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Daniel J. Bornt
Parkland College 2005 Spring Semester

HIS 101-940 Project Essay

14 February 2005


Professor Marsh Wilkinson Jones






The Historical Development of Christian Sacred Relics Leading to the Medieval Cathedral’s Role as a Reliquary













As a representation of the glories of heaven to the faithful worshipper and persevering pilgrim, the soaring cathedrals of the High Middle Ages were virtually the lone shining beacons casting hope across a  recrudescent age emerging from chaos and enervation due to the barbaric invasion, feudalism and pestilence that had characterized the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire. As sacred places of worship and ritual they reflected the pride of the medieval communities that financed and labored toward their completion during decades-long toil of birth and death, famine and plenty, and strife and peace, until the final finial was placed atop the last belfry. In their service to Church and parishioner many of these cathedrals fulfilled dual roles; primarily as the nexus on earth for point of contact between man and God, and secondarily as a repository for sacred relics[1] – earthly remains of martyrs and saints of the Christian faith, and various objects associated with them.

In this respect, behind the obvious spiritual impetus for raising a cathedral, in many cases stood an ulterior motive of the profane world that the cathedral was deemed to eschew: The relics were the attraction for pilgrimages to the cathedral, pilgrims that would bring cash to the church’s treasury as a steady income to provide for the priests in charge, dispensation for the poor, and the community’s tithe to the Church at Rome.[2] The cathedrals with their repositories of relics were in effect the “tourist attractions” of the 11th through the 13th centuries. Pilgrimages to enter through the sculptured portals and enjoin the presence of the hallowed remains of a patron saint, were embarked upon to claim a portion of that particular saint’s aura emanating from his or hers shared “martyrdom” with Christ.

Mark Twain, in his grand tour abroad in the 1880s, visited many of the cathedrals and basilicas in Italy and France. Even at that time, the attraction of relics as focal points of the churches was a calling card for visitors and tourists. His sardonic comments on the profusion of identical relics purported to be of the same saint, yet existing in several places at once, illustrate the intensity of the medieval drive to acquire relics while at the same time accentuating the difficulty and the impossibility of verifying their authenticity. As an example of the kinds of relics that one could expect to view at that time, Twain relates that at the Cathedral of Milan, “The priests showed us two of St. Paul’s fingers, and one of St. Peter’s; a bone of Judas Iscariot (it was black), and also bones of all the other disciples; a handkerchief in which the saviour had left the impression of his face. Among the most precious of the relics were, a stone from the Holy Sepulchre, part of the crown of thorns (they have a whole one at Notre Dame), a fragment of the purple robe worn by the Saviour, a nail from the cross, and a picture of the Virgin and Child painted by the veritable hand of St. Luke. This is the second of St. Luke’s Virgins we have seen. Once a year all these holy relics are carried in procession through the streets of Milan.” (101).

But as Kenneth Clark cautions, it would be a mistake to actually compare medieval pilgrimages to modern tourism. (41). Grand Tours (like Twain’s) of the Continent in the 19th century or a contemporary family trip to Disney World in the 20th are not really analogous to these rigorous, sometimes multi-year journeys of penitence and mystical religious purpose (even though, in many respects, we could also view a theme park adventure as a ritual pilgrimage to engage mystical experience). According to Clark, “The medieval pilgrim really believed that by contemplating a reliquary containing the head or even the fingers of a saint he would persuade that particular saint to intercede on his behalf with God.” (41).

It becomes obvious, then, that the veneration of bodies of martyred adherents of the Christian faith was more than just the traditional respect accorded to the deceased as a cultural practice with its roots in the late Paleolithic era, and even more than the elaborate ritualized preparation of the Egyptian kings for their journey into the afterlife. Miraculous powers accorded to relics have their theological basis in the biblical New Testament accounts of healings accorded to early disciples, either through direct contact with the disciple or with a material object that the disciple had touched. [3] (Bible).

