Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Veneration of Relics: Relics as a Form of Icon

Father Ray in his post A Day in Town  raised the question of the propriety of the displaying of relics in Museums. He wrote:

"I was much more excited by the Medieval Gallery but then it does seem odd to have objects of veneration; relics, crosses, statuary, vestment sterilised of their sacredness by being in a Museum ...but they do show relics as if the bones of the Saints of God are historical artifacts, would they do that if they were the remains of Australian Aborigines or Native Americans?"

Father Z in his post "Anscar Chupungco, wrong about relics"  raised a separate but related issue about the care and veneration of relics.

He wrote:

"Just because there were excesses or abuses in some period, that doesn’t mean that relics cannot be venerated properly ...

[T]he writer [sc. Anscar Chupungco] seems to ignore that people have venerated the bodies of dead heroes for a lot longer than Christianity has been around. People know in their bones that their bones are important, even when we are not at the moment actually using them.

The followers of John the Baptist obtained John’s body. The Lord’s Body, taken down from the Cross, was treated with tenderness. The earliest Christians treated the bodies of their dead, especially martyrs, with reverence. They built their altars over or close to the graves of their great holy brothers and sisters.

Relics inspired not only excesses or abuses – which I would remind the writer came from being sinful, the desire to cheat or deceive – but also deep and lasting piety that lead to emulation of the holiness of our forebears."

On 6th May 2009 Pope Benedict XVI delivered a talk on John Damascene, one of the great Doctors of the Universal Church.

Amongst the subjects which the Pope touched on was the veneration of relics.

Interestingly he linked the veneration of icons with the veneration of relics.

There is no scoffing or undermining of the veneration of icons. Why is there a different attitude towards the veneration of relics ?

First he considered the distinction between worship and veneration.

"John Damascene was also among the first to distinguish, in the cult, both public and private, of the Christians, between worship (latreia), and veneration (proskynesis): the first can only be offered to God, spiritual above all else, the second, on the other hand, can make use of an image to address the one whom the image represents.

Obviously the Saint can in no way be identified with the material of which the icon is composed. This distinction was immediately seen to be very important in finding an answer in Christian terms to those who considered universal and eternal the strict Old Testament prohibition against the use of cult images.

This was also a matter of great debate in the Islamic world, which accepts the Jewish tradition of the total exclusion of cult images. Christians, on the other hand, in this context, have discussed the problem and found a justification for the veneration of images."

The Pope quoted with approval the famous passage from John Damscene regarding images in his Argument against the Iconoclasts:

"John Damascene writes,

"In other ages God had not been represented in images, being incorporate and faceless. But since God has now been seen in the flesh, and lived among men, I represent that part of God which is visible. I do not venerate matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to live in matter and bring about my salvation through matter.

I will not cease therefore to venerate that matter through which my salvation was achieved. But I do not venerate it in absolute terms as God!

How could that which, from non-existence, has been given existence, be God?... But I also venerate and respect all the rest of matter which has brought me salvation, since it is full of energy and Holy graces.

Is not the wood of the Cross, three times blessed, matter?... And the ink, and the most Holy Book of the Gospels, are they not matter? The redeeming altar which dispenses the Bread of life, is it not matter?... And, before all else, are not the flesh and blood of Our Lord matter?

Either we must suppress the sacred nature of all these things, or we must concede to the tradition of the Church the veneration of the images of God and that of the friends of God who are sanctified by the name they bear, and for this reason are possessed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not, therefore, offend matter: it is not contemptible, because nothing that God has made is contemptible" (cf. Contra imaginum calumniatores, I, 16, ed. Kotter, pp. 89-90).

Next the Pope considered how because of the Incarnation, material elements can become vehicles of grace:

"We see that as a result of the Incarnation, matter is seen to have become divine, is seen as the habitation of God. It is a new vision of the world and of material reality. God became flesh and flesh became truly the habitation of God, whose glory shines in the human Face of Christ.

Thus the arguments of the Doctor of the East are still extremely relevant today, considering the very great dignity that matter has acquired through the Incarnation, capable of becoming, through faith, a sign and a sacrament, efficacious in the meeting of man with God.

John Damascene remains, therefore, a privileged witness of the cult of icons, which would come to be one of the most distinctive aspects of Eastern spirituality up to the present day.

It is, however, a form of cult which belongs simply to the Christian faith, to the faith in that God who became flesh and was made visible.

The teaching of Saint John Damascene thus finds its place in the tradition of the universal Church, whose sacramental doctrine foresees that material elements taken from nature can become vehicles of grace by virtue of the invocation (epiclesis) of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by the confession of the true faith."

The Pope then went on to consider John Damascene`s teaching on the proper veneration of the relics of saints. Saints are not simply corpses. Before death they were fortified by the Sacraments and on death their bodies were placed in the safe custody of the Church prior to burial.

