Relics and Their Supernatural Powers
The real value of relics lay in their ability to perform miracles. A relic that was an acknowledged fake could become “real” if it performed a miracle or after a trial by ordeal. People believed relics were invested with heavenly powers and that to be close to a relic, or even better, to touch one, would provide a person with spiritual blessings, divine protection, and even a cure from illness.
See Antonio Lombatti's forthcoming book I Templari e le reliqui (Accademia Vis Vitalis: Turin, 2010)
Deputazione di Storia Patria
“Relics Still Potent”.
Pilgrims and chroniclers exclaimed that relics could heal the sick, bleed and be incorruptible, extinguish fires, protect villages, and defeat armies. But it has not always been like that. First Christians were interested in the places mentioned in the Gospels. They wanted to understand what happened in the Holy Land by visiting those places. Relics, along with their magical/miraculous powers, came at a later stage, even if they gained much more relevance.
What is the first reference to Christians keeping or showing to the faithful some sort of relics of the time of Jesus? The very first pilgrims were interested in seeing Bible places. “Accordingly, I went to the East and came to the places where these things were preached and done,” wrote Melito of Sardis in his Apology (170 AD). Alexander of Cappadocia went to Jerusalem “for the purpose of prayer and investigations of the places” (200 AD). He used the noun τόποι: he meant special places for the Christian faith and he was concerned with ἱστορία, “investigation,” in the sense of “learning by inquiry.” Origen confirmed this interest; he is our earliest source on a relic of Jesus being displayed to the faithful:
We have visited the places to learn by inquiry of the footsteps of Jesus and of his disciples and of the prophets. (Commentary on John VI, 24) He added:
“In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out (δείκνυται τὸ Βηθλεὲμ σπήλαιον) where he was born and the manger (φάτνη) in the cave where he was wrapped in swaddling clothes.” (Contra Celsum 1, LI)
The 4th century was a turning point in the cult of relics. We are told that Helena found the True Cross, and in the time frame of about 100 years more, Passion relics were discovered: the crucifixion nails, the titulus crucis, the sponge, the spear, the crown of thorns, the burial clothes (with no images on them). J.W. Drijvers, in his Helena Augusta, wrote about the True Cross:
When a historical figure becomes the principal figure of a legend, there is a great danger that the historical and the unhistorical, the factual and the fiction become intertwined. This is exactly what happened in the case of Helena.... While clergymen may be excused, if they do not separate historical data from legendary material since Helena was a saint of the church, professional historians cannot escape such a serious charge [...] It must be acknowledged from the outset that there is nothing in history to link Helena with the discovery of the true cross. The story of the invention of the sacred wood is a legend which makes a sudden appearance some sixty years after her death. There is nothing in the contemporary record to link Helena with the original excavation of the area around Golgotha and the site of the tomb. Nor is there the least mention of any discovery of the fragments of the cross.
It is surely beyond question that Eusebius, in his glorification of the Constantine Empire, could not have failed to exploit the appearance of the sacred wood as an unsolicited affirmation of God’s favor.
The first pilgrims to the Holy Land and their travel diaries (itinera) represent direct sources on the amazing apparitions of new relics, on their powers, and on how people started to discover also those relics told in the apocryphal texts after having found everything that was told in the canonical gospels. So, the anonymous pilgrim of the Itinerarium Burdigalense tells us that in 333 no Passion relic was worshipped (thus found) in Jerusalem at that time. This pilgrim says that in Caesarea the balneus Cornelii centurionis (Acts 10,1-8) had superpowers: women who washed there got pregnant (fons est, in quem mulier est laverit, gravida fit). Another water source in Jericho had similar effects, but this time women should to drink from it (si qua mulier inde biberit, filios faciet).
Egeria, a Spanish pilgrim, added some new interesting details in 384. The Passion relics had been found and were displayed in Jerusalem. But the big fragment of the cross was protected and put behind bars because “one zealous worshipper on kissing the wood had bitted off a portion to keep for himself.” Cross relics started to appear everywhere and pagans began to say that there were too many considering that the Jerusalem cross fragment was always intact. The local church made a virtue of necessity and invested the wood with miraculous qualities of regeneration. Paulinus of Nola wrote detrimenta non sentiat et quasi intacta permaneat.
