Bones, skin, hearts, and severed heads: it sounds like the contents of a cabinet of curiosities, the sort of death-obsessed exploitation of bell-jarred oddities that one would find next to unicorn horns and taxidermied birds of paradise. But we’re not talking about a cabinet of wonders. We’re talking about religious relics and artifacts. The bones and bodies of saints have been preserved, celebrated, worshipped, and stolen. They have long represented a transcendental bridge between God and man, and atavism and science. In other words, the bones of Saint Peter have power, as does the head of Saint Catherine of Siena and the Shroud of Turin. While many holy objects have been discredited, thousands of people still line up to pay respects to the gilded tongue of St Anthony of Padua and other grizzly displays of religious iconography.
If relics and artifacts are the physical embodiment of God’s work on earth, then what does one make of the relics and artifacts that are mysterious and other-worldly, not the work of God, or man, but of something else? Conspiracy and religion go hand-in-hand, and there are several religious relics that seem as if they’ve been left behind by other civilizations, from strange orbs and spheres to the Mayan artifacts released in 2012 by the Mexican government that possibly depict aliens and alien aircraft. Here are 10 of the strangest religious artifacts.
10. Mandylion of Edessa
The face of Jesus Christ shows up in the strangest and most unlikely places. In 2005, Rosalie Lawson saw the image of Jesus on a Lay’s sour cream and onion potato chip. Donna Lee found Jesus on a pierogi. And Chuck Rickman, a retired 911 dispatcher, saw the Almighty’s apparition on a window at the Hard Rock Café in San Diego. According to Christian tradition, however, the first miraculous image of the face of Jesus appeared on a towel on which the Savior had dried his face. Known as the Manylion of Edessa, the “holy towel” is one of the most important relics in the Vatican’s collection.
9. The Body of St Mark
In 828, a small envoy of merchant thieves stole the mummified remains of St Mark from a tomb in Alexandria and brought the saint’s body to Venice. Legend has it the thieves experienced several miracles on the return trip home. St Mark is the patron saint of Venice, and despite being martyred in Alexandria, there was no way the Venetians were going to let his body rest in a foreign city. St Mark’s remains are still kept in a tomb at St Mark’s Basilica. The greatest relic heist (or body snatch) was celebrated in a masterpiece by Tintoretto.
8. The Guatemala Stone Head
Is the Guatemala stone head a relic of a lost white civilization that predates the Olmec and Maya, an elaborate hoax, or an extraterrestrial religious artifact? In the 1950s, explorers found an enormous sandstone statue deep in the Guatemalan jungle; with its elongated cranium, thin lips, and sharp nose, the face didn’t look like any of the area’s indigenous people. The statue’s eyes are closed, but were they open, they would be looking towards the sky. The filmmakers of the documentary Revelations of the Mayans 2012 insist that the carved head is proof that the Mayans entertained visitors from outer space, and that the mysterious relic is an idol that illustrates the superior alien race that descended and visited them.
7. Blood of Saint Januarius
Every year Catholic worshippers in Naples gather to witness the continuation of a centuries-long miracle. The dried blood of Saint Januarius, the patron saint of Naples who was beheaded by the Roman Empire in 305, is said to liquefy up to eighteen times a year, bubbling when it is placed next to preserved head of the decapitated saint. The blood has a connection to the city’s well being. If the blood liquefies, then the city is safe from volcanoes, earthquakes, and plagues. On the other hand, if the blood fails to liquefy, it’s an omen of an impending disaster. In 1980, a year in which the blood of Januarius failed to liquefy, almost 3,000 people died in an earthquake in southern Italy.