But most importantly of all, the Saints have become partakers in the Resurrection of Christ. During their life they modelled themselves on Christ and became like Him. God reposed among them during their lifes. Their earthly remains bear the imprint of God`s holiness.

"John Damascene extends these fundamental ideas to the veneration of the relics of Saints, on the basis of the conviction that the Christian Saints, having become partakers of the Resurrection of Christ, cannot be considered simply "dead".

Numbering, for example, those whose relics or images are worthy of veneration, John states in his third discourse in defence of images:

"First of all (let us venerate) those among whom God reposed, he alone Holy, who reposes among the Saints (cf. Is 57: 15), such as the Mother of God and all the Saints. These are those who, as far as possible, have made themselves similar to God by their own will; and by God's presence in them, and his help, they are really called gods (cf. Ps 82[81]: 6), not by their nature, but by contingency, just as the red-hot iron is called fire, not by its nature, but by contingency and its participation in the fire. He says in fact : you shall be holy, because I am Holy (cf. Lv 19: 2)" (III, 33, col. 1352 a).

After a series of references of this kind, John Damascene was able serenely to deduce:

"God, who is good, and greater than any goodness, was not content with the contemplation of himself, but desired that there should be beings benefited by him, who might share in his goodness: therefore he created from nothing all things, visible and invisible, including man, a reality visible and invisible. And he created him envisaging him and creating him as a being capable of thought (ennoema ergon), enriched with the word (logo[i] sympleroumenon), and orientated towards the spirit (pneumati teleioumenon)" (II, 2, pg 94, col. 865a)."

Finally the Pope referred to the fact that the relics of the saints are a source of wonder at the Grace of God acting through and in the human beings who are now regarded as saints. From this sense of wonder arises contemplation in the Divine:

"[H]e adds: "We must allow ourselves to be filled with wonder (thaumazein) at all the works of Providence (tes pronoias erga), to accept and praise them all, overcoming any temptation to identify in them aspects which to many may seem unjust or iniquitous, (adika), and admitting instead that the project of God (pronoia) goes beyond man's capacity to know or to understand (agnoston kai akatalepton), while on the contrary only he may know our thoughts, our actions, and even our future" (ii, 29, pg 94, col. 964c).

Plato had in fact already said that all philosophy begins with wonder. Our faith, too, begins with wonder at the very fact of the Creation, and at the beauty of God who makes himself visible."

The misuse and abuse of relics in the medieval period seems to have led to a shame or hostility to relics in general even those as regards those relics which are quite clearly genuine.

When the relics of St Therese of Lisieux came to the United Kingdom, there were scoffing references to medieval superstition prior to the visit. However the fact that about 250,000 people turned up to venerate the relics surprised very many people and stunned the scoffers. It also raised the spirits of those who would perhaps like to see a return to the proper veneration of relics. There is a strong demand for such visual representations and sacramentals.

Perhaps it was also noteworthy that when Pope Benedict XVI attended the Ecumenical Service at Westminster Abbey in London, the centre piece of the visit was the praying by both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, both kneeling before the Tomb of St Edward the Confessor where his remains are in safe custody and have been venerated for centuries.

There does seem to be a movement away from a wholesale damning of the veneration of saints in the United Kingdom in recent years. The destruction of the great tombs and shrines of the saints in England and Wales at the time of the Reformation and beyond is now generally seen as one of the great barbarous acts of cultural vandalism. They are seen as acts which destroyed a great part of the cultural heritage of the nation.

The British Museum in London has a large collection of reliquaries and relics.

One of the most beautiful reliquaries is one dating back to about 1190 -1200 from Lower Saxony in Germany, It is a portable altar made of red stone probably a shelly limestone; mounted in gilt-copper, engraved with symbols of the Evangelists and figures of St Peter, St Andrew, St Stephen and St Lawrence, with two walrus ivory carvings of the Crucifixion and Virgin and Child; also two miniatures painted on vellum of St Godehard and St Bernard, both Bishops of Hildesheim, under rock crystal.

It is inscribed with name of donor and names of the numerous saints whose relics have been found in a cavity beneath the stone

The website of the British Museum has 117 images of the reliquary and the relics found therein. Follow this link here.

Here are some of the images of this precious find:

The relics were only discovered by the Museum after the altar was opened recently for the first time after one hundred years.

One of the most precious relics was a fragment of St Benedict of Nursia, the 6th century saint who is credited as the father of the Western monastic tradition.

The relic was wrapped in cloth that was itself an extraordinary object, a piece of silk from 8th or 9th century Byzantium. See below

As regards reliquaries (the containers of relics), no one has any problem about their exhibition. Indeed shortly the British Museum will be hosting next year an exhibition entitled "Treasures of Heaven"

The blurb for the Exhibition states:

"It was during the medieval period that the use of relics in devotional practice first developed and became a central part of Christian worship. For many, the relics of Christ and the saints – objects associated with them, such as body parts or possessions – continue to provide a bridge between heaven and earth today ...

