place the relics of the saint in whose honor the church was to be dedicated (Liber diurnus romanorum pontificum ).

The cult of relics in the Middle Ages was dependent on the great stock put in their efficacy. Celebrated shrines gave rise to gigantic pilgrimages with the arrival of immense crowds on certain feast days or during the whole course of the year. The pilgrimages to St. James of Compostela in Spain are a key to the literary, artistic, and cultural understanding of the Middle Ages, in the opinion of the art historian É. Mâle.

Not only pilgrimages but processions with the relics of saints in the streets gave rise to special feasts, fairs, and events that attracted crowds of people and had a great effect on the exchange of ideas, information, styles, and customs. And almost all civic events were activated with an appeal to the city's relics, from the taking of oaths to the conclusion of pacts and treaties. Likewise in the case of saints called upon as protectors against disease, their relics were frequently applied to the parts of the bodies of the sick. Abuses were inevitable; but theologians recognized the impossibility of controlling them and paid more attention to the doctrine than to the practice of the faithful.

Abuses. Denunciatory voices were not entirely lacking, however. At the very time when enormous churches were being erected and Masses organized in honor of the saints, Guibert of Nogent attacked the superstitions connected with relics in his De pignoribus sanctorum. St. bernard of clairvaux denounced the pride in their relics and the bad faith of the Cluniac monks, while peter the venerable contented himself with explaining the traditional teaching that justified the cult of relics (Sermo 4). The lateran council iv recognized the problems raised by both clergy and laity in this matter and repeated the teaching of the Council of Nicaea II.

Liturgy. In the liturgy the action of the hierarchy proved more effective, and the Roman rituals never included a feast in honor of the relics of a saint even though Rome permitted certain dioceses and religious orders to celebrate the feast of Sancta Maria ad martyres. In the 10th century a salutation was directed to the altar relics at the beginning of Mass; but allusions to relics are rare in the prayers of the canonical hours or in the antiphonaries and lectionaries. On the contrary, triumphal hymns and homilies honoring saints and martyrs were tolerated, while the great veneration of relics was indicated by the position that was assigned them on the altars.

Scholastic Theology. The teaching of the scholastic theologians does not differ greatly from that of the Fathers. The first redactors of summae gave no special attention to relics, mainly because peter lombard had not treated them in his Sentences. The commentators contented themselves with protests against abuses; but thomas aquinas dedicated a question in his Summa theologiae to the problem (3a, 25.6). Summing up John Damascene, he took as point of departure the vivid sense of the human element involved. The saints belong to Christ; they are the sons and daughters of God and as a consequence serve as intercessors with God for the living. Every relic is thus a record of the saint. As God works miracles through relics, relics have a direct relationship with the saints, with Christ, and with God. It is thus the saints who are the direct object of honor, of which their relics are but the sensible signs.

St. Thomas thus concluded that relics in themselves have no sanctifying power; but they do "excite to love, by signifying the love that is achieved through the relic."

On second consideration, he tended to accept a certain extrinsic value by way of the physical proximity of a relic in its relation to the body of a saint. Saints are the temples and instruments of the Holy Spirit in their whole person. They continue to be so in a secondary fashion in the remains of their bodies still on earth. Thus the body of a saint deserves honor for itself; and it follows that relics deserve more veneration than do images. The miracles worked by God are irrefutable proofs of this fact. God is the principal and primary object of worship (latria ), while the saints and their relics deserve veneration (doulia ). Thomas finally sought to justify the so-called representative or substitute relics that have been in true contact with actual relics; but he stressed the necessity of avoiding every semblance of superstitious practice.

This last consideration was taken up by later scholastics whose principal consideration was the axiom in medio virtus. At the same time, however, the precursors of the Protestant reform began to raise voices against the cult of relics. John hus considered the practice idolatrous; and his criticism was repeated by John Wyclif and, a century later, by all the reformers. Luther considered the cult of relics as mainly a lucrative invention of the Roman Church and contrary to the Word of God as manifest in the Scriptures. Calvin proved more moderate and confined his attack to false relics.

Responding to Protestant criticisms, the Council of trent in a decree issued in its 25th session made no reference to Scripture but appealed to the Apostolic tradition and the constant practice of the Church. Trent repeated the condemnations of previous councils against those who denied the licitness and legitimacy of the veneration of relics.

