Reliquaries and Research

Reliquary with Finger of John the Baptist

I don’t know how many of my readers are researchers.  I know that many of you are teachers and educators.  However, one of the things that drew me into history was the research.  I have always loved libraries and archives: the smell, the feel, the intimacy of the artifacts, etc.  Currently, I am reading Donna Leon’s novel, The Jewels of Paradise, which is a departure from her Guido Brunetti novels because it focuses on a musicologist’s search for the truth about a Baroque composer.  It’s all about the research, which in many reviews people seemed to hate.  I am also reading Danielle Trussoni’s novel, Angelology: A Novel, which is partly an exploration of the research of angels.
By reading these books, I have been not only thinking of my own research into American expatriates, but also some projects that I would love to delve into if I had the resources, i.e. the time, funding, and technology.  I don’t remember exactly the passage in The Jewels of Paradisethat caused me to think about reliquaries, but I know something did.  

If you are not familiar with relics and reliquaries, here is a brief description.  Christian belief in the power of relics, the physical remains of a holy site or holy person, or objects with which they had contact, is as old as the faith itself and developed alongside it. Relics were more than mementos. The New Testament refers to the healing power of objects that were touched by Christ or his apostles. The body of the saint provided a spiritual link between life and death, between man and God: “Because of the grace remaining in the martyr, they were an inestimable treasure for the holy congregation of the faithful.” Fueled by the Christian belief in the afterlife and resurrection, in the power of the soul, and in the role of saints as advocates for humankind in heaven, the veneration of relics in the Middle Ages came to rival the sacraments in the daily life of the medieval church. Indeed, from the time of Charlemagne, it was obligatory that every altar contain a relic.

My mind sometimes wonders when I read, and I thought about a quote from Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad from 1869. In the passages about visiting Genoa, Italy, Twain mentions the number of relics he has seen and writes:

But isn’t this relic matter a little overdone? We find a piece of the true cross in every old church we go into, and some of the nails that held it together. I would not like to be positive, but I think we have seen as much as a keg of these nails. Then there is the crown of thorns; they have part of one in Sainte Chapelle, in Paris, and part of one also in Notre Dame. And as for bones of St. Denis, I feel certain we have seen enough of them to duplicate him if necessary.

So, I began to ponder this statement and thought that it would be an interesting topic to research.  If I had the resources, I would love to take an inventory of all of the Christian relics.  I’m sure the Vatican has one somewhere.  Once I had that, I would love to take a computer program that would piece together each individual relic and see if it would be possible to reconstruct at least one of the saints from the bones he left behind.. Or, more likely to see just how many fingers John the Baptist has hidden away in reliquaries.  I find relics to be a morbid fascination, though one that I would love to have the resources to explore someday.

One day, and I hope it’s one day soon, I will finally receive my PhD and will be able to reenter the world of academia and get out of teaching high school. Maybe I will one day be fortunate enough to head a major research project like the one mentioned above.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

3 responses to “Reliquaries and Research

  • Coop

    Don't spoil it! I've been meaning to read "Jewels of Paradise". Being a librarian means I'm like a kid in a candy store. I think the quest for relics is interesting from an adventure point of view. Mark Twain has it right… what's hype versus a genuine relic.It's like saying "George Washington slept here".

  • Anonymous

    As to relics: For some fun when you are in Rome, get in a reputable taxi and ask the driver to take you to the church that has Christ's foreskin in a reliquary, The answer is usually, "Which one?". Some will say there are at least 8 of them, which would you like to see. As to the true cross relics in little crosses with a window, they are in every souvenir shop available. Don't get me started about Jordan river water, I'll bet that is one of Perrier's cash cows.

  • Anonymous

    As to that code you all demand before a comment may be accepted, Smarten up, It's not worth the effort when everything is such a jumbled blur it takes a magnifying glass to make sense of it all. Some sites are thankfully more merciful.

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