 As Christianity spread, and resistance to its influence increased throughout the old Roman Empire with a systemized persecution directed at the various Christian communities, the sacrifice of Christian martyrs who gave their lives for the faith assumed a mythic significance for the faith’s adherents. Edward Syndicus writes that “St. John Chrysostom explains the reason for this, a reason that was still in the forefront of men’s minds in the Middle Ages: the bodies of the saints, who lived in Christ and were dead to the world, were members of Christ and temples of the Holy Ghost. For this reason they are rightly put in the altar on which Christ appears and venerated with him.” (73).

In the years following the crucifixion of Christ the aristocratic elite of the Roman Empire viewed the new ecstatic mystery cult of Christianity as a challenge to the well-being and continuity of the Roman state. The Christians’ refusal to acknowledge the divine status of the Emperor in his relationship to the Roman pantheon or the primacy of the Roman gods over the Christian God, was to the Romans an “atheistic” rejection of their particular politico-theocratic structure – a meaningful and significant accommodation between gods and men – upon which the success of the empire was believed to be built. Misunderstood both in both their worldview and their rituals, Christians soon assumed the status of a subversive minority, whose perceived malignancy was one to be excised from the empire. In an age where respect for human dignity was hardly even present, Christians were marginalized as nothing more than scornful and despicable fodder fit only to satisfy the blood-lust of the masses at public spectacles and in the arenas. This attitude can be seen in the Roman historian Tacitus’s descriptions of Christians as “a class hated for its abominations,” while Pliny the Younger in a report to the emperor Trajan found Christian beliefs “a depraved and extravagant superstition.” (De La Croix 254).

Christians who died for their faith through a myriad of unpleasant applications from the most degenerate designs of human ingenuity were thus reckoned by their fellows to have achieved the ultimate transcendence of the Christian experience – a suffering akin to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Those specific places where they endured their personal tribulations and met their demise were sacralized. After three centuries of prodigious growth while remaining outside the legal sanction of the empire, the empire finally recognized the unbudgeable entrenchment of Christianity. When the emperor Constantine himself abandoned the pagan gods of Rome and converted to this long-despised religion, his subsequent Edict of Milan in 313 CE[4] officially ended the antagonism toward the Christian doctrine. Now the reverence for the bodily remains of the martyrs from the periods of persecution could be openly acknowledged, and those remains took on a cult status that progressed in form and function for the next eight hundred years or so into the Middle Ages.

At first, because of the Church’s ban on removal of bones, veneration of the martyrs centered on the sites of the martyrs’ demise, resulting in pilgrimages to these locations gaining momentum in the fourth century. The “martyrium,” as a shrine for the memorialization of these heroes of faith, found its origins in the small, vaulted and centralized heroa, pagan memorials to the cult of heroes. Co-opted for Christian usage, they served as the models for the martyria built especially for that purpose over the sites where martyrs had given their lives. But in 354, when the remains of St. Babylas at Antioch became the first relics subject to removal, the way was opened for the removal of Sts. Timothy, Andrew, and Luke to Byzantium in the last quarter of the fourth century. (Syndicus 72-73). This not only established a precedent for similar removals, but also the basis for the actual dismemberment of remains for distribution to churches who were anxious to claim a portion of the relics for their own edification.

With the dwindling number of authentic martyrs limited to those whose lives had been sacrificed for the faith, “witnesses,” or those who had led noteworthy or exemplary lives, were then also accorded the same elevated status as the martyrs. The popularity of some of these martyrs and witnesses outgrew the limited space endemic to the small-scale martyia, resulting in the construction of larger church basilicas[5]  over the sites, adjacent to the sites, and vice versa. As a result, the basilica, as the structure of worship, and the martyrium, as the structure of veneration, were linked both physically and psychically. Expanded access to the crypt enabled the pilgrim to come in close contact with the body of the martyr or saint, and enlargement of the crypt allowed others to be buried adjacent to the saint. (Syndicus 74). Thus begins the process of integrating the relic within the space of the church as a part of the church’s program.

After the collapse of the Empire, Christianity slowly spread into the areas of Western Europe loosely controlled by the shifting populations of “barbarian” invasions such as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Lombards, the Franks, and others. The popularity of relics only accelerated, when after 787 all new Christian churches were required to possess a relic for consecration. (Virtual School online). Trade in relics – and the demand for them, along with the impossibility at that time of authenticating relics – led to the situation as described by Twain.[6]

The economic importance of relics came to the forefront with the beginnings of the great pilgrimages in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Pilgrimages to martyria, as has been noted, had been a part of the Christian experience since the fourth century, but in the tenth and eleventh century pilgrimages gained momentum as a means of penance and a path to salvation, purification for the sinner resulting from being in the presence of the holy relics. “See these relics –get into heaven quicker – but there is a fee.”  (Discovery).

