Relics of Rome

by Amanda Simmonds
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, July 2012]
San Paolo fuori le Mura, tomb of Saint Paul

“relic” : from Latin relinquo, “I leave,” or “I abandon.” In Christendom these come in three classes, the first class being part of a saint’s body. In AD 312 with Christianity legalised the saints tombs were opened and their relics venerated. The touching of cloth from a saint, a type of second class relic, was initially more common in the west. The third class of relic is an object that has come into contact with a first class relic. Remains of saints are commonly found beneath the main altars of Roman churches. This is in keeping with Roman liturgy, which also states they cannot be too small and must be authentic; a collection of knuckles or fingers would not suffice for this positioning; a skull such as that of St George lies beneath the altar of Giorgo in Velabro.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Relics too appear in temples pre-dating the Christian world as evidenced by the head, or caput excavated on The Capitoline hill from the Temple of Jupiter   (Varro, The Latin Language, 5.41).
While the Christian emperor Theodosius abolished all forms of pagan observance in AD 395, such as consultation with the oracles for guidance (see "The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak" by Richard Stoneman, (Yale University Press, 2011), the practice of seeking guidance from a higher power at various shrines sees parallels in Christians seeking out guidance from saints through prayer or from priests through the act of confession. During the Middle Ages when relic  veneration became obligatory and spread across the churches (having been more common in the Eastern churches) the trade in relics flourished firstly from church to royalty, later to nobility and the merchant classes, and the establishment of authenticity was fraught.

Mausoleum of Costanza, apse mosaics
Santa Maria di Loreto, altar and reliquaries

Collections of smaller relics can be found in glass encased reliquaries in churches, such as those placed beside the crucifix in the Chiesa di Santa Maria Loreto, to the side of the main altar. Sometimes considered idolatory by Protestants, the Catholic and Orthodox churches veneration of saints is here explained: While God alone is worshipped (worship of latria) Saints are honoured and venerated (worship of dulia) as humans specially blessed by God. Mary receives the special worship of hyperdulia; this explanation of the hierarchy of worship serves to maintain the integrity of Catholicism as monotheistic. The mosaic image of Sant'Agnese appears above the central altar of the church dedicated to her, in the position usually reserved for Christ. Below the altar her remains are entombed together with those of her foster sister, Emerentianne. Emerentianne was stoned to death while praying at the tomb of Agnes and declaring herself a Christian.

Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura, apse and altar

The Church teaches that the..."spiritual soul does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection" - Catechism of the Catholic Church, 366. The body is the temple of the soul: “And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God” - Corinthians 6:16 The saints body in death is not as is during life due to departure of the soul; but its matter is the same and is destined to be reunited - www.newadvent.org