Relic

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Relic skull and reliquary of Saint Ivo of Kermartin (also St. Yves or St. Ives), (1253–1303) in Tréguier, Brittany, France

In religion, a relic is a part of the body of a saint or a venerated person, or else another type of ancient religious object, carefully preserved for purposes of veneration or as a touchable or tangible memorial. Relics are an important aspect of some forms of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Shamanism, and many other religions. The word relic comes from the Latin reliquiae, meaning "remains" or "something left behind" (the same root as relinquish). A reliquary is a shrine that houses one or more religious relics.

Contents

Relics in classical antiquity

In ancient Greece, a city or sanctuary might claim to possess, without necessarily displaying, the remains of a venerated hero as a part of hero cult. Other venerable objects associated with the hero were more likely to be on display in sanctuaries, such as spears, shields, or other weaponry; chariots, ships or figureheads; furniture such as chairs or tripods; and clothing. The sanctuary of the Leucippides at Sparta claimed to display the egg of Leda.[1]

Amphora depicting Greek hero cult in honor of Oedipus (Apulian red-figure, 380–370 BC)

In contrast to the relics of Christian saints, the bones were not regarded as holding a particular power derived from the hero, with some exceptions, such as the divine shoulder of Pelops held at Olympia. Miracles and healing were not regularly attributed to them;[2] rather, their presence was meant to serve a tutelary function, as the tomb of Oedipus was said to protect Athens.[3]

The bones of Orestes and Theseus were supposed to have been stolen or removed from their original resting place and reburied.[4] On the advice of the Delphic Oracle, the Spartans searched for the bones of Orestes and brought them home, without which they had been told they could not expect victory in their war against the neighboring Tegeans.[5] Plutarch says that the Athenians were likewise instructed by the oracle to locate and steal the relics of Theseus from the Dolopians:

Cimon … saw an eagle in a place where there was the semblance of a mound, pecking, as he says, and tearing up the ground with his talons. By some divine ordering he comprehended the meaning of this and dug there, and there was found a coffin of a man of extraordinary size, a bronze spear lying by its side, and a sword. When these relics were brought home on his trireme by Cimon, the Athenians were delighted, and received them with splendid processions and sacrifices, as though Theseus himself were returning to the city. And now he lies buried in the heart of the city, near the present gymnasium, and his tomb is a sanctuary and place of refuge for runaway slaves and all men of low estate who are afraid of men in power.[6]

The body of the legendary Eurystheus was also supposed to protect Athens from enemy attack,[7] and in Thebes, that of the prophet Amphiaraus, whose cult was oracular and healing.[8] Plutarch narrates transferrals similar to that of Theseus for the bodies of the historical Demetrius I of Macedon and Phocion the Good[9] which in many details anticipate Christian practice.[citation needed] The bones or ashes of Aesculapius at Epidaurus, and of Perdiccas I at Macedon, were treated with the deepest veneration.

As with the relics of Theseus, the bones are sometimes described in literary sources as gigantic, an indication of the hero's "larger than life" status. On the basis of their reported size, it has been conjectured that such bones were those of prehistoric creatures, the startling discovery of which may have prompted the sanctifying of the site.[10]

The head of the poet-prophet Orpheus was supposed to have been transported to Lesbos, where it was enshrined and visited as an oracle.[11] The 2nd-century geographer Pausanias reported that the bones of Orpheus were kept in a stone vase displayed on a pillar near Dion, his place of death and a major religious center. These too were regarded as having oracular power, which might be accessed through dreaming in a ritual of incubation. The accidental exposure of the bones brought a disaster upon the town of Libretha, whence the people of Dion had transferred the relics to their own keeping.[12]

According to the Chronicon Paschale, the bones of the Persian Zoroaster were venerated,[13] but the tradition of Zoroastrianism and its scriptures offer no support of this.[citation needed]

Buddhism

Buddha relics from Kanishka's stupa in Peshawar, Pakistan, now in Mandalay, Burma (Teresa Merrigan, 2005)

In Buddhism, relics of the Buddha and various sages are venerated. After the Buddha's death, his remains were divided into eight portions. Afterward, these relics were enshrined in stupas wherever Buddhism was spread, despite his instructions that relics were not to be collected or venerated.

