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Relic Chapel in the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in New York (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)
As an eight-year-old Catholic, I was already disillusioned with my faith. My perverse interest in the many lepers of the Bible sustained my attention in religion class for a while, but my request for more information resulted in a well-intentioned, but crushingly disappointing, book on leopards. In the days before Wikipedia, that was a dead end. The boredom returned. I felt doomed to a lifetime of sunny parables and chirpy gospels until the day Father Don walked into church with a piece of decomposing human liver in a filigree box.
The liver was a relic: a piece of the corpse of a saint. Our parish was a stop on the liver’s world tour to give more parishioners the opportunity to venerate. According to the Catholic process of veneration, praying to a saint's body part might stir the saint to intercede on your behalf with God. While I may not have venerated in the most orthodox way, I studied it intently. For me, the liver was the best thing since lepers.
From that time on I was fascinated with the lives of saints and the pieces of their bodies strewn about in shrines all over the world. Their biographies matched the macabre beauty of their bones in these wildly ornate boxes. They were princes and queens, warriors and beggars in disguise. It wasn’t uncommon for the hero or heroine saint to be beheaded, burnt at the stake, or flayed alive at the end of their story. In fact, if you looked closely, some of their bones still bore the marks of martyrdom.
There is no complete list of saints, nor for that matter, their relics (at least that’s available to the public; who knows what lurks in the Vatican Library). Saints are sometimes taken off the official calendar of feast days if their legends become too suspect, but they cannot be “un-sainted” and their relics, if they exist, often remain on display even under the most suspicious circumstances (like the four skulls all claiming to be St. John the Baptist). As an adult, I began seeking out churches all over the world to document saint’s relics and legends myself because the disorder and relative lack of information on relics lent itself to a sort of treasure hunt.
As I loaded my laptop with photos of crypts and cadavers, I became hesitant to share these vacation photos. Frankly, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for centuries-old disembodied limbs and skulls wearing crowns. I started my blog All the Saints You Should Know last year as a way to organize and share the photos and stories I collected with like-minded people. Recently, I’ve started adding some of my favorites to the Atlas in the hopes of getting more people interested in and documenting relics. Here are a few of my favorites that I’ve highlighted so far:
SANTA FRANCESCA ROMANA
St. Francesca Romana (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)
One of the best side effects of viewing relics is the quiet serenity of crypts. The day I went to see the relics of St. Francesca Romana it was almost 100 degrees in Rome. The basilica her relics are kept in is in the middle of the loudest, most touristy part of the city. I had to slip past a bunch of guys in plastic gladiator costumes waiting in line for porta-potties just to get in. But then… silence. Cool marble. Incense. It was an oasis within some circle of hell reserved for badly behaved tourists in fannypacks. And of course, there was a full skeleton dressed in a white nun's habit, boney fingers still clutching her prayer book.
CHURCH OF THE MOST HOLY REDEEMER
New York City, New York
Relics of St. Datian (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)
But of course, you don’t have to go to Europe just to see relics. For a similar experience sans-jetlag, you can head to the East Village in New York City and view the complete relics of St. Datian, an obscure Roman martyr. St. Datian was the first complete body of a saint to be brought to America and he rests here along with smaller relics from over 150 other saints. The relics are encased in a lifelike (or rather, deathlike) wax sculpture of the martyr’s body in repose. The art of wax sculpting is employed all over the world to give relics a less frightening, more peaceful look. Today some contemporary saints like Padre Pio have perfectly lifelike silicone faces and hands to shield their corpses from direct view.