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§ 131. The Worship of Relics.


Literature: See Lit., p. 268 sq. Guibert of Nogent, d. 1124: de pignoribus sanctorum, Migne, vol. 156, 607–679.—Guntherus: Hist. Constantinopol., Migne, vol. 212.—Peter the Venerable: de miraculis, Migne, vol. 189.—Caesar of Heisterbach, Jacob of Voragine, Salimbene, etc.—P. Vignon: The Shroud of Christ, Engl. trans., N. Y., 1903.


The worship of relics was based by Thomas Aquinas upon the regard nature prompts us to pay to the bodies of our deceased friends and the things they held most sacred. The bodies of the saints are to be reverenced because they were in a special manner the temples of the Holy Ghost. The worship to be paid to them is the lowest form of worship, dulia. Hyperdulia, a higher form of worship, is to be rendered to the true cross on which Christ hung. In this case the worship is rendered not to the wood but to him who hung upon the cross. Latreia, the highest form of worship, belongs to God alone.20432043    Th. Aq., Summa, III. 25, 6, Migne, IV. 240 sq.; Bonavent., Peltier’s ed., IV. 206 sq., VIII. 196. Thornas accords a single brief chapter to relics and quotes Augustine but not Scripture in favor of their vvorship. image itself. It is rendered to the prototype, or that for which the image stands.20442044    Bonavent., III. 27, 2, Peltier’s ed., IV. 619.

In the earlier years of the Middle Ages, Italy was the most prolific source of relics. With the opening of the Crusades the eyes of the Church were turned to the East, and the search of relic-hunters was abundantly rewarded. With open-mouthed credulity the West received the holy objects which Crusaders allowed to be imposed upon them. The rich mine opened up at the sack of Constantinople has already been referred to. Theft was sanctified which recovered a fragment from a saint’s body or belongings. The monk, Gunther, does not hesitate to enumerate the articles which the abbot, Martin, and his accomplices stole from the reliquary in one of the churches of the Byzantine city. Salimbene20452045    Coulton’s ed., p 253.

The Holy Lance was disclosed at a critical moment in the siege of Antioch. The Holy Grail was found in Caesarea in 1101. The bones of the three kings, Caspar, Melchior, and Belthazar, reputed to have been the magi who presented their gifts at the manger, were removed from Milan to Cologne, where they still repose. In the same city of Cologne were found, in 1156, the remains of Ursula and the virgin martyrs, put to death by the Huns, the genuineness of the discovery being attested by a vision to Elizabeth of Schönau. Among the endless number of objects transmitted to Western Europe from the East were Noah’s beard, the horns of Moses, the stone on which Jacob slept at Bethel, the branch from which Absalom hung, our Lord’s foreskin, his navel cord, his coat, tears he shed at the grave of Lazarus, milk from Mary’s breasts, the table on which the Last Supper was eaten, the stone of Christ’s sepulchre, Paul’s stake in the flesh, a tooth belonging to St. Lawrence. Christ’s tooth, which the monks of St. Medard professed to have in their possession, was attacked by Guibert of Nogent on the ground that when Christ rose from the dead he was in possession of all the parts of his body. He also attacked the genuineness of the umbilical cord.20462046    De pignoribus. Migne, 156. 649 sqq..

The holy coat, the blood of Christ, and his cross have perhaps played the largest part in the literature of relics. Christ’s holy coat is claimed by Treves and Argenteuil as well as other localities. It was the seamless garment—tunica inconsutilis — woven by Mary, which grew as Christ grew was worn on the cross.20472047    Among the legends of its discovery is the following: Herod gave the coat to a Jew because the drops of blood would not come out. The Jew threw it into the sea. A whale swallowed it. Orendel, son of the king of Treves, on his way to Jerusalem caught the fish and rescued the garment. It is described as five feet one inch long, and of the color of a sponge. city. On the eve of the Reformation it was solemnly shown to Maximilian I. and assembled German princes. At different dates, vast bodies of pilgrims have gone to look at it; the largest number in 1891, when 1,925,130 people passed through the cathedral for this purpose. Many miracles were believed to have been performed.20482048    See Wetzer-Welte, Der hl. Rock, X. 1229 sqq.

The arrival of some of Christ’s blood in England, Oct. 13, 1247, was solemnized by royalty and furnishes one of the strange and picturesque religious scenes of English mediaeval history. The detailed description of Matthew Paris speaks of it as "a holy benefit from heaven."20492049    Luard’s ed., IV. 641-643. prelates of the Holy Land. After fasting and keeping watch the night before, the king, Henry III., accompanied by the priests of London in full canonicals and with tapers burning, carried the vase containing the holy liquid from St. Paul’s to Westminster, and made a circuit of the church, the palace, and the king’s own apartments. The king proceeded on foot, holding the sacred vessel above his head. The bishop of Norwich preached a sermon on the occasion and, at a later date, Robert Grosseteste preached another in which he defended the genuineness of the relic, giving a memorable exhibition of scholastic ingenuity.20502050    Luard, Vl. 138-144. See Stevenson’s Grosseteste, p. 263.