6. The Incorrupt Tongue of Saint Anthony of Padua
In 1231, Anthony of Padua became sick with ergotism and died at the Poor Care monastery at age 35. Thirty years after his death, Anthony’s body was exhumed. While the rest of his body had turned to dust, his tongue was found to be perfectly preserved, fresh, and “glistening as if it was still alive.” During his lifetime, Saint Anthony was an exceptional preacher, with a quick tongue and a vast knowledge of scripture, so it only makes sense his tongue would remain holy and incorruptible. Saint Anthony’s tongue quickly became a venerable relic. In 2013, pilgrims packed Westminster Cathedral to see the beloved saint’s relics, part of a tour marking the 750th anniversary of the discovery of his muscular organ.
5. The Ubaid Lizardmen
Iraq’s Ubaid Lizardmen are one of the strangest archeological mysteries. The unexplained statuettes, unearthed in 1919, could represent religious deities or an extinct race of ancient, reptilian aliens. Over the years the Al Ubaid archeological site has yielded a vast collection of pre-Sumerian objects, but none as strange as the lizardmen figurines. Do these creatures with their long heads, almond-shaped eyes, and serpent-like features represent an ancient race that once walked the earth, or are the figurines ritualistic objects? The Ubaid Lizardmen (and women –some of the statues depict breastfeeding) appear to be wearing helmets, and some are carrying staffs or scepters. If Mesopotamia is the birthplace of civilization, then it’s also the cradle of alien conspiracies.
4. The Hand (and Toe) of St Francis Xavier
The body of St Francis Xavier is scattered all over the world, attracting pilgrims who like their sacred relics blessed with the macabre. St Francis Xavier’s shriveled skull, two legs, left arm, bones, and loose vertebrae are in a crystal urn that rests atop a marble mausoleum in Goa. In 1614, St Francis Xavier’s right hand was cut off his mummified corpse; it’s currently on display in Rome. However, the strangest story about the incorruptible body of St Francis Xavier revolves around a Portuguese noble lady, Dona Isabel Carom. When the body of the venerable saint arrived in Goa after his death, Carom bit off the small toe to preserve as a personal relic. According to the Times of India, the toe is still a big draw.
3. Virgin Mary’s Breast Milk
It all started when Saint Bernard of Clairvaux knelt in front of a statue of the Virgin and Child and said, “Show yourself to be a mother.” Apparently, the Virgin Mary then pressed her breast against Bernard’s lips and nourished him. The scene was later immortalized in a 1650 painting by Alonso Cano –The Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard. From that moment on holy breast milk became the de riguer religious relic of the middle ages. Europe was saturated with vials of milk that churches claimed were from the Virgin Mary. In Bethlehem, a rock that was supposedly “touched” by the Virgin Mary’s breast milk turned white, and a church was later built on the site.
2. The Glorification of the Eucharist
Italian painter Bonaventura Salimbeni created the three-part Glorification of the Eucharist in the 16th century. The artist was commissioned to produce the altar painting for the Church of San Lorezo in San Pietro in Montalcino. While the lower and middle thirds of the work feature straightforward Renaissance imagery and iconography, the upper third contains a spheroid-like satellite that’s long mystified viewers. Art historians and Renaissance scholars are quick to argue that the sphere represents the cosmos, but if that’s the case, what are the two antennae-like objects protruding from the sphere? The objects don’t appear to be staffs or scepters, and telescoping wasn’t invented until the 18th century. In other words, does the Glorification of the Eucharist contain evidence of aliens or time travel?
1. The Holy Prepuce
According to Luke 2:21 in the New Testament, after his birth, Jesus was circumcised according to Jewish tradition. Whether true or not, paintings on the subject were popular in Venice in the 15th and 16th century, and the holy foreskin, which was said to have great power, became the most coveted religious relic of the Middle Ages. Several churches claimed to have the holy prepuce, which according to the Arabic Infancy Gospel was saved in an alabaster box. At the height of foreskin mania, 18 different churches claimed to have the “genuine article” –Charroux Abbey, in France, even went so far as to say it inherited the holy prepuce from Charlemagne. Sick of the controversy, in the 1900s the Vatican said the holy foreskin encouraged “irreverent curiosity” and declared that anyone talking about the relic would be banished from the Church.