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PRINT July/August 2020

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NOTHING SACRED

Saint Basil hand relic, ca. 379, Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. George, Venice.

WHILE WESTERN CULTURE celebrates sight, sound, taste, and smell in the visual arts, music, gastronomy, fragrance, and more, touch is the sole sense that has been largely relegated to the realm of the physical. The digital revolution reinforced the long-standing valorization of the intellectual over the material; fingers (the original digits) connect our bodies to the virtual machine, where zeroes and ones (the abstract digits composing the binary system) are thought to do all the work. It has taken a pandemic to reveal the extent to which humans thrive on touch and how imperative our social and intimate relations are. In this context, the veneration of relics—a two thousand-year-old practice in which the body (or its remnants) is believed to link a person to both the material world and the divine—gives us a perspective from which to reflect on the myriad possibilities our bodies offer.

The struggle between the physical and the mental can be traced in Western religion and art to the start of the Christian era, when human relics became extremely popular objects of cult value. The shift began with a body nailed to a cross, inaugurating a faith that opened the possibility of communing with the sacred realm through earthly matter. Derived from the Latin relinquere—“to leave behind or abandon”—relic originally referred to the physical remains of Jesus as well as to those of the Christian saints and martyrs. These objects were believed to possess miraculous powers to heal and grant wishes and were considered a way to access the divine. No less a theologian than the great Saint Basil (330–379) declared that “whomever touches the bones of a martyr participates in the sanctity and grace that lie therein.” His head is duly preserved in the Monastery of Great Lavra in Greece.

The belief in relics stemmed from two central doctrines of Christianity: incarnation, the conviction that God became human; and resurrection, which posits that flesh can be brought back to life after death. Christ’s miracles, which include his own resurrection, hinge precisely on the notion that death is not an end because humans are also spiritual entities, able to transcend the material plane. This dynamic relationship between the physical and the spiritual helps us understand the ongoing worship of human relics, to which the many contemporary pilgrimages to see, kiss, or touch these saintly objects attest. I witnessed one of these rituals a few years ago in the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, where every year pieces of the True Cross and the crown of thorns are adored by a small but fervent crowd.

Perhaps it is easier for us hypermoderns to understand this attachment to human relics through the notion of the fetish, in both its anthropological and its libidinal connotations. Animistic or magical, fetishes are believed to transmit energy or power through proximity. Likewise, sexual fetishes operate by allowing a part to stand in for the whole, extending meaning by direct or indirect association with the object of desire. Fetishes are about sensual or sensorial experiences that are symbolically unmediated, with no need to be intellectualized via images or words. This perceptual closeness is the source of their enduring power and strong appeal, as is the case with relics.

Master of the Murano Gradual, The Finding of the Holy Cross, ca. 1420, tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, 5 3⁄4 × 4 1⁄8". From a gradual manuscript.

The discovery in the fourth century CE of the True Cross on which Christ was hung is attributed to Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, the Byzantine emperor who converted to Christianity, moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the east, and named it Constantinople after himself. Helena traveled to Palestine (ca. 130–35), where she had a vision of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but it had been transformed by Emperor Hadrian into, of all things, a temple for Venus. The empress had the pagan monument destroyed, and there three crosses were uncovered, though it was unclear on which one Jesus had been crucified. According to the theologian Theodoret (393–ca. 458/466), “a lady of rank, who had been long suffering from disease [was] touched by each of the crosses, with earnest prayer, and thus discerned the virtue residing in that of the Savior. For the instant this cross was brought near the lady, it expelled the sore disease, and made her whole.” Thus, the veneration of miraculous holy relics officially began. Patron saint of archaeologists, empresses, and divorcées, Helena is still worshipped; her body is kept at the church of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (from where it was taken to Greece as recently as 2017), and her skull can be found in the High Cathedral of Saint Peter in Trier, Germany.

