Education The "holy bodies" of the Roman catacombs

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The first examples of “holy bodies” date back to the fourth century, when relics generally found in Palestine were spread in Christian circles by faithful or by exponents of the clergy; subsequently, in the ninth century, under the reign of Charlemagne, a movement was established to export the bodies of the best-known Roman martyrs from Rome to satisfy the requests of the faithful eager to venerate their relics; however many times they were quite different bodies.

The phenomenon of “holy bodies” experienced its maximum expansion from the end of the sixteenth century: from the last decades of the sixteenth century, after the Jordan catacomb was brought to light, numerous other paleochristian cemeteries were rediscovered; therefore the idea, without foundation, spread that the majority of the deceased buried in these catacombs were Christians martyred during the Roman persecutions, and their bodies were then exhumed and moved elsewhere in mass.

To stem the phenomenon, the popes closed the galleries to free movement and limited the traffic of relics, only then to grant the permits necessary to extract the relics (called patentes or licentiae effodiendi) with some ease. The main front of the extraction of the holy bodies were the Roman catacombs, but many bodies also come from other places, such as Cagliari, Pompeii and Nancy.

To cope with the ever increasing demand for relics, in the mid-seventeenth century a pontifical commission set arbitrary criteria to distinguish the martyrs from the other buried in the catacombs, for example the presence of some symbols (such as the palm, the dove, the monogram of Christ, the initials BM for “Blessed Martyr”) or of a balsamary that was presumed to contain the blood of the deceased. An official corps of “quarrymen” of relics was also formed, under the direction of a Custos of the Holy Relics and Cemeteries.

Between 1700 and 1800 the diffusion and veneration of the holy bodies grew so much that it is now impossible to count how many bodies have been extracted from the catacombs (in the order of thousands). The bodies were brought to specialized laboratories inside female conservatories or convents, where they were recomposed, sometimes covered with a wax simulacrum, and dressed as real martyrs; often the skeleton was reassembled with little or no anatomical accuracy, leading to grotesque results (as in the case of a “Saint Ovid” brought to a Capuchin convent at Place Vendôme, which had two left feet), except for the skull and the face, which were carefully reconstructed, also with the aid of glue, clay and sawdust of bones.

After the exhumation and composition, the bodies were shipped both to various Italian locations and outside the peninsula in Central Europe, especially in the area now occupied by Austria, Switzerland and southern Germany; once it reached its destination, the body was generally exposed in a glass case in various possible positions (lying down, sitting, standing).

Cessation of the phenomenon
The extraction of the holy bodies ceased in the mid-nineteenth century, thanks also to the protests of various people such as Papebroch, Mabillon and de Rossi; the same Congregation of rites used to deny the granting of celebrations, offices and Masses in honor of holy bodies, even when authenticated by high members of the clergy, instead recommending the cessation of worship or the replacement of the holy body with real relics; however, the veneration of the holy bodies is still taking place in many places.

Source and automatic translation from: Wikipedia




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