Saturday, 29 January 2011

Veneto - Regarding the Body of the African Saint

John Ruskin, the famous 19th century art critic, famously described Venice's Basilica San Marco as a 'treasure heap'.  He meant it as a compliment, but the use of the word 'heap' is unusual in this context and suggests a carelessness that is alarmingly casual in a city that is famous for its aestheticism.  I imagine that Ruskin was also alluding to the fact that almost everything of value in the Basilica San Marco was robbed by the Venetians, during the centuries when they dominated and colonised the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean Sea. 

The bodysnatchers of Alexandria

The first church on the site of the Basilica was built to house the body of St Mark, which was stolen by Venetian merchants from its original resting place in Alexandria in Egypt.  Not having existed in Roman times, Venice lacked the religious sites or relics of other cities in the Roman Empire.  The theft of St Mark's body provided the Venetians with an important symbol for their city and a relic that was second-to-none!  If you believe the myths surrouding the event, the merchants smuggled the body past the guardians of the church, by covering it in slabs of pork, knowing that the Jewish and Muslim officials of Alexandria wouldn't search a container full of pig's meat.  To be honest, this sounds like an embellishment to the story, most likely added in later centuries, as European colonies in the East were being invaded by the Muslim Ottoman Turks. 

The first Basilica burnt to the ground in 976, but 'miraculously' St Mark's body reappeared in time for the consecration of the new Basilica almost a century later!  St Mark became the patron saint of Venice, displacing the previous, Byzantine saint, St Theodore.  The adoption of St Mark very much symbolised Venice's independence, as St Mark was neither a Roman nor a Byzantine saint.  Mind you, he wasn't the only saint who turned up in Venice - there was also St Nicholas of Myra (modern-day Demre in Turkey), whose body was robbed by sailors from Bari and brought to the south of Italy.  According to some accounts, his remains ended up in the church of San Nicolò al Lido in Venice.  St Nicholas wasn't just the original Santa Claus (see my earlier blogpost on this) but was also the patron saint of sailors, an important symbol for a sea-faring republic like Venice. 

The significance of relics

It find it fascinating that people would travel for miles in medieval times, to see the relics of their favourite saint.  I guess, it was a medieval version of 'celeb' culture and, to a certain extent, it's a tradition we continue in modern times (hands up who's been to see Jim Morrisson's grave in Paris?).  I guess it all started with visiting the saints tomb and then, as Christianity spread to the far reaches of Europe and the tombs were far away in the Middle East, crusaders and adventurers, like the Venetian merchants, took to robbing the saints bodies and bringing them back to a more convenient location. 

Many saints were associated with miracles and, I guess, people believed that the presence of their bones would either lead to more miracles or, at the very least, bring fortune and protection to the cities where the saints bodies were enshrined.  Often you didn't need a whole saint to make your church sacred, an arm or a leg would do!  A mania for religious relics swept through medieval Europe, so that any religious settlement worth its name, needed to have the relic of a revered saint, that pilgrims would be able to visit. 

Protecting their Christian heritage

One of the excuses for stealing the bodies of St Mark and St Nicholas was that the Venetians and others were protecting their Christian heritage from the growing influence of Islam.  This became even more important with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks and the conquest of lands in the Eastern Roman Empire.  Venice became a major departure point for Crusaders, on their way to the Middle East, who plundered cities in the Holy Land and brought back religious 'souvenirs' of their escapades. 

The publication of Golden Legends by the Genoese archbishop, Jacobus de Voragine, in the 13th century, caught the imagination of the medieval world so that, before long, every cathedral in Europe claimed to have a piece of the True Cross, the blood, arms, knees, elbows or feet of various saints or the various implements and clothing belonging to Jesus Christ (one of the biggest prizes of all!)  The relic that I find most bizarre is the veneration of the Holy Prepuce (ie. Christ's foreskin) - at one stage, in medieval Europe, there were no less than 18 Holy Prepuces doing the rounds!

The Shroud of Turin by Gilberto Viciedo
 To this day, the Catholic Church recognises the existence of relics and has even categorised them as First Class relics (things relating to Jesus, or the bones of saints), Second Class relics (objects that were worn or used by the saints) and Third Class relics (objects, usually pieces of cloth, that have come into contact with first or second class relics).  I'm sure every Catholic home in Ireland has a string of rosary beads, a picture of Christ or some other object that was blessed by Pope John Paul II when he visited Ireland in 1979.  Although I'm in no way religious, like any good Irish Catholic boy, I still carry the holy medal my mother gave me, in my wallet!

I guess what I'm getting at is the idea that relics are still relevant in the modern world.  The most famous case in modern times is the Turin Shroud.  The subject of numerous books, documentaries and scientific tests, it's an issue that remains controversial and divides the opinions of believers and non-believers.  Even more recently than that, the Turkish government has asked for the restoration of St Nicholas' body, to its original resting place in Myra (Demre), stating that this was what St Nicholas would have wanted (although I've no doubt they have an eye on the pilgrim dollar, all the same!)

The Reformation: a return to basics

The Crypt, St Wulfram's in Grantham
 The French theologian, John Calvin, claimed that there were enough pieces of the True Cross in Europe to fill a ship!  With the Reformation came a return to basics in the new Protestant churches.  One of the main differences between the Protestant and Catholic faiths is that the Protestants viewed icon-relic-saint worshipping as idolatry and superstition.  I guess, as the religious mood changed across Europe, the fad for relics eventually waned.  I'm not sure how many churches in Ireland and Britain claimed to have relics, but I remember my visit to St Wulfram's church in Grantham (see my blogpost about this) which claimed to have hosted the arm of this important 7th century saint. 

Relics in other religions

I also remember when I lived in Thailand, visiting a religious site which was built around the footprint of Buddha.  Like Jesus, relics of Buddha exist in many countries and, similarly, serve the purpose of providing a focal point for local people, far removed from the original sites that are significant to the development of their religion.  Whether or not Buddha actually visited Thailand is not really the point - people travel from all over the country to pay their respects. 

Relics remain important to Orthodox Christians and are still venerated by Orthodox churches, such as those in Greece and Russia.  Icons are very important in the Russian Orthodox Church and are carried in religious processions.  Also, the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul houses some of the most important relics of the Muslim world, including the Prophet Mohammed's cloak and sword.  I was really impressed when I visited these relics, both by the serious atmosphere in the reliquary and the continuous chanting of the Qu'ran in the background. 

I'm sure a lot of you, who are reading this blog, will have had some experience with relics.  Don't forget to share your experiences with me, by using the Comment box below.

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

The image of St Mark was created by wikiuser Lanternix who has released it into the public domain - you can see more information at the file's description page

The image of the Shroud of Turin created through a mosaic of flowers is by flickruser Gilberto Viciedo who is originally from Cuba, but now lives in Miami.  Gilberto has created a website to help photographers who are interested in photomosaics.  Thanks Gilberto for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons License. 

The image of the crypt in St Wulfram's Church in Grantham was taken by me, during my Ancaster walk in 2009.
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