Suárez. After Trent F. suÁrez was the first theologian to return to the question of relics (Sum. theol. 18.654). He collected the common teaching and added his critical observations particularly regarding the traditions of the churches of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Milan. He found proof of the excellence of relics in the dignity invested in the bodies of the saints, an argument built on that of St. Augustine. Contrary to St. Thomas he held that the relation between the saint and his relics is not to be sought in physical continuity or in actual contact with the remains but in the reason on which the moral dignity of the relic is based. He likewise gave diverse value to relics in accordance with their relative importance. When they are reduced to specks of powder, it is unbecoming to preserve them.

Bellarmine and Billuart. Some 17th-and 18th-century theologians felt that the veneration of relics was inferior to the cult of the saints; still others put the two on a par, distinguishing between relative doulia to the relics and absolute to the saint in heaven. This was the opinion of Robert bellarmine in his De Ecclesia triumphanti (2.3; 3.203211). The most interesting observations in this period were made by Cardinal Billuart (16851757) in his De Incarnationis diss. (23.4). He made a distinction between relics, based on his discussion of images. Materially considered, relics have no right to veneration; but in their formal aspect, as representative of the saint whose remains they are, they are worthy of the same veneration that is due to the saint. They are only distinguished from the saint whom they represent by the modality of being immobile and inanimate; but actually they constitute one sole entity with the saint. Hence the dignity of the relic is the same as that of the saint.

The relic in itself as an object, however, does possess value of sanctification in so far as it was once in direct contact with the saint. The dignity with which the Church invests a relic thus has a true foundation, and the veneration is based on a true autonomous title. This last consideration was advanced to justify the veneration of relics whose title to authenticity could no longer be ascertained but whose cult was both ancient and venerable. But such cult is not the same as that offered to a saint and can be considered doulia only in an improper sense.


While the piety of the faithful and the zealous care of curators preserved the greater number of relics handed down from the past, the revolts and sequestration of churches and monasteries that swept Europe in the wake of the French Revolution and continued to the end of the 19th century caused the disappearance of large collections of relics. But the wars of religion, the revolutions, and occasional uprisings in missionary territories occasioned many martyrdoms among both missionaries and converts, thus providing modern relics whose authenticity cannot be questioned. Likewise the progress achieved by Christian archaeology has enabled scholars to provide means for controlling the study of ancient relics. In this process certain ancient relics have been excluded, such as those of St. philomena, whose name was removed (18 April 1961) from the Calendar of Saints by the then Congregation of Rites. An excellent guide in this connection is provided by the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists. In the preface to the life of each saint information is provided concerning the principal sites where the holy person's relics are preserved, and an attempt is made at identifying the value of the tradition involved.

Bibliography: s. ditchfield, "Martyrs on the Move: Relics as Vindicators of Local Diversity in the Tridentine Church," Martyrs and Martyrologies (Oxford 1993) 28394. c. doherty, "The Use of Relics in Early Ireland," Ireland and Europe (Stuttgart 1984) 89101. p. j. geary, "The Ninth-Century Relic Trade: A Response to Popular Piety," Religion and the People, 8001700 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina 1979) 819. t. johnson, "Holy Fabrications: The Catacomb Saints and the Counter-Reformation in Bavaria," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 47 (1996) 27497. g. lenhoff, "The Notion of 'Uncorrupted Relics' in Early Russian Culture," Christianity and the Eastern Slavs, Vol. 1 (Berkeley, California 1993) 25275. b. r. mccane, "Bones of Contention: Ossuaries and Reliquaries in Early Judaism and Christianity," Second Century 8 (1991) 23546. j. m. mcculloh, "The Cult of Relics in the Letters and Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great: A Lexicographical Study," Traditio 32 (1976) 14584. o.f.a. meinardus, "A Study of the Relics of Saints of the Greek Orthodox Church," Oriens Christianus, Vol. 54 (Wiesbaden 1970) 130279. p. c. miller, "'Differential Networks': Relics and Other Fragments in Late Antiquity," Journal of Early Christian Studies 6 (1998) 11338. d. w. rollason, "Relic-Cults as an Instrument of Royal Policy c. 900c. 1050," Anglo-Saxon England, 15 (Cambridge 1986) 91103. w. tabbernee, "'Our Trophies Are Better Than Your Trophies': The Appeal to Tombs and Reliquaries in Montanist-Orthodox Relations" Studia patristica 31 (1997) 20617. a. thacker, "Cults at Canterbury: Relics and Reform under Dunstan and His Successors," St Dunstan (Woodbridge, England 1992) 22145; "Saint-Making and Relic Collecting by Oswald and His Communities," St Oswald of Worcester (London 1996) 24468.

[f. chiovard/eds.]

About this article


Updated About content Print Article Share Article