Helena took back to Constantinople pieces of the cross, three nails, and the rope with which Jesus was tied, all of which were dubbed arma Christi, or Instruments of the Passion. What is most interesting about these first relics is that they are not corporeal, but rather are considered primary for their proximity to the body of Christ. The cult of relics grew to be so intricate that a hierarchy was established according to their size, closeness, and importance to the holy person. The most revered, the Insignis Reliquia, are the True Cross and the full body, head, or limbs of the martyrs. These are followed by the “notable relics” of hands, feet, and fingers, as well as exiguous, or very small, relics, such as teeth and bone fragments. Second-class, or “representative,” relics include brandea (cloth or veils, considered all the more valuable if they have traces of blood); sanctuaria, objects taken from the tomb such as oil, soil, and stones; and miscellany like rosaries owned by the saints, as well as the reliquaries where these mementos were placed. Third-class relics are those that have come into contact with any of the above. 

Touch, the underestimated human sense that once was able to bridge heaven and Earth in the imagination, is now under threat by the same modernity that destroyed this connection.

Rather than functioning as “stand-ins” for Christ or a martyr, relics are believed to directly transmit the divine presence and power of God in the here and now. They are not mere souvenirs or objects of historical interest; they convey the present, ongoing manifestation of the sacred dimension. Relics heal and perform miracles exclusively through direct or indirect touch (i.e., the visual “caress”), and thereby act as a form of contagion (from the Latin contangere, “touch”), transmitting their sacred energy from one source to another. This diffusion of holy power is crucial to their cult value, which goes far beyond their artistic or exchange value, the latter of which was very high during the Middle Ages, when there was an active black market for relics. 

Cult value is an almost performative relationship with an object, which may be the reason why, in 787 ce, the Second Council of Nicaea declared that every altar needed to feature a relic to guarantee its holiness; the requirement was honored until 1969 in Catholic and Orthodox churches. Despite, or perhaps because of, their tremendous popularity, relics were often criticized as false idols, yet the Catholic Church maintained the very popular and lucrative practice of featuring them for centuries; donations from royalty and nobility, as well as modern pilgrimages, provided important sources of revenue.

In 1543, the French reformist John Calvin published his Treatise on Relics, dedicated to dismantling the objects’ cult status, in which he argued that they are a “perverse superstition” that “resurrects [a body] ahead of time,” noting that their popularity led to the circulation of false relics: “I don’t doubt that [false relics] are a fair punishment from God . . . who allowed people to be doubly tricked since they like treachery and lies.” The Treatise is a compendium not only of all the relics (real and false) in circulation at the time, but also of the human cruelty behind the corporeal tortures and dismemberments suffered by the Christian martyrs, which does not seem to bother the Protestant theologian at all. Calvin is at his most irate when discussing these fakes—for example, Christ’s foreskin, supposedly taken from the Savior’s circumcision: “Pray tell, where did the Abby of Charroux obtain this skin? For five hundred years the Christian Church didn’t say a word about it. Where was it hidden, how did it fly to Charroux? And what about the foreskin in Rome? Surely there was only one, and it cannot be in both Rome and Charroux at the same time.” To spare his bones and other bodily remains a similar fate, Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave.

Relics were eventually replaced by icons, and thus slowly became the remains of an archaic way of relating to the sacred, later disrupted by the Renaissance’s anthropic focus. In this third millennium, the mind has become an obsession to the point of excluding the affective and environmental ecologies that ultimately sustain it. Covid-19 is a reminder of the importance of the physical (human nature as well as nature at large) to our social well-being. Unless we want atrophied bodies as the relics of a bygone experience, the key to what life will be like after this viral tsunami has passed will lie in how we relate both to the corporeal and to the spiritual. Touch, the underestimated human sense that once was able to bridge heaven and Earth in the imagination, is now under threat by the same modernity that destroyed this connection, and which has tried to seal and sterilize the body lest it be tainted by the passing of time or the impact of our environment. 

Celeste Olalquiaga is a cultural historian and author. Most recently, she coedited the anthology Downward Spiral: El Helicoide’s Descent from Mall to Prison (Urban Research, 2018). She is working on a book about petrification.