Otranto Cathedral: Where You Can See The Remains Of Catholicism’s Newest Saints

Otranto Cathedral
Pope Francis has beatified a long list of religious figures in the first creation of saints of his papacy, the Guardian reports. Included in this list are the 813 Martyrs of Otranto. These were victims of a massacre in the southern Italian town in 1480 when Ottoman soldiers beheaded them for refusing to convert to Islam.

It was common in Medieval and Renaissance Europe to display the remains of martyrs and saints, and the Martyrs of Otranto were no exception. They are on display in a huge ossuary in the Cathedral of Otranto. It’s a fitting home since many Otranto residents took shelter in the cathedral during the Ottoman attack on their city. Eventually, the Ottomans broke in, took away the people and turned the cathedral into a stable. The cathedral was reconsecrated the following year when the Italians recaptured Otranto.

The cathedral, first consecrated in 1088, has more to offer than the arresting sight of hundreds of bones stacked up on a wall. The floor is covered with one of the most impressive medieval mosaics in Europe – a complex 12th-century work of art showing Biblical scenes, Heaven, Hell and the Garden of Eden. There are also traces of early frescoes on the wall, a gilded ceiling and some fine Gothic tracery.

Some of the remains of the Martyrs of Otranto are kept in Santa Caterina a Formiello in Naples. Italy is one of the best countries to see bits of holy people from the past. There are numerous saints’ relics in Rome, including a crypt of mummified monks. The city even has a Purgatory Museum. The Basilica of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay, France, has Mary’s bones. Further east in Sozopol, Bulgaria, is a church with the bones of John the Baptist.

[Photo courtesy Laurent Massoptier]

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Vatican City Issues Special Stamps After Papal Resignation

Vatican City, Vatican stampsCall me old fashioned, but when I’m on the road there’s something special about writing a postcard, sticking on some local stamps and sending it to loved ones back home. Receiving mail from overseas is almost as much fun.

I especially like rare stamps from smaller or less frequently traveled countries. Sadly I couldn’t send any postcards from Somaliland because they don’t have a mail service. I was also disappointed that on my recent trip to Iraq we never stopped at a post office.

Luckily you don’t have to go so far to find strange and soon-to-be collectable stamps. The surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has forced Vatican City to issue a special set of stamps.

They are emblazoned with an angel holding the Arms of the Apostolic Camera and the words “Sede Vacante MMXIII” (“Vacant See 2013”). They come in four different denominations of 70 and 85 euro cents, 2 euros, and 2.50 euros.

Stamps for the vacant see are designed shortly after a new Pope takes office and are kept until he dies, to be used for the brief period before the next Pope is elected.

Stamp Magazine reports that since the Vatican started issuing stamps, the Vacant See issues have only been used for a total of 20 days. I suspect this means that franked (used) Vacant See stamps will later become pretty valuable owing to their rarity. So if you’re in Italy, head on over to that little country inside Rome and send out some postcards. Your friends and family will thank you for it a few years from now.

[Photo courtesy Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office]

Beauty In Wartime: The Italian Chapel In Orkney

Orkney, Italian Chapel
The remote Orkney Islands north of Scotland became important during both world wars. With German U-boats prowling the Atlantic, shipping between the United Kingdom and North America was diverted as far north as possible and passed by Orkney. The islands were protected by a series of bunkers and forts that can still be seen today.

The remote islands also proved to be a good place to put prisoners of war. Camp 60, on Lambholm, housed some 500 Italian soldiers captured during the North Africa campaign of World War II. They had a pretty good life considering the circumstances. By day they worked on building barriers between the islands to inhibit U-boat traffic, and in their spare time they built themselves a bowling alley and printed their own newspaper.

They were far from home, however, and still prisoners, so they needed some spiritual inspiration. Thus they got permission to convert two Nissen huts into a Catholic chapel. The prisoners quickly organized. Former artisans volunteered to decorate and paint the chapel, or devise candlesticks and a rood screen out of scrap metal and wood. Less skilled prisoners did the heavy work.

