Religious Relics and Fragments in the Possession of the Church.




The True Cross and an Explanation of the Many Authentic Pieces – The Crown of Thorns and the Holy Grail.


Excitement occasioned in Europe by the exhibition of the "holy coat" at Troves pulls to mind many curious, facts concerning the relic worship so general during the middle ages, and not by any means extinct even now. The relic business was a line well worked for many centuries, to the great advantage of holy coffers, and remarkable collections made in medieval times are still to be soon in European churches.

The most remarkable "find" in the relic line on record was that made by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, in the fourth century. It was in 326 A. D. that this devout lady was bidden in a vision, as the story runs, to go to the Holy Land and find the true cross. The details of her search form a long story, owing to the obstacles thrown in her way by the infidel proprietors of the locality, but it is sufficient to note that she succeeded at last in verifying the stable wherein Christ was born, the manger wherein he was laid, many important relics belonging to events of his life and the cross whereon he died. The three crosses used at the time of the crucifixion were found, and to ascertain which one had borne the Savior recourse was had to a miracle, says the Chicago Herald. A dead body was brought and laid upon each of the crosses in succession. When it touched the third one the dead man instantly came to life, and thus the true cross was known. This sacred object was divided into several portions. One of the portions was conveyed to Constantinople and another was left inclosed in a silver case in charge of the Bishop of Jerusalem. This thrifty shepherd made good use of his treasure by giving small pieces out from it to such pilgrims to the Holy City as made liberal offerings. One might suppose that in this way the entire object would soon be used up, but, happily, it was found that the sacred wood had the power of reproducing itself, and that, no matter how much was cut off, the substance was not at all diminished.

When King Chosroes of Persia conquered Jerusalem in 614 A. D. he is said to have carried the treasured relic away with him, but it was afterward recovered by Heraclius, who carried it on his back into Jerusalem, followed by a large procession of rejoicing Christian soldiers. In the magnificent church at Jerusalem, which was built by the Emperor Constantine, if we may believe tradition, on the supposed site of the crucifixion, may still be seen a large beam of wood which is claimed to be the treasure which Heraclius reclaimed for the church. To this day the curiosity-seeker may see a piece of the true cross at the Church of St. Grace in Rome, another at Heiligen-Kreutz in Austria and others in churches at Venice, Genoa, Vienna, and Prague. Over a hundred other places in continental Europe have been on record as treasuring a fragment of the cross, and even in England, until lately, there was a small bit preserved among the jewels of James I.

When the Empress Helena discovered the cross she also secured the four nails with which Christ's body was attached to it, the spear which pierced his side and other articles. Of the four nails two were placed by Constantine in the imperial crown of Rome, one was at a later period brought by Charlemagne to France and a fourth was thrown into the Adriatic to calm the waters of that stormy sea. In Calvin's time these four nails had increased, by the marvelous power of reproduction ascribed to veritable relics, to fourteen, and they became even more numerous later. One of these precious articles, at least, surviving all the shocks of reformation and iconoclastic skepticism which came later, is still to be seen by the tourist at Cologne. In like manner the spear with which the side of the Savior was pierced became greatly multiplied, for it is known to have bean preserved in seven different places, among which were Rome and the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

Another relic of the crucifixion endowed with multiplying power is this same "holy coat" now shown at Treves, the coat without seams which the Savior wore. The one at Troves has not only disputed authenticity with a similar treasure at Argenteuil, but also with others at San Jago di Compostella, at Geneva, at Rome and fully half a dozen other places. Troves also has, or bad, the dice with which the soldiers played for the coat. And so had San Salvador and other churches. The winding-sheet and the stone laid at the mouth of the sepulcher are also said to have existed in duplicate form.

During the middle ages portions of the crown of thorns were scattered in numberless places, newly every abbey and church having at least one thorn to show. Also, there was a towel with which it was said a pitying woman wiped the dripping sweat from the brow of the Savior as he staggered under the weight of the cross. The cloth met with so much favor that in time a number of duplicates were on exhibition, a phenomenon accounted for by the supposition that it originally consisted of many folds. One of these places of cloth was at St. Peter's at Rome; another, once the property of St. Ferdinand, is now in the sacristy at Jaen; a third is in a convent at Laon, a fourth is at Cologne, while even a fifth may be seen at one of the convents at Milan.

As for the table on which the last supper was eaten, that is still to be found in various places and composed of various materials. One sample of cedar is in the Church of the Lateran at Rome, another of oak in a convent in Austria. A towel used at the supper was once among the treasured relics at Rome, and still another was in Holland; and a part of the tablecloth, in excellent preservation up to the eighteenth century, was to be seen at Vienna.