For many to whom the most esteemed and holy pilgrimages like the ones to Rome or Jerusalem were out of reach, the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in the corner of northwest Spain (the reputed burial site of St. James the Apostle), was a popular alternative. The pilgrim routes to Compostela from the interior of France were lined with  churches of lesser shrines and the relics therein, their construction seen as a deliberate exploitation of pilgrims by the Church for revenue. (Raeburn 98-99). (Eventually this profane motive for the display of relics would be seen as a corruption of the faith and would play a part in the Reformation). (Discovery).

In the nacent years of Christianity following the death of Christ, early relics known as brandea, objects which had acquired “holiness” through contact with holy people or places, were carried in small, specially-constructed containers – reliquaries – that were worn around the neck as sort of an amulet. Contemporaneous with the pilgrimage movement around the 10th century, relics at shrines also began to be placed in reliquaries – although the reliquaries at this time were statues and chests upon which the most skillful, elaborate and costly effort befitting their sacred status defined their construction. By 1215, in order to minimize theft, the Church mandated that all relics should be stored in such containers, and forty years later in 1255 ordered that relics should never be removed from those reliquaries in which they had been placed. (Virtual).

Reliquaries as repositories of sacred objects include a variety of shapes, sometimes emblematic of the type of bodily relic they contain. The foot reliquary of St. James, at Namur, France, (Virtual) or the arm reliquary of the Metropolitan’s Cloisters Collection (ca. 1230) (Metropolitan) would fall into this category; others might be representative of minature chapels, houses, or caskets. Gold, silver, jewels, and enamel metalwork of exquisite craftsmanship were typical of the embellishment lavished upon the containers.[7]

Still, within the overall function of the cathedral, the relic’s role, although extremely important for the cathedral’s prestige and rituals, could hardly be considered anything more than ancillary: cathedrals as sacred places served many interests which often converged together in a simultaneous operation. Community center, religious center, attraction for pilgrimages, and projection of community affluence, piety, and pride, the cathedral was much more than just a focal point of worship (McKay 342). As the importance and cult status of relics grew, however, it was inevitable that a cathedral itself would be seen as the embodiment of a reliquary.  The principal manifestation of this trend appears in the cathedral of Sainte-Chappell in Paris, constructed in the 1240s during the High Middle Ages: here the synthesis of reliquary and cathedral has finally occurred.

Built to house the relics of the true cross, this two-story chapel has indeed become the inverse of the reliquary, and contemporaries of the time saw it as such. With France under Louis IX as “the center of European cultural life,” the movement in objectifying the church in this fashion had widespread influence. Like the cathedral at Cologne rebuilt in 1248 for the relics of the Three Kings, this resulting distinct “Rayonette” style – as exemplified by Sainte-Chappell’s brilliant dissolution of walls into radiating patterns of stained glass – came to symbolize the church as reliquary, (Raeburn 114-116) the culmination of the reliquary’s transformation from an neck-worn amulet into an entire church.




(Word count total: 2294; quoted word count: 246; word count excluding quotes: 2048)













Works Consulted:

(Note: all websites accessed March - April 2005)


Adams, Laurie Schneider. A History of Western Art. 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.

Bloch, Marc. Feudal Society. Volume 2 – Social Classes and Political Organization. Trans. Manyon, L. A. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Phoenix Books, 1966.

Cantor, Norman F. Western Civilization: Its Genesis and Destiny. Vol. II 1300 – 1815. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1970.

The Cathedrals of the British Isles. New York: Excalibur, 1978.

Clark, Kenneth. Civilisation. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

De La Croix, Horst; Tansey, Richard G.; and Kirkpatrick, Diane. Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 9th ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich,1987. 254.

Discovery Channel. “Spear of Jesus” documentary on relics. Broadcast 26 March 2005.

