Monday 5 May 2014



The Orthodox honour the saints to express their love and gratitude to God, who has "perfected" the saints…To this day the Orthodox have maintained the liturgical custom of meeting on the day of the saint's death, of building churches honouring their names, and of paying special respect to their relics and icons.

Relics of Gregory V the martyred patriarch of Constantinople in the Metropolitan Church of Athens 

What are Relics?

Relics are the remains of a saint, or a saint's possessions, such as clothes or vestments or anything that has been in close contact with the saint.

Orthodox Saints number well over 10,000 and counting, (1) so this can add up to an astounding number of relics given the Orthodox custom of dismembering bodies for distribution to the faithful, not to mention the custom of embedding a relic in each and every consecrated altar in the Orthodox world.

Corfu’s Agios Spyridon, Thessaloniki’s  Agios Demetrios, Cephalonia’s Agios Gerasimos, and Athens’ Agios Gregorios are just a few of the saints whose relics are found in Greece today.

Theoretically, all relics are equally sanctified, because all are points of access to the Divine, but early on, the Church distinguished primary relics, parts of bodies which had suffered martyrdom, from ‘secondary’ relics, objects valued for their contact with the body of a saint and as memories of a worldly presence.

 Primary relics too came to have a hierarchy of values, at least to those collecting them. Relics of the Apostles, or of John the Baptist would be especially valued and anything related to Christ or Mary would be at the top of the list.

A surprising number of relics relating to Christ fit this category in spite of the fact that his body is not available: His foreskin (removed at circumcision), His umbilical cord, His blood (shed on the cross), His crib, His swaddling clothes, His crown of thorns, the nails which nailed Him to the cross, and the ne plus ultra of relics, the True Cross itself.  It was upon fragments of the true cross that Byzantine emperors swore their most solemn oaths and pieces of it were regularly carried into battle. 

A reliquary containing a fragment of the True Cross (one of over a thousand still believed to be authentic) that found its way to Spain.
Taking the True Cross as an example, how were such relics authenticated?  The story goes that when the emperor Constantine’s mother excavated in the Holy Land some three hundred years after the crucifixion, she found three intact crosses on Golgotha. To determine which one was the True Cross, she placed each one beside a dying woman. The one that miraculously cured her was the True Cross.

Eleni excavating the True Cross in a ninth century manuscript
The ability of a relic to affect miracle cures was and is its ultimate provenance.
The custom of revering relics dates back to the early Christian period when Christianity was proscribed and services were held in the catacombs and the Eucharist celebrated either over or near the body of martyred Christians. 

An altar in the catacombs on the island of Milos
When allowed, it became the custom to build Churches over the tombs of venerated martyrs. The bones or ashes of these martyrs would be gathered by the faithful and a shrine erected. The earliest known example of a shrine for  martyr’s relics might well be that of Saint Ignatius whose large bones (left after the Lions ate the small ones) were collected in 107 and carried to his native city of Antioch where they were kept as a treasure “by the grace which was in the martyr”.

Martyrdom of Saint Ignatius (

  The custom of embedding a relic in the altar of all churches harkens back to this era. The relic is a reminder that the Church was built on the blood of the martyrs and their faith in the Lord. The practice of building churches over martyrs' shrines became so entrenched that by 401 the Council of Carthage decreed that all churches not honouring the relics of saints should be destroyed.
Today, a church whose altar has not been consecrated by a relic is not regarded as a proper environment for the Divine Liturgy.  An outdoor liturgy covers this requirement by having a tiny relic sewn into the antimension, a cloth which is then placed over a temporary altar.
 So especially hallowed were these martyrs’ shrines that many wished  to be buried as near to the relics as possible; the idea seemed to be that proximity to the saint would be helpful when the bodies of the faithful were raised to join their souls at the Second Coming. If that were not possible, everyone at least wanted to have a small relic to keep close at hand.
 The emperor Constantine rode into battle with nails from the True Cross entwined in his horse’s bridle. His famous column honouring the founding of Constantinople in 330 was said to contain, among other things,  a portion of the True Cross, the crosses of the two thieves, and, the palladion of Athena. This wooden statue of the goddess had been the guardian first of Troy and then Rome. Aside from raising the relics of the new religion to the same symbolic status of city guardians as Athena, it may show that early on, at least, Constantine was prepared to hedge his  theological bets! 

  then....                                                                        now......

