talismans, icons, amulets and lucky charms have been popular
since prehistoric times and were used mainly to ward off the evil
effects of malignant forces and to bring good luck. They take many
forms, rings, necklaces and bracelets in a variety of materials ranging
from gold and precious stones to humble plastic beads. Others are
carved replicas of animals, insects and birds in wood, stone and ivory.
I recall as a child I carried a rabbit’s foot for good luck and my
mother’s purse was never without her lucky miniature brass leprechaun.
bracelets in Western society are still popular, they tend
to be decorative rather than considered to have mystical properties or
a protective function. In less advanced societies however, faith in
amulets and artefacts persists. Belief too, in the efficacy of holy
relics, in particular the bones and remains of the beatified are
endemic to some religions. Paintings, carvings and icons of religious
significance are still worshipped universally and even a prayer or the
invoking of a saint’s name to intervene on behalf of the devoted is
widely practised in Catholicism. Testimony to the alleged efficacy of
the latter can often be seen in the public notices columns of
newspapers where petitions to St Jude, the patron saint of disparate
causes, thank him for favours received.
ancient times amulets and charms were considered a vital
insurance policy, today, although a certain embarrassment would be
associated with them, many people still carry them for protection and
statues weeping blood or tears of oil, exuding fragrances or
producing auras seem to be on the increase, and miracles associated
with Marian visitations around the world abound despite no
scientifically verified evidence, the latter being of great concern
because of the serious physical harm they can cause. At Denver in 1991,
for example, dozens of the faithful in search of a sun miracle suffered
retinal damage, including one woman who had come to pray for her
The belief in
the efficacy of certain religious relics was born of
another belief – that diseases were produced by the emissaries of Satan
who possessed the bodies of the afflicted. As God’s will was considered
manifest through miracles and saints, apostles, prophets and martyrs
were his intermediaries, any earthly remains of their person or objects
with which they came into contact became sacred, and were thought to be
endowed with supernatural powers. It was believed that in some
mysterious way the virtue in a holy hair, a piece of wood, or the bone
of a saint would drive out the demon and effect a cure.
In the early
part of the second millennium and up to the middle ages
man lived in perpetual fear of natural phenomena which were put down to
the intervention of God. In a spiritual age when ignorance was the
handmaiden of faith, belief in miracles prospered and for political
reasons the Church fathers decided that they were necessary to
propagate the faith.
relics were sought after and venerated in Roman times, by the
eleventh century they were commonplace, the list both long and macabre
– splinters from the true cross, Christ’s blood, seventeen foreskins
(all allegedly his), the crown of thorns, baby teeth, hair clippings,
the bones of Mary Magdalen, a vial of Mary’s milk, her scarf, St
Peter’s tooth, the head(s) of John the Baptist, a finger from the hand
of apostle Thomas, and countless bones allegedly belonging to a large
number of assorted religious luminaries.
originally intended as an aid to devotion, soon became
objects of worship in their own right, as did the ornate caskets which
contained them. Shrines were built to house the caskets and became
meccas to which the faithful beat a pilgrims’ path.
From the very
beginning the Church realised the value and power of
relics and commercialism took over swelling the coffers of many an
abbey, church and monastery.
that most relics were spurious, they were well sought
after even to the extent of murder, theft and forgery. The bones of St
Foy at Agan for example, were stolen by Armisdus, a monk from Congues,
who spent ten years planning the caper, and when the crusaders
plundered Jerusalem in 1099, a horrible massacre of Muslims and Jews
ensued and the Holy Sepulchre was recovered. In 1204 Constantinople too
was submitted to a merciless pillage resulting in the dispersal of the
list of famous relics and still revered in modern times is
the Shroud of Turin alleged to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.
First drawn to public attention in Lirey, France, by the widow of a
knight, Jeanne de Vergey, in 1898, it was photographed for the first
time and the negative revealed in much greater detail and form the
faint original impression of a figure on it. In the 1970s, a group of
scientists investigated the cloth and although some were convinced of
its authenticity, others questioned the ‘blood stains’ which were found
to contain hematite and vermilion, substances used by medieval artists
as a red pigment. Notwithstanding that in 1989, carbon dating methods
put the probable date of the shroud at between 1260 and 1390, settling
the question of whether it was a forgery once and for all, it continues
to attract the faithful as a holy relic.
remains of St Francis Xavier, canonized in 1622, rest in a
silver casket in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, India. I use the
word ‘remains’ in the literal sense as the poor fellow’s body has been
dismembered unmercifully by relic seekers both lay and ecclesiastical
since he was first laid to rest in 1552. One of his toes was bitten off
by a Portuguese lady who wanted a relic of the saint. In 1615, part of
his right hand was cut off and sent to the Church of Gesu in Rome, and
in 1619, the remaining part of the hand was removed and sent to the
Jesuits in Japan. Parts of the intestines have also been removed from
time to time and distributed to various places around the world.
