RELIC: The body, or some part of the same, of a saint, or an object supposed to have been connected with the life and person of Christ, a saint, or a martyr, and preserved for religious veneration, especially in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches. The term was received from the classical Latin meaning "remains from dead bodies" (reliqui = "ashes"), and was applied to relics from the martyrs. Later it was extended to include the bodies themselves (Vita Sancti Maxentii; ASM, i. 567) and everything that had come into contact with the saints or their bodies (Gregory the Great, Dialogorum, II., xxxviii.). In "The Epist. of the church at Smyrna concerning the martyrdom of Polycarp" (xviii.; Eng. transl., ANF, i. 43) the bones of the martyr, after the body was consumed in the fire, are represented as "more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more refined than gold" and (xvii.; Eng. transl., i. 42) many "desired to become possessors of his holy flesh." In the next century Cyprian and Dionysius of Alexandria bear witness that congregations considered it their right and duty to bury the bodies of their martyrs (Cyprian, Epist., viii. 3, xii. 1; Eng. transl., ANF, v. 281, 315; Eusebius, Hist. eccl., vii. 11, 22; Eng. transl., NPNF, ser. 2, i. 301, 307). The possession of the body, or at least the relics, was taken as securing a continuation of fellowship with the deceased. This view throws light upon the custom of assembling at the graves of the martyrs to celebrate the agape and the Eucharist (Epist. de martyrio Polycarpi, xviii.; Eng. transl., ANF, i. 43; Cyprian, Epist., xxxix. 3; Eng. transl., ANF, v. 313), and of the desire for burial in the vicinity of the martyr. The aversion to touching the bodies of the dead apropos of the survival of the ceremonial law of the Jews could not long impede this development.
The transition from the veneration of entombed bodies to that of relics occurred during the latter half of the third and the beginning of the fourth centuries, and evidently falls into connection with the persecutions under Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian. In Egypt the dead bodies of saints were not buried but retained for veneration in the houses (Vita Antonii magni, xc.; ASB, ii. 120-141). Optatus (De schismate Donatistarum, i. 16) speaks of a certain Lucilla of Carthage, who kissed the bone of a martyr; and of the Christians at Tarragona it is said that after the death of Fructuosus (q.v.) and his associates each one appropriated, so far as possible, some of their ashes (Acta Fructuosi, vi.; ASB, ii. 339-341). In each of those three instances the act was disapproved by the church leaders, but in spite of this the veneration became general. In addition it was soon believed that the inanimate body had miraculous virtue, acquired by the long habitation of the soul. Egypt, particularly, seemed to have been a rich treasure-house of these objects. The church in Jerusalem was famed for possessing the chair of James (Eusebius, Hist. eccl., vii. 19; Eng. transl., NPNF, 2 ser., i. 305) and a remnant of the oil miraculously multiplied by Bishop Narcissus (Eusebius, ut sup., vi. 9; Eng. transl., i.255).
The advance to superstitious veneration occurred principally in the period of Constantine; and the bringing of the relics of Timothy, Andrew, and Luke to Constantinople (356-357) points to the transference of relics as begun under Constantius. At this time appears the practise, instead of burying the remains of martyrs, of dividing them for wider distribution (Gregory of Nyssa, in his third address on the forty martyrs; MPG, xlvi. 783). The Greek authorities of this and the next period are unanimous in commending the religious veneration of relics. In the West Ambrose brought to light the relics of Protasius and Gervasius, which was the beginning of a series of similar discoveries and translations. Jerome and Paulinus of Nola particularly promoted this form of piety, the latter almost to the borders of creature-worship ("a local star and a cure," Poemata, xix. 14, xxvii. 443). Nothing indicates better the broadcast possession of these objects than the frequent mention of forged relics. However, there was no lack of protests, at least against accretions. Pope Damasus discredited the effort to obtain burial near the tombs of martyrs. The rescript of Theodosius for the protection of the bodies of martyrs was ineffectual in the East; in the West Gregory the Great, in a letter (Epist., iv. 30; Eng. transl. in NPNF, 2 ser. xii. 154-156) to the Empress Constantina, declared that the practise in the East of touching and removing the bodies of martyrs must be taken as sacrilege, and that permission was given only to bring cloths to the tombs with which to touch the bodies, and that these cloths were henceforth relics. While parts of the bodies of saints appear here and there in the West; yet the dismemberment of bodies was openly censured. In general it may be assumed that the majority of relics in the West at this time consisted of memorials of the graves and places of the saints supposed to be endowed with miraculous and sanctifying virtues; such as, parts of clothing, a key from the tomb of Peter, and water from their wells. This restriction, however, could not be maintained against the popular demand. In the ninth century most relics were bodies or parts of them, and the Synod of Mainz (813; Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, iii. 763, canon 5), which renewed the prohibition against removals, sanctioned the permission given by rulers, bishops, and synods. The Church promoted the veneration by the decision that relics shall be deposited within every altar.
The beginning of the collocation of martyr's tomb and church can not be traced farther back than the fourth century, when the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul appeared upon the sites of "the trophies of the apostles" at the Vatican and the Ostian way (Eusebius, Hist. eccl., ii. 25; Eng. transl., NPNF, 2 ser., i. 130). Ambrose refused consecration to churches without relics and Pope Severinus (640) collected them in great numbers for the border churches on the Danube. The seventh ecumenical council (Nicea, 787) forbade the bishops to consecrate churches without relics under penalty of excommunication. The English Synod of Celchyt (816) allowed exceptions (Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, iii. 580); yet the more relics multiplied, the less frequently the exceptions occurred, so that the Synod of Mainz (888) presupposed also relics in portable altars. The belief that the relics are instruments of divinely wrought miracles still firmly prevails in the Roman Catholic Church (Council of Trent, xxv. 469).
While the principle of veneration of Christian relics is not derived from ethnic practise, the diffusion of the custom reflects a profound sense of regard for men who have served their race in religious development. Thus it is reported that Gautama's body was burned and the relics, apportioned among his disciples, were widely dispersed, of which the "Stupas" (q.v.) are monuments. India may be called the home of relics, a large proportion of its smaller shrines being built around objects of this class. The cult is found even in Mohammedanism, in spite of its rigid monotheism, and was an occasion of the rise of the Wahabis and an object of attack by them.