Worthy of Veneration or Skepticism?: How Europeans Regarded Relics During Medieval and Renaissance Europe

Reliquary of St. Genevieve in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France.

Worthy of Veneration or Skepticism?: How Europeans Regarded Relics During Medieval and Renaissance Europe

Kevin McLaren

The Forum: Cal Poly’s Journal of History, Vol. 6 (2014)

Relics of Saint Clementiane - photo by Shawn Harquail / Flickr
Relics of Saint Clementiane – photo by Shawn Harquail / Flickr

Introduction: Relics are the (apparent) remnants of Christ, Mary, a saint or a martyr that have been preserved and are said to be imbued with magical powers for the purpose of healing or absorbing virtues. They are material objects, such as bones, tombs, body parts, jewelry, clothing, canes, equipment, or books that once belonged to a particular individual, most likely a saint. There are early examples of relics in the Bible, such as 2 Kings 13:21, which tells a story of a dead man touching the bones of a virtuous person and coming back to life. In medieval and renaissance Europe, different relics had different specified powers, depending on the saint to which they belonged. Different saints provided different powers for whatever circumstances a Catholic endured. For example, Catholics venerated the mummified body of St. Chiara in order to purify the body to keep chastity among nuns, while they venerated the clothing of St. Cuthbert in order to cure sickness. Relics were encased in special decorated boxes, statues, tombs, vials, chests and specialized altars. Some churches and/or monasteries in medieval and renaissance Europe were dedicated completely on the basis of a particular relic or were dedicated to the remains of a particular saint.

Although the people of Europe carried out pilgrimages to visit relics to absorb their virtue during medieval and early-renaissance Europe, attitudes toward relics changed during the Renaissance. Relics, reliquaries and the act of pilgrimage obtained importance in medieval Europe because of their mystical, spiritual and healing nature. The Catholic Church justified their veneration. Relics and reliquaries were prevalent in renaissance and reformation Europe until certain theologians began to question the validity, practicality, and true purposes of relics. These theologians emphasized an individual’s faith in God rather than faith in relics, which in turn resulted in a renaissance movement away from reliance on relics.

Among scholars, analysis of renaissance relics has oftentimes become contextually muddled because of confusion with other various Catholic images. This scholarship is also fraught with bias because many of the scholars are Catholic or Protestant, and thus have an opinion about whether the use of relics is right or wrong. Additionally, scholars often under-analyze the evolution of the theological and ideological usages for relics between medieval and renaissance Europe. My survey of Catholic relics provides some contextual history of relics in Europe, but concentrates specifically on the change in perspective regarding relics during the Renaissance

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