Ironically, the remains of St Francis are now the subject of a court
case, a local family is claiming that the body is not that of the saint
at all, but one of their former ancestors.
Heads seem to
enjoy a certain status among believers. The reliquaries
for the heads of Saint Praxedes and Saint Sebastian, together with the
relics of Saint Stephen are still cherished and represent some of the
most valuable artefacts in the Vatican’s collection.
bizarre is the life and fate of St Catherine. Born on March 25,
1347, the twenty-third child of a religious fanatic Jacomo Benincasa,
her convictions drove her to change the pattern of European history.
She lived in a period when religion and politics were inextricably
entangled and when the tide of rising nationalism had yet to break the
unity of Christendom. Under these circumstances a religious fanatic was
able to exert considerable influence on events.
At the age of
five she was extremely devout and had a vision of Christ
enthroned above St Dominic’s Church in Siena. By the age of twelve she
had considered and rejected marriage and pledged herself to perpetual
virginity, but because she had for a short time been tempted to try and
win a husband she became riddled with guilt. Accusing herself of vanity
she frequently flagellated until the blood ran. At sixteen, following
another vision, she became a tertiary among the Daughters of Penance of
St Dominic’s Order of Preachers, but as the demands made of her were
not enough she shut herself up in her father’s house for three years
accusing herself of entertaining the foulest temptations. Another
vision at the age of nineteen, in which she saw herself betrothed to
Christ himself, rewarded her pains and vigils.
inner promptings, visions and voices, she became well known
in Siena for the trances into which she frequently fell. At such times
she was totally insensitive and her limbs became stiff and cold. She
explained that because she was so full of Christ her senses stopped
working. Her catatonic fits reached a peak in 1370, when she lay as
though dead for four hours, then wept for two days explaining that she
had seen the hidden things of God and was now forced back into the
prison of her body.
outbreak of plague in the summer of 1374, Catherine nursed
the sick and comforted the dying, and enthusiastically called for a
crusade against the Mohammedans to free the Holy Places in Jerusalem.
Another mystical experience occurred on April 1, 1375, when Catherine
received the stigmata. No one ever saw the five wounds until after she
died, and their invisibility was explained by saying that she had
especially requested it. Her part in trying to convince Pope Gregory XI
and other rulers in Europe of the need for war resulted in an agony of
confusion of her part in it. On January 30, 1380, she suffered a
stroke, her ‘demons’ blaming her for the part she had played in causing
a split in the Church. She was struck by paralysis and died on April
29, 1380. Buried in the Minerva Church at Rome, her head was removed
and carried to Siena, where it may still be seen, perhaps one of the
most repulsive, although one of the most venerated of all Christian
Catherine can be seen as a remarkable example of
religious ecstasy, which can now be explained in terms of the morbid
psychology of hysteria.
less bizarre note, Dr. Luigi Garlaschelli and his colleagues
at the University of Pavia, Italy, have come up with a plausible
scientific explanation for the mystery of the clotted blood of a saint
which turns to liquid when handled by priests. In Naples since 1389,
for example, a sealed phial of the solid blood of St Januarius has
turned into liquid every few months before the faithful who venerate
it. Up until 1992, this ‘miracle’ has remained unexplained. Reporting
their discovery in Nature, the scientists explored the tendency of
certain gels to turn to liquid when stirred or vibrated and to return
to the solid form when allowed to stand. This is known as thixotropy,
and it appears to be what occurs in the holy blood relic of the
the effect, Garlaschelli’s team mixed calcium carbonate
(or chalk) in a solution in water of hydrated iron chloride and used
dialysis to transfer the chemical products across a membrane into
distilled water. In medieval times, parchment or animal gut would have
worked equally as well. By adding a pinch of common salt, a dark
brownish ‘sol’ was formed which set into a solid gel. Gently shaken
this gel turned into liquid. Then when left to stand, the liquid
solidified. The researchers concluded: “The chemical nature of the
Naples relic can be established only by opening the phial, but a
complete analysis is forbidden by the Catholic Church. Our replication
of the phenomenon seems to render this sacrifice unnecessary.”
veneration and dependence on artefacts or holy relics,
whether they be the bones of saints, statues which drink milk, or
man-made creations to invoke good luck, cures for diseases and
miracles, together with a failure to understand the natural laws of
nature, attests to the ignorance and superstitious nature of man still
prevalent in many societies today.
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