The tradition of relics
by Dana Cronin; illustrations by Sarah Ross
I shoved my way onto a crowded moving walkway, craned my neck upward, and there she was: El Virgen de Guadalupe. Within 30 seconds, the moving walkway ended, and she was no longer in sight. I was in a crowded church in Mexico City, where I was surrounded by hundreds of admirers, to get a good look at the tapestry where, legend has it, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in 1531. For half a minute, visitors feasted their eyes upon her and then boom—she was gone. Not to mention the physical quality and state of the image: she was hardly visible on this 484-year-old piece of fabric. I couldn’t help but marvel at all the travelers who came from across the world to visit this faded, discolored, ripped up piece of cloth.
The plaza of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City currently houses two basilicas: the old and the new. The old basilica, a beautiful old-fashioned cathedral made of brick and covered in stained glass windows, is where the Virgin of Guadalupe originally appeared, but the cloth is now housed in the new basilica, an enormous, rounded, 21st century concrete building lacking the rich history contained within the old basilica. The new basilica was built to allow for the hundreds of thousands of visitors the relic receives each year. Hundreds of thousands. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. How can a simple piece of cloth attract so much attention?
As it turns out, relics hold immense meaning. So much meaning, in fact, that entire cities have been built for the sole purpose of housing them. The city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain wouldn’t be known by the tourists who flock to it if not for the remains of Saint James, which the city was built around. A relic is any object that has reportedly come into contact with the holy. It could be anything from an actual bone of a holy person to a tunic worn by a saint. According to Kyle Ingels, the Director of Campus Ministry for the Diocese of Colorado Springs, who ministers the mass services held in Shove Chapel, there are three classes of relics: first, second and third class. A first-class relic is an actual part of a saint (a bone fragment, hair, etc.). A second-class relic is something that belonged to a saint, such as a book or some piece of clothing. A third class relic is a small item that has physically touched some holy site, such as a tomb of a saint. From the devout Catholic perspective, contact with such a sacred object causes one to become sacred. In ancient times, relics served as a sort of mediation with God and were thought to have the power to bring about miracles. They carry great significance along pilgrimage sites, where pilgrims continue to stop at various churches along their journey in order to come into unmediated contact with the sacred.
But devotees don’t necessarily have to be pilgrims. People of all religions, communities and backgrounds come from far and wide to take in the experience of a relic, to bask in its holiness and to communicate with God. Ingels personally owns three first-class relics that belong to saints to whom he feels a particular connection.
“They really help me pray and feel closer to God,” he said. “It sounds kind of gruesome, but they are a reminder of [the Saint’s] holiness. Like having a picture of a deceased loved one.”
Although I don’t actively practice religion, I have been exposed to it my entire life. I have great respect for the faith that people carry with them throughout their day-to-day lives, faith that morphs itself into selflessness and unconditional belief.
That being said, relics are weird. A femur, skull or finger are all pretty standard bone relics. They are often displayed in some sort of statue or figurine of the saint to which the bone belongs. For example, Buddha’s tooth is on display in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Legend has it that his left canine was the only thing left after his cremation. Entire bodies are also on display in certain cases. Not too weird if you don’t think about it too hard.
But then I found out that Jesus’ umbilical cord is on display in the Basilica of St. John of Lateran in Rome, and thousands of people travel to Rome just to see it.
Also in Italy is the tongue of Saint Anthony, a black lump laid out in a golden encasement. St. Anthony was a well-known orator and when he was dug up 30 years after his death to be relocated to a new basilica, his tongue and chin were in curiously pristine condition.
A vial of Saint Gennaro’s blood is exhibited in Naples. Saint Gennaro was a martyr saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Now, Neapolitans gather every year to watch the liquefying of his blood, which occurs like clockwork every Sept. 19th. They believe the blood serves as protection of their city from harm (including protection from nearby Mount Vesuvius).
The Virgin Mary’s breast milk was another popular relic in the medieval ages. It was believed that vials of her breast milk were transported all over Europe during this time, to which the French theologian John Calvin responded, “Had the Virgin been a cow her whole life she could never have produced such a quantity.”
Maybe the most bizarre relic I found out about was the Holy Prepuce, or Jesus’ foreskin. This was obviously a byproduct of his circumcision, and various European churches throughout history have claimed to posses this holy relic. The holy foreskin is thought to have miraculous powers that favor whoever is in possession of it.
Entire buildings, cathedrals and even cities are erected solely to house these holy materials. Despite the scientific doubt that goes along with practically every relic, devotees keep their faith.
Speaking of scientific doubt, the question of authenticity casts a new layer of doubt over the concept of relics. For example, the bones of Saint Peter (the first Pope) were recently called into question by freelance journalist Eric J. Lyman. These nine bone fragments are of particular importance, as they laid the foundation for one of the most important churches in the Catholic religion: St. Peter’s Basilica. The bones were uncovered in the 1940s, almost 1,900 years after his death. Excavators discovered them in a fourth-century monument, which read Petros eni—“Peter is here.” The closest statement of authenticity that has come forth from the Vatican in regard to these nine bone fragments was in 1968, when Pope Paul VI said the remains were “identified in a way that we can consider convincing.” In a 2013 Huffington Post article, church historian Antonio Lombatti is quoted: “It’s very difficult for me to believe the bones are authentic… the truth is that from a factual perspective there is no way to know if something that old is real or not.”
Think about how easy it would be to come across an object and claim it’s a relic. There’s clearly a marketable value for these objects, as churches and cities spend tons of money to claim ownership, and visitors spend money just to see them. Consider the profit you could make with a simple claim of authenticity. On eBay, relics practically have their own category.
Maybe the argument of authenticity isn’t even relevant. In the same Huffington Post article, Peter Manseau, author of “Rag and Bones,” a book about the global devotion to holy relics, spoke about the authenticity of the bones of Saint Peter. He said that maybe it doesn’t matter whether they’re real or not. “I think that in the end, the authenticity may be beyond the point,” he said. “Their relevance doesn’t really depend on their being what they say they are. They are more important as symbols of faith rather than as some kind of forensic evidence.”
As aforementioned, eBay turns out to be a major market for relics. Typing “relics” into the search bar yields over 113,000 results, the most expensive costing $1.5 million (something called “ArtemisSmith:B TAULMAN ‘there are mice on the moon?’ and other Sacred Relics,” which I could not for the life of me figure out exactly what it is. It currently has zero bids). The huge presence of relics for sale online conveys their futility. It puts them on par with every other object that is sold on the auction site, including everything from dog food to Britney Spears’ hair. If they can be bought with the simple click of a button, what makes them so special?
The value of a relic lies in the values and beliefs of the people. It’s a means to mediate with God and helps many with prayer. Even if some object has no factual merit or lacks any kind of authenticity, a relic’s purpose is served as long as its miraculous appeal is carried through to its worshipper. I think it’s incredibly cool that anyone with an eBay account, and enough money to make the purchase, can purchase a product that might carry so much meaning. Who cares if Jesus’ foreskin is considered a holy relic, or if it even belongs to him at all? The absurdity is beside the point.