Relics were always an important part of the early Christian church, but also the subject of great controversy. The issue was whether or not the reverence accorded to relics constituted the forbidden sin of idolatry. Perhaps even worse, it was considered to signify a return to paganism.
To many of the faithful, however, the relic was considered a tangible memory of saintliness linking heaven and earth. The relic linked the penitent directly to heaven through the intermediary of the saint or martyr whose relic was venerated. The body of the saint provided a spiritual connection between life and death, between man and God: “Because of the grace remaining in the martyr, they were an inestimable treasure for the holy congregation of the faithful.” In the fourth century the great biblical scholar Saint Jerome stated, (“Ad Riparium”, i, P. L., XXII, 907): “We do not worship, we do not adore [non colimus, non adoramus], for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate [honoramus] the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.” Church theologians adopted the terms latria for the type of worship due to God alone, and dulia for the veneration given to saints and icons.
This distinction between worship and veneration was the key to the legitimizing the spread of Christian relics. Parts of the bodies of the saints, martyrs, and even Jesus himself were spread through Christendom. After the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 (present-day İznik in Turkey), a relic was required for a church to be consecrated. The belief in the power of these relics was absolute, testified to over and over by saints, churchmen, and the faithful themselves. The aura of the divine was palpable.
Relics could be found, then, throughout the Christian world. Believers made pilgrimage to visit them and the more famous relics were visited by pilgrims from far distant lands. After the discovery of the body of James the Greater in Spain, the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela developed into one of the most important to the faithful, second only to Rome, which held the bodies of Saints Peter and Paul, or to Jerusalem, the Holy Land itself where the Redeemer walked the earth. Whatever we think now of relics and pilgrimage, in the Middle Ages belief in the reality was as complete as our belief that the world is round and orbits the sun. Relics provided a tangible presence of God, testifying to the certitude of faith. The truth of relics was susceptible to explanation, proof, and experience and consequently became one of the most important forces in the development of the churches that housed the faithful.
These developments will be the subject of the second part of this post. It is said that the Romanesque was a communal way of seeing. I think that we can come to appreciate this by understanding relics, pilgrimage, and the pilgrimage churches.
Note: Part 2 of this post can be found at this link.