The Breviarius de Hierosolyma written around 500 tells that the spear was shown like a cross and it emitted light at night (et est in media basilica lancea unde percussus est Dominus, et de ipsa facta est crux et lucet in nocte). In the Zion basilica, pilgrims could now see the column of flagellation with the imprint of Jesus’ hands, and very close to it there were some little rocks used to stone Stephen.
About 50 years later, Theodosius, in his De terra sanctae, adds that even the house of Joachim and Ann - the Virgin Mary’s “apocryphal parents” - became a goal for tourists. Between Jericho and Galgala, there was a field where Jesus himself worked when he was a farmer (ante balicam est campus, ager Domini, in quo Dominus manu sua seminavit… et ibi est vitis, quam Domino posuit). Now, after 50 years, on the column of flagellation, not only Jesus’ hands were visible but also his chin, nose, and eyes (et hodie paret, sed et facies omnis, mentus, nasus vel oculi eius). Near the spot where Jesus had been baptized, Theodosius could see hills bouncing/jumping (circa Iordanem est, hoc est monticulli sund multi, et quando Dominus ad baptismum descendit, ipsi montes ante ipsum ambulabant gestiendo et hodie velut saltantes videntur). New relics also in Bethfage, where Theodosius saw the imprint of Jesus’ shoulders (et ipse locus dicitur Bethfage… Dominus super lapidem humeros imposuit, in qua petra ambo humeri eius descenderunt sicut in cera molle). However, he was very sad because Lazarus’ second burial place had not been found yet (secundam mortem eius nemo cognovit).
Among these new amazing relics there was also one called the Stone of Mary, a place where Jesus’ mother sat upon in her travel to Bethlehem while letting the donkey rest (dum domna Maria mater Domini iret in Bethleem, descendit de asina et sedit super petram).
Another anonymous pilgrim who went to Jerusalem in 570 is the witness of the multiplication of Holy Land relics: the chair of the annunciation in Caesarea (In quo loco erat et cathedra ubi sedebat quando ad eam angelus venit), the spelling book used by Jesus at school (synagogue) and the place upon which he sat (ibi etiam sedit in sinagoga tomus, in quo abcd habuit Dominus impositum; in qua etiam sinagoga posita est trabis, ubi sedebat cum aliis infantibus). In Nazareth, he saw the cradle and the tub of baby Jesus (et subtus non longe cunabula Christi et balneum eius). Finally, after 500 years of careful investigation, the fig tree where Judas hanged himself (ibi est ficulnea, in qua Iudas se suspendit) was found. In addition, in Jerusalem the iron chain of that famous suicide was exhibited (vidimus et in uno angulo tenebroso catena ferream, cum qua se laqueavit infelix Iudas).
The possibility of acquiring a Holy Land relic represented a substantial development in pilgrimages. It started a souvenir hunting associated with crowds of visitors. Relics were put in new churches in Europe and were also worn to ward off misfortune. A very nice example is a 5th-century Christian amulet depicting the raising of Lazarus. Jesus is working this miracle with a magic wand (see photo below).
The real value of relics lay in their ability to perform miracles. A relic that was an acknowledged fake could become “real” if it performed a miracle or after a trial by ordeal. People believed relics were invested with heavenly powers and that to be close to a relic, or even better, to touch one, would provide a person with spiritual blessings, divine protection, and even a cure from illness. In a world which could seem so uncertain, with wars, disease, and incurable illnesses, religious people often sought the protection which they believed a religious relic could offer. Someone who bought a relic would often carry it on his or her person, to be accessible at all times.
Relics, like pagan talismans, had magic powers. Cesarius of Heisterbach tells the story of a saint who was so famous and her relics so incredible that the faithful tried to steal anything from her body, even the nipples (summitatem mamillarum). James of Vitry was proud to wear a finger of Saint Mary of Oignies like a necklace (digitus eius… assidue mihi suspensus ad collum). Saint Aredius († 591), bishop of Limoges, had a relic that could protect him from storms and even open the eyes of people who were hanged. Hildegard of Bingen’s relics emitted light at night (clarissimo lumine radiare) and a sort of rainbow during the day (innumerabiles varii coloris circuli).
As in the Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, relics were able to cure sick animals, increase wealth, and make husbands trust unfaithful wives. These desirable effects were all available for a small fee or free. For example, there were the relics of Saint James in Compostela, Spain, even if the Gospel says he died in Jerusalem and never went to Spain.
*To check primary sources for the relics and miracles quoted above, refer to my book Il culto delle reliquie (Milan: Sugarco, 2007)