It should be no surprise to anyone that Italy is filled with saints’ relics. This is not only due to the Roman empire’s expansive control over the ancient lands which served as the setting of the history of Christendom, but also because the Lord Christ and His followers often were killed or otherwise afflicted at the direction or by consent of the Roman government (with the Coptic Church contributing so many martyrs, as attested to by the early church historian and bishop Eusebius, that the Coptic Church’s calendar was readjusted to remember the most infamous persecutor of Christianity, Diocletion).
And then, years later, beginning around the time of Emperor Constantine, the Roman empire fostered and eventually vigorously promoted the advancement and spread of Christianity, as well as reverence to heroes of the faith. Frequently that enthusiasm motivated problematic/troublesome behavior, with certain individuals choosing to take advantage of people’s devotion to the saints by selling fake relics, and sometimes even stealing (or protecting, depending on perspective) bona fide relics to sell them or bring them to Italy for safeguarding (think Venice, St. Mark the apostle).1
Here are several of the sites associated with saint relics that were of particular interest for me:
St. Athanasius of Alexandria, 20th Pope (of the Coptic Church) of Alexandria
St. Marina the Monk
For more information on this saint and her amazing story, including her body which has not decayed, see blog post here.
Heads of St. Peter & St. Paul
This is the oldest and highest ranking of the four catholic “Papal major basilicas” and is given the unique title of “archbasilica.” It is considered the oldest public church in the city of Rome, and has a significant amount of history, with its Christian roots dating back to Emperor Constantine who donated this to the church of Rome. Before then, it used to be called “the House of Fausta,” who was Emperor Constantine’s second wife.
St. Justin Martyr
Relics of St. Justin the Martyr rest under the altar within the choir chapel. Kindly ask the sacristan for access. The remains of St. Justin the Martyr were temporarily transferred in 1992 to the parish church of San Giustino a Centocelle in Rome; however, they have now been returned to this church.
The church itself follows an Eastern Antiochene rite, and was built in AD 750 to house nuns fleeing persecution from Constantinople because the emperor was against the use of icons. The church used to have a several Byzantine icons Byzantine. One 12th century icon of St. Mary is still present in this church.
The Apostles St. Philip and St. James the Less
The relics of the apostles St. Philip and St. James the Less rest within the confession of this church. During the 6th century they were transferred from Constantinople to Rome by Pope Pelagius I (d. 561). In 1873, as excavations commenced below the central altar, their relics were unearthed. They were then carefully examined and repositioned within the confession. where they rest today. Also, look out for the painting above the main altar, which depicts the martyrdom of St. Philip and St. James the Less. It was completed by Domenico Maria Muratori in the early 18th century.
Purportedly the head of St. John the Baptist
What is purported to be the head of St. John the Baptist can be found at this church, with a prayer on the table in front of the the relic. The reason I am emphasizing “purported” is because there are several churches who claim to have the head of this great martyr and saint. But I thought it was notable that reverence is made here for this great saint. Regardless of whether this is actually his head or not, his spirit in Paradise is worthy of recognition, as Christ said: “For I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28).
St. Andrew the Apostle
Most people, as I did, visit the Amalfi coast and think primarily of its beautiful mountain terrain and lodging scattered on cliffs overlooking the ocean. But this remarkable landscape is said to hold a priceless treasure, hidden in plain sight at the Amalfi Cathedral.
As indicated in the reading material I acquired from visiting there, the body and relics of St. Andrew the apostle (brother of the famed St. Peter whose relics are said to primarily be in Rome) was brought to Amalfi during the Fourth Crusade from Constantinople, welcomed on May 8th, 2019 by a festive population. It is said that on the vigil of the Saint’s feast day, and sometimes on other occasions, beneath the main altar dedicated in St. Andrew’s name, a substance referred to commonly as “Manna,” which in this case is a dense liquid which sweats out from the tomb of the apostle, having being doing so wherever his relics have journeyed to (Patras where he was crucified, to Constantinople, and now for hundreds of years in Amalfi).