Some relics believed to be original remains of the body of the Buddha still survive, including the much-revered Sacred Relic of the tooth of the Buddha in Sri Lanka.

A stupa is a building created specifically for the relics. Many Buddhist temples have stupas and historically, the placement of relics in a stupa often became the initial structure around which the whole temple would be based. Today, many stupas also hold the ashes or ringsel of prominent/respected Buddhists who were cremated. In rare cases the whole body is conserved, for example in the case of Dudjom Rinpoche, after his death his physical body was moved a year later from France and placed in a stupa in one of his main monasteries near Boudhanath, Nepal in 1988. Pilgrims may view his body through a glass window in the stupa.

The Buddha's relics are considered to show people that enlightenment is possible, to remind them that the Buddha was a real person, and to also promote good virtue.

Christianity

History

One of the earliest sources that purports to show the efficacy of relics is found in 2 Kings 13:20–21:

20 Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. 21 Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. (NIV)

These verses are cited to claim that the Holy Spirit's indwelling also affects the physical body, that God can do miracles through the bodies of His servants, or both[opinion]. Also cited is the veneration of Polycarp's relics recorded in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written 150–160 AD). With regard to relics that are objects, an often cited passage is Acts 19:11–12, which says that Paul's handkerchiefs were imbued by God with healing power.

In the early church the disturbance, let alone the division, of the remains of martyrs and other saints, was not practised. They were allowed to remain in their often unidentified resting places in cemeteries and the catacombs of Rome, always outside the walls of the city, but martyriums began to be built over the site of the burial, and it was considered beneficial to the soul to be buried close to the remains of saints, several large "funerary halls" being built over the sites of martyr's graves, including Old Saint Peter's Basilica; these were initially not regular churches, but "covered cemeteries" crammed with graves, and celebrating funerary and memorial services. The earliest recorded removal, or translation of saintly remains was that of Saint Babylas at Antioch in 354, but, partly perhaps because Constantinople lacked the many saintly graves of Rome, they soon became common in the Eastern Empire, though still prohibited in the West. The Eastern capital was therefore able to acquire the remains of Saints Timothy, Andrew and Luke, and the division of bodies also began, the 5th century theologian Theodoretus declaring that "Grace remains entire with every part". In the West a decree of Theodosius only allowed the moving of a whole sarcophagus with its contents, but the upheavals of the barbarian invasions relaxed the rules, as remains needed to be relocated to safer places.[14]

The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 decreed that every altar should contain a relic, making it clear that this was already the norm, as it remains to the present day in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Relic from the shrine of Saint Boniface of Dokkum in the hermit-church of Warfhuizen: bone fragment in middle is from Saint Boniface; little folded papers on the left and right contain bone fragments of Saint Benedict of Nursia and Bernard of Clairvaux

Many tales of miracles and other marvels were attributed to relics beginning in the early centuries of the church; many of these became especially popular during the Middle Ages. These tales are collected in books of hagiography such as the Golden Legend or the works of Caesar of Heisterbach. These miracle tales made relics much sought after during the Middle Ages. By the late Middle Ages the collecting of, and dealing in, relics had reached enormous proportions, and had spread from the church to royalty, and then to the nobility and merchant classes. In the absence of real ways of assessing authenticity, relic-collectors became prey to the unscrupulous, and some extremely high prices were paid.

There are also many relics attributed to Jesus, perhaps most famously the Shroud of Turin, said to be the burial shroud of Jesus Christ. Pieces of the True Cross were one of the most highly sought after such relics; many churches claimed to possess a piece of it, so many that John Calvin famously remarked that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to build a ship from,[15] although a study in 1870[16] found that put together the claimed relics weighed less than 1.7 kg.

