Power in the blood

by Team members


Last October our Team presented the following poster at the International Workshop “Relics at the lab,” Brussels, Belgium, 27-28 October 2016.

In historical research, most attention has gone to study of the relics of approved saints, not seldom on display in costly and artistic reliquaries. However, the day to day reality of the Catholic faithful often implied the use of a quite different type of relic. The faithful not only traveled to shrines to gaze upon or even touch the bones of national or local saints, but also carried small relics around. Moreover, they did not demand their ‘saints’ to be officially approved by the Church, home-made relics of ‘living saints’ could do the job as well.

Our Project is especially interested in the relics of the not approved, or not yet approved saints, and more in particular those that were created in the context of the cult of stigmatics. These men and women carried the wounds of the crucified body of Christ and were often perceived by their contemporaries as ‘living saints’. Handkerchiefs with their blood, fragments of their clothes were eagerly collected and loaded with thaumaturgical power. Such practices continued after their death as pilgrims travelled great distances to take home some gravel from the stigmatic’s grave or gazed upon their belongings  exhibited in their houses (e.g. the gloves with which they covered the stigmata) or sanctuaries. What is more, in some cases, the bodies were exhumed, fragments (or even the skull) were removed and put on display.

By focusing on the relics of stigmatics, we want to offer a much needed, bottom-up approach to devotional practices and their material culture. Our Project will address the different types of relics that circulated, examine the practices in which they were used and point at similarities with devotional practices approved by the Church. We will demonstrate how also for these ‘saints’, a system of authentication developed (e.g. signature of the local priest). As some of the stigmatics eventually officially became saints, we have the opportunity to compare the unofficial and official circuit.


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