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Revisioning Relics: Lost, Found, and Lost Again

One of the most amazing inventio narratives, complete with multiple dreams and visions, and multiple excavations, appears in the 6th century Chronicle of the Marcellinus and involves one of the most well traveled relics, the Head of John the Baptist.  (In fact, the Head was sufficiently well-traveled to deserve a monograph as early as the 17th century:   C. Du Frense Du Cange, TraitĂ© historique du chef de S. Jean Baptiste… (Paris 1665); for a brief modern treatment see: J. Wortley, “The Relics of  ‘the Friends of Jesus’ at Constantinople,” in J. Durand and B. Flusin eds, Byzance et les Reliques du Christ. Centre de Recherche d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance 17. (Paris 2004), 143-157).  Ultimately, one part of the complex history of the rediscovery of John the Baptist’s head is commemorated in the Synaxarion of Constantinople of May 25th

“John, the herald of the Lord and his baptizer, revealed his head which , at an unspeakable horrible demand, Herodias had once accepted after it had been cut from his shoulders and placed on a dish, and buried far from his headless bod; he revealed his head to two eastern monks entering Jerusalem to celebrate the resurrection of the Christ the Lord, so that when they reached the place where the former king Herod lived they were advised to search around and dig the ground up faithfully.  So while they were journeying back to their own places, carrying in their rough saddle-bag the head they had discovered by faith, a certain potter from the city of Emesa fleeing from the poverty which threatened him daily, showed himself to them as a companion.  While, in ignorance, he was carrying the sack entrusted to him with the sacred head, he was admonished in the night by him whose head he was carrying, and fleeing both his companions he made off.  He entered the city of Emesa immediately with his holy and light burden, and as long as he lived there he venerated the head of Christ’s herald.  At his death, he handed it over in a jar to his sister, who was ignorant of the matter.  Next a certain Eustochius, who was secretly a priest of the Arian faith, unworthily obtained this great treasure and dispensed to the rabble, as if it were purely his own, the grace which Christ the Lord bestows on his inconstant people through John the Baptist. When his wickedness was detected he was driven out the city of Emesa.  Afterwards this cave, in which the head of the most blessed John was set in an urn and reburied underground, became the abode of certain monks.  Finally, while the priest and head of the monastery, Marcellus, was living a faultless life in that cave, the blessed John, herald of Christ, revealed himself and his head to Marcellus and showed that it was buried here, conspicuous by its many miracles.  It is agreed therefore that this venerable head was found by the foresaid priest Marcellus whil Uranius was bishop of the city mentioned.  This was on the twenty-fourth day of February in the consulship of Vincomalus and Opilio, in the middle week of Lent, and the ruling emperors were in fact Valentinian and Marcian.”

Chronicle of Marcellinus. trans. B. Croke. (Sydney 1995), pp. 19-22

This is an extraordinarily complex and dense story capturing almost the entire realm of Late Antique experiences from heretical priests to traveling monks to visions, relics, and the realia every day life (potters, rough saddle-bags, jars, et c.).

The story is one of a significant number of episodes when a holy relic is lost multiple times.  For example, the the bodies of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste reappear once in the time of the Empress Pulcharia in the early 5th century (Sozomen HE 9.2) and then later in Justinian’s reign (Procop. Aed. 1.7.2-10).  Numerous icons appear and vanish from the tumultuous history of far flung monasteries representing the irrepressible sanctity of religious objects.  From a historical perspective, I have always thought that there is something incongruous about sacred objects being misplaced or lost, but then again, we hear of important documents and artifacts sometimes going missing in museums even today, especially during chaotic and unstable times. 

From the perspective of narratives on dream archaeology, these stories show how densely packed stories associated with relics could be and how multiple individuals, places, and events could partake of the sacred penumbra of a single relic.  Once the head of John the Baptist appeared in Constantinople (at the church of St. John Studios or the Pharos (“Lighthouse”) Church), it not only validated its power as a sacred object through the various places and people involved in its inventio, but also imparted those people, places, and invents with a share of its sanctity.  The re-inventio of a relic not only reinforced it sacred status, but also produced an expanded network that mapped together people and places from across a sacred history and landscape. 

So multiple dreams, multiple excavations, and various translations (travels) held out an extraordinary potential for creating a sacred topography (often extending far beyond the final resting place of the relic), a sacred history typically revealing the irrepressible persistence of the sacred object, and, in some cases, multiple individuals credited and blessed with the discovery of the object.  When the story is set in such mundane and ordinary surroundings as the one recounted above, the sacred object imbues even the mundane realia of everyday life like pots and saddlebags with a sacred glow.

Categories: Byzantium, Late Antiquity
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