Adrian J. Boas
On Relics, Beliefs and Ridicule
Updated: Oct 12, 2018
Leo Allatius (1586-1669), a Greek classicist, theologian and keeper of the Vatican library, who published the very useful twelfth century pilgrimage account of a fellow native of Chios, Joannes Phocas, was a scholar of broad interests, extending from the dogma of the Greek and Roman Churches, to history, medicine, opera and even vampires. Outside of scholarly circles he is best known for his essay: De Praeputio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi in which he speculated that the holy foreskin had risen into heaven at the time of Christ’s ascension, where it formed the rings of Saturn. Whether this was a naïve but serious-minded explanation of the recent astronomical discovery or a remarkably inspired piece of buffoonery intended to lampoon the claims of rivalling churches to possess the holy relic, it throws some light on the range of his inquisitive mind (or perhaps on his sense of humour). It also enlightens us on the imaginative capacities of the medieval mind when it comes to what might be regarded as a holy relic.
In the Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio included the tale of Frate Cipolla (Friar Onion) who planned to fool the people of a village, possibly Boccaccio's hometown, with a parrot's feather, which he claimed was from the wing of the angel Gabriel. In the story the friar mentions other relics, including such items as a ray from the star of Bethlehem, and a phial containing the chimes of the bells of Solomon's Temple.
As far-fetched as these might seem, they are not very much more remarkable than many of those items that are recorded in medieval relic lists. Here are just a few of the dozens of items included on an inventory of relics purchased in the Latin East by abbot, Martin of Pairis in the early thirteenth century: the blood of Christ, wood from the Lord’s cross, a not inconsiderable piece of Saint John, the arm of Saint James the Apostle, the foot of Saint Cosmos, a relic from the head of the martyr, Cyprian, a tooth of Saint Lawrence and the milk of the Lord’s mother.
But for all the reaction that these objects raise for modern sensibilities, and even if some people in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, not to mention the Reformation, considered them ludicrous, for many people in the past they were perfectly believable. Considering Allatius and his beliefs or jesting regarding the holy foreskin and Saturn, I am led to thoughts about the 1969 Apollo moon-landing, and the fact that we all (or at least, most of us) accept that it actually occurred, and that the images that we witnessed on the television screen were not filmed in a dusty little backstreet studio in Hollywood.