Notre Dame De Paris Celebrates 850 Years With Special Events

Notre Dame
One of the icons of Paris is turning 850 this coming year. Notre Dame de Paris was founded in 1163, although the beautiful Gothic cathedral wasn’t completed until 1345 and the building has been altered several times since.

To celebrate, Notre Dame is hosting a series of special events throughout 2013. A concert series has already started. Some of the shows will feature the cathedral’s great organ with its five keyboards, 190 ties and 8,000 pipes. The cathedral has excellent acoustics so the musicians will sound their best.

Restoration work is also underway. Several of the cathedral’s bells are being recast. These are 19th-century bells of inferior quality that had been made to replace bells that had been melted down during the French Revolution in the 1790s.

Notre Dame is one of the most popular attractions in Paris, and justifiably so. Its breathtaking stained glass windows, some dating back to the 13th century, are only matched in beauty by the soaring vaults of its ceiling. There are lots of little details here too, such as the various gargoyles and chimeras perched on the exterior, and the grim scenes of Hell on one of the portals.

The cathedral has witnessed some of the great events of the history of Paris. It was here that Heraclius of Caesarea called for the Third Crusade in 1185. Henry VI of England was crowned king of France here in 1431. In the bitter winter of 1450, Parisians hunted down a deadly pack of wolves in front of the cathedral that had been terrorizing the city. The cathedral was desecrated during the French Revolution but managed to survive and continue as a house of worship to the present day.

The cathedral has numerous holy relics, including the purported crown of thorns, as well as a nail and a piece of wood from the True Cross.

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[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Archaeologists Analyze John the Baptist’s Bones

John the BaptistThe Black Sea port of Sozopol has been making the news quite a bit lately. First, Bulgarian archaeologists uncovered two vampire skeletons there, and now its relics of John the Baptist have been submitted to scientific analysis.

Back in 2010, archaeologists uncovered six bone fragments from a marble sarcophagus in the ruins of a medieval church on the island of Sveti Ivan, “Saint John,” near Sozopol.

The bones are on display at a church in Sozopol. One of them, a knucklebone, was radiocarbon dated at the University of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. The team found it dated to the first century A.D.

The radiocarbon results will no doubt cheer the faithful, who generally dismiss radiocarbon dating when it proves the world is more than 6,000 years old or that the Shroud of Turin is a medieval fake.

Geneticists at the University of Copenhagen analyzed three bones and found they belonged to the same male individual, and that he hailed from the Middle East.

So could this be John the Baptist? It’s possible, although of course it can’t be said for sure. One point in favor is that a box made of volcanic tuff from Cappadocia, Turkey, was found next to the bones. On it is an inscription in ancient Greek of John’s name and feast day. Researchers note that many relics came from the Holy Land via the religious communities in Cappadocia before ending up in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, modern Istanbul. They were then distributed throughout the Empire.

Many relics from John the Baptist can be found in churches throughout the world, including several examples of his head. Gadling blogger and relics researcher David Farley came across one story of a Spanish monk who went in search of a relic for his monastery. As Farley relates:

“During his wanderings he happened upon a black market relics salesman who told him he had a fine relic he could sell him. It was the head of John, the Baptist. But this wasn’t just the head of John, the Baptist. It was the head of John, the Baptist…as an infant.”

[Photo of Serbian painting of John the Baptist, c. 1235, courtesy The Yorck Project]

Saints’ relics in Rome


Everywhere you go in Rome, there are body parts on display.

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!

John the Baptist found in Bulgaria

Bulgarian archaeologists say they have found a reliquary containing the remains of John the Baptist on an island in the Black Sea.

St. Ivan island, off the Black Sea coast near the Bulgarian resort town of Sozopol, has been a religious center since the fifth century. One of the many medieval churches on the island is named after Saint John the Baptist, and local tradition holds that his remains were buried inside the altar. A team of archaeologists recently opened up the altar and found an ornate marble reliquary. When they opened it last weekend, they found bones inside.

So are these really the remains of the man who baptized Jesus Christ? The Bulgarian Orthodox Church thinks so, and so does the local press. The truth, however, is a bit murkier. Saints’ relics were hugely popular in the Middle Ages, with every major church having several. Even contemporary observers joked that if all the pieces of the True Cross were brought together they’d make a lumberyard. Relics often moved around, taken as booty by plundering armies, sold by one church to another, or even stolen by pilgrims.

Of course, none of this matters to the faithful who have flocked to this island for centuries. St. Ivan island, with its Roman and Medieval remains, is also popular with tourists, and this latest discovery makes the island even more interesting.


Photo of the 11th century Codex Aureus Gnesnesis courtesy Wikimedia Commons.