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Translation (relic)

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Depiction of St. Corbinian's relics being moved to Freising from Meran. From a panel in the crypt of Freising Cathedral.

In Christianity, the translation of relics is the removal of holy objects from one locality (such as a tomb) to another (usually a reliquary in a church or cathedral). This translation took different forms, including all-night vigils, and the carrying of the precious remains in a bier of gold or silver, overshadowed with silken canopies.[1]

The solemn translation (in Latin, elevatio corporis) of relics is treated as the outward recognition of heroic sanctity, and is equivalent to canonization in the Orthodox Christian churches. It had the same function in the Roman Catholic Church until the official canonization process became standardized and the prerogative of the Pope.[1]

The date of a translation of a saint's relics was celebrated as a separate feast day. For example, on January 27 is celebrated the translation of the relics of St. John Chrysostom from the Armenian village of Comana (where he died in exile in 407) to Constantinople.[2]

Relics sometimes traveled very far. The relics of Saint Thyrsus at Sozopolis, Pisidia, in Asia Minor, were brought to Constantinople and then to Spain. His cult became popular in the Iberian Peninsula, where he is known as San Tirso or Santo Tirso.[3] Some of his relics were brought to France: Thyrsus is thus the titular saint of the cathedral of Sisteron in the Basses Alpes[4], the Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint Thyrse. Thyrsus is thus the patron saint of Sisteron.[5] Liborius of Le Mans became patron saint of Paderborn, in Germany, after his relics were transferred there in 836.[6]


Petershausen Translatio Gregorii

Translation of the relics of St. Gregory to the monastery of Petershausen.

The translation of relics occurred from a fairly early date. In the 4th century, Basil the Great requested of the ruler of Scythia Minor, Junius Soranus (Saran), that he should send him the relics of saints of that region. Basil was sent the relics of Sabbas the Goth to him in Caesarea, Cappadocia, in 373 or 374 accompanied by a letter, the 'Epistle of the Church of God in Gothia to the Church of God located in Cappadocia and to all the Local Churches of the Holy Universal Church'. The sending of Sabbas' relics and the writing of the actual letter has been attributed to Bretannio. This letter is the oldest known writing to be composed on Romanian soil and was written in Greek.

The spread of relics all over Europe from the 8th century can be explained by the fact that after 787 all new Christian churches had to possess a relic before they could be properly consecrated.[7] New churches, situated in areas newly converted to Christianity, needed relics and this encouraged the translation of relics to far-off places. Relics became collectible items, and owning them became a symbol of prestige for cities, kingdoms, and monarchs.[7] According to one legend concerning Saint Paternian, the inhabitants of Fano competed with those of Cervia for possession of his relics. Cervia would be left with a finger, while Fano would possess the rest of the saint's relics.[8]

The translation of relics was a solemn and important event. In 1261, the relics of Lucian of Beauvais and his two companions were placed in a new reliquary by William of Grès (Guillaume de Grès), bishop of Beauvais. The translation took place in the presence of St. Louis IX, king of France, and Theobald II, king of Navarre, and much of the French nobility. The memory of this translation was formerly celebrated in the abbey of Beauvais as the fête des Corps Saints.[9]

On February 14, 1277, while work was being done at the church of St. John the Baptist (Johanniterkirche) in Cologne, the body of Saint Cordula, one of the companions of Saint Ursula, was discovered.[10] Her relics were found to be fragrant and on the forehead of the saint herself were written the words, “Cordula, Queen and Virgin.” When Albert the Great, who had been residing in Cologne in his old age, had listened to the account of the finding of the relics, “he wept, praised God from the depth of his soul, and requested the bystanders to sing the Te Deum. Then vesting himself in his episcopal robes, he removed the relics from under the earth, and solemnly translated them into the church of the monks of St. John. After singing Mass, he deposited the holy body in a suitable place, which God has since made illustrious by many miracles.”[11]


The Honorable Head of Venerable Macarius (in the golden reliquary held by Archbishop Georgy of Nizhny Novgorod and Arzamas) visits the city of Kstovo during its translation from Nizhny Novgorod's Pechersky Ascension Monastery to Makaryev Monastery