Treasures such as these have not been seen in significant numbers in the UK since the Reformation, which saw the destruction of saints’ shrines. This exhibition offers the perfect opportunity to glimpse the heritage of beautiful medieval craftsmanship that was lost to this country for centuries."

There is certainly a re-appraisal going on about relics and their veneration. Is there now a grudging but growing respect being given towards veneration of relics ?

But there is one important issue which Father Ray raises: should the relics themselves be the subject of exhibition in a Museum ?

They are human body parts which apparently belonged to saints and were not meant to be gawped at by spectators seeking cultural entertainment.

Anyone who has been in The British Museum and seen the scrums around the Egyptian mummies exhibits can only be horrified at the thought of similar scenes around the relics of saints.

Of course there are relics and there are relics.

Some "relics" are obviously phony. The exhibition "Treasures of Heaven" has these: three thorns thought to be from the Crown of Thorns, fragments of the True Cross, the foot of St Blaise, the rib of St Peter, the breast milk of the Virgin Mary, and the hair of St John the Evangelist

But what about those relics which are genuine or where there is doubt as to whether they are genuine or not real. For instance those recovered from the German altar table made around 1200 mentioned above ? Especially that which appears to be that of St Benedict of Nursia ?

The United Kingdom has very strict laws and guidelines about the exhibition of human remains.


All museums must comply with the guidelines set out by the Department of Culture, Museum and Sportwhich includes the preservation and display of human remains including relics.

There are also provisions by which exhibits can be de-accessioned from collections if the request is made by a proper authority.

De`-accession by The British Museum of some relics has taken place in regard to the reliquary head of St Eustace below.

Head reliquary of St Eustace and wooden core
Silver-gilt repoussé head with gem-set filigree circlet binding straight hair; nine gems composed of varieties of quartz (rock crystal, chalcedony, amethyst, carnelian), two of aragonite (pearl, mother of pearl), one of obsidian and six of glass. Supported by fully carved wooden core also in shape of head, top of which forms lid of hollow compartment for relics.
Made in Germany c. 1200
Found/Acquired from Basel Cathedral
The British Museum, London

The existence of the inner wooden head was not discovered until 1956 when the silver case was being cleaned. The relic compartment was then opened, and a number of fragments of bone wrapped in cloth and identified by vellum `relic tituli' were found which had clearly not been disturbed hitherto. The relics were returned to Basle, but the vellum `tituli', cloth fragments and cotton wadding were retained by the Museum.

The question of relics is not a matter which only affects Catholics. The issue has been raised by the mistreatment of remains by Aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand, Native Americans in the United States and in Canada. The successful pressure by these sources has opened up issues which should concern Catholics. The literature on it is quite immense.


At the core of the princples which underlies the new approach are the following principles and ideas:

"All these human remains were once parts of living individuals. Museums have tended to objectify them, as this makes them easier to deal with, but many museum staff would now contend that society believes that human remains need special treatment.

All human remains should be kept in conditions that are dignified, respectful and accord with the highest ethical standards. The same standards of care are owed to the remains, regardless of their age, origin, or the circumstances of their arrival in the collection...

Genealogical or cultural descendants, members of faith groups and scientists all have legitimate concerns related to human remains collections.

Real distress is likely to be caused to some of these parties if they are not consulted over the curation, use or disposal of human remains. Any institution holding human remains has a duty to respect the wishes of the dead person, where these are known, and must use its best endeavors to consult openly and proactively with interested parties, seeking to explore all matters of shared concern.

Such matters include the identification of culturally appropriate ways of supporting and encouraging new consensual acquisitions of knowledge and of enhancing scientific access to collections in a manner compatible with the sensitive care and treatment of human remains."

In the United Kingdom therefore Roman Catholics should not be slow to complain to Museum authorities if they find an exhibit of saints` relics offensive, distressing, non dignified, or disrepectful.

They have the right to complain if a Museum does not adhere to the relevant legislation and the Codes of Practice and guidelines.

One does wish that the Roman Catholic hierarchy took a more interested approach to the subject. The Church of England does contribute greatly to all working parties dealing with these difficult subjects and one can only think that the Roman Catholic position is perhaps going by default.

Let us not forget the great tradition of the veneration of relics. It is not "another religion". It is a tradition firmly embedded in Catholic faith and worship. It should not be regarded as something shameful or embarassing. That is to accept the arguments of the Iconoclasts and the Protestant Iconoclasts in the Reformation such as Calvin.

It is not the practice of the simple and the superstitious. They should not be the exhibits of the anthropologist and the sociologist or for the titillation of public.

Properly understood and properly used, relics can be a means of bridging heaven and earth, a valuable means of contemplation and the attainment of grace.

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