Remedial Virtues Ascribed To Relics
Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
A relic has been defined as an object held in reverence or affection,
because connected with some sacred or beloved person deceased. And
specifically, in the Roman Catholic and Greek churches, a saint's body
or portions of it, or an object supposed to have been associated with
the life or body of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, or of some saint or
martyr, and regarded therefore as a personal memorial, worthy of
The worship of relics and the belief in their healing properties appear
to have originated in a very ancient custom which prevailed among the
early Christians, of assembling at the tombs of martyrs, for the purpose
of holding memorial services. The bones of saints also became objects of
great veneration, and this doctrine was supported by the teachings of
Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, and other Fathers of the
Church, of the fourth and fifth centuries. The belief in the marvellous
virtues attributed to sacred relics was sustained by such miracles as
that recorded in 2 Kings, xiii, 21: "And it came to pass, as they were
burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the
man into the sepulchre of Elisha; and when the man was let down, and
touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet."
Some authorities, however, ascribe the origin of the cult of relics to
the words contained in Acts, v, 15: "Insomuch that they brought forth
the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at
the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them."
In the year 325, Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, the
first Christian Emperor of Rome, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where
she was alleged to have discovered the wood of the true Cross. This,
according to tradition, was found, with two other crosses and various
sacred relics, under a temple of Venus, which stood near the Holy
Sepulchre. And the true Cross was identified by means of a miraculous
test; for when a sick woman was touched with two of the crosses, no
effect was apparent; but upon contact with the true Cross, she was
immediately restored to health. Such is the legend.
Of the four nails found in the place where the Cross was buried, one was
said to have been sent to Rome. Another the Empress Helena threw into
the Gulf of Venice, to allay a storm; while the other two were sent by
her to Constantine, who welded one of them to his helmet, as an amulet,
and affixed the other to his horse's headstall.
Among the classic peoples, symbols of their gods were used by physicians
in writing prescriptions for material remedies, as invocations or
charms, and were credited with the same wonderful healing powers which
were ascribed to holy relics, blessed medals and amulets, and in later
times to many purely superstitious remedies.
The worship of relics naturally afforded a strong impulse to visit
sacred places, and especially Palestine.
Generally speaking, the prized relic, a piece of the true
cross, whether possessed by a church, a crowned head or a
private individual, is a minute speck of wood, scarcely
visible to the naked eye, set sometimes on an ivory tablet,
and always inclosed in a costly reliquary. M. Rohault de
Fleury, who calculates that the total volume of the wood of
the original cross must have been somewhere about 178,000,000
cubic millimetres, has made a list of all the relics of which
he can find any record, and the sum of their measurements
amounts to only 3,941,975 cubic millimetres, or about one
forty-fifth of the amount of wood necessary to reconstruct the
original cross. In the United States there is not an
authenticated relic of the cross as large as half a
lead-pencil, and some are so minute as to be visible only
through the aid of a microscope. The Church of St. Francis
Xavier in New York has a fragment which is exposed for
veneration on Easter Sunday, as is the custom in European
churches possessing a relic. Another fragment, at the
Cathedral, is shown on Good Friday. This relic is in a crystal
and gold casket, set with precious stones, which form the
centre of a handsome altar cross. The French Church of St.
Jean Baptiste, in East Seventy-sixth Street, also possesses a
relic of the cross.
The powder obtained by scraping the tombstones of saints, when placed in
water or wine, was in great repute as a remedy. The French historian,
Gregory of Tours (544-595), was said to have habitually carried a box of
this powder, when travelling, which he freely dispensed to patients who
applied to him.
Great was his faith in this substance, as is apparent from his own
words: "Oh, indescribable mixture, incomparable elixir, antidote beyond
all praise! Celestial purgative (if I may be permitted to use the
expression), which throws into the shade every medical prescription;
which surpasses in fragrance every earthly aroma, and is more powerful
than all essences; which purges the body like the juice of scammony,
clears the lungs like hyssop, and the head like sneezewort; which not
only cures the ailing limbs, but also, and this is much more valuable,
washes off the stains from the conscience!"
Chrysostom (350-407) commented on the fact of the whole world's
streaming to the site of Christ's crucifixion. Rome was also a favorite
resort of pilgrims, chiefly as the site of the graves of the great
apostles, while many flocked to the tomb of Saint Martin of Tours.
Meanwhile, wrote Henry C. Sheldon in a "History of the Christian
Church," there were emphatic cautions against an overestimate of the
value of pilgrimages. The eminent Greek Father, Gregory of Nyssa
(332-398), said that change of place brings God no nearer.
The cult of relics developed rapidly in the Middle Ages. Even the theft
of these precious objects, we are told, was condoned, "in virtue of the
benevolent intent of the thief to benefit the region to which the
treasure was conveyed." The custom received encouragement from
many eminent scholars, who appear to have been deceived by certain
mysterious physical phenomena, the nature of which was not understood
even in comparatively recent times.
Pope Gregory the First (550-604), we are told, was wont to bestow, as a
mark of his special favor, presents of keys, in which had been worked up
some filings of Saint Peter's chains, accompanied with a prayer that
what had bound the apostle for martyrdom, might release the recipient
from his sins.
The second Nicene Council (A. D. 787) decreed that no church should be
consecrated unless it enshrined some relics.
At the celebrated Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, in southern Italy,
which was founded in the year 529, the care of the sick was enjoined as
a pious obligation. There diseases were treated chiefly by means of
prayers and conjurations, and by the exposition and application of
sacred relics, which appealed to the patients' imagination, and thereby,
through suggestion, assisted the healing forces of nature.
Thomas Dudley Fosbroke, in "British Monachism," states that among the
early monks of England, medical practice devolved on clerks, on account
of their ability to read Latin treatises on therapeutics.
Until the middle of the fifteenth century, physicians were forbidden to
marry, owing to the prevalent opinion that the father of a family could
not heal so well as a bachelor. The art of writing prescriptions was
made to conform to the dogmas of the existing religion, "for which
reason relics were introduced into the Materia Medica."
The medieval priests and monks, who were actively interested in the
development of medical science, encouraged the therapeutic use of such
relics. Miraculous agencies were the more eagerly sought after on
account of the popular belief in devils and witches as morbiferous
The reliquary, or repository for relics, was regarded as the most
precious ornament in the lady's chamber, the knight's armory, the king's
hall of state, and in the apartments of the pope or bishop.
Gradually the custom of relic-worship degenerated into idolatry. In the
year 1549 John Calvin published a tract on the subject, wherein he
stated that the great majority of alleged relics were spurious, and that
it could be shown by comparison that each Apostle had more than four
bodies, and that every Saint had two or three at least. The arm of Saint
Anthony, which had been worshipped at Geneva, when removed from its
case, proved to be part of a stag. Among the vast number of precious
relics, presumably false, which were exhibited at Rome and elsewhere,
were the manger in which Christ was laid at his birth, the pillar on
which he leaned, when disputing in the temple, and the waterpots in
which he turned water into wine at the marriage feast of Cana at