Some relics were translated from place to place, buffeted by the tides of wars and conflicts. The relics of Saint Leocadia were moved from Toledo to Oviedo during the reign of Abd ar-Rahman II, and from Oviedo they were brought to Saint-Ghislain (in present-day Belgium). Her relics were venerated there by Philip the Handsome and Joanna of Castile, who recovered for Toledo a tibia of the saint. Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba attempted unsuccessfully to rescue the rest of her relics.[12] Finally, a Spanish Jesuit, after many travels, brought the rest of the saint’s relics to Rome in 1586. From Rome they were brought to Valencia by sea, and then finally brought to Toledo from Cuenca. Philip II of Spain presided over a solemn ceremony commemorating the final translation of her relics to Toledo, in April 1587.[12]

Idesbald’s relics were moved from their resting-place at the abbey of Ten Duinen after the Geuzen (“Sea Beggars”) plundered the abbey in 1577; his relics were translated again to Bruges in 1796 to avoid having them destroyed by Revolutionary troops.[13]

The translation of the relics continued into modern times. On December 4, 1796, as a result of the French Revolution, the relics of Saint Lutgardis were carried to Ittre from Awirs. Her relics remain in Ittre.[14]

Notable translations

MHS przeniesienie relikwi Mikolaja XVII w p

17th-century icon of the Translation of the Relics of St. Nicholas of Myra (Historic Museum in Sanok, Poland).

Some well-known translations of relics include the removal of the body of Saint Nicholas from Myra in Asia Minor to Bari, Italy in 1087. Tradesmen of Bari visited the relics of Saint Nicholas in 1087 after finding out their resting-place from the monks who guarded them. According to one account, the monks showed the resting-place but then became immediately suspicious: "Why you men, do you make such a request? You haven't planned to carry off the remains of the holy saint from here? You don't intend to remove it to your own region? If that is your purpose, then let it be clearly known to you that you parley with unyielding men, even if it mean our death."[15] The tradesmen try different tactics, including force, and manage to take hold of the relics. An anonymous chronicler writes about what happened when the inhabitants of Myra found out:

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the city learned of all that had happened from the monks who had been set free. Therefore they proceeded in a body, a multitude of men and women, to the wharves, all of them filled and heavy with affliction. And they wept for themselves and their children, that they had been left bereft of so great a blessing … Then they added tears upon tears and wailing and unassuageable lamentation to their groans, saying: "Give us our patron and our champion, who with all consideration protected us from our enemies visible and invisible. And if we are entirely unworthy, do not leave us without a share, of at least some small portion of him."

Anonymous, Greek account of the transfer of the Body of Saint Nicholas, 13th century, [15]

Professor Nevzat Cevik, an archaeologist in Demre (Myra), has recently recommended that the Turkish government should request the repatriation of St Nicholas' relics, alleging that it had always been the saint's intention to be buried in Myra. [16]

The Venetians, who also claimed to have some parts of St Nicholas, had another story: The Venetians brought the remains back to Venice, but on the way they left an arm of St Nicholas at Bari (The Morosini Codex 49A).

Jacopo Tintoretto 004

Jacopo Tintoretto's depiction of the secret translation of the relics of Saint Mark.

In 828, Venetian merchants acquired the supposed relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, Egypt. These were housed in St. Mark's Cathedral for many centuries, but in 1968, they were returned to the custody of the Coptic Church in Alexandria.


The lack of means for verifying relics meant that unscrupulous and dubious translations occurred.[17] Augustine of Hippo denounced impostors who dressed as monks selling spurious relics of saints, and Pope Gregory I prohibited the selling of relics, as well as the disruption of tombs in the catacombs.[17] During the Middle Ages, the relics of saints were moved from Rome to the outer parts of Europe by monks attempting to raise money by selling them. Patrick J. Geary, in his work Furta Sacra, states that "on April 5, 838, a monk named Felix appeared at Fulda with the remains of Saints Cornelius, Callistus, Agapitus, Georgius, Vincentius, Maximus, Cecilia, Eugenia, Digna, Emerita, and Columbana."[18]

In regards to an account of the translation of the relics of Saint Majean to the monastery of Villemagne, Isaac D'Israeli writes that "Translation is in fact only a softened expression for the robbery of the relics of the saint committed by two monks, who carried them off secretly to enrich their monastery; and they did not hesitate at any artifice, or lie, to complete their design."[19]

The translation and veneration of relics led the leaders of the Protestant movement to attack the idea of relics totally in the 16th century.[17]

In recent times

Today, the relics of saints or blessed, usually are exhumed (exhumation) and translated to their places of veneration, or simply where they can be venerated, and for the examination of their bodies, as required by Catholic Canon Law.

A famous and recent example is the return of the relics of St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory of Nazianzus to the See of Constantinople(Greek Orthodox Church) by Pope John Paul II in 2007, and that of St. Padre Pio in 2005.


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