Relic Robbing: Church’s Medieval Treasures in Jeopardy?

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The theft of a medieval relic from a church in Ireland earlier this week is raising questions about the security of these places of worship and the safety of the items held within them.

On Saturday morning, church officials in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral discovered that the preserved heart of St Laurence O’Toole (d.1180) had been stolen. Church dean Rev. Dermot Dunne said, “It’s just unthinkable that someone should steal something like that,” but this theft is just one of an increasing number of robberies that are taking place in churches.

Other Irish churches have been targeted in recent months – a rare Celtic-designed reliquary, worth €10,000, was ripped out of the wall at St Brigid’s Church in Killester, Co Dublin (fortunately the saint’s relic had been removed earlier for conservation work), while a piece of the True Cross was taken from Holycross Abbey, but was later returned. Meanwhile, the Codex Calixtinus, a 12th-century manuscript, was stolen from Santiago de Compostela last year, making international headlines. The theft of medieval relics is not just occurring in Europe – last year it was reported that a 780-year old relic purported to be part of Saint Anthony of Padua, (the patron saint of lost things) was stolen from a church in Long Beach, California.

Churches throughout England have been hit by thieves in recent years. In most of these cases they are looking to steal lead pipes and other old metals that make up the church fabric.  These attacks are worrying church officials, who have few resources to protect their buildings. Earlier this year, Fr Peter Barnes-Clay of the Diocese of Norfolk said, “The diocese has expressed a wish for churches to remain open, but we have to be realistic. They can cope with increased security during open churches week, but in the long term they cannot have someone on guard 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”




In the case of the Codex Calixtinus it is believed that thieves may have hidden in the Cathedral when it closed, and then were able to easily grab the manuscript after it had been left outside of its safe. A similar theft occurred in 1991 when robbers hid within the 13th-century cathedral at Auxerre in central France until it closed, and then removed over 100 items, including  12th-century scrolls, illuminated manuscripts, statuettes, and gold and silverwork. In that case, the items were found undamaged two days later in the cemetery of a village.

Lack of security is just one reason why churches are being targeted. While police in Dublin said they, “are looking at a number of theories including someone with a grievance against the church or someone who has an extreme fixation with religious artefacts,” the value of these artefacts may be attracting professional thieves and organized crime.

While these relics are often said to be “invaluable” by church officials, medieval treasures do command high prices on the open market – last year an ivory of the Virgin and Child was sold at auction for over $8.5 million, while the Rochefoucauld Grail, a 14th century manuscript that offers illustrated Arthurian tales, was bought for nearly $4 million.

Dr. Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion at Vassar College and formerly a medieval art expert at Sotheby’s auction house, notes that stolen medieval items may be even easier to sell than modern works of art. “It is a combination of the relatively little provenance information,” he says, “and —frankly—awareness of the existence of medieval works of art that are not “famous” with the fact that even a non-famous object, if verifiably medieval can fetch high prices at auction.”

While medieval manuscripts can have their pages ripped out and sold individually, and relics can have their precious gems and stones removed, these items can also be circulated within the criminal world. It is common for stolen modern works of art to be used as sureties between underworld organizations, and it is possible that saints relics could even have more value for criminals who come from a Catholic background, such as the Sicilian mafia.

The thefts at Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral and Santiago de Compostela in Spain remain unsolved and the whereabouts of the stolen items are a mystery.

See also:

Irresistible: How the Ghent Altarpiece Became the World’s Most Frequently Stolen Artwork

Historic roofing stolen from medieval Nottingham church

Sacred commodities: the circulation of medieval relics

Sharan Newman