%Gallery-161322%One Italian POW described why the prisoners rallied around the project: “It was the wish to show oneself first, and to the world then, that in spite of being trapped in a barbed wire camp, down in spirit, physically and morally deprived of many things, one could still find something inside that could be set free.”

Check out the gallery to see this amazing little chapel – all that remains of Camp 60. It’s been lovingly preserved by the people of Orkney and regularly visited by the former prisoners and their families.

The above photo was taken by Gregory J. Kingsley, who obviously went on a nicer day than we did.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “A Look Inside at a Scotch Whisky Distillery!”

Shroud Of Turin One Of 40 Fakes, Historian Says

Shroud of TurinThe Shroud of Turin has been causing controversy for centuries now. The linen cloth, measuring 14 feet by 4 feet, has what appear to be bloodstains on it. Also, the image of a wounded man can be seen, an image that becomes clearer when looked at as a photographic negative.

Now historian Antonio Lombatti of the Università Popolare in Parma, Italy, says the Shroud of Turin is a fake, and not only that, it’s not a very original one. About forty pieces of cloth purported to be the burial shroud of Jesus circulated in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Religious relics were popular then and now.

Lombatti say the shroud was given to a French knight in Turkey in 1346. This is the first concrete record of the Shroud and agrees with radiocarbon analysis of the linen. In 1988, the University of Oxford, University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology independently tested parts of the Shroud and each said it dates to sometime between 1260-1390.

The photographic negative image was well within the ability of medieval technology as far back as the eleventh century A.D., according to one researcher who made his own shrouds using medieval techniques.

Also, John 19:40 and 20:6-7 clearly state that Jesus was wrapped in several strips of linen, not just one, and that his head was wrapped in a separate cloth.

None of this, of course, will dissuade the thousands of believers who flock to the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, where the Shroud is kept and (rarely) exhibited.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Crucifixion nails found in Israel? Probably not.

Crucifixions, nail, Roman, Roman nailThere’s been a shocking archaeological discovery in Israel. Nails from the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ have been found!

Well, no, probably not.

The claim comes from Israeli Canadian documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, the Washington Post reports. Jacobovici has done several documentaries on Christian subjects and came across an archaeological report from 1990 mentioning the discovery of nails in the tomb of a man named Caiaphas. For those who know their Bible, this is the same name as the Jewish high priest who plotted to arrest Jesus and then gave him to the Romans. The name is right, the date of the tomb is right, so the nails must be those from the Crucifixion, right?

The Post quotes Jacobovici as saying, “There’s a general scholarly consensus that the tomb where the nails were found likely belonged to Caiaphas. Nails at that time were a dime a dozen, but finding one in a tomb is exceedingly rare.”

Actually neither of these statements is true. The Post quotes an Israeli archaeologist as saying that the inscriptions in the tomb aren’t clear as to the occupant’s identity, and I myself have seen Roman nails turn up in tombs. They were pretty common objects, after all.

The timing of this announcement just before Easter and just before Jacobovici’s next documentary comes out (titled “Nails of the Cross” to air Wednesday on the History Channel), adds to the suspicion that Jacobovici is fooling either himself or us.

There’s also the question of why a Jewish high priest would take the nails of someone who he thought was a false prophet to the grave with him, or even how he got them in the first place since it was Jesus’ family and followers who removed Jesus from the Cross.

In the view of this former archaeologist, this story is more of the usual sensationalism masking as science that fills so much of the media. A bit like the spurious discovery of Caligula’s tomb.

Never fear. There are plenty are saints’ relics in Rome, including enough nails for a dozen Crucifixions. Gadling’s own David Farley has even written a book about the Holy Foreskin, which you can also visit in Italy. Actually there’s more than one relic claiming to be the Holy Foreskin, but that’s another story. . .

[Image of Roman nails courtesy user Takkk via Wikimedia Commons. These are not the same nails that came from the tomb mentioned in this article.]