Ferguson, Wallace K. and Bruun, Geoffrey. Ancient Times to 1520: A Survey of


European Civilization. 4th Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.


Fordham University. Internet Medieval Sourcebook: Saints’ Lives.



Holy Bible, KJV, Acts 5:15, 19:12.

Holy Cross University. Pilgrimage.



Macaulay, David. Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1973.

McKay, John P.; Hill, Bennett D.; and Buckler, John. A History of Western Society, Volume A: From Antiquity to the Reformation. 3rd Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Relics.


Parks, Henry Bamford. Gods and Men: The Origins of Western Culture. New York:
            Knopf, 1959.

Parry, Stan. Great Gothic Cathedrals of France. Putnam, NY: Penguin, 2001.


Raeburn, Michael, ed. Architecture of the Western World. New York: Rizzoli, 1982.

Syndicus, Edward. Early Christian Art. Trans. J.R. Foster, Vol. 121, Section XII

“Catholicism and the Arts,” Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, New

 York: Hawthorne Books, 1962.

Twain, Mark (Clemens, Samuel). “The Innocents Abroad.” The Unabridged Mark Twain.

Ed. Teacher, Lawrence. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, 1976.

Virtual School History Department. European Medieval Pilgrimage Project -  Relics









[1] “Reliquaries are the containers that store and display relics. Since the relics themselves were considered ‘more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold,’ they were enshrined in vessels, or reliquaries, crafted of or covered by gold, silver, ivory, gems, and enamel. These precious objects were a major form of artistic production across Europe and Byzantium throughout the Middle Ages. (Metropolitan).


[2] “Papal Revenue. By the thirteenth century the popes had so far succeeded in the centralization of authority that they were able to draw a large income from the clergy of all parts of Roman Cristendom.” (Ferguson 244).

[3] “Christian belief in the power of relics, the physical remains of a holy site or holy person, or objects with which they had contact, is as old as the faith itself and developed alongside it. Relics were more than mementos. The New Testament refers to the healing power of objects that were touched by Christ or his apostles. The body of the saint provided a spiritual link between life and death, between man and God: "Because of the grace remaining in the martyr, they were an inestimable treasure for the holy congregation of the faithful." Fueled by the Christian belief in the afterlife and resurrection, in the power of the soul, and in the role of saints as advocates for humankind in heaven, the veneration of relics in the Middle Ages came to rival the sacraments in the daily life of the medieval church.. The most common relics are associated with the apostles and those local saints who worked miracles across Europe. All relics bestowed honor and privileges upon the possessor, and monasteries and cathedrals sought to hold the most prestigious. Some relics were even stolen from one church, only to find a new home in another.” (Ibid.).

[4] “By the Edict of Milan in 313, Christianity was granted full toleration and the traditional association of the state with pagan gods came to an end.” (Parkes 432).


[5] The basilica: “…symbol of Roman officialdom, the aisled basilica. These large halls with apses and wooden roofs were usually built in a cemetery outside the walls; they were built all round the Mediterranean shores and north of the Alps at Trier and they survive in several places.” (Raeburn 82).


[6] “…in the 11th century, there were at least three heads of John the Baptist in circulation and this was true of a number of equally ‘unique’ relics…” (Virtual).


[7] Reliquaries could take the form of caskets (chasses) (Chasse of Champagnat, 17.190.685) or even more complex containers in the form of parts of the body, usually mimicking the relic it enshrined (Reliquary Arm, 47.101.33). Reliquaries were often covered with narrative scenes from the life of the saint whose remains were held within (Reliquary Casket with Scenes from the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket, 17.190.520; Plaque from a Reliquary of Saint Aemilian, 1987.89). Reliquaries were also fashioned into full-body statues. Set on an altar and carried in procession, these highly decorated works of art made an indelible impression on the faithful. The distinction between the meaning of an image such as the Reliquary Statue of Sainte-Foy at Conques and pagan idols was clearly articulated by Bernard of Angers in the eleventh century: ‘It is not an impure idol that receives the worship of an oracle or of sacrifice, it is a pious memorial, before which the faithful heart feels more easily and more strongly touched by solemnity, and implores more fervently the powerful intercession of the saint for its sins.’” (Metropolitan).