Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


By this name are designated the remains or remaining parts of the body, or clothes, of a person placed after his death by the Church in the number of the blessed.

It is clear that Jesus condemned only the hypocrisy of the Jews, in saying: “Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous.” Thus orthodox Christians have an equal veneration for the relics and images of saints, and I know not what. Doctor Henry ventures to say that when bones or other relics are changed into worms, we must not adore these worms; the Jesuit Vasquez decided that the opinion of Henry is absurd and vain, for it signifies not in what manner corruption takes place; “consequently,” says he, “we can adore relics as much under the form of worms as under that of ashes.”

However this may be, St. Cyril of Alexandria avows that the origin of relics is Pagan; and this is the description given of their worship by Theodoret, who lived in the commencement of the Christian era: “They run to the temples of martyrs,” says this learned bishop, “some to demand the preservation of their health, others the cure of their maladies; and barren women for fruitfulness. After obtaining children, these women ask the preservation of them. Those who undertake voyages, pray the martyrs to accompany and conduct them; and on their return they testify to them their gratitude. They adore them not as gods, but they honor them as divine men; and conjure them to become their intercessors.

“The offerings which are displayed in their temples are public proofs that those who have demanded with faith, have obtained the accomplishment of their vows and the cure of their disorders. Some hang up artificial eyes, others feet, and others hands of gold and silver. These monuments publish the virtue of those who are buried in these tombs, as their influence publishes that the god for whom they suffered is the true God. Thus Christians take care to give their children the names of martyrs, that they may be insured their protection.”

Finally, Theodoret adds, that the temples of the gods were demolished, and that the materials served for the construction of the temples of martyrs: “For the Lord,” said he to the Pagans, “has substituted his dead for your gods; He has shown the vanity of the latter, and transferred to others the honors paid to them.” It is of this that the famous sophist of Sardis complains bitterly in deploring the ruin of the temple of Serapis at Canopus, which was demolished by order of the emperor Theodosius I. in the year 389.

“People,” says Eunapius, “who had never heard of war, were, however, very valiant against the stones of this temple; and principally against the rich offerings with which it was filled. These holy places were given to monks, an infamous and useless class of people, who, provided they wear a black and slovenly dress, hold a tyrannical authority over the minds of the people; and instead of the gods whom we acknowledge through the lights of reason, these monks give us heads of criminals, punished for their crimes, to adore, which they have salted in order to preserve them.”

The people are superstitious, and it is superstition which enchains them. The miracles forged on the subject of relics became a loadstone which attracted from all parts riches to the churches. Stupidity and credulity were carried so far that, in the year 386, the same Theodosius was obliged to make a law by which he forbade buried corpses to be transported from one place to another, or the relics of any martyr to be separated and sold.

During the first three ages of Christianity they were contented with celebrating the day of the death of martyrs, which they called their natal day, by assembling in the cemeteries where their bodies lay, to pray for them, as we have remarked in the article on “Mass.” They dreamed not then of a time in which Christians would raise temples to them, transport their ashes and bones from one place to another, show them in shrines, and finally make a traffic of them; which excited avarice to fill the world with false relics.

But the Third Council of Carthage, held in the year 397, having inserted in the Scriptures the Apocalypse of St. John, the authenticity of which was till then contested, this passage of chapter vi., “I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God”— authorized the custom of having relics of martyrs under the altars; and this practice was soon regarded so essential that St. Ambrose, notwithstanding the wishes of the people, would not consecrate a church where there were none; and in 692, the Council of Constantinople, in Trullo, even ordered all the altars to be demolished under which it found no relics.

Another Council of Carthage, on the contrary, in the year 401, ordered bishops to build altars which might be seen everywhere, in fields and on high roads, in honor of martyrs; from which were here and there dug pretended relics, on dreams and vain revelations of all sorts of people.

St. Augustine relates that towards the year 415, Lucian, the priest of a town called Caphargamata, some miles distant from Jerusalem, three times saw in a dream the learned Gamaliel, who declared to him that his body, that of Abibas his son, of St. Stephen, and Nicodemus, were buried in a part of his parish which he pointed out to him. He commanded him, on their part and his own, to leave them no longer neglected in the tomb in which they had been for some ages, but to go and tell John, bishop of Jerusalem, to come and dig them up immediately, if he would prevent the ills with which the world was threatened. Gamaliel added that this translation must be made in the episcopacy of John, who died about a year after. The order of heaven was that the body of St. Stephen should be transported to Jerusalem.

Either Lucian did not clearly understand, or he was unfortunate — he dug and found nothing; which obliged the learned Jew to appear to a very simple and innocent monk, and indicate to him more precisely the place where the sacred relics lay. Lucian there found the treasure which he sought, according as God had revealed it unto him. In this tomb there was a stone on which was engraved the word “cheliel,” which signifies “crown” in Hebrew, as “stephanos” does in Greek. On the opening of Stephen’s coffin the earth trembled, a delightful odor issued, and a great number of sick were cured. The body of the saint was reduced to ashes, except the bones, which were transported to Jerusalem, and placed in the church of Sion. At the same hour there fell a great rain, until which they had had a great drouth.

Avitus, a Spanish priest who was then in the East, translated into Latin this story, which Lucian wrote in Greek. As the Spaniard was the friend of Lucian, he obtained a small portion of the ashes of the saint, some bones full of an oil which was a visible proof of their holiness, surpassing newly-made perfumes, and the most agreeable odors. These relics, brought by Orosius into the island of Minorca, in eight days converted five hundred and forty Jews.

