For centuries, some Christians have venerated the bodies and possessions of saints, but more often than not, there's no way to tell whether something is St. Peter's skull or a really old potato.
Relicary in Gourdon Church. Photo by Flickr user Barney Moss
In the Sicilian region of Italy, in the town of Palermo, on the mountain dubbed Pellegrino, nestled inside a cave, inside a church, inside a small shrine, lie the bones of Saint Rosalia.
Her story is rare in the annals of Catholic sainthood, as she wasn't martyred in a particularly grisly way. Instead, when she was a young teenager, Rosalia devoted herself to Christ and lived as a hermit in a cave until dying, of natural causes, in 1160. There, her bones lay for centuries, until a plague struck Palermo in 1624. Residents began having visions of "the Little Saint," and a hunter, looking for any kind of cure, went to her cave, dug up her bones, and paraded them through the streets. The plague miraculously ceased. That was good enough to get her sainthood, turn her former abode into a place of worship, and for Sicilians to get on their knees and pray to this particular set of bones.
Just one problem: The bones in Saint Rosalia's shrine belong to a goat.
This revelation came in 1825, from British geologist William Buckland, who, while on his honeymoon, made an examination of the relics and determined them to be "non-human." (Buckland also concluded during the trip that dark spots on another church's floor being presented as "drops of martyr's blood" were, in fact, drops of bat urine.) But rather than fixing the mistake and getting rid of the goat remnants, the church has the same bones on display today.
"In Sicily, they will fight you if you tell them the bones belong to a goat," said Paul Koudounaris. Koudounaris is an author and photographer specializing in macabre art. In 2013, he published Heavenly Bodies, which details the story of relics retrieved from Roman Catacombs in the 17th century. Relics are everywhere in Catholicism. The head of St. Catherine is on display in Siena, and vials of breast milk straight from the Virgin Mary's teat occasionally pop up. There are even rumors about the Holy Foreskin, a taut, wrinkly piece of the tiny Baby Jesus Himself.
"They had a warehouse in the Vatican, like that warehouse in Indiana Jones, and they had these relics all labeled. Here are three St. Valentines, here are four such-and-such, and they'd just send them off," said Koudounaris. "I've photographed at least six different [skeletons of] St. Valentines. It's one of the problems with the relic trade: There's not a lot of fidelity."
(I contacted various members of the Catholic Church for this piece, but none was willing to speak about the process by which relics were authenticated.)
So just what are these things? Why spend money on objects that may or may not be anything but goat bones? To answer that, you have to go back to the beginning of Catholic relic veneration.
The origins date back to the second century and a Syrian bishop named Polycarp. When the Romans asked him to stop practicing Christianity, naturally, he refused. Not the most diplomatic of folk, the Romans tied him to a log and set it on fire. "And this amazing thing happened," said Koudounaris. "The wind blew the flames around Polycarp's body. They twirled, but didn't actually touch." To Christian onlookers, this was a sign. The Romans, of course, didn't care for that, so they ran in with swords and cut him to pieces. But by then, evidence of God's power was established. After the execution, Christians gathered up the pieces of Polycarp, and relic veneration began.
By the fourth century, written guides pointing pilgrims towards the tombs of martyrs began appearing. Pilgrims used these precursors to Hollywood Star Maps to find a tomb, pray to the bones, and hopefully get some of that sweet, sweet protective power from God. This mentality continued to spread until it became intricately woven into the church fabric.
"It is Catholic doctrine that you cannot consecrate an altar in a church without the presence of a relic," said Koudounaris. "[Relics are] fundamental to Catholicism."
This is probably a good place to go through the "magical logistics" of relics. See, relics aren't necessarily always body parts. They come in three different flavors: First-class relics are body parts, second-class relics are pieces of clothing or things the saints touched while they were alive, and third-class relics are objects that other relics have touched. A relic has power no matter where it falls on this hierarchy, which is why you have so many lying around, and so many folks praying to them. And therein lies one of the big rubs.
"This is where Protestants had a problem," said Koudounaris.
According to Catholicism, relics don't have power. All power comes from the Man Upstairs Himself. You can partake of a kind of wizardly spell-summoning ritual by, say, standing in front of St. Peter's skull, holding a cup once held by St. Peter, and addressing the saint. And maybe by doing this, you'll prove to God you want to use St. Peter's life as an example for your own, and He'll be into that, and He'll kick down an assist. But that's not how relic veneration works in practice.
"People consider the relic itself as something of miraculous power," said Koudounaris. "They're not praying to God. They're saying, 'Toenail of St. Peter, heal me.'"
That's a big problem, seeing as it essentially turns Catholics into breakers of the very First Commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Through the right prism, you can see how a particularly jealous God could see folks worshipping bones—some of which are from goats!—and get all sorts of vengeful. In fact, a huge part of Martin Luther's Protestant schism was based on this theological flaw.
"Protestants were complaining about Catholics worshipping the bones of dogs and animals," said Koudounaris. "One church had something they thought was the brain of St. Peter. It turned out to be a calcified potato."
There have been attempts to legitimize the relic trade over the years. In Austria, there was once an edict that required "proper provenance" to be shown whenever one was sold ("provenance" meaning "paperwork"). But those documents could easily be falsified—and traditionally, relic venerators don't worry too much about such things.
"If you are of unshakable faith in the Catholic Church, it's not going to bother you," said Koudounaris. "If you want to take these things literally, it turns the whole thing into a joke."
One place where this mentality is evident is in the virtual marketplace where you can sell just about anything at all: eBay.
After a few weeks of clicking the extensive and seemingly inexhaustible supply of Catholic relics, I could not find a single listing that offered evidence of it being what the seller claimed it was. When I contacted sellers for proof, I was given stories of how they'd just happened upon them and didn't know much else. One seller found her treasure in an old jewelry box, uploaded a photo onto Google Images, and realized she had a relic. (Her starting price was $100.) One person works in the estate sale market and found theirs in the collection of a recently defrocked priest. ("He had been implicated in the usual bad behavior involving boys.")
A 54-year-old seller of a relic from St. Ephrem (starting price: $106) refused to provide me with any details. When I asked how he knew it was what he said it was, he mentioned that both of his parents were antique dealers, so "environment plus birthdays plus research equals 'know it is what it is.'"
It kind of didn't matter, frankly. The tiny fragment of whatever was embedded inside a gaudily beautiful reliquary—that is, a shrine that holds the relic itself—made of gold and silver. That was clearly more valuable than the bone fragment. (Understandably, the seller ended the correspondence with the hard sell: "Now place a bid on my item, it is way undervalued.") In fact, some online sellers offer nothing but empty reliquaries.
The eBay user angelandbread sells gothic-shrine styled-reliquaries for $145 a pop. The seller also uses relics in his or her regular prayer ritual. When I asked why, he or she answered with a comparison. "In a math examination, calculators are not necessary because you can just use your brain to calculate," wrote angelandbread. "However, since there is a time constraint during examinations, calculators help a lot."
Relics, then, are shortcuts. They're visual mantras to focus the Catholic mind, a link between this world and the next. More than that, it's the way the relics are housed, in Liberace-level opulence, where they get their value. "There's not too much aesthetic appeal in a bone fragment," said Koudounaris. But reliquaries are works of art that, ipso facto, prove God's power.
"There's so much appeal in being able to say, look at this thing covered in glory, covered in gold, covered in beauty," said Koudounaris. "This is a tangible bridge to God's power, and divine will, and divine magic. That's the real power of relics."
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