I feel like these days, relics (and relic worship) get a bad rap. Relics were an important part of medieval religion and served a variety of perfectly legitimate and reasonable roles. For one, they literally brought Christianity, as an abstract concept, down to earth. Saints were, first and foremost, people who walked and talked, lived and breathed; basically, they were people too. Everybody needs a role model, and saints were (for the most part) pretty decent folks who seemed like fine role models. Saint Simeon Stylites (c.390-425), for instance, was a Syrian holy man who was influential in settling local disputes and well-known for his acts of piety (and a really good track record with the Big Guy).
Also, as his name suggests, he is also famous for sitting atop a column for 37 years in the middle of a desert. (It may have been a desert, but they built a very snazzy monastery around Simeon and his pillar to accommodate visitors/followers/pilgrims/etc.)
As challenging as the logistics of living on top of a column sound to most of us, Simeon was actually a popular role model. There’s actually a whole category of “Stylite saints” who demonstrated their piety, humility, and faith (among other top-notch character traits) by sitting on top of columns. In fact, there’s a Saint Simeon the Younger (521-597), who seems to have been encouraged by his mother (Martha) from his childhood to lead an ascetic life. She may or may not have been involved in the construction of his first column (he moved around several times over the course of his life). She’s what I like to think of as one of the earliest examples of a stage mother. (Saint mother?) Fun fact: she’s venerated as a saint in the Orthodox Church- take that as you will. What I was going for with this story is that saints seem like nice enough folks, and in life serve a variety of purposes. (Although, lets be honest, martyrdom is a rough way to go- Jerome (3rd century) got grilled on a gridiron by the Romans and Catherine of Alexandria (282-305) was tortured on the “breaking wheel”.)
Even after death (yes, I’m getting to the relics part), saints continue to serve a social/political/cultural role in their communities. By “communities”, I mean towns, cities, and villages, as well as religious communities, like monasteries. For instance, especially in the 9th-12th centuries, saints were seen as the patrons of the communities where they’re relics were interred. From a legal standpoint, if there was a monastery that owned/held lands with serfs, those serfs could technically be servants of the patron saint who relics resided in that monastery (the monks acted as holy accountants in that case, I suppose). Thus, when the local peasants/serfs/whatnots had grievances, they could take themselves to the reliquaries and address their issues directly to the saint (in addition to other courses of action). Additionally, religious communities that held relics could use them to redress their own grievances, as in the case of the “humiliation of the saints”, a ceremony in which the canons or monks could take their relics down from their usual spots and place them before the altar, possibly covered with thorns, as an act of humility. This was usually done in order to pressure someone (like a local lord who was holding out on something) to give in to the demands of the religious community.
For instance, when the Count of Anjou, Fulk Nerra (more on him in another post), came crashing through the church of Saint Martin at Tours in 996/997, damaging some of the buildings and mightily perturbing the canons of the church (canons are kind of like monks, but not). In retaliation, they performed the humiliation of the saints’ relics and refused to allow people from the castle into the church for services (since monks and canons aren’t allowed to do excommunications, this was as coercive as they could get). Eventually, Fulk Nerra gave in and humbly apologized. I this way, relics (saints) played an important part in how different groups (peasants, monks, canons, noblepeople) negotiated with each other in the Middle Ages. Relics were the earthly representations of the saints, who were themselves intermediaries between humanity and Christ.
Relics abounded in the Middle Ages. They were taken and translated (many out of Rome to places north), created (new saints are being made all the time!), traded and gifted all over Europe and the Middle East (let’s not forget the Byzantines, who are responsible for some truly fantastic reliquaries). Even later, various members of the Catholic ruling aristocracy in early modern Europe loved gifting each other relics. At one point, the noted relic-collector Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) was asked by a secretary if he wanted to include a gift of one of his relics (he had thousands) with a missive to one of his powerful Hapsburg relatives. Philip’s reply was something along the lines of “sure, choose anything, most of them are probably fakes anyways.” (That, from one of the 16th century’s most high-profile Catholics.)
Turning away from history for a moment, I recently visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which had a small number of reliquaries on display. Just sitting there, without any explanation of reliquaries or relics themselves, and no mention at all of the specific relic that presumably resided within at some point. Being me, I was brimming with irritating questions (thanks to Matt and Richie for keeping it cool when I suggested we spend 5 hours at the museum and insisted on seeing everything): where is the relic? Was it in the collection, but not on display? Why would someone separate the relic (surely a delicate item, religious considerations notwithstanding) from its protective reliquary? When did they get separated? What has happened to relics these days?
For another relic, I mostly have the story: in the case of the head relic of St. Eustace, above, the British Museum holds both the relic and the reliquary separately. They were together (the skull of the saint being inside the silver gilt and wooden reliquary) until a 20th century conservation effort separated the two. (Sometimes, I imagine that the life of a conservationist gets weird. Separating heads from metal cases after 800 years falls under the weird job tasks category.) Now, only the reliquary is displayed, while the skull is kept off display. In 2011, the British Museum had a special exhibition of objects of personal devotion (“Treasures of Heaven“), which featured a wide range of reliquaries, large and small, from a varieties of times and locations. I distinctly remember several of these reliquaries (mostly the type with the window, or the box type with the slide-off front) had their relics open for viewing. As I recall, some of these reliquaries had been loaned to the British Museum from religious institutions, including from the Vatican collections (it was a very special exhibition). Maybe that’s what makes the difference? Perhaps secular institutions treat their relics differently (preferencing artistic value over the religious significance of keep relic and reliquary as one) than religious institutions? Then again, many churches have replaced reliquaries and/or changed the way of displaying relics in the early modern and modern period (the Reformation, among other things, was rough on relics). Still, I’m left wondering (per the title of this post), where have all the relics gone? Have they been destroyed? Are they sitting around mouldering in private collections after having been snapped up by 18th century gentry on the Grand Tour? Statistically, what percent are still displayed at churches/for the purposes of devotion?
If you’re looking for some great reading on Simeon Stylites, you can’t go wrong with Peter Brown. If you’re looking for an article, try:
Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity”, Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 61, 1971, pp. 80-101.
If you’re interested in relics and various practices involving relics, including the ritual of Humiliation of the Saints, there’s a lot of great literature out there. I would recommend:
Patrick Geary, Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.