Relics form an important part of the history of religions around the world, including Buddhism, Christianity, Shamanism and Hinduism. However, the majority of the best-known relics that have been found and studied form part of the Christian faith.
The word relic comes from the Latin term for “remains”. The term “reliquary” is used for a shrine that houses these relics. Relics are never simply human remains; rather, they’re the remains of some kind of saint, or an artifact that’s believed to have been blessed by a saint or God. The most iconic religious relics came to be symbols of God’s power on Earth, many of these being Catholic relics.
In the Middle Ages in particular, Churches and individuals created and sold relics which were not authentic. The corruption associated with these false relics has been criticized in popular works such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Today, there are many relics on display around the world. Questions of legitimacy still surround the majority of these finds. Yet, whatever the truth behind them, each of these relics holds an interesting, and sometimes gruesome, history.
10. The Stone Of Destiny
The Stone of Destiny has caused much fighting in its name. Scotland and England, for instance, have fought over its keeping for 700 years. This holy relic has uncertain origins; the truth of its origin has disappeared from history, but there is speculation. Some say it has a biblical history. It has been used in Scottish history as a place to crown monarchs – no one doubted its holy design.
Many myths and legends surround the stone, and it has been coveted and even hidden throughout its life. The last time it was used for coronation purposes in Scotland was in 1292 by John Balliol, as after this it was taken by England. It was then placed under the coronation chair and used for 700 more years.
9. Buddha’s Tooth
Gautama Buddha is the saint upon which the Buddhist religion was founded. Buddha, at the age of 80, is said to have reached Parinirvana, which means that he could abandon his body and live on in an eternal deathless state. After his last meal, he became ill and died. Some believe that he merely died of old age, while many others believe he reached this final divine state.
Following his cremation, his tooth was found in the ashes and has since been used in a variety of ways. Its spiritual merit has converted Indian Kings to Buddhism. The tooth is said to work miracles as well; each time it was in danger of being destroyed, it averted this fate and performed one such miracle. Legends and stories abound, but today this relic can be found on display only, and then only for special purposes.
8. Reliquary in the Shape of a Sarcophagus
This rare reliquary, or shrine for a relic, contains the alleged remains of a saint. Though none can be sure now, hundreds of years ago it was used in full sincerity.
The reliquary has written upon it, “In fulfillment of a vow of John the Bishop,” in Greek. Because of its use of this name, many believe it was once used as a form of miracle or cure. Along with this one, there have been many other such containers found, all claiming to be the house of a religious relic. At this time, it was common for saints to be sectioned off and taken to churches for religious purposes.
7. Saint Teresa of Avila’s Hand
Saint Teresa was an important figure in the 16th century. The Spanish nun, and later, Roman Catholic Saint, was a reformer of the Carmelite Order, and many revered her, especially following her death (40 years after she died, she was canonized by the Pope).
Her hand was mummified and used as a symbol for her ideals and religious holiness. Her autobiography and seminal works are also important works among Catholics.
Long after her death, she became a tool for Francisco Franco and his dictatorship. He got a hold of her hand and carried it with him everywhere, even sleeping with it. When he died, he was clutching it to him.
6. Mary Magdalene’s Arm
Though there have been those who criticized Mary Magdalene, there is no doubt that she is an important biblical figure. She is said to have traveled with Jesus and been a follower of his, appearing at Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection. She is named more than the majority of the apostles, and stood by Jesus throughout his suffering.
She is said to have also stood by him after death. Her arm was supposedly taken as a holy relic and placed in the abbey of Fécamp. The arm remained in good condition until Saint Hugh, in 1911, took it upon himself to pay tribute to the relic. He wished to take a portion of it with him, but he could not remove any with his fingers. Instead, he bit two of the fingers off, as the monks watched in horror next to him.
5. Capela Dos Ossos
The Igreja Real de São Francisco (Royal Church of St. Francis) is a macabre sight. The Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) is just as its name suggests. The walls of the building are covered in skeletons, including hundreds of skulls. They have been here, suspended in cement, for years. Why was this chapel created?
At the time, in the 1500s, there was a great shortage of space in monastic cemeteries. The Monks’ solution was to place all the bones in one place. In this way, they were also able to gaze upon the shadow of death and think on it and the meaning of life. This is why the bones are covering the walls, in the open, instead of being hidden away.
4. Saint Catherine of Siena’s Head
Saint Catherine of Siena was a prominent figure in Rome. She is said to have been given a vision of Jesus gifting her with a wedding finger made of his foreskin. This holy vision is one of the reasons she was hailed as a saint. She died at the age of 33, but her body could not rest in peace.
The people of the time wished to take her body as a holy relic, but could not take the entirety. Instead, they removed her head and placed it in a sack. This thievery was never stopped, as it’s said that when the Roman guards seized the sack, they found nothing but rose petals inside. Today, this holy relic is displayed in Siena.
3. The Fairy Flag Of Dunvegan
There are a number of theories connected to the Fairy Flag. Some believe that it was the robe of an early Christian Saint, which gives it its holy status. Others think that is was once the war banner of the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada.
Still others believe that it came from the fairies themselves, and that it appeared on a knoll with little explanation. Whatever the case, it holds spiritual significance. It’s made of silk though, and comes from before the First Crusade. Was it created by Christian or fairy? This is still unclear – depending on your beliefs! – but it is certainly an important piece of history.
2. Saint Valerius of Saragossa
The patron saint of Sargasso, Valerius, was found in a tomb covered in beautiful jewels and rich attire. When he was living, he was an important figure in the city, and was even the bishop from 290 to his death. He went through imprisonment during his life, and was also exiled to Enet. Here he died, most likely by murder.
Following his death, his body was used as a holy relic. The finding of his skeletal remains was done by Paul Koudounaris, who has unearth dozens of such skeletons. This one in particular was decorated in gold, silver and jewels by his followers.
1. Sedlec Ossuary
The Sedlec Ossuary has been described as a thrilling yet morbid experience. It is a popular destination though, as it is covered in over 40,000 skeletons. The chandelier in the Ossuary, for instance, is made of at least one of every type of bone found on the human body.
In 1278, an abbot journeyed to Jerusalem and brought back a container of soil known as “Holy Soil.” As it was brought to Sedlec, many wished to be buried there, and the cemetery was expanded to fit them all in. After this, in the 15th century, the bones were placed in a basement Ossuary and there they remained until 1870. At this time, the bones were arranged by Frantisek Rint, a woodcarver, to create what is now known as The Sedlec Ossuary. The haunting site is filled with blessed bones which may never be buried again.