Friday, April 20, 2012

Weird Relics - Monasteries Part 2


"The Universal Man" by Hildegard of Bingen - 1165 AD
I was busily researching a post I'm considering writing about Saint Hildegard of Bingen...her writings, visions, music, and manuscript illuminations...



Mandala of the World by Hildegard of Bingen

...when I came across a picture of this:



Saint Valentine's Skull

Relics were often bits and pieces of men and women elevated to saint-hood; bone, teeth, and earthly possessions that were rumored to have belonged to the deceased.   Sidetracked and surfing, I began to wonder what other types of  interesting or “strange” medieval relics might be out there:



The Right Eye of Edward Oldcorne:


From the wiki:  "Blessed Edward Oldcorne or Oldcorn alias Hall (b. 1561; executed 7 April 1606 at Red Hill, Worcester) was an English Jesuit priest. He was known to people who knew of the Gunpowder Plot to destroy the Parliament of England and kill King James I, and, although his involvement is unclear, he was caught up in the subsequent investigation. He is a Catholic martyr, and was beatified in 1929....He was educated at St Peter's School in York; school friends were John and Christopher Wright and Guy Fawkes ."



According to one source, “many people in the Middle Ages believed that relics were invested with heavenly powers and that to be close to a relic, or even better, to touch one, would provide a person with spiritual blessings, divine protection and even a cure from illness.”


Due to this, many pilgrims were looking to purchase a relic to take home with them for veneration (kind of like a trip souvenir of today…only more meaningful). 


 This was intriguing to me for sure, I thought about people traveling hundreds of miles to venerate bones or teeth and it seemed strange...at first...


Of course it has!


"Have you seen my blue suede shoes, baby?"



Tomb of the Unknown Soldier


Lincoln's Funeral Car


Okay...so it got easy quickly... to imagine ... several more examples of people traveling long distances to venerate the remains or property of "men and women elevated to sainthood."  I understood buying the property of a dead person...we've all been to an estate sale, or an antique shop, but the thought of buying a piece of the dead person themselves???  (At this point I have to note that this is an obvious example of why the merchants eventually evolved this process slowly over time into the easily mass-produced souvenirs we see today...only so many relics to go around...right?)


Freshly packaged Relic

The competition to acquire the best relics to attract pilgrims (business) became intense between different cities, churches, and merchant guilds.  Some of the lengths to which towns would go in their quest to obtain the most popular relics have been documented by Patrick Geary in his book Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages:



He notes that towns were usually reluctant to simply buy or trade relics. After all, why would anyone willingly sell or part with a miracle-performing relic? 



Presumably they would only do so it if it no longer possessed its powers, meaning that the relic was worthless. Instead, towns often stole the relics they desired, or surreptitiously bought them while publicly claiming to have stolen them. Relic thefts were highly organized affairs, and the successful thieves were treated as local heroes.  Geary tells the story of the Italian town of Bari which in 1087 commissioned a team of thieves to obtain the remains of Saint Nicolas (known more popularly today as Santa Claus) from the Turkish town of Myra.


 The expedition was a success, and for decades Bari basked in the glory of being the town that owned the stolen bones of Santa Claus.”


Hmm...pale skin, elongated face, dark sunken eyes and sharp teeth...scary...Jack Skellington...the Pumpkin  (so-called) 'King.'


Here’s a partial list of some of the odder medieval relics I found references to:

•         The holy foreskin – Many churches claimed to possess the foreskin taken from Christ’s circumcision.

•         The breast milk of the Virgin Mary (I like this one...endless repeat supply)




•         Jesus’ baby teeth, baby blanket, and the loin cloth he wore on the cross.

•         St. Catherine’s head...all of St. Catherine for that matter (It's a fascinating story how her body was found and remained in an extended state of preservation).




•         St. Augustine’s elbow.

•          Tests revealed that a bone relic housed in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England, and sold in the past as the bone from the arm of a saint, was in fact the leg bone of a dog.

•         The holy umbilical cord from the baby Jesus.

•         Bones of the donkey Jesus rode.

•         St. Joseph’s breath:




Happy 4/20!  Dave :)

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