An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church


The material remains of the body of a saint or martyr after death, such as bones, teeth, or hair. Relics may also include objects that have been in direct contact with the body of a saint or martyr in life, such as clothing, items used by the saint or martyr, or even instruments of torture. Relics may be placed in a reliquary for protection and display. The veneration of relics has been an ancient and at times controversial practice in Christianity. Some have believed that religious relics have miraculous powers. Supporters of the veneration of relics have noted the powers associated with Elijah's mantle (2 Kgs 2:14), the bones of Elisha (2 Kgs 13:21), and the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched Paul's skin (Acts 19:12). The bodies of early Christian martyrs were venerated by the church, including the remains of Ignatius and Polycarp, who were martyred in the second century. The eucharist was celebrated over the tombs of Christian martyrs in the catacombs of Rome in the fourth century. The Second Council of Nicaea (787) and the Council of Constantinople (1084) were supportive of the veneration of religious relics. However, icons came to exercise a more important role than relics in the spirituality of the eastern church. The veneration of religious relics increased during the middle ages, especially as the crusaders brought back to Europe a variety of objects from the Holy Land. Relics were often placed as close as possible to the altar in a church or chapel. Abuses were associated with religious relics, including bogus claims, superstitious practices, competing shrines, and the marketing of religious relics. Protestant reformers such as John Huss (c. 1372-1415) and Martin Luther (1483-1546) opposed the cult of relics. Religious relics may be understood as a tangible reminder and connection with the life of a holy Christian person. The veneration given to saints and their relics (dulia) is distinguished from the worship that is offered only to God (latria). See Reliquary; see Martyrium.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.