When Thomas Becket was martyred in Canterbury, his successor and the Canterbury chapter very quickly and successfully used (one might say "marketed") his relics to promote the cult of the as yet un-canonized martyr. His body was retained at Canterbury, but relics including pieces of his clothes, or cloth soaked with his mopped-up and diluted blood, were distributed widely across Europe to churches and rulers. The motivations included the assertion of the Church's independence against rulers, a desire to have an English (indeed Norman English) saint of European reputation, and the desire to promote Canterbury as a destination for pilgrimage; the campaign was successful on all counts.

Virtus and daemones

St. Francis Xavier's humerus, St. Joseph's church, Macao

In his introduction to Gregory of Tours, Ernest Brehaut analyzed the Romano-Christian concepts that gave relics such a powerful draw. He distinguished Gregory's constant usage of sanctus and virtus, the first with its familiar meaning of "sacred" or "holy", and the second

… the mystic potency emanating from the person or thing that is sacred. These words have in themselves no ethical meaning and no humane implications whatever. They are the keywords of a religious technique and their content is wholly supernatural. In a practical way the second word [virtus] is the more important. It describes the uncanny, mysterious power emanating from the supernatural and affecting the natural. The manifestation of this power may be thought of as a contact between the natural and the supernatural in which the former, being an inferior reality, of course yielded. These points of contact and yielding are the miracles we continually hear of. The quality of sacredness and the mystic potency belong to spirits, in varying degrees to the faithful, and to inanimate objects. They are possessed by spirits, acquired by the faithful, and transmitted to objects.[17]

Opposed to this holy "virtue" was also a "false" mystic potency that emanated from inhabiting daemons who were conceived of as alien and hostile. Truly holy virtus would defeat it, but it could affect natural phenomena and effect its own kinds of miracles, deceitful and malignant ones. This "virtue" Gregory of Tours and other Christian writers associated with the devil, demons, soothsayers, magicians, pagans and pagan gods, and heretics. False virtus inhabited images of the pagan gods, represented today by sculpture preserved by archaeology and in museums. The zeal to destroy the false virtus embodied by these works of art accounts for some of the rage with which mobs of Christians toppled sculptures, and smashed classical reliefs (particularly the faces), as evidenced by the damage to many works of art on display in museums.

The transmissibility of this potency, this virtus, is still reflected in the Roman Catholic classifications of relics in degrees (see Roman Catholic classification and prohibitions below). By transmission, the virtus might be transmitted to the city (see Relics in classical antiquity above). When Saint Martin died November 8, 397, at a village halfway between Tours and Poitiers, the inhabitants of these cities were well ready to fight for his body, which the people of Tours managed to secure by stealth. The story of the purloining of St. Nicholas of Myra is another example. The Image of Edessa was reputed to render that city impregnable.

Relics and pilgrimage

Since the beginning of Christianity, individuals have seen relics as a way to come closer to the saints and thus form a closer bond with God. Since Christians during the Middle Ages often took pilgrimages to shrines of holy people, relics became a large business. The pilgrims saw the purchasing of a relic as a means, in a small way, to bring the shrine back with him or her on returning home, since during the Middle Ages the concept of physical proximity to the "holy" (tombs of saints or their personal objects) was considered extremely important. Instead of having to travel hundreds of miles to become near to a venerated saint, one could venerate the relics of the saint within one's own home.

Roman Catholic classification and prohibitions

Saint Jerome declared, "We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are."[18]

A reliquary in the church of San Pedro, Ayerbe, Spain

The sale of relics is strictly forbidden by the Church. The Code of Canon Law states:[20]

§1190 §1 – "It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics."
§1190 §2 – "Relics of great significance and other relics honored with great reverence by the people cannot be alienated validly in any manner or transferred permanently without the permission of the Apostolic See."

