BMCR 2020.06.15

The beginnings of the cult of relics

, The beginnings of the cult of relics. . Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 249 p.. ISBN 9780199675562 $85.00.

Studies of the cult of saints – and, recently, also of reliquaries – abound, and there are useful monographs on the subject with a later or earlier focus. Nonetheless, this book, together with another almost simultaneous publication,[1] fills a gap by focusing on body relics in late antiquity. It aims at dating and explaining the beginnings of this cult as “the most significant and interesting change in late antique mentality” (3).

Chapter 1 deals with the “Prehistory and Early Chronology of the Cult of Relics”. Although biblical examples (2 Kings 13,20-21: bones of Elisha; Mark 5,25-34: Jesus’ garment; Acts 19,12: Paul’s aprons) underline the healing power of physical remains and are referred to by authors like Origen, Ambrose, and Athanasius, a continuity with the late antique cult cannot be proven. Moreover, Wiśniewski dismisses some cases that are often adduced as evidence for a pre-Constantinian cult of relics. The gathering of bones in the Martyrium Polycarpi, for example, in his opinion, does not go beyond the usual respect paid in the Greco-Roman world to the physical remains of heroes (despite Polycarp’s bones being called “more valuable than precious stones and more inestimable than gold” and made the center of an annual celebration).[2] He considers the story of Lucilla kissing the bone of a martyr told by Optatus to be not “a truthful description of an actual practice, but a rhetorical picture” (19). Hence, the cult of relics, according to Wiśniewski, started as late as the mid-fourth century when we find indisputable evidence for the transfers of relics to Antioch and to Constantinople, for the disapproval of excavating corpses (Athanasius) and for attacks on Christian corpses and graves under Julian.

In Chapter 2 (“The First Miracles”) Wiśniewski argues that it was the belief in their power that gave momentum to the cult of relics. After the belief in miracles had diminished in the church, the 350s witnessed a renewal of this belief, which seems to derive from exorcisms and healing miracles at the graves. He notes the construction of monumental sanctuaries that could compete with the pagan healing shrines as places where possessed and sick people found alms and shelter as well as hope for healing. He identifies these Christian sanctuaries as a crucial factor for the growing belief in the power of relics. Moreover, stories and ceremonies contributed to turning the tombs of martyrs into sites of thaumaturgy.

Chapter 3 (“Defenders of Cities”) deals with a third function ascribed to saints beyond exorcizing and healing: the protection of cities and communities. Wiśniewski distinguishes this phenomenon from seemingly parallel non-Christian beliefs. Rather than protecting places with apotropaic objects like the statues of gods, he asserts, the saints functioned as patrons for people and communities. He concedes, however, that there is also evidence for Christians using relics as talisman-like objects.

Chapter 4 (“Relics and Divination”) discusses cases where a martyr’s shrine became the site of confessions enforced, demons compelled to tell the truth, lots thrown or people incubated in order to obtain answers. Although these phenomena have non-Christian parallels, Wiśniewski argues that a local pagan-Christian tradition in the sense of a genetic link cannot be proven.

In Chapter 5 (“Burials ad Sanctos”) Wiśniewski turns against Yvette Duval’s dichotomy of hierarchy and people, which he argues neglects the evidence of bishops like Ambrose, Damasus, and Gregory of Nazianzus. He demonstrates that the practice is not as early and widely attested as commonly thought. Sharing the skepticism of Zuckerman, Woods, and Barnes as to the authenticity of the Acta Maximiliani, the first safely datable examples are from the 360s. Secular motives like the display of wealth and status may have played a role as much as the hope for resurrection and being helped in the afterlife.

In Chapter 6 (“Finding Relics”) Wiśniewski explains that the discovery of relics served to identify biblical places, to kindle religious zeal, or to enhance the status of a church or the position of its bishop. Accordingly, the literary pattern of the inventio accounts gives the bishop a prominent role although, as Wiśniewski demonstrates, bishops were often not involved.

Chapter 7 (“Touching Relics”) puts the thesis of a cultural breach into perspective. Although the corpse was generally considered a source of pollution, the taboo concerning the dead was not absolute. In the Greco-Roman world, special dead like emperors or heroes could be buried inside the walls. Even in Jewish contexts there seem to have been exceptions from the general purity prescriptions. On the other hand, even the Christian cult of relics, at least in an officially regulated form, avoided direct physical contact with the corpse or the bones. The sources attest to only a few cases of an unscrupulous touching of relics, and these examples are localized more in the East than in the West.

Chapter 8 (“Displaying and Seeing Relics”) argues that visual access to relics was also very exceptional. Whenever relics were exhibited on the occasion of their inventio, translation or deposition this was for a short time only. Mostly they remained hidden in graves, shrines or reliquaries.

In Chapter 9 (“Dividing Relics”) Wiśniewski challenges the common notion, based on Hormisdas’s letter to Justinian in 519, that Greek Christians dismembered bodies. The first testimonies refer to physical remains that had already disintegrated: ashes, spots of blood, tiny particles, heads of decapitated martyrs. And even in this “non-invasive” form, as the author calls it, dividing bodies did not become a regular practice before the sixth century, with no significant difference between the East and the West. Nevertheless, a long and gradual “mental shift” (176) can be perceived. First discernable in Syrian testimonies, the shift led from the fourth century translations over the distribution of already disintegrated bodily remains to the active dismemberment of body parts in the sixth century.

