How many heads did Saint John the Baptist have?
Probably only one, but according to Thomas J. Craughwell’s Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics, at least seven places have claimed to have preserved the holy skull, including the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (156).
With about 350 separate entities, Craughwell’s Saints Preserved is a whirlwind tour of the world’s bits and bones of sanctity. Although many entities note only where a saint’s body is entombed or major relics are enshrined and venerated, all of the entries of saints’ relics include at least a brief hagiography (biographical sketch), notes on associated patronage, and feast day data. Lengthier entries include what is known about the history of the relic(s) of a given saint, including peregrinations, translations, and thefts.
In addition to cataloguing relics of saints, Craughwell includes major and minor relics associated with the life of Christ—the holy prepuce (foreskin); articles of clothing; boards from the Bethlehem manger; a bench from the Last Supper and other relics of the Passion (crown of thorns, nails). No attempt is made to reconcile competing relic traditions, such as the shroud and sudarium of Aachen with their more famous counterparts at Turin and Oviedo, the various veils of Veronica or the lances of Longinus. Craughwell’s skills as both a serious historian and a popular journalist are in play here, reporting “just the facts,” and refraining from value judgments. Those same skills are also evident in his bibliography, and positively impact his economical but engaging writing style.
The breadth of saints’ relics represented in this collection is truly noteworthy. The European saints included (obviously a majority) span beyond the usual Spanish-French-Italian-German swath and include a number of English and Irish saints (not to mention the Danish Saint Knud Lavard). Of English saints from after the reformation, Craughwell notes what relics remain and where they are enshrined—such as the hand of Saint John Kemble at Hereford, or the eye of Saint Edward Oldcorne at Stonyhurst College. Non-Europeans mentioned in the book include the martyrs of Nagasaki, Uganda, Korea and Vietnam. The balance between women and men is nearly equal, and non-ordained persons are well represented. All United States citizens who have been canonized or beatified are included in the volume, and mention is made of two of the larger relic collections in the United States (Maria Stein, Ohio and Saint Anthony’s Chapel in Pittsburgh). Unfortunately, some saints whose major relics (i.e., full remains) are enshrined in this country—including the boy-martyr Saint Peregrine at Collegeville, MN and Saint Marcellus at Notre Dame in Indiana—are not included among the entries.
Although Craughwell makes no mention of the relics and shrines of those venerated as saints and worthies from communities that emerged after the sixteenth-century reformations, he does include a number of holy ones who have been glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church, including Saint Sergius of Radzoneh and Saint Alexander Nevski.
This book suffers only from a few flaws, all of which may be overlooked and some of which have already been mentioned. A comprehensive index including associated locations would have made it more useful, though as an alphabetically arranged book, intended for a popular audience, once can understand the absence. More substantive is Craughwell’s remark that “[e]very Catholic church and chapel contains at least one relic—it is a requirement of the Church under canon law that every altar consecrated fro the celebration of Mass must contain the relic of at least one saint, preferably a martyr” (xvi) is undocumented and simply untrue. While such a case is ideal, highly desirable, laudably customary, every-effort-ought-to-be-made, etc., it is neither a strict requirement of the 1983 Code, nor of the Rite for the Dedication of an Altar that a relic be reposed in a consecrated altar. That factual gaffe may be overlooked in light of the overall achievement of the book’s introduction, which contextualizes the cultus of relics both theologically and anthropologically, making it—along with the rest of the book—as useful an entrée into the world of relics for skeptical Catholics and non-Catholics as for the devout.
Thomas J. Craughwell, Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics. New York: Random House/Doubleday/Image, 2011. xx + 313 pages.
$16.00 — ISBN-13: 978-0-307-59073-2
Available from Random House.