In a separate locale, at the time being kept in the Reconciliation Chapel in the right apse of the main cathedral, the back of St. Andrew’s skull is on display to be venerated by the faithful.
X-Shaped Cross – crux decussata
One particular visual that struck me as quite unusual is the way St. Andrew is depicted on a cross but in the shape of an “X.”
Apparently, this was something advanced most extensively as a standard means of depicting St. Andrew after the Middle Ages. Here is some more history on this:
Andrew is said to have been martyred by crucifixion at the city of Patras (Patræ) in Achaea. Early texts, such as the Acts of Andrew known to Gregory of Tours, describe Andrew as bound, not nailed, to a Latin cross of the kind on which Jesus is said to have been crucified; yet a tradition developed that Andrew had been crucified on a cross of the form called crux decussata (X-shaped cross, or “saltire”), now commonly known as a “Saint Andrew’s Cross” — supposedly at his own request, as he deemed himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross as Jesus had been. The iconography of the martyrdom of Andrew — showing him bound to an X-shaped cross — does not appear to have been standardized until the later Middle Ages. (source)
Interestingly, due to various legendary accounts associated with St. Andrew and Scotland, the national flag of Scotland bears the Saltire (or “Saint Andrew’s Cross”).
Other places that historically correlate St. Andrew to their locale
Many places are historically correlated with St. Andrew and claim him as a patron saint, including his being considered the founder of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, although he never traveled to that city but rather is said to have installed St. Satchys as bishop there. Here is more information I found:
Eusebius in his Church History 3.1 quoted Origen as saying that Andrew preached in Scythia. The Chronicle of Nestor adds that he preached along the Black Sea and the Dnieper river as far as Kiev, and from there he traveled to Novgorod. Hence, he became a patron saint of Ukraine, Romania and Russia. According to tradition, he founded the See of Byzantium (later Constantinople and Istanbul) in AD 38, installing Stachys as bishop. According to Hippolytus of Rome, Andrew preached in Thrace, and his presence in Byzantium is also mentioned in the apocryphal Acts of Andrew. Basil of Seleucia also knew of Apostle Andrew’s missions in Thrace, Scythia and Achaea. This diocese would later develop into the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Andrew, along with Saint Stachys, is recognized as the patron saint of the Patriarchate. (source)
San Galgano and the Sword in the Stone
If it weren’t for my wife, I wouldn’t have known there was in fact an actual “Sword in the Stone,” but unlike the English legend, popularized by Disney’s film, where the future King Arthur pulls the Excalibur sword from a stone, heralding his glory, in the life of San Galgano, he purportedly gave up his formerly ruthless life and retreated his sword miraculously (after a vision of Archangel Michael) into the stone, signifying his embarking on a life of humility and holiness. It is said that scientists have been able to verify that in fact the rest of the sword is in fact in the stone, and relics of human remains are located underneath.
The sword in the stone can be seen at the Rotonda at Montesiepi, near the ruins of the Abbey of San Galgano. The handle of a sword protrudes from the ground, and is said to be the sword of San Galgano. An analysis of the metal done in 2001.2 by prof. Garlaschelli confirmed that the “composition of the metal and the style are compatible with the era of the legend.” The analysis also confirmed that the upper piece and the invisible lower one are authentic and belong to one and the same artifact.3 (Source)
Here is the story of this 12th century Catholic saint, which was derived substantially from documents of his canonization process in 1185, shortly after his death:
Galgano is said to have led a ruthless life in his early years, but later abandoned it in favour of a pious hermitage in the place now known as Rotonda di Montesiepi. His mother, Dionigia, is believed to have reported that Galgano had two visions, both involving Archangel Michael: in the first vision the Archangel told Galgano that he was going to be protected by the Archangel himself. In the second vision, Galgano was following the Archangel and they arrived to the hill of Montesiepi where they met the twelve Apostles and the Creator himself…. A story says that in one of the visions, he was told to renounce material things. He, stating that it would be as easy as splitting a rock, decided to make his point by plunging his sword into one. As the legend has it, the sword went through the stone like a knife through butter.