Eastern Orthodoxy

The veneration of relics continues to be of importance in the Eastern Orthodox Church. As a natural outgrowth of the concept in Orthodox theology of theosis, the physical bodies of the saints are considered to be transformed by divine grace — indeed, all Orthodox Christians are considered to be sanctified by living the mysical life of the Church, and especially by receiving the Sacred Mysteries (Sacraments). In the Orthodox service books, the remains of the departed faithful are referred to as "relics", and are treated with honour and respect. For this reason, the bodies of Orthodox Christians are not traditionally embalmed.

The veneration of the relics of the saints is of great importance in Orthodoxy, and very often churches will display the relics of saints prominently. In a number of monasteries, particularly those on the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos in Greece), all of the relics the monastery possesses are displayed and venerated each evening at Compline. As with the veneration of icons, the veneration (Greek; δουλια, dulia) of relics in the Orthodox Church is clearly distinguished from adoration (λατρεια, latria); i.e., that worship which is due to God alone. Thus Orthodox teaching warns the faithful against idolatry and at the same time remains true to scriptural teaching (vis. 2 Kings 13:20–21) as understood by Orthodox Sacred Tradition.

The examination of the relics is an important step in the glorification (canonization) of new saints. Sometimes, one of the signs of sanctification is the condition of the relics of the saint. Some saints will be incorrupt, meaning that their remains do not decay under conditions when they normally would (natural mummification is not the same as incorruption). Sometimes even when the flesh does decay the bones themselves will manifest signs of sanctity. They may be honey colored or give off a sweet aroma. Some relics will exude myrrh. The absence of such manifestations is not necessarily a sign that the person is not a Saint.

Relics play a major role in the consecration of a church. The consecrating bishop will place the relics on a diskos (paten) in a church near the church that is to be consecrated, they will then be taken in a cross procession to the new church, carried three times around the new structure and then placed in the Holy Table (altar) as part of the consecration service.

The relics of saints (traditionally, always those of a martyr) are also sewn into the antimension which is given to a priest by his bishop as a means of bestowing faculties upon him (i.e., granting him permission to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries). The antimens is kept on the High Place of the Holy Table (altar), and it is forbidden to celebrate the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist) without it.

While Orthodoxy does not make use of the strict classification system of the Roman Catholic Church, it too recognizes and venerates relics which may pertain to Jesus Christ or a saint, such as a relic of the True Cross, the Chains of Saint Peter (feast day, 16 January), the grapevine cross of Saint Nino of Georgia, etc. Places can also be considered holy. When one makes a pilgrimage to a shrine he may bring back something from the place, such as soil from the Holy Land or from the grave of a saint.

List of relics

Islam

Footprint of the prophet Muhammad, preserved in the türbe (funerary mausoleum) in Eyüp, Istanbul

In Istanbul

While various relics are preserved by different Muslim communities, the most important are those known as The Sacred Trusts, more than 600 pieces treasured in the Privy Chamber of the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul.

Muslims believe that these treasures include:

Most of the trusts can be seen in the museum, but the most important of them can only be seen during the month of Ramadan. The Qur'an has been recited next to these relics uninterruptedly since they were brought to the Topkapı Palace.

Sacred Cloak of the Prophet

A cloak (kherqa) believed to have belonged to the prophet Mohammed is kept in the central mosque in Kandahar, Afghanistan. According to local history, it was given to Ahmad Shah by Mured Beg, the Emir of Bokhara. The Sacred Cloak is kept locked away, taken out only at times of great crisis. In 1996 Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban took it out displayed it to a crowd of ulema (religious scholars), and was declared Amir-ul Momineen, "Commander of the Faithful". Prior to this, the last time it had been removed had been when the city was struck by a cholera epidemic in the 1930s."[21]

Marxism-Leninism

While Marxism–Leninism is usually described as an ideology rather than religion, many communist states placed importance on the preservation of the remains of their respective founders, and making them available for veneration by citizens. In both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China the mausolea of, respectively, Lenin and Mao Zedong were the focal points of the two nations' capitals. The communists did not rely on the natural incorruptibility of the remains, but used an elaborate embalming process to preserve the lifelike appearance of the bodies.