They were afterwards informed by divers visions that some monks of Egypt had relics of St. Stephen which strangers had brought there. As the monks, not then being priests, had no churches of their own, they took this treasure to transport it to a church which was near Usala. Above the church some persons soon saw a star which seemed to come before the holy martyr. These relics did not remain long in this church; the bishop of Usala, finding it convenient to enrich his own, transported them, seated on a car, accompanied by a crowd of people, who sang the praises of God, attended by a great number of lights and tapers.

In this manner the relics were borne to an elevated place in the church and placed on a throne ornamented with hangings. They were afterwards put on a little bed in a place which was locked up, but to which a little window was left, that cloths might be touched, which cured several disorders. A little dust collected on the shrine suddenly cured one that was paralytic. Flowers which had been presented to the saint, applied to the eyes of a blind man, gave him sight. There were even seven or eight corpses restored to life.

St. Augustine, who endeavors to justify this worship by distinguishing it from that of adoration, which is due to God alone, is obliged to agree that he himself knew several Christians who adored sepulchres and images. “I know several who drink to great excess on the tombs, and who, in giving entertainments to the dead, fell themselves on those who were buried.”

Indeed, turning fresh from Paganism, and charmed to find deified men in the Christian church, though under other names, the people honored them as much as they had honored their false gods; and it would be grossly deceiving ourselves to judge of the ideas and practices of the populace by those of enlightened and philosophic bishops. We know that the sages among the Pagans made the same distinctions as our holy bishops. “We must,” said Hierocles, “acknowledge and serve the gods so as to take great care to distinguish them from the supreme God, who is their author and father. We must not too greatly exalt their dignity. And finally the worship which we give them should relate to their sole creator, whom you may properly call the God of gods, because He is the Master of all, and the most excellent of all.” Porphyrius, who, like St. Paul, terms the supreme God, the God who is above all things, adds that we must not sacrifice to Him anything that is sensible or material, because, being a pure Spirit, everything material is impure to Him. He can only be worthily honored by the thoughts and sentiments of a soul which is not tainted with any sinful passion.

In a word, St. Augustine, in declaring with naïveté that he dared not speak freely on several similar abuses on account of giving opportunity for scandal to pious persons or to pedants, shows that the bishops made use of the artifice to convert the Pagans, as St. Gregory recommended two centuries after to convert England. This pope, being consulted by the monk Augustine on some remains of ceremonies, half civil and half Pagan, which the newly converted English would not renounce, answered, “We cannot divest hard minds of all their habits at once; we reach not to the top of a steep rock by leaping, but by climbing step by step.”

The reply of the same pope to Constantina, the daughter of the emperor Tiberius Constantine, and the wife of Maurice, who demanded of him the head of St. Paul, to place in a temple which she had built in honor of this apostle, is no less remarkable. St. Gregory sent word to the princess that the bodies of saints shone with so many miracles that they dared not even approach their tombs to pray without being seized with fear. That his predecessor (Pelagius II.) wishing to remove some silver from the tomb of St. Peter to another place four feet distant, he appeared to him with frightful signs. That he (Gregory) wishing to make some repairs in the monument of St. Paul, as it had sunk a little in front, and he who had the care of the place having had the boldness to raise some bones which touched not the tomb of the apostle, to transport them elsewhere, he appeared to him also in a terrible manner, and he died immediately. That his predecessor also wishing to repair the tomb of St. Lawrence, the shroud which encircled the body of the martyr was imprudently discovered; and although the laborers were monks and officers of the church, they all died in the space of ten days because they had seen the body of the saint. That when the Romans gave relics, they never touched the sacred bodies, but contented themselves with putting some cloths, with which they approached them, in a box. That these cloths have the same virtue as relics, and perform as many miracles. That certain Greeks, doubting of this fact, Pope Leo took a pair of scissors, and in their presence cutting some of the cloth which had approached the holy bodies, blood came from it. That in the west of Rome it is a sacrilege to touch the bodies of saints; and that if any one attempts, he may be assured that his crime will not go unpunished. For which reason the Greeks cannot be persuaded to adopt the custom of transporting relics. That some Greeks daring to disinter some bodies in the night near the church of St. Paul, intending to transport them into their own country, were discovered, which persuaded them that the relics were false. That the easterns, pretending that the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul belonged to them, came to Rome to take them to their own country; but arriving at the catacombs where these bodies repose, when they would have taken them, sudden lightning and terrible thunder dispersed the alarmed multitude and forced them to renounce their undertaking. That those who suggested to Constantina the demand of the head of St. Paul from him, had no other design than that of making him lose his favor. St. Gregory concludes with these words: “I have that confidence in God, that you will not be deprived of the fruit of your good will, nor of the virtue of the holy apostles, whom you love with all your heart and with all your mind; and that, if you have not their corporeal presence, you will always enjoy their protection.”

Yet the ecclesiastical history pretends that the translation of relics was equally frequent in the East and West; and the author of the notes to this letter further observes that the same St. Gregory afterwards gave several holy bodies, and that other popes have given so many as six or seven to one individual.

After this, can we be astonished at the favor which relics find in the minds of people and kings? The sermons most commonly preached among the ancient French were composed on the relics of saints. It was thus that the kings Gontran, Sigebert, and Chilperic divided the states of Clotaire, and agreed to possess Paris in common. They made oath on the relics of St. Polyeuctus, St. Hilary, and St. Martin. Yet Chilperic possessed himself of the place and merely took the precaution of having a shrine, with a quantity of relics, which he had carried as a safeguard at the head of his troops, in hopes that the protection of these new patrons would shelter him from the punishment due to his perjury. Finally, the catechism of the Council of Trent approved of the custom of swearing by relics.

It is further observed that the kings of France of the first and second races kept in their palaces a great number of relics; above all, the cap and mantle of St. Martin; and that they had them carried in their trains and in their armies. These relics were sent from the palaces to the provinces when an oath of fidelity was made to the king, or any treaty was concluded.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01