The sword in the stone at Montesiepi Chapel
…. When Galgano died in 1181, a round church was built over the purported tomb as soon as 1184 in honor for him, where pilgrims came in large numbers and miracles were claimed. In that year Cistercian monks took over Montesiepi at the request of Hugh, bishop of Volterra, but most of Galgano’s monks left, scattered over Tuscany, and became Augustinian hermits. By 1220 a large Cistercian monastery was built below Galgano’s hermitage: they then claimed him as a Cistercian saint. His cult was lively in Siena and Volterra, where numerous representations survive. The ruins of his hermitage can still be seen, while his cloak is kept in the church of Santuccio at Siena. (Source)
St. Mark the Evangelist and first patriarch and pope of Alexandria (the Coptic Church)
It is fitting indeed that St. Mark, the evangelist and founder of Coptic Church, regarded as the first pope of Alexandria, would have such a magnificent place where his relics lay. Below are a few fascinating facts about this place:
The Relics Were Said to Have Been Stolen from Alexandria, Egypt by Venetian Merchants
St. Mark’s relics used to be in Alexandria, Egypt, after he was martyred at the hands of Egyptians who were unnerved by his message undermining ancient Egyptian religious practices and beliefs; eventually Christianity spread and was the majority religion until the arrival of Islam.
Around AD 828, Venetian merchants went to Alexandria, and it is said that they were able to sneak St. Mark’s relics past the Muslim guards at the port by hiding St. Mark’s body under layers of pork in barrels, and the story of these events are pictured on the facade of the church.
The Coptic Church has designated in the Synaxarion (readings on the lives of saints and important events in the history of the Church) on June 24th each year the commemoration of the return of a very small portion of St. Mark’s relics (a metacarpal bone of a finger) having returned to Egypt in 1968, at the behest of the 116th Pope of Alexandria, the saint Pope Kyrillos the Sixth, in arrangement with the archbishop of Rome, Paul VI. The Synaxarion notes that this happened “after eleven centuries, during which the body of St. Mark was kept in the city of Venice, in Italy.”
Enough Mosaics to Cover 1.5 American Football Fields
There are said to be more than 85,000 square feet (or 8,000 square meters) of mosaics in St. Mark’s Basilica, which equate to over 1.5 American football fields. They were completed over 8 centuries, and consist of mostly gold.
Many of the Basilica’s Treasures Came from the Crusades, and from Constantinople
The Fourth Crusade, in particular, yielded much treasure that made its way to St. Mark’s Basilica, as that Crusade’s end (in 1204) came about by the conquest of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). The four bronze horses (the ones at the front are replicas, but inside the museum inside the church you’ll find the original), along with relics, crosses, chalices, and patens, were all part of the massive treasures that were shipped to Venice.
St. Mark’s Body is at the Altar Base
St. Mark’s Body is said to rest at the high altar of the church.
The High Altar Retable, the Pala d’Oro (Italian for “Goldon Cloth”) Puts the Crown Jewels to Shame
You think the glittering gems of the Tower of London are majestic? It has nothing on the Pala d”Oro, which is a Byzantine altar screen of gold, studded with hundreds of gems (including 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, plus several rubies and topazes. It is universally recognized as one of the most refined Byzantine works. It is said to have been first commissioned in 976, and expanded further over time.
1 – It is historical, well documented fact that the sale of fake relics was so rampant and problematic that several times during the history of the Catholic Church we find attempts to inhibit this practice. You can read a little about that here. That is not to say that only Catholic relics should be doubted, while all relics from non-Catholic apostolic churches are to believed without any discernment; but rather, as St. Paul taught, we should “Test all things [and] hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
2 – Carroll, Rory (16 September 2001). “Tuscany’s Excalibur is the real thing, say scientists.” the Guardian. Retrieved 4 May 2019.
3 – Chodyński, Antoni Romuald; Chodyński, Antoni Romuald (2014). Fasciculi Archaeologiae Historicae. Fasc. 27 (2014). Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of Polish Academy of Sciences.
Source for much of the information regarding St. Mark’s Basilica from this site.