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Holy relics are an under-reported aspect of Christian history. This is unfortunate because the story of relics represents, in microcosm, all the bickering, insane obsessions, superstitions, and generally embarrassing aspects of Christianity which most people would probably rather forget.

What are relics? Relics are snippits of flesh, bones, and sometimes clothing of holy men and women of the past. Usually, these individuals had been martyred for their faith. The trinkets left over held amazing fascination for European Christians of the Middle Ages. All along the trade and pilgrimage routes between Europe and the Holy Lands there were churches which promised the faithful a ghoulish glimpse and a chance to pray for intervention.

And, of course, the chance to make donations! Indeed, relics may be one of the earliest cases of the mass-marketing of something which appealed to people's interest in blood and violence - something decried by many Christian groups today. Those relics were really big business, and some churches acquired most of their revenue from curiosity seekers coming to view the attractions.

Besides the mere interest in viewing the relics, it was also believed that they had curative powers - thus another source of income. It was thought that just being in the presence of a piece of a saint, accompanied by sufficient faith, could cure just about anything. Of course, this was probably safer than most of what passed for medicine at the time, which included things like cow-dung poultices and drilling into people's heads.

Relics could also be a strong source of home-town pride. When Saint Ambrose moved relics into newly built church in Milan in 386, his actions were met with strong aproval from the populace because it gave "the church of Milan, hitherto barren of martyrs, the ability to rejoice in its own sufferings."

It is important to keep in mind that as human beings, men were considered powerless. Their only hope for survival was their dependence on the supernatural - thus it is unsurprising that they sought to clothe themselves in the power of the unseen world. Relics were the immediate and very physical channel through which supernatural power was available for the needs of ordinary life.

The cult of the saints which developed in the Middle Ages helped foster an intensive preoccupation with their relics. Augustine wrote that "Let us not treat the saints as gods, we do not wish to imitate those pagans who adore the dead." But by 787, the practice of venerating saints had so accelerated that a church council declared:

If any Bishop from this time forward is found consecrating a temple without holy relics, he shall be deposed as a transgressor of ecclesiastical traditions.

The veneration of dead bodies of martyrs was ordered by the Council of Trent, the Council which also condemned those who did not believe in relics. In city after city, people followed Ambrose's lead and the focus of martyr-adoration shifted from cemeteries to churches as the bodies - or what was left of them - were brought inside and given pretty adornments. I'm sure that this had nothing to do wtih the fact that it wasn't as easy to control access and acquire donations in cemeteries. Eventually, every church had to have some sort of relic in it - those which didn't were just second-rate.

The pursuit of relics became a genuine obsession in Europe. French King Louis IX paid a staggering 10,000 gold pieces to buy Jesus' crown of thorns, and huge crowds of Parisians came out for the parade through the streets. Two churches had a nasty dispute over who really had the severed head of John the Baptist.

Splinters of the "true cross" seemed to be everywhere - enough it was said later to build a ship. Several churches claimed to have the crown of thorns; water pots used in the miracle at Cana and even the wine. Some said that they had hair from the virgin Mary (black, brown, red, blond). Skulls, bones, and hairs of saints were the most common relics, but some exotic items were preserved as well: the sweat, tears and umbilical cord of Jesus; and St. Joseph's breath.

Unsurprisingly, relics were a target for church reformers. A character in the Decameron declared "he showed me a finger of the Holy Ghost." Martin Luther had to ask why there were eighteen apostles buried in Germany alone when Jesus only ever chose tweleve! John Calvin suggested:

Had the Virgin Mary been a wet nurse all her life, she could not have produced more milk than you can see in various parts of the world.

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