It is a fact of life that the state or the very rich acquired the most revered relics, placing them in elaborately jeweled reliquaries, and the poor had to be content with sanctified dust from the tomb of a martyr, myrrh exuded from a relic’s body, or an object which had been placed beside the relic and had become sanctified by proximity. Even such humble relics were housed in as rich a reliquary as the owner could afford...

all photos here from Wiki Commons

The more valuable a relic, the more status was acquired by the owner whether that was a monastery, a church, or a palace. Relics became commodities. Theft, trade, and deception were soon added to the mix.

As time passed, the definition of martyr (witness) included virtually any righteous Old Testament figure, the relatives of anyone involved in the central Christian story, as well as revered bishops and holy men. 

The Imperial Relic Collection

 When Christianity became the state religion and the emperor an icon of Christ, relics inevitably took on a political dimension.(2)  Constantine made Constantinople his new capital in 324, the first truly Christian city, and he immediately faced a problem. It lacked home grown relics of important martyrs with enough gravitas  to act as counterweights to either eastern Martyria or Rome’s possession of the relics of heavyweights like Saint Peter and Saint Paul.  He and his successors attempted to remedy this situation as quickly as possible – such was the cachet and prestige of relic possession.  Constantine’s mother’s recovery of the True Cross was a start, but most of it remained in Jerusalem and he needed more. The solution was Translation.  Just as martyr’s bones had been translated back to their home cities and shrines built to house them, Constantine and his descendants became involved in a massive effort to make Constantinople the relic capital of the empire.

He had the relics of Saint Timothy, traveling companion of Saint Paul, and Saint Andrew, the ‘first chosen disciple of Christ’, translated from Patras to Constantinople in 336 (or 356 depending on the source). No one has recorded how the locals in Patras felt about that. It is hard to see this initial choice as random since each saint translated was the closest counterpart to Peter and Paul it was possible to acquire.

That Rome’s possession of the relics of Peter and Paul was a sore point is evidenced in the sixth century when the emperor Justinian (of Hagia Sophia fame)  and later Maurice  made repeated efforts to wangle at least some  body parts of Peter and Paul from the pope in Rome. He flatly refused to break up the bodies (the west was more fastidious in this respect – at least when the body politic was also involved) but he did offer a few filings from the chains that had bound Saint Peter.

Saint Andrew and Saint Timothy had been buried with honours in the Church of the Holy Apostles but that alone was not enough to ensure the city’s safety or prestige, so Saint Luke was translated from what is now Greece and the head of John the Baptist followed from the eastern part of the empire not long after. These and many more Translation Ceremonies took place and they were  huge affairs of state with liturgies, celebrations, processions, and displays of the relics, all orchestrated  by the emperor and empress as well as the patriarch.

In his article Sacred Relics and Imperial Ceremonies at the Great Palace of Constantinople (3) Holger Klein makes a compelling case for the theory that the cult of relics in Constantinople became tantamount to an imperial cult. In the golden age of the empire, imperial wealth was used to obtain relics and these relics were increasingly housed in elaborate chapels – reliquaries themselves - inside the palace complex reinforcing the emperor’s role as the guardian of Christendom. Relics became part of the national treasure and an important relic was far more precious than the gold and jewels that surrounded it.  

Icons vs Relics

Although the rationale for venerating icons and relics is similar, the fate of relics diverged from that of icons during the great iconoclastic debate. Icons were forbidden; relics were pretty much left alone except by the most unruly fanatics.  Unlike icons, relics were not ‘images’ of the Divine and   possibly they had become so closely attached to the emperor’s mystical source of power that they would have been virtually immune from attack on that basis alone. 

1204 and After

What is miraculous to me about the veneration of relics, especially the ones safe-guarding the God guarded imperial city, is that people never seemed to lose faith in their miraculous properties even as the empire succumbed more and more to the attacks of both barbarian hordes and western opportunists.  You might think that the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Crusaders and the subsequent wholesale theft of the city’s relics by just about every western country that existed at the time would have lessened their inherent lustre but it did not. The relics were avidly welcomed by the home cities of warriors returning with their loot. Some of the greatest cathedrals in Europe ( St Chapelle, Amiens to name two) were built with the express purpose of housing important relics stolen from Constantinople.

