I should probably start by saying that I’m not a religious person but I do enjoy visiting churches while I am travelling, mostly for the amazing architecture and their ability to provide a bit of tranquillity in otherwise busy cities and towns.
The 1st November is All Saint’s Day and this got me thinking about the numerous saints which are worshipped around the world. So how many saints are there? Some websites suggest there are up to 10,000 saints but Wikipedia says that the official number of Roman Catholic saints is 810. The first saints were the apostles and 78 popes have been canonized.
During my travels I have come across many saints who are laid to rest in churches and basilicas where people can come to worship them and pray for miracles. Last year I visited St James in Santiago de Compostela and St Therese in Lisieux. More recently I have paid my respects to St Ubaldo in Gubbio, St Margherita in Cortona and St Catherine of Siena whose head lies in a chapel of the church of San Domenico. I didn’t pay to see St Mark in Venice, but then it’s probably not St Mark anyway.
It has always seemed a bit creepy to have the corpses of saints on display in the churches. However, these are the lucky ones for many saints’ body parts have been packaged as medieval souvenirs and are now scattered all over the world. In Venice, they claim to have the skull of John the Baptist, though San Marco is not the only cathedral to lay claim to this particular relic. Rome, Damascus, Amiens, Mount Athos, Munich, and an island monastery in Bulgaria all claim to have a piece of his cranium.
Several years ago, I visited Naples, where I saw the blood of St Gennaro. Three times a year the vial of blood is revealed in a ceremony where it liquefies. However, on the few times when it has not liquefied, it is claimed to have been the portent of disasters. For example in 1527 when a plague occurred, in 1944 when Vesuvius erupted and in 1980 when there was an earthquake. Even the Naples football team are said to have lost a crucial cup final match due the non-liquefying of St Gennaro’s blood!
It’s not just their bones and blood which are sought after. Any item which may have touched their body is also displayed and venerated, such as the robe and pillow of St Francis found in the church of San Francesco in Cortona.
The most venerated relics are those related to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The debate of the authenticity of the Turin Shroud still goes on after carbon dating revealed that it is likely to be medieval in origin. But there are other pieces of cloth with the image of Jesus claiming equal rights such as the Mandylion of Edessa, a towel on which Jesus dried his face and which remains an important relic in the Vatican’s collection.
The breast milk of the Virgin Mary was also an extremely popular relic of the middle ages, with many vials being taken to Europe. The French theologian John Calvin said, “Had the virgin been a cow her whole life she could never have produced such a quantity.”
One of the most bizarre relics is the foreskin of Jesus which Charlemagne presented to Pope Leo II in 800. At one time there were numerous foreskins in circulation but the last known claimant was stolen in 1983 in Calcutta.
There are 30 nails of the cross in churches around the world, while historical records tells us that there were only 3 or 4 nails used to crucify Jesus, so clearly a lot of them are fake. And, there are just as many thorns to be found, like the one in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The Crown itself is said to reside in Notre Dame, Paris, after being brought to France by King Louis IX (also a saint) in 1239 after the Byzantium Emperor Baldwin II pawned it to overcome a financial crisis.
The most common relic that you may come across while visiting European churches is a piece of the True Cross. John Calvin declared that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to build a ship from, although in 1870 research by Charles Rohault de Fleury suggested that the total content of the claimed True Cross relics would only make up a third of the probable mass of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. I’ve recently come across True Cross relics in Venice and Cortona but one of the largest pieces can be found in Vienna.
However, the one thing that remains constant and real is people’s faith that these relics have some miraculous effect and faith can be a powerful thing.