The true cross was found more than once and fragments of it were numerous, so numerous that the fiction had to be invented that the true cross had the singular property of multiplying itself indefinitely. A choice must be made between the stories. The first Crusaders beheld the cross in Jerusalem. Richard I., during the Third Crusade, was directed to a piece of it by an aged man, the abbot of St. Elie, who had buried it in the ground and refused to deliver it up to Saladin, even though that prince put him in bonds to force him to do so. Richard and the army kissed it with pious devotion.20512051    De Vinsauf, Chronicle of Richard’s Crusade, LIV. Constantinople were a piece of the true cross and a drop of the Lord’s blood. The true cross, however, was still entire, and in 1241 it reached Paris. It had originally been bought by the Venetians from the king of Jerusalem for £20,000 and was purchased from the Emperor Baldwin by Louis IX. The relic was received with great ceremony and carried into the French capital by the king, with feet and head bare, and accompanied by his mother, Blanche, the queen, the king’s brothers, and a great concourse of nobles and clergy.20522052    Luard’s M. Paris, IV. 90 sq.; De Voragine, VII. 210.e sponge offered to him on the cross, together with other relics.

The English chronicler’s enthusiasm for this event seems not to have been in the least dampened by the fact that the English abbey of Bromholm also possessed the true cross. It reached England in 1247, through a monk who had found it among the effects of the Emperor Baldwin, after he had fallen in battle. The monk appeared at the convent door with his two children, and carrying the sacred relic under his cloak. Heed was given to his story and he was taken in. Miracles at once began to be performed, even to the cleansing of lepers and the raising of the dead.20532053    Luard’s ed., III. 30 sq.

Some idea of the popular estimate of the value of relics may be had from the story which Caesar of Heisterbach relates of a certain Bernard who belonged to Caesar’s convent.20542054    Dial., VIII 67, Strange’s ed., II. 138.uming a proper mental state, the thumping stopped, but as soon as he renewed the unseemly thoughts the thumping began again. Bernard took the hint and finally desisted altogether. Caesar had the satisfaction of knowing that when Bernard had these experiences, he was not yet a monk.

The resentment of relics at being mistreated frequently came within the range of Caesar’s experience. One of St. Nicolas’ teeth, kept at Brauweiler, on one occasion jumped out of the glass box which contained it, to show the saint’s disgust at the irreverence of the people who were looking at it. Another case was of the relics of two virgins which had been hid in time of war and were left behind when other relics were restored to the reliquary. They were not willing to be neglected and struck so hard against the chest which held them that the noise was heard all through the convent, and continued to be heard till they were released.20552055    Dial., VIII. 68, 85.

An organized traffic in relics was carried on by unscrupulous venders who imposed them upon the credulity of the pious. The Fourth Lateran sought to put a stop to it by forbidding the veneration of novelties without the papal sanction. According to Guibert of Nogent,20562056    Migne, 156. 627. whom he wished to worship, did not thereby lose any benefit that might accrue from such worship. All the saints, he said, are one body in Christ (John 17:22), and in worshipping one reverence is done to the whole corporation.

The devil, on occasion, had a hand in attesting the genuineness of relics. By his courtesy a nail in the reliquiary of Cologne, of whose origin no one knew anything, was discovered to be nothing less than one of the nails of the cross.20572057    Hauck, IV. 74.ch kind services, no doubt, were rare. The court-preacher of Weimar, Irenaeus, 1566–1570, visiting Treves in company with the Duchess of Weimar, found one of the devil’s claws in one of the churches. The story ran, that at the erection of a new altar, the devil was more than usually enraged, and kicked so hard against the altar that he left a claw sticking in the wood.20582058    Treves, Cologne, and Aachen were distinguished by the number of their reliquiary possessions. Gelenius, a Cologne priest, in his de admiranda sacra et civili magnitudine Coloniae, 1645, enumerated a great number of relics to be found In Cologne, such as pieces of the true cross, the manger, some of the earth on which Mary stood when she received the angelic announcement, one of John the Baptist’s teeth, a piece of his garment, hairs from the head of Bartholomew, and remains of the children of Bethlehem. As recently as Nov. 30, 1898, the archbishop of Cologne announced that one of St. Andrew’s arms would be shown after having lain in repose for one hundred years. It was found in a chest with other relics which had been packed away during the French Revolution.

The attitude of the Protestant churches to relics was expressed by Luther in his Larger Catechism when he said, "es ist alles tot Ding das niemand heiligen kann." They are lifeless, dead things, that can make no man holy.



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