Via Lucis has discussed the importance of relics in medieval society in previous posts. They were part of the fabric of the practice of Christianity and affected the design of the physical churches themselves. Fundamentally, relics are remembrances that carry a spiritual power associated with the original source.
The Catholic church defines three classes of relics.
1. First class relics are parts of the bodies of saints and the instruments of the Passion of Christ
2. Second class relics are clothes worn or objects used by a saint during his or her lifetime. In the case of a martyr, this class extends to the instruments of torture.
3. Third class relics are objects or cloth touched to First or Second class relics.
Relics were powerfully moving to the faithful – Saint Louis, King Louis IX, paid 135,000 livres in 1237 for the Crown of Thorns. He also bought a fragment of the Holy Lance, the True Cross and other relics and built the Sainte Chapelle in Paris to house them.
Many of these relics survive to this day. The Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres houses the Sancta Camisia, the tunic worn by Mary during the birth of Jesus. The Shroud of Turin is a 14 foot linen that is believed to be Christ’s winding sheet at burial. The Shroud bears an image of a crucified man with wounds similar to those suffered by Jesus during the crucifixion. Carbon-dating done in 1988 shows that the cloth was made between 1260 and 1390, but this is still disputed and pilgrims come to Turin from all over the world to see the Shroud.
The great impetus to the veneration of relics began when Emperor Constantine appointed his mother Helena as Augusta Imperatrix, and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate the Christian relics. In 326-28 Helena undertook a trip to the Holy Places in Palestine. She demanded that the church built on the site of the Crucifixion be demolished. Under the ruins, she found three crosses, which were identified as the crosses of the Passion. This was the source of the True Cross, one of the most important of all relics and origin of the many fragments that appeared over the years.
Some believe that these fragments proliferated beyond reason. John Calvin said “In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.”
Modern man with his rational mind belittles the relics and their putative power. They are consigned to the world of the irrational and their present-day vestiges considered quaint frauds. But the fact that there is an entire category of Christian relics on eBay testifies to the vitality of those vestiges.
To me, however, these enlightened souls who mock do not acknowledge that the thirst for relics is just as prevalent in the 21st century as in the Middle Ages and modern practitioners exploit that underlying need just as callously and ruthlessly as the worst in the Middle Ages.
The differences are that medieval relics were fundamentally spiritual and modern relics are based on something as transitory as popular culture. And the prices? Saint Louis himself would be aghast. A baseball jersey worn by Babe Ruth around 1920 sold for $4,415,658. The ball hit by the steroid-enhanced Mark McGwire for his 70th home run in 1998 sold for $3,000,000. A mere slip of paper, a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card, sold for $2.8M. In contrast, the highest price ever paid on the open market for a signed autograph letter was for a letter written by Abraham Lincoln defending the Emancipation Proclamation. It cost a paltry $748,000.
It is not merely relics of our sports heroes that sell for such sums. A copy of Action Comics #1 featuring the first appearance of a mythical hero, Superman, was sold by in March, 2010 for $1.5 million.
I understand the underlying need. For years I kept my copy of the program for a baseball game I saw in Washington DC between the Senators and the Chicago White Sox. It was a way of reaching back in time and touching Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio, the sparkling infield tandem for the Sox. I’m sure if I had gotten their signatures, I would own that tattered program to this very day.
Just as the fragments of the True Cross proliferated, so do modern relics. Baseball players change jerseys each inning during games so that they can sell them as souvenirs (the word itself recalls “remembrance”). Rock stars, movie stars, athletes and other media darlings sign thousands of items that can be sold to the faithful for inflated prices because they were touched by the icons themselves. We may try to differentiate between the veneration of relics and “memorabilia” or “collectibles” related to our heroes, but the difference is razor thin, if it exists at all. What is the difference between a Mickey Mantle jersey hung on a bedroom wall and a crucifix?
And if we think that this practice is restricted to the uneducated, look up the price of a literary first edition when it has been signed or dedicated by the author. Why are book signings so popular in the first place? They are the creation of second class relics on a mass scale.
The US souvenir market reached $18.91 billion dollars in 2000, but the present day purveyors of relics have far outdone their primitive medieval predecessors. Clothing itself has become a souvenir, not counted in the statistics. Today we walk around as walking commercial advertisements for schools, corporations, clothing manufacturers, and sports franchises. We pay a premium to own a piece of clothing with the right logo so that we can announce to the world that we are properly aligned in our culture. What absolute nonsense. The truth of the matter is that while the waste is appalling, I am not really offended by this behavior. But perhaps we should examine our own enlightened practices before presuming to judge others so harshly.