Something for Remembrance (Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Reliquary Notre Dame de Beaulieu, Église Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Corrèze)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Reliquary Notre Dame de Beaulieu, Église Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Shroud of Turin
Shroud of Turin

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.

Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox
Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox

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.

Altar with Reliquaries, Chapelle Sainte Anne, Basilique Saint-Anne d'Apt, Apt (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Altar with Reliquaries, Chapelle Sainte Anne, Basilique Saint-Anne d’Apt, Apt (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

18 thoughts on “Something for Remembrance (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Hi Dennis,

    Not to take away from the substance of your post, but the title has a mis-spelling: “Remembrance” (vs. “Rememberance”) — FYI.

  2. This is interesting, Dennis. One of the amazing facts about the Shroud of Turin is that the image is in “negative.” Despite carbon dating, which is problematic, no one can explain how the image was rendered in “negative.” As to the pieces of the True Cross and how John Calvin said the remnants would fill a ship:
    Conflicting with this is the finding of Charles Rohault de Fleury, who, in his Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion 1870 made a study of the relics in reference to the criticisms of Calvin and Erasmus. He drew up a catalogue of all known relics of the True Cross showing that, in spite of what various authors have claimed, the fragments of the Cross brought together again would not reach one-third that of a cross which has been supposed to have been three or four meters in height, with transverse branch of two meters wide, proportions not at all abnormal. He calculated: supposing the Cross to have been of pine-wood (based on his microscopic analysis of the fragments) and giving it a weight of about seventy-five kilograms, we find the original volume of the cross to be 0.178 cubic meters. The total known volume of known relics of the True Cross, according to his catalogue, amounts to approximately 0.004 cubic meters (more specifically 3,942,000 cubic millimeters), leaving a volume of 0.174 cubic meters lost, destroyed, or otherwise unaccounted for.
    Still and all, it’s a matter of faith and what people choose to treasure. Baseball cards, Beanie Babies, Roman coins, or sanctified relics. As you say, the question is not what, but why.

    1. Thanks, “Loira”. I’ve read another study estimating the volume of the pieces of the True Cross and it tallies with the numbers you posted. I quoted Calvin only to show the point of view of the detractors. As to the Shroud, I remember going to Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara in the late 80’s to see the display that they had (full size reproductions) and being amazed at the “negatives”. Who would have conceived that? One of the explanations is that a real body was anointed and covered at a later date, but who knows. There is still dispute over the carbon dating, but to my mind, that doesn’t really matter. After all, it is the belief, isn’t it?

  3. Fascinating piece. I’m enamored of a book that would make your baseball fan heart leap – John Sexton’s “Baseball as a Road to God” that goes hand-in-glove with your reflection. In it he distinguishes between the rational, the irrational, and the non-rational. The book is about the spiritual dimension that is part of the non-rational, what he prefers to call “the ineffable”. /It’s a wonderful read with references to Mircea Eleade, Rudolph Otto, contemporary and ancient philosophers, scientists, and theologians. Your post reminded me of what I was reading yesterday about baseball as a road to God. Your exposure of modern hubris toward those who find in the religious relics a reminder and touch of Christ is well done. As one whose theology is in the Reformed Tradition that goes through Calvin (I know, deep breaths and sighing are in order :-), I was raised to be skeptical, or worse, cynical, about relics as deceptive means of mass manipulation. I get it! I’m on my way to confession – and a conversation with Dr. Calvin. Thank you.

    1. Stan Musial, Nellie Fox, Luis Aparacio – add in Mickey Mantle, Elroy Face, and Herb Score and you have my first heroes. I remember lying on the living room floor every morning reading the game results and box scores. I’ll have to read Sexton’s book now.

      This was not meant to be a terribly serious post. I’ve noticed of course that the blogverse is a young people’s game and this comes as one of my “cranky old man” posts where I try to remind the terribly earnest young that there are shoaling waters out there in the world. But since there seem to be no consequences in doing so, they are willing to dive right in from great heights. I was no different when I was young, and the coming generations will be no different either.

      1. Amen. My heroes were Robin Roberts, Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis, “Puddin’ Head” Jones, Granny Hamner (Phillies).. My favorite, though, was Roy Campanella, and, of course, Eddie Matthews, Mickey Mantle, Carl Erskine, and Yogi Berra. Sexton’s book begins with the 1955 World Series. You’ll love this book.

  4. A few years ago I visited a cousin in Tulsa,Ok. He had been a baseball player and a sports writer. He shared with me a room in his home completely filled with baseball memorabilia, pointing out many very special pieces. He has since passed as his third wife. I have often wondered what happened to that collection. Aren’t most of us guilty of “collection” fever in one way or another?

    1. Many of us have “collection fever”, no doubt. I tried to distinguish that from the relic-effect. Collections can be a whole different world and often they intersect. But the idea of being close to a hero or idol or role model by touching something that they touched, that was the purpose of the post.

  5. Amen. I used these same analogies (between athlete-based and rock star-based souvenirs to help my students understand the significance of relics and icons (and the chapels which housed them) when I taught my course on Cathedrals and Other Great Churches 20 years ago. It worked then too!

  6. Then there is the whole universe of celebrity emulation, viz. the dress model worn by the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) which sells out within 20 minutes of her stepping out in it; or the luxury brand which lends cachet to its wearer by prominently displaying its logo, such as the interlaced C’s of Chanel, the superimposed LV’s of Louis-Vuitton, etc. Perhaps going a bit far afield here, but the wearer has somehow achieved success by “touching” the holy relic of expensive consumerism.

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