• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Sacred Geography: The Development of Relics



Around the late 340s Cyril – the future bishop of Jerusalem – announced that the city’s church was in possession of the “wood of the cross” on which Christ had been crucified.[1] Parts were immediately distributed to Roman elites. Indeed, possession is recorded in Cappadocia by Gregory of Nyssa (Vita Macrinae), at Antioch by John Chrysostom (Quod Christus Sit Deus) as well as Italy and Gaul by Paulinus of Nola (Epistolae) between 376-403. This dispersal no doubt helped Jerusalem replace Caesarea as the metropolitan see of Palestine in 451. Even Constantine swiped a piece for Constantinople where it was quickly fêted as a talisman of eternal victory.[2]

While Jerusalem had the Passion sites (and relics) and Rome had the tombs of Peter and Paul, Constantinople lacked any substantial role in either the Gospel narratives or the feats of evangelism that followed. An opportunity to change the status quo came when St Babylas was moved from Antioch to Daphne (351).[3] An act imitated by the imperial capital which carted Timothy (356), as well as Luke and Andrew (357) to the Apostoleion. An aura of transgression still clung to these actions, however, as legislation attempted to reserve the licit transfer of relics (translation) to the imperial family’s privilege. Despite this, the tides of public opinion had changed and the legal acrobatics – the imperial hypocrisy – appeared to sanction the public trafficking of human relics.

By the 360s at least one monastery in Jerusalem was dividing human remains (St John the Baptist in this case) and sending them to its patrons. A decade later the habit of dividing these relics had morphed from the realm of the taboo into an act deemed essential to the foundation of additional churches within a diocese.[4] Such a development meant that by the 380s Egeria could visit Constantinople and see that the city boasted “very many” martyrs’ shrines.[5]


Rome remained sullenly quiet about the innovation until Gregory the Great (590-604) performed a volte face. In 599 – despite denouncing the handling of the remains of the dead only five years earlier – the pope sent a small key containing the hair of John the Baptist, iron shavings from the chains of St Peter (now at San Pietro in Vincoli) and wood from the cross to Reccared I, king of the Visigoths in Spain.[6] A stamp of approval that no doubt helped the strident tone of Nicaea II (787) which claimed the movement of relics was an essential part of Christian worship and that no altar should be dedicated without them.

The council was able to draw on older historical strands to justify this seemingly striking stance. Most obviously the martyr tradition. Martyrs had been imbued with the sanctity of the Holy Spirit, giving them a miraculous power to heal the body, mind and soul – a divine gift that lurked latent in their remains. The visits of Christians to these sites segued nicely into traditional Roman funerary customs with both commemorating the dead with feasts and libations. Due to the fact Christians were many and the martyrs so few, believers embraced the fact dust or liquid taken from the martyr (recovered through a sponge/cloth-strip known as a brandeum lowered through a cataract in the sarcophagus’ lid) could be just as potent.[7]



These relics and eulogia (blessed objects) were often contained in pilgrim’s flasks known as ampullae or encolpia, though reliquaries were made for larger human remains. The majority of the early Byzantine ones were 15-30 cm oblong stone caskets shaped like sarcophagi with pitched roofs and protrusions on their corners known as acroteria. Many had flat-sliding lids and resembled late Roman arces (caskets) intended for jewelry, perfumes, medicines etc.


Games could be played with this sacred geography. From rather dark ones, such as the fact Eusebia and other luminaries somehow received relics of the forty martyrs when the XI legion’s victims at Sebaste (Sivas) were actually burned to ashes and thrown into a river in central Anatolia. To fun ones such as the fact Theodosios II sent the monk Maruthas (a native of Mayafariqin) with Acacius of Amida to the Persian court partially in order to collect lots of Persian martyr relics (as well as the equivalents from the farthest east of his own realm) in order to recast the modern Silvan (Diyarbakir) as “Martyropolis.”


[1] Catecheses IV.10 (PG 33, coll. 468-469), X.19 (PG 33, coll. 686-687), XIII.4 (PG 33, coll. 776-777).

[2] Socrates, HE I.17 (PG 67, coll. 117-121).

[3] The bones were then housed in a church built by Constantine Gallus in 354, which eventually became an important religious site for Christians. The church (and the translation) were presumably executed in order to contest the sanctity of the nearby Temple of Apollo (and its oracle). Indeed, when the emperor Julian found the oracle mute and decided upon the bones of Babylas as the chief cause, he had them removed and so the Christians burned down the temple. See Julian, Mis. 361B.

[4] Basil, Epistolae XLIX (PG 32, col. 385).

[5] Itinerarium XXIII.9.

[6] Epistolae IV. 30, letter from the pope to Constantina Augusta 594 (PL 77, coll. 700-705), IX.122, letter from pope to Reccared 599 (PL 77, coll. 1052-1056).

[7] The tomb of St Felix of Nola for instance as recorded by Paulinus of Nola, Carmina XXI (Jan, 407), II. 506-600; St Euphemia at Chalcedon in Sokrates H.E. II.3 (PG 86, coll. 2492-2496).

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