Wiki Commons
Sainte Chapelle in Paris: new  home of the stolen Crown of Thorns

Here is a contemporary account of the palace treasures written by a French soldier:

When the city was captured [...] and the palaces were taken over, [...] they found in them riches more than a great deal. [...] And the palace of Bukoleon was very rich [...] and in it there were fully thirty chapels, great and small, and there was one of them which was called the Holy Chapel, which was so rich and noble that there was not a hinge nor a band nor any other part [...] that was not all of silver, and there was no column that was not of jasper or porphyry or some other rich precious stone. [And] within this chapel were found many rich relics: [...] two pieces of the True Cross as large as the leg of a man [...], and the iron of the lance with which Our Lord had his side pierced, and two of the nails which were driven through his hands and feet; and one found there in a crystal phial quite a little of his blood and [...] the tunic which he wore [...] when they led him to Mount Calvary. And one found there also the blessed crown with which he was crowned [...] and the robe of Our Lady and so many other rich relics that I could not recount them to you.

These purloined relics were as revered by the towns possessing them as they had been in Constantinople. In fact so many instruments of the passion, vials of Mary's milk, and relics of the apostles flooded Europe after 1204 that in 1274 the veneration of relics was forbidden without papal approval. 

Errors occurred. Three western religious houses claimed to have the head of John the Baptist for example. This list can be expanded by any reader taking the time to google  ‘fake relics’ and the name of any Christian city involved in the Crusades.

When the Greeks did manage to take back their city in 1251, the loss of the relics lessened the emperor’s prestige and completely undermined his role as protector of Christendom’s greatest treasures.  The empire never recovered although subsequent emperors did try to use some of the remaining relics as bargaining chips in diplomatic efforts to seek allies even as the Turks were tightening their hold on the city.

Relics in Today’s World

  Today relics are as important in the Orthodox world as ever. Orthodoxy missed the Reformation and has never felt the need for any soul searching about relics. After all, there is no need to defend what has never been attacked.   The practice of Translation is alive and well in the Orthodox world and Greece has proved willing to share with others relics of her local saints. (4) 
The Roman Catholic Church, unlike the Orthodox, had to defend relics against the Protestant onslaught, and has traditionally been less likely to offer bits of saint piecemeal (although that rule does not apply to articles of clothing or objects placed temporarily beside relics in order to sanctify them by proximity). While certainly not discouraging relic veneration, it has made a few tiny shuffling steps away from it, or at least its excesses. Since the 1980s it no longer requires a relic in each consecrated altar. 

The idea of bits and pieces of saints being broken up, scattered and revered is a tough one to sell to Protestants. They do not pray to saints, believing that all the faithful will become saints. They would agree that the body deserves respect as the temple of the soul, but a decent burial is the extent of any veneration. (5)

Relics in Today’s Greece

The rituals, processions and celebrations surrounding the relics of saints in Greece today may no longer be imperial but they are still grand and not merely an ecclesiastical concern. The state is still very much involved. No politician would miss being present on the special days of relic veneration in his or her constituency. 

Relics of Saint Spyridon in procession, Corfu

Questioning any aspect of Orthodoxy is still politically dangerous in Greece. A candidate for the new center-liberal party in this year’s Euro-elections was forced to resign from the party after suggesting that the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Holy Fire sent by God to the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem each year on Easter Saturday and then brought by plane to Greece where it is given the full honours of a visiting head of state was a useless expense, simply out of sync with the reality of crisis ridden Greece. The media frenzy surrounding that suggestion was amazing and almost no one who valued his or her own political future was publicly prepared to defend his position.  So it is not very likely that any politician will seriously question the value of relics and the ceremonies surrounding them any time soon.

Suffice it to say that even without the increasing influx of tourists from Orthodox countries, the many churches and monasteries  housing relics would still be full of Greek pilgrims on the name days of the saints whose relics have been acquired, relics which are still revered and believed to be as capable of working miracles now as they were in the past. 

(1)There are more than 10,000 canonized Roman Catholic saints. Orthodox numbers would be even higher but difficult to pinpoint exactly since there is no fixed process of canonization such as there is in the west.
(2). In an empire such as the Byzantine Empire, separating a political element from a religious one is not easy. But pretending there was no such division is equally unsatisfactory.

(4 A rib of Aegina’s Saint Nectarios was gifted by the Metropolitan of Aegina, Spetses, and Hydra to a church in California in 1979.

(5) As an interesting footnote… I remember reading one of John Donne’s sermons in which he went to great lengths to assure his concerned congregation that God was fully capable of assembling the limbs of the faithful which may have been lost on some foreign battlefield.  Of course, this would be a doodle compared to the gathering of the dispersed bones or ashes of martyred Orthodox saints. In view of this, it is hard to understand the ban on cremation by the Greek Church.  





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