The knife with which Christ carved the paschal lamb on this occasion is still at Treves, and the cup from which the wine was drunk by the Savior and his disciples made its appearance repeatedly in medieval times. Whole volumes have been written about the sacred relic, for this was the sangreal or holy grail, in search of which the knights of the round table made perilous journeys and passed through strange adventures innumerable. Though spurious cups might exist, it was impossible, according to the legend, to be deceived by them, for the true sangreal was made of a beautiful luminous crystal, around which ever hovered a halo of light. Bishop Aroulf declared that it was, in his time, in Jerusalem. Other relics of the last supper were the platter on which the paschal lamb was served, which was shown in three places, also some of the bread broken on that occasion, shown for many years, in suitable green and moldy condition, at San Salvador, and the towel with which the Savior wiped the apostles' feet – in duplicate, of course, at Rome and at Aix.

Among the abundant relics shown in the Church of the Nativity, built by the sainted Empress Helena in 327 A. D., on the site of the birth of Christ, are the swaddling clothes in which the infant Savior was wrapped. Another set of the Swaddling bands is recorded as having been on exhibition at St. Paul’s, Rome, and still a third church in Spain has claimed them. The manger in which the holy child was laid was preserved in the church of Sancta Maria Maggiore; at Rome, encased in a large urn of crystal and silver, and in Rome, also, may be seen his cradle, rudely fashioned by Joseph, the carpenter, and an infant's shirt, made by the hands of the holy mother.

Among other relics of the life of the Savior on earth are the jugs which held the water turned into wine at the marriage at Cana, numerously represented at Pisa, Ravenna, Cluny, Angers and elsewhere, and some of that very wine was kept until quite recent times at Orleans. The church at San Salvador had the palm branch born in the hand of the Savior when he entered Jerusalem, and other shrines had numberless samples of the branches then "strewed in his way" by the populace. Another church was once the proud possessor of some earth on which it was claimed that Christ stood when he raised Lazarus, and yet another had a piece of the fish which St. Peter broiled and offered to Jesus after the resurrection. A pair of shoes, or sandals, said to have been worn by Christ were long preserved at Rome. In several places some of Christ's blood was exhibited, and Henry Stephens, the celebrated French painter, who lived about the middle of the sixteenth century, records that there was shown in his time in one church in France a glass phial containing some of Christ's tears, and, in another, one full of his breath!

Numerous and remarkable were the relics of the Virgin Mary, which delighted the devout worshiper in medieval times. At Aix la Chapelle was shown, every seven years, a cotton garment said to have been worn by her at the time of Christ's birth, and it is asserted that on one occasion fully 150,000 pilgrims gathered to see it. Other garments of the virgin were shown, and some, may still be seen by the curious traveler at various places. One of her combs is among the treasures at Rome, and another was once shown at Besancon, and her wedding ring is still cherished at Perugia. The most popular relic, however, of the holy mother was her milk battle, portions of which were exhibited at places without number, both in Continental Europe and in England.

Relics of the apostles form a perfect museum, their bones existing in numbers that would astonish a physiologist. All over the continent of Europe John the Baptist's head has been one of the favorite objects of exhibition. The Emperor Theodosius was the fortunate finder of this, and he carried it to Constantinople. The hinder part of the skull is still to be seen in that city, while the front part is at Rome. The entire front jaw was shown at Genoa, and still another whole skull at Amiens, in Picardy, and yet other appearances of the relic have been recorded at other places.

The cloth upon which the head of the Baptist was laid is in the large collection of treasured relics at Aix la Chapelle, and at Alexandria are to be seen all the bones of the body, except the fingers, which are scattered about in ten or twelve different places, while Munich is so fortunate to possess the entire right hand. As for St. Peter, one-half of his bones has the rare good fortune to be preserved in one place, but a number of generous fractions, such as ribs, thigh-bones, legs and arms, are in other spots too numerous to mention. His brain was long kept at Rome carefully enshrined in a silver box, and had performed many remarkable miracles before an inquisitive monk undertook to examine it closely and found that it was only a piece of stone.

Some of the most ancient of these anatomical specimens on record are the bones of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to be seen at the Church of St. Maria sopra Minerva at Rome. Another very old curiosity is the stone upon which Abraham spread the food of the angels who dined with him, while perhaps the oldest of all is shown in Constantinople in a portion of the red earth of which Father Adam was made! The tombs of these ancient worthies, Adam, Cain, Seth and others, are familiar to all tourists, and no allusion need be made to them.

Curious instances of the extent to which the materialism of relic hunters was once carried are on record. In the monastery of Mount St. Michel, in Normandy, was exhibited up to the time of the French revolution, the sword and buckler with which the Archangel Michael combated the spirit of evil. Another shrine in earlier times excited the wonder and awe of the credulous by displaying a stout pigeon feather which, it was claimed, had been plucked from the wing of the holy ghost when it descended in the form of a dove at the time of the baptism of the Savior in Jordan.

The San Francisco Examiner, Sunday, October 4, 1891, p. 19:1