In the massive church of the Frari, the Franciscan basilica in Venice, there is a sumptuous gilded altarpiece off the south transept that is worth a visit. The goldwork is indeed incredible, but I was struck by the hands and fingers and bits of cloth and blood and hair that had been framed in silver reliquaries.
Some would think such displays morbid. But I wondered, as I often do lately, what the attraction was for the faithful. These were not the bones of the average person but saint’s bones, bones that, when living, had moved on this earth with a sanctity, a holiness, a Christ-love, that was noticeable. These were men and women who were honored, revered, for the way that God lived in them. The faithful sensed that when they were close to a saint, they were close to God.
And thus it was no surprise when the occasional miracle occurred, a healing, a saving from disaster at sea, the birth of a child to an aged couple. God worked through the saints. One could see it happening all the time.
So when these men and women died, it seems natural their body would contain that holy presence. For a time in the early Middle Ages, the bodies of saints were divided and sent to altars throughout Christendom, to sanctify the holy tables where the Eucharist would be celebrated, but eventually the Pope decreed this cutting up and dividing was no longer allowed. The relic trade had become tainted with fraud and irreverence.
Today, silver reliquaries, engraved, embellished, are displayed behind museum glass. Many still contain fragments of saints’ bodies or even clothing.
Others are in church shrines, adorning side altars. We saw Catherine of Siena’s foot in the Dominican basilica of Sts. John and Paul, the name contracted in Venice to Zanipolo.
Relics, to my mind, are one more physical way of touching God.