Minor communist nations would often seek the help of the USSR or PRC to preserve the remains of their own founders in a similar way to how it was done in Moscow or Beijing. See Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum (Bulgaria, 1949), Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (Vietnam, 1973), Kumsusan Memorial Palace (North Korea, 1994). The bodies of the founders of the socialist Czechoslovakia, Mongolia, and Angola were also at some point made available for display and veneration in similar mausolea.[22]

Cultural relics

Relic is also the term for something that has survived the passage of time, especially an object or custom whose original culture has disappeared, but also an object cherished for historical or memorial value (such as a keepsake or heirloom).

"Cultural relic" is a common translation for "Wenwu" (文物), a common Chinese word that usually means "antique" but can be extended to anything, including object and monument, that is of historical and cultural value.

See also

Relics of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified in the Catholicon of Mar Saba Monastery in the Kidron Valley

References

  1. ^ Gunnel Ekroth, "Heroes and Hero-Cult", in A Companion to Greek Religion (Blackwell, 2010), pp. 110–111.
  2. ^ Ekroth, "Heroes and Hero-Cult", pp. 110–111.
  3. ^ Ruth Fainlight and Robert J. Littman, The Theban Plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), p. xii.
  4. ^ Susan E. Alcock, "Tomb Cult and the Post-Classical Polis", American Journal of Archaeology 95 (1991), p. 447.
  5. ^ Herodotus, Histories 1.46, as cited by Fainlight and Littman, The Theban Plays, p. xii.
  6. ^ Plutarch, Theseus 36, Bill Thayer's edition of the Loeb Classical Library translation at LacusCurtius.
  7. ^ Euripides, Heracleides 1032–34; Aeschylus, Eumenides 763ff.
  8. ^ Herodotus, Histories 8.134 and Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 587–588, as cited by Fainlight and Littman, The Theban Plays, p. xii.
  9. ^ Plutarch, Demetrius 53 and Phocion 37–38, English translations at LacusCurtius.
  10. ^ Ekroth, "Heroes and Hero-Cult", pp. 110–111.
  11. ^ Philostratus, Heroicus 5.3 and Life of Apollonius 4.14; Joseph Falaky Nagy, "Hierarchy, Heroes, and Heads: Indo-European Structures in Greek Myth", in Approaches to Greek Myth (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pp. 210–212. Ancient Greek vase paintings also depict the head of Orpheus prophesying.
  12. ^ Pausanias 9.30.4–5, as cited and discussed by Nagy, pp. 212.
  13. ^ Dindorf, p. 67.
  14. ^ Eduard Syndicus; Early Christian Art; p. 73; Burns & Oates, London, 1962
  15. ^ Calvin, Traité Des Reliques
  16. ^ de Fleury, Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion
  17. ^ Medieval Sourcebook, Gregory of Tours (539–594), History of the Franks, Books I–X, Introduction by Earnest Brehaut (from his 1916 translation), pp. ix–xxv [Note: Many of Brehaut's opinions and prejudices would not be upheld by modern historians. Students should not rely on this Introduction as a guide]
  18. ^ Jerome, Ad Riparium, i, P.L., XXII, 907.
  19. ^ The Catholic Source Book A Comprehensive Collection of Information about the Catholic Church ISBN 015950630
  20. ^ The Code of Canon Law
  21. ^ Lamb, Christina (2002). The Sewing Circles of Herat. HarperCollins. First Perennial edition (2004), p. 38 and n. ISBN 0-06-050527-3.
  22. ^ A letter from China: the pickled dictator tour. 30 years after death, Mao's cured corpse beckons the curious

Bibliography

Relics in fiction

External links