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A Brief History of Ancient Relics


By M Hickes

THE RAGING inferno at Notre Dame unveiled, among other things, the valiant effort to rescue the Crown of Thorns, the supposed circlet which adorned Christ during the Passion and Crucifixion.

Numerous religious relics have been supposedly found over the centuries, purporting to be items or parts of the Messiah, or other saints.

A little like Monty Python’s Holy Hand grenade of Antioch, some might be spurious at best, but the collection is a startling array nonetheless.

Among such are the ‘Sandals of Jesus’, the One Nail, part of the supposed ‘True Cross’, and of course the Turin Shroud.

Tradition and legend attribute the discovery of the True Cross to Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great who went to Palestine during the fourth century in search of relics. Eusebius of Caesarea was the only contemporary author to write about Helena's journey in his Life of Constantine.

Pieces of the purported True Cross, including half of the INRI inscription tablet, are reportedly preserved at the basilica Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome.

Other small pieces are reportedly preserved in hundreds of other European churches. The authenticity of the relics and the accuracy of reports of finding the True Cross are not accepted by all Christians.

Similarly more than thirty examples of Holy Nails have been reported to be stored in churches across Europe.

Constantine was key in converting Rome to the Christian faith; Christianity for decades had been an underground movement under the Romans, it followers sometimes literally meeting in catacombs.

Adherents to the faith of Christ sometimes adorned their doors with the sign of the fish, a traditional Christian symbol.

The Turin Shroud for centuries was deemed to be a negative imprint of the face of Christ; however radio carbon dating in 1988 seemed to indicate it was actually dated from the Middle Ages. Detractors of the carbon test say the result may have been contaminated by material in the small sample from the Middle Ages giving a false result.

The Holy Grail, long the focus of many a romance and adventure story, is supposedly the cup which was used at the Last Supper; others have it that it was the chalice which caught Christ’s blood when on the cross.

A "grail", wondrous but not explicitly holy, first appears in Perceval, le Conte du Graal, an unfinished romance written by Chrétien de Troyes around 1190.

In the late 12th century, Robert de Boron wrote in Joseph d'Arimathie that the Grail was Jesus's vessel from the Last Supper, which Joseph of Arimathea used to catch Christ's blood at the crucifixion.

It was later interwoven into the Arthurian legend in the Morte D’Arthur tradition.

Two relics associated with the Grail survive today. The Sacro Catino is a green glass dish held at the Genoa Cathedral said to have been used at the Last Supper.

The Holy Chalice of Valencia is an agate dish with a mounting for use as a chalice. The bowl may date to Greco-Roman times, but its dating is unclear, and its provenance is unknown before 1399. By the 14th century an elaborate tradition had developed that this object was the Last Supper chalice.

In the modern era, a number of places have become associated with the Holy Grail. One of the most prominent is Glastonbury in Somerset, England. Glastonbury was associated with King Arthur and his resting place of Avalon by the 12th century.

Perhaps the most obscure reliquary is the Holy Prepuce, or the supposed foreskin of Jesus, a ‘true’ relic as absurd as it sounds.

The supposed sacred item was kept in a jewelled case for centuries.

Foreskin relics began appearing in Europe during the Middle Ages. The earliest recorded sighting came on December 25, 800, when Charlemagne gave it to Pope Leo III when the latter crowned the former Emperor. Charlemagne claimed that it had been brought to him by an angel while he prayed at the Holy Sepulchre.

At least one holy foreskin was kept in Calcata north of Italy after the Sack of Rome, but it was reported stolen in the 1980s.

Many holy prepuces were also lost or stolen during the French Revolution, a time during which traffic in relics became prevalent, a trend which continued at least until the time of the Nazis during their European rampage - but largely one of gold and art.

Numerous lakes throughout Europe are reportedly the last resting places of Nazi looted gold, or gold bars stamped with the swastika, forged in infernal mints from the time of the Third Reich.

The Holy Lance is the supposed spear – akso known as the Spear of Destiny – which pierced Jesus’s side.

The Gospel of John states that the Romans planned to break Jesus' legs, a practice known as crurifragium, which was a method of hastening death during a crucifixion.

Just before they did so, they realized that Jesus was already dead and that there was no reason to break his legs. To make sure that he was dead, a Roman soldier (named in extra-Biblical tradition as Longinus) stabbed him in the side.

The Holy Lance in Rome is preserved beneath the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica, although the Catholic Church makes no claim as to its authenticity.

The first historical reference to the lance was made by the pilgrim Antoninus of Piacenza (AD 570) in his descriptions of the holy places of Jerusalem, writing that he saw in the Basilica of Mount Zion "the crown of thorns with which Our Lord was crowned and the lance with which He was struck in the side".

In 615, Jerusalem and its relics were captured by the Persian forces.

The point of the lance was given in the same year to Nicetas, who took it to Constantinople and deposited it in the church of Hagia Sophia, and later to the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos.

It was later acquired by the Latin Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople, who later sold it to Louis IX of France. It was then enshrined with the crown of thorns in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. But during the French Revolution it mysteriously disappeared.

Some church devotees have long argued all relics associated with Jesus can only be false as the Messiah’s body was deemed to have corporeally risen, leaving no earthly traces.

Perhaps there is still a hope that the ‘Sandals of Jesus’ might thus have survived the millennia.

  • The Ark of the Covenant, the golden wooden box which is supposed to contain the remnants of the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments has special significance in Jewish and Ethiopian tradition. Although believed lost, it is claimed by some to be inside a small chapel at Axiom in Ethiopia; thought closely guarded and hidden from general view.

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