Thursday, December 18, 2008


What is the deal with the veneration of relics?

Without them, there probably wouldn't have been any shrines, and without the shrines there wouldn't have been any pilgrims, and without a body in a reliquary casket in Santiago de Compostela, there wouldn't have been any pilgrims or a camino pilgrimage. Luckily for us, relics became popular from about the 5th C and by the time of Charlemagne (8thC) no church could be consecrated without a relic.

".... the demand for bones and body parts was so great that the practice of exhuming, dismembering, and distributing the bodies of saints became widely accepted. Amputated fingers, hands, feet, heads and, of course, bones circulated throughout Europe. With increase in demand, supply became a problem, and a profitable but dubious market in relics emerged. Pilgrims to the shrines did not seem to care whether the relics were genuine or not." Mark C Taylor, Sacred Bones:

What did the church say about the veneration of relics?

St. Jerome
said: (ca. A.D. 340 - 420)

... we honor the martyrs' relics, so that thereby we give honor to Him Whose [witness] they are: we honor the servants, that the honor shown to them may reflect on their Master... Consequently, by honoring the martyrs' relics we do not fall into the error of the Gentiles, who gave the worship of "latria" to dead men."

In the Middle Ages the church taught that life in this world was merely a preparation for the next, be it heaven or hell. Christians were indoctrinated from an early age with the urgency to obtain divine forgiveness for their sins and the purification of their souls or face eternal damnation and an afterlife in purgatory.
Purgatory was depicted as a sort of half-way horror house, with terrifying demons waiting to suck the soul from your sinful body and send you to everlasting hell – it was a place so terrifying that people were prepared to make incredible sacrifices to ensure a shorter stay and their place in heaven.
One of the surest ways to obtain indulgences for the remission of time spent in purgatory was by contact with the saints who could intercede on your behalf. The Church encouraged the veneration of saints, and the relics of saints were believed to hold great power. If the saint was a martyr, so much the better and if he was a martyred Apostle, better still. And so people from all over the Christian world sought out the intercession of saintly relics in churches and cathedrals all over Europe.

A thorn from Jesus' Crown - Sevilla

Santiago's tomb in the cathedral

What can the modern pilgrims to Santiago see in the way of relics as they walk across Spain to the relics of St James that lie in his silver casket in the crypt of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela?

Classes of relics:
1st Class: part of the Saint (bone, hair, etc.) and the instruments of Christ's passion
2nd Class: something owned by the Saint or instruments of torture used against a martyr
3rd Class: something that has been touched to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic. You can make your own 3rd Class relics by touching an object to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic, including the tomb of a Saint.

Here is a list of some of the relics still to be found in the churches of Spain. The list is far from complete. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other relics – fragments of bone, wood, fabric, hair, thorns, nails, bread crumbs etc tucked away in Capillas, reliquaries and altars in the churches and cathedrals of Spain.

San Juan de la Pena:
Gilded silver urn contains the relics of San Indelcio,
Relics of St Felix and St Voto

14thC Gothic reliquary that contains bones from more than 30 Saints.
15thC reliquary carved to look like a Saint’s arm
16thC gold reliquary with 2 thorns from Jesus’ crown of thorns.

14thC reliquary with a fragment of the cross sent to Carlos 111 en Noble from Paris in 1401. In 1400 Emperor Manuel Palæologus gave to the Church of Pamplona a particle of the wood of the True Cross and another of the reputed blue vestment of Our Lord and the Holy Sepulchre; these relics are preserved in the cathedral.


Iglesia de San Pedro de la Rua: Fragment of the true cross and a shoulder bone of San Andrés

Santo Domingo del Calzada:

Numerous reliquaries containing fragments of bone, cloth etc.


A chest bearing the relics of San Millán (11th century), decorated with ivory plaques,gold
and precious stones, and the chest of San Felices (11th century), with Romanesque bas
reliefs carved in ivory.

Capilla de las reliquias - Burgos

Capilla de la Relquias - bones from most of the apostles and many other saints.
The Black Christ by Nicodemus. "Santo Cristo de Burgos" an image of Christ crucified, from the fourteenth century
Five small relics of the Holy Cross of Christ, brought from Santo Toribio de Liébana in Cantabria.
A shrine of the Apostle Santiago, as well as many other relics of saints and Santas.

San Isidoro’s 11thC wood and silver plate reliquary
Urn reliquary with the remains of St Isidoro
Plateresque silver chest San Froilan’s relics
Enamelled reliquaries with fragment of the true cross


Cathedral: Tomb and relics of St James
Chapel of San Fernando: Reliquary containing the skull of James the Less

Capilla del Relicario. Two thorns from the crown of thorns

Camino del Norte y Primitivo


Cathedral of Oviedo:
Five thorns (formerly eight) from the Crown of Thorns
A fragment of the True Cross
A cloth said to be Jesus' shroud or a grave cloth used to bind Our Lord's mouth duringHis entombment, which is now used to bless the people every Good Friday as well as each Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross (14 September)
A sandal worn by Pope St. Peter the Apostle

Camino Madrid:

Tiny silver frames with bone fragments.
S. Valerianni ; S. Crescenty.;
S. Severus; S. Clementis ;
Sta Felicissima: S. Celiani,

In principio erat verbum; Ubertus, victorius; Tiburio et Candida, mar:
S. Cosmas;
S. Cyrill;
S. Celia.
S. Modestiy
S. Celestiy
S. Vasil
S. Iago (yes, they also have a piece of our saint):
Santa Ana, Madre de la Virgen:
Santa Catalina;
Santa Ana Madalena: Apostle Bartholomew. Apostle Philip: Saint Nicholas of Myra:
Saint Frutos and his sister Engratia: The head of Saint Frutos:

Not on the camino, but a very important relic in Spain. In the Monastery of Santo Toribio of Liébana there is the relic of the Lignum Crucis, the largest surviving fragment of Christ’s Cross.

The Monastery was founded in Mount Viorna in the sixth century, although the current church is from the thirteenth century. Santo Toribio, along with Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela, is one of the four Christian holy pilgrimage sites.

Antonio Barrero Aviles helped in compiling the list of religious relics along the camino. He has over 10 000 records and photographs of relics in Spain. You can see some of his huge collection of photographs here:
Adrian Fletcher of Paradox Place gave permission to use some of his photographs.