Relics Make Cathedrals

Relics Make Cathedrals
Prof. Roy DeVille

A recent newspaper article related that the artifacts and memorabilia of Pope John Paul II would be touring the United States in 2013. The exhibit will open in Lubbock, Texas, on March 15th, and continue on to St. Louis and Washington, D.C. Entitled, “I have come to you again,” the personal belongings of the pope will encompass his childhood years in Poland to his beatification in 2011. This charismatic and beloved pope is on the road to sainthood. It is logical to assume that many of the objects of this important exhibit will, in time, become relics.


Relics have played a major role in the promotion of religion since Old Testament times. There is a “saint-miracle” event in II Kings 13: 20-21. The Israelites are conducting a burial when they spot Moabites coming upon them. To protect the dead body, they hide it in Elisha’s tomb. When the dead body comes into contact with Elisha’s bones, it returns to life. Revered Hebrew leaders as well as Christian saints have always been associated with miraculous powers. In fact, according to Roman church law, miracles must be a part of the resume in order to get in line for sainthood.


The early Christian church embraced the concept of relics and the veneration of relics in the 4th century. Interestingly, this began in the Eastern Church. Rome didn’t need relics. They had most of the bodies of stars buried within the city. Constantinople didn’t have any buried saints. So it was normal that they would want relics, even a small tooth or bone, to venerate. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 325 CE for the purpose of collecting relics. Her trip brought quite a find!


Medieval pilgrimages often related directly to the veneration of relics. The ideal, of course, would have been a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but this was not always possible. A pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James, Santiago da Compostela, was more doable for the medieval penitent. The 12th-century Codex Calixtinis tells us that along the designated road one could find many abbey-churches containing significant relics.


By the late 8th century, reliquaries were permitted to be placed on the church altar. By the 11th century, many saints had been canonized and relics abounded. The road to Compostela provided stops where the great monasteries were built, housing the relics of the famous and the not-so-famous church personages. Romanesque churches were frequently built in “pilgrimage style” as opposed to the ancient model of “basilica style.” A pilgrimage church contained an ambulatory with radiating chapels. The ambulatory provided a path around the side of the nave and behind the apse where chapels would be dedicated to a particular saint and would contain the saint’s relics. The walkway kept the road-weary (and road dirty) pilgrim from entering the nave itself during worship.


One of the most interesting pilgrimage churches is found at Conques. The Church of St. Foy was one of the earliest and most frequented. In the year 866 CE, the Abbey Church at Conques needed a substantial relic. A monk was dispatched to the neighboring town of Agen to fulfill this need. It took the poor monk 10 years, but he finally managed to steal the relics of St. Foy from the monastery at Agen and return them to Conques. The bones of this 4th-century female martyr were encased in a gold statue of her believed likeness. Pilgrims flocked to venerate her and by the 11th century a much larger church was needed to accommodate the vast number of pilgrims enroute to Compostela who stopped by to pay their respects and gain an indulgence.


The Church of St. Sernin at Toulouse was originally a 4th-century basilica. After Charlemagne gave the church a quantity of relics, a “Pilgrimage style” church was built. St. Sernin was the first bishop of Toulouse around the year 250 CE. It became another popular stop on the Camino Real, leading to Compostela.


Pilgrimage churches amassed great wealth as pilgrims gave gifts in honor of the venerated saint and the relics reported to have miraculous healing powers. Often priceless jewels were donated for adorning the reliquary. As the churches gained wealth, ambitious building programs resulted in some of the magnificent cathedrals of France and Spain. And what was good for the church was equally good for the adjoining monastery. The Clunaic Order became a great patron of art and architecture. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 CE had declared that “every church altar should contain a relic.” This became the norm.


Even the churches of northern France, bereft of being on a pilgrimage route, achieved great fame through their relics. The French King Louis IX commissioned the building of Sainte Chappelle on the Ile de Cité, for the sole purpose of housing his “passion relics,” including the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross. The Crown of Thorns had been venerated in Jerusalem since the 5th century. In 1063, it was transferred to Constantinople. By the year 1238, Baldwin, King of Constantinople, was desperately seeking help to secure his kingdom. He offered King Louis the “Passion relics” in return for protection. By this time the relics had left Constantinople for Venice as security on a sizeable loan of 13,134 gold pieces. The loan was paid, Louis collected the relics from the Venetians, and housed them in Sainte Chappelle in 1248. During the French Revolution, the relics were secured in the Bibliotheque Nationale. By the Concordat of 1801, they were restored to the church and placed in the Cathedral of Notre Dame.


Everyone got rich off of relics. Everyone that is but the rightful owner, the poor saint who had been parceled out from Paris to Poitiers. Some are lucky enough to stay intact like those wonderful Italian saints who are labeled Incorruptibles. Lying peacefully in glass cases, they pass the time in much the same state that they did in life. My favorite is St. Clare of Assisi. Clare died in 1253 at the age of 59. Her body is kept in a glass case in the crypt of the Church of St. Clare, a large convent in the town of Assisi. St. Clare once did me a favor. My wife and I were on a study trip to Rome and made a side trip to Assisi. As we descended the crowded stairs to the crypt, someone slipped a hand and stole my wife’s wallet. After frantic calls to American Express, et al, I left my wife at the hotel and paid a visit to the Franciscan monastery. Finding an American monk, I related the unfortunate event, telling him that we were not interested in recovering the money, but that the wallet contained pictures of our children, prayer cards, etc. In some circumstances, an American Express card can be considered a holy card! In fact, I offered the money contained therein to the Franciscans if only the wallet could be recovered. We had been home about a week when, on Ash Wednesday of all days, a small unmarked envelope arrived from Italy. In it was the wallet and all of its contents. Except of course the money! But after all, I had given it to the Franciscans. The disappointing part of this story is that Clare is not an Incorruptible after all. They have determined that underneath the thin wax covering and clothing, only her skeleton remains. I am impressed however, that she has kept her skeleton intact since 1253!


Relics don’t have to be old. New saints are being canonized every year. You might want to make a pilgrimage to Lubbock in March. There you can see many objects that surely someday will also be relics. Then you can say, “I not only remember the relic, I remember the saint!”