The churches are full of them, and people travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to see them. They’re the mortal remains of saints and apostles and are venerated as holy relics.
Relics were big business in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Every church wanted some because it meant pilgrims would come visit, and pilgrims meant money. Pilgrims were the original tourists and churches fought to be on the pilgrimage route as much as modern hotels fight to be on the tourist trail. Relics were bought, sold, stolen, and forged so much that it’s almost impossible to say whether a particular bone really came from a particular saint. What’s for certain is that their appeal hasn’t totally died away. People still come to the churches of Rome to see the remnants of their favorite holy person.
Being new to Rome, I recruited the help of two Italy experts, historian Angela K. Nickerson and Gadling’s own relic hunter David Farley. With their help I stumbled into the weird world of saint’s relics, a side of Catholicism that in the present day no longer takes center stage yet is still very much in the minds of modern pilgrims.
The mother of all relic collections can be found in and around St. John Lateran, founded in about the year 314 AD as the first Christian basilica in Rome during the twilight years of paganism. While Constantine seems to have been ambivalent about the new faith, his mother Helena embraced Christianity wholeheartedly. She went to the Holy Land and dug around until she found the True Cross, the Spear of Longinus, various holy corpses, and other relics. Her search proved so fruitful that she later became the patron saint of archaeologists. Helena brought these relics back to Rome, where many can still be seen. Her biggest haul was the Scala Santa, the steps to Pontus Pilate’s palace that Jesus walked up on the way to be condemned to death. These are housed in a building right next to St. John Lateran. The faithful still crawl up it on their knees, deep in prayer. A sign by the bottom of the steps informs visitors in a half dozen languages that it is forbidden to walk up. One must crawl or not go up at all.
%Gallery-102761%Other relics have since disappeared or have been moved. The True Cross was broken up and pieces can be found just about everywhere. Two later additions to St. John Lateran are the heads of Saints Peter and Paul, which rest in a pair of gold caskets above the altar. If you want to see the head of John the Baptist, head on over to San Silvestro in Capite.
Some of Helena’s relics ended up in Santa Croce en Gerusalemme, perhaps the most relic-intensive church in Rome. There are bits of the True Cross, the signboard from the Cross that says “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, part of the crown of thorns, and the finger bone of St. Thomas. This is said to be the same finger he used to probe Christ’s wound, proving Christ was really dead and giving rise to the expression “Doubting Thomas”.
For more bones go to San Ignazio, where a side chapel houses a grandiose baroque altar filled with dozens of skulls, femurs, and other bones are incorporated into the decoration. Like the Scala Santa it attracts a steady group of the faithful. When I was there two ancient Italians were praying to these reminders of their immanent fate..
For something a little more romantic, go to Santa Maria en Cosmodin. This church, sitting atop a pagan cemetery, has the skull of Saint Valentine himself. On Valentine’s Day the church officials open up the catacombs beneath the church for tours, the only day they do so. Other churches have something to offer too. Santa Prassede has the column to which Jesus was chained while he was flogged. San Paolo fuori le Mura has St. Paul’s tomb and part of the chain he wore while under arrest. St. Peter’s, of course, has the bones of St. Peter. In fact, it’s hard to find a church that doesn’t have some little memento, human or otherwise, of the early days of Christianity.
And then there are the mummified monks. . .
Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.
Coming up next: The triumph of death: mummified monks of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt!