According to my guidebooks, the basilica treasury holds the skull of John the Baptist, a leg of St George, the milk of the Virgin Mary, a thorn from Christ’s crown, some of his blood and three rocks which were used to stone St Stephen to death. In the small room that houses these relics, I’m unable to identify any of them as none are labelled. I think I can see a vial of blood and perhaps a femur but I can’t see anything that resembles a skull and you wouldn’t think that would be too hard to spot. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising as several other churches around the world lay claim to having John the Baptist’s skull, or at least a part of it. Rome, Damascus, Amiens, Mount Athos, Munich, and an island monastery in Bulgaria all supposedly have a piece of his cranium.
Catholic churches everywhere like to boast a holy relic or two as a means to draw in the pilgrims. Some even display a whole saintly body, like St Catherine in Siena and St Margherita in Cortona. Personally I find it a bit creepy and very unsaintly to display someone’s bones. It’s slightly better if they are concealed beneath a silver mask and some bejewelled clothes. Some of the reliquaries for displaying or containing pieces of bone can be quite beautiful but how many of these relics are actually the real deal.
For example, the body of St Mark was stolen from a monastery in Alexandria by two Venetian merchants in 828 AD. Some historians and fiction writers will have you believe that they mistakenly stole the body of Alexander the Great. Either way, following a fire in 976 the bones were mislaid (probably destroyed) until an arm suddenly broke out from a column in 1094 and the body was miraculously rediscovered. It’s now sealed beneath the main altar of the basilica and out of bounds to scientists who may disprove its heritage.
400 kms south of Venice, in the town of Loreto, it truly is a miracle that anyone really believes that the house of the Virgin Mary was transported from Nazareth to Loreto on the wings of angels. Even if it is the actual former home of the mother of Christ, it’s far more likely that it was stolen by crusaders and transported across the Mediterranean on a boat. Despite the logic, millions of pilgrims flock to the fortified sanctuary to see the house and the black Madonna within who has become the patron saint of aviators. Apparently, Charles Lindberg carried an image of her when he made his famous trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 and the crew of Apollo 9 took her image into space.
No photos are allowed within the chapel created from the Virgin’s house, but not far away I discover the small chapel of Santa Anna in Recanati which has its own replica, complete with a few pilfered bricks from the original and an identical black Madonna.
Belief in the power of these holy relics and miraculous events requires faith, perhaps even blind faith.