THE BEGINNINGS OF THE CULT OF RELICS

Robert Wisniewski

OUP (2019) h/b 249 pp £65.00 (ISBN 9780199675562)

Classicists are well aware of numinous places, the shifting of significant sets of bones, centres of divination, and, generally, the intervention of divinity in human affairs. W. is, however, more specific about the object of his enquiry, that is, ‘corporeal remains or other objects connected with people considered to be saints’. Their cult involves both the veneration of saints, and of holy objects, which did not themselves have to be related to the saints, and W. limits his investigation to the 4th-6th centuries.

At first sight it would appear to be an impossible job to identify commonality of practice across such a geographical area and timespan, and indeed it was as diverse as one might expect between, say, 3rd C Gaul and 6th C Cappadocia. There were different types of contact with relics: direct with the bones and flesh; vicarious, with cloth, dust, congealed blood; contact both by sight or touch. There were different attitudes to contact, too. Some thought the translation of bones perfectly proper, others, an abomination; some judged the division of bones a duty, others, a violation. The Christian writer Vigilantius was pretty squeamish about all this, and Jerome lambasted him with the (quite) witty sobriquet ‘Sleepy’. And just when it would be possible to give up and drown in the detail, W. shows us the big picture which convincingly embraces all this diversity: the belief in the resurrection, which made all things possible and allowed people to see things differently. Dead bodies were never to be treated lightly, but pre-Christian aversion to the dead in time turned to inhumation within city walls, against all pagan practice, and even intramural. But why and how did the cult start so suddenly and spread so quickly as to be universal Christian practice within a couple of generations? 

With Diocletian’s Great Persecution finished, Christians felt lifted by a sense of victory which they owed to their martyrs. The now Christian emperor institutionalised the new ‘official’ religion with legislation and a building programme. The new martyria (churches built in honour of martyrs) became natural meeting places for the poor and sick, and it was soon spotted how the spirits in demoniacs began to be disturbed, or even driven out. There were other developments within this ‘sacralisation’ of the world: the very idea of the Holy Land, the practice of pilgrimage, the growth of the monastic movement, and the pulling power of ascetics. Helena found the true cross. Objects that were holy became powerful, that power was active here and now in God’s mortal and material intermediaries, and it could be accessed to heal the sick, protect cities and to reveal hidden knowledge.

Thematically presented and beautifully written, W. examines the evidence and concludes convincingly. The narrative flow is logical and satisfying, and all this brings unexpected clarity to a subject that could have been obliterated by detail.

Adrian Spooner

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