Many medieval Christians were obsessed with relics: physical objects associated with saints. Anything might be a relic — a ring, a comb, clothing fragments or sandals. But the most import relics were the physical remains of the saint, usually bones and hair. This belief is based on several stories from the Bible.
The idea that the divine power residing in a saint or holy person could be transferred to and through physical objects the saint had touched is found in a story in Acts 19:12 where “even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched (Paul’s) skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (ESV). (Remember Joseph Smith’s handkerchief healing people of cholera in early Nauvoo.) Jesus’ spiritual power (KJV “virtue”) was likewise transferred when he was physically touched by a woman (Luke 8:46).
A holy person’s physical body was believed to be permeated with the power of God, which would continue in the physical remains after death. This idea was based on a story from the Hebrew Bible: “as a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band (of Moabite brigands) was seen and the (corpse of the) man was thrown into the grave of Elisha, and as soon as the (dead) man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet” (2 Kings 13:21 ESV). Here a corpse is raised from the dead merely by touching Elisha’s bones.
Thus, since Elisha’s sacred power remained in his bones even after his death, medieval Christians believed saints could continue to heal and perform miracles through the latent holiness residing in their bones. Hence, possession of the corpse of a saint provided a conduit to real divine power.
The bones of Christian martyrs were often placed in a crypt under the altar of a medieval church, a practice based on Revelation 6:9. “When (the angel) opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those (martyrs) who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne (of Jesus)” (ESV). Thus, Peter’s bones, over which Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome is said to have been built, impart their holiness throughout the entire building.
Often the bone relics kept in a medieval Catholic church came from a local saint, like Saint Denis in Paris or Saint Brigid (Bridget) in Ireland. But the most powerful relics were those of men or women who had personally known Jesus and physically touched him, thus directly receiving God’s spiritual power. (The relic of the finger of “doubting” Thomas, which was thrust into Christ’s wounds, is an example.) The bones of apostles thus became, in some way, indirect relics of Jesus himself, who, having ascended into heaven, left no physical remains on Earth.
The more saintly the person, the more spiritual power resided in the relics. Thus, medieval churches entered into competition to discover and display the most holy relics they could find. Relics created miracles, and miracles attracted pilgrims, bringing blessings, wealth and prestige to a church and its province. We thus find the paradoxical situation of buying and stealing the bones of ancient men.
The Venetians, for example, stole the body of Mark the Evangelist from the Copts of Muslim-ruled Alexandria in 828, hiding it under salted pork to prevent discovery by Muslim port officials. Those bones now lie under the altar in Venice’s magnificent basilica of St. Mark.
Saint Andrew the apostle fared no better. When the Crusaders sacked Greek Orthodox Constantinople in 1204, his relics were stolen from the ruined city and taken to Amalfi, where they were buried in a magnificent cathedral. (Other fragments of Andrew are claimed by Scotland — hence St Andrew’s Cross on Scottish flags.)2 comments on this story
Matthew the apostle was said to have been martyred in Ethiopia. Through vague means his corpse eventually arrived in Italy, where in 954 it was moved for its “protection” to Salerno’s Cathedral of St Matthew.
Even bones of lesser saints might be stolen to transfer their sanctity to a new city. Bari, for example, openly celebrates the 47 sailors who stole the body of Saint Nicholas of Myra — Demre in modern Turkey. Since Nicholas was the patron saint of seafarers, it was hoped that his bones would bring divine blessing to the maritime city of Bari. This Saint Nicholas is reputedly the very distant progenitor of Santa Claus (Saint (Ni)Claus), from his Dutch name “Sinterklass.”
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.