In Chapter 10 (“Discussions and Theology”) Wiśniewski turns from practice to theory. Whereas no direct Jewish statements on the Christian cult of relics have survived, pagan intellectuals (Eunapius, Julian, Ammianus Marcellinus and Claudian) clearly expressed their contempt for this practice, which they classified as magic and pollution. Vigilantius launched the most fundamental Christian attack: for him the veneration of material objects was idolatry. While Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine explained the efficacy of relics through the connection of soul and body, Victricius of Rouen argued that the bodies of the martyrs shared in the mystical body of Christ.

Chapter 11 (“Eastern, Western, and Local Habits in the Cult of Relics”) calls for caution. Beside the fact that the dichotomic categories East and West are inadequate to describe the multipolar reality of late antiquity, the evidence that has survived is too accidental to allow any statement about the absence of a practice in a certain region. Some regional peculiarities, however, might be explained by a pre-Christian local tradition, as in Egypt or Persia.[3] While practices may have been diverse, the belief in the function of relics was universal: all over the Christian world they were expected “to expel demons, heal diseases, and protect places” (207).

In a concluding chapter Wiśniewski points out that the cult of relics has to be studied against the background of other post-Constantinian phenomena like pilgrimage, the idea of a holy land, the monastic movement and the growing interest in powerful objects in general, all contributing to a “new religiosity” and a “sacralization of the world” (217) in the fourth century.

Wiśniewski draws on a wide variety of sources and presents his argument in a very readable way. He always explains his method, clarifies his line of thought, and weighs the pros and cons. Two of his major theses, however, namely the late emergence of the cult of relics in the second half of the fourth century as well as the independence of the Christian cult from similar non-Christian phenomena, are questioned by two publications that appeared in 2018 and hence too late for Wiśniewski to discuss them. While Wiśniewski stresses the innovative aspects of the Christian cult of relics and warns against explaining parallels by genetic links, Andreas Hartmann, though not denying the newness of the Christian cult of relics, has made a strong case for a renewed “history of religion”-approach to the phenomenon taking the general cult of the dead, Jewish veneration of prophets, Greek hero cult, imperial cult and magic practices into account.[4] Martina Hartl especially points to the general treatment of the dead as an important precedent to the cult of relics and tracks its beginnings to the second or third centuries. Though acknowledging the boom of the cult and the beginning mobility of relics in the second half of the fourth century, she understands this phenomenon as the continuation of earlier practices that are reflected in sources that Wiśniewski marginalizes, like the targeted destruction of Christian corpses, a ring stained with Perpetua’s blood, Cyprian’s bloody clothes or Valerian’s ban on visiting Christian koimeteria which, as Wiśniewski himself concedes, may indicate that “some of those graves, and possibly other artifacts connected with their death, probably came to be important for Christian communities” (21). Hartl also mentions two smaller aspects of the subject that might be added to Wiśniewski’s argument. To explain the boom of the cult in the fourth century, Hartl, following Robert Markus, points to the identity crisis of the post-Constantinian church as a catalyst: the cult of relics served to assert the identity and continuity with the “church of the martyrs” that had been questioned by groups like the Meletians and Donatists.[5] As for the theological discussion, the miracles at the graves were regarded as proof of bodily resurrection.[6] Patricia Cox Miller and Caroline Walker Bynum suggest that this doctrine might have contributed, together with the idea of incarnation, to a “material turn” in late antiquity.[7]

It might be interesting to correlate Wiśniewski’s theory of a “sacralization of the world” in late antiquity not only with theological ideas but also with anthropological, culture-theoretical and material culture approaches.[8] For such further studies his highly recommended book provides a solid and broad basis.


[1] Martina Hartl, Leichen, Asche und Gebeine. Der frühchristliche Umgang mit dem toten Körper und die Anfänge des Reliquienkults (Handbuch zur Geschichte des Todes im frühen Christentum und seiner Umwelt 3), Regensburg 2018.

[2] Wiśniewski’s argument relies on the assumption that there is no genuine non-Christian cult of relics in the Greco-Roman world, but see Andreas Hartmann, Zwischen Relikt und Reliquie. Objektbezogene Erinnerungspraktiken in antiken Gesellschaften, Berlin 2010.

[3] The few hints of Persian sources may give us an idea that much more might be discovered in in Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Arabic texts. See for example Hector Ricardo Francisco, “Corpse Exposure in the Acts of the Persian Martyrs and its Literary Models,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 19 (2016) 193-235.

[4] Andreas Hartmann, Reliquie, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum 28 (2018) 1170-1205; based on: Hartmann (n.2) which (contra Wiśniewski, 5) also deals with the Christian cult of relics (593-669).

[5] Hartl (n.1) 49, referring to Robert A. Markus, “How on Earth Could Places Become Holy?,” JECS 2 (1994) 257-271: 268-271. See also Josef Lössl, “An Early Christian Identity Crisis Triggered by the Changes in the Discourse of Martyrdom. The Controversy between Jerome of Strido and Vigilantius of Calagurris,” in: J. Leemans (ed.), More than a Memory. The Discourse of Martyrdom and the Construction of Christian Identity in the History of Christianity, Leuven 2005, 97-117.

[6] Hartl (n.1) 47, referring to Augustine, serm. 275,3 and civ. 22,8. See also John of Damascus, Expositio fidei IV 15 and 88 (PTS 12,202-205).

[7] Patricia Cox Miller, The Corporeal Imagination, Philadelphia 2009, esp. 3-4; Caroline W. Bynum, Christian Materiality, New York 2011.

[8] For example, David Morgan, Religion and Material Culture. The Matter of Belief, London 2010; Dick Houtman – Birgit Meyer, Things. Religion and the Question of Materiality, New York 2014; Peter Metcalf – Richard Huntington, Celebrations of Death. The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual, Cambridge 1991; Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead. A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Princeton 2015.