Sokushinbutsu (即身仏): The Japanese Art of Self-Mummification

Sokushinbutsu (即身仏) refers to a practice of Buddhist monks observing austerity to the point of death and mummification. It is a process of self-mummification that was mainly practised in Yamagata Prefecture in Northern Japan by members of the esoteric Shingon (“True Word”) School of Buddhism.

Shingon Buddhism (真言宗 shingon-shū) is one of Japan’s mainstream schools of Buddhism and one of the few remaining esoteric branches, based on the teachings of Kūkai (空海, posthumously known as Kōbō-Daishi 弘法大師, 774–835) who brought this practice from Tang China as part of secret tantric practices. The practioners of sokushinbutsu did not view this practice as an act of suicide, but rather as a form of further enlightenment.


It appears that self-mummification was practised in Japan from the 11th century to at least the late 19th century. While Egyptian mummies were posthumously embalmed, Buddhist monks underwent a special rite known as nyūjō (入定) that would turn them into “Living Buddhas”: for one thousand days they would engage in strict ascetic exercise and live on a special diet consisting of water, seeds and nuts in order to shed body fat. For the next thousand days, they would feed on roots and pine bark and start to drink urushi tea(漆樹, made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum). The toxic sap, normally used to lacquer bowls and plates, served to repel maggots and other parasites and would later prevent decay of the body. In the next stage, the monks would be buried alive in a stone tomb barely big enough to allow them to sit in the lotus position. They were able to breathe through a tube and would ring a bell once a day to signal their still being alive. Once they failed to ring, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed.

After another one thousand days, the tomb was opened to see if the body had been successfully mummified. Those few who had actually succeeded had immediately attained Buddha-hood and were put on display at their temples, while those, whose bodies were decomposed, remained entombed, nonetheless highly respected for their denial and endurance. So far, 24 “Living Buddhas” have been documented.

The practice was banned by the Meiji government in 1879 as assisted suicide. Today, the practice is not advocated or practiced by any Buddhist sect, and is banned in Japan.


Mummies are still on display at

  • Ryusui-ji Dainichibou Temple (瀧水寺大日坊) in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata. Prefecture, where the body of Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin (1687-1783), who after a life of asceticism turned into a “Living Buddha” at the age of 96 after 42 days of fasting, can be seen.
  • Nangaku-ji Temple (南岳寺) in Tsuruoka.
  • Kaikou-ji temple (海向寺, Jisan Shingon sect) in Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture.
  • Zoukou-in temple (蔵高院, Zen Soutou sect) in Shirataka City, Yamagata Prefecture.


Here is the Shingon-approved self-mummification process a few easy steps!

  1. For three years, eat nothing but nuts and berries. This caused monks to lose a lot of weight, keeping pesky fat off of the body for the mummification process.
  2. For the next three years, only eat bark and roots. Eating only these things removed a lot of moisture from the body, moisture that could cause the body to decay instead of mummify.
  3. Drink a special tea. By drinking tea made out of urushi tree, a substance which is poisonous and usually used to lacquer bowls. This made the body poisonous and made it harder for bacteria to eat away at the body.
  4. Bury yourself alive. Seal yourself in a giant stone tomb. The monks gave the mummy-to-be a bamboo pipe for air and a bell. The mummy-to-be rang the bell every day to let his fellow monks know that they were alive. When they didn’t hear the bell ring, they knew that the monk had died.


Mountains, Mummies, and Modern Art: Ascetic Practice in Yamagata Prefecture

For over a thousand years, Yamagata Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan side of the northern Tōhoku region, has drawn pilgrims and mystics to its mountains. As the native Shintō faith intertwined with imported Buddhism, Yamagata became the site for scores of shrines and temples, some of which remain to the present day.

Pilgrimage to the Three Holy Mountains

The holiest of all the sites in the region are the three sacred mountains of Dewa, or Dewa Sanzan (literally: “three mountains of Dewa”): Gassan, Haguro, and Yudono. These peaks boast what is thought to be Japan’s longest history of mountain worship, stretching all the way back to Prince Hachiko, a sixth-century royal who devoted his life to religion, establishing centers of worship on all three mountains.

The five-story pagoda of Mount Haguro.
The five-story pagoda of Mount Haguro.

The slopes of Mount Haguro, the lowest and most accessible of the three sacred peaks, are particularly rich in shrines, Jizō statues, and other religious iconography, along with a stunning five-story wooden pagoda built without nails in 1372, itself a reconstruction of a similar monument built over a thousand years ago. Historical figures like the great poet Matsuo Bashō and the twelfth century warrior monk Benkei are also said to have lingered on this hallowed ground.

After the area was visited in the late seventh century by their spiritual forebear En no Gyōja, the three Dewa peaks became a site of great importance to the yamabushi (literally, “those who lay in the mountains”), a sect of ascetic adherents of Shugendō, an ancient religion combining aspects of Shintō and Buddhism.

Shrines at the base of Mount Haguro.
Shrines at the base of Mount Haguro.

These mountain mystics, clad in white and saffron robes and bamboo skullcaps, revere the fearsome-looking divinity Fudō Myōō and devote themselves to the contemplation of nature and study of martial arts. In the village at the base of the mountain are numerous lodgings that still host these pilgrims, serving traditional vegan shōjin ryōri in the austere quarters of the often thatched-roofed buildings.

Self-Denial in Pursuit of the Inner Buddha

The monks from the area around nearby Mount Yudono became famous for an even more rigorous strain of asceticism, with rather macabre results.

The temple Dainichibō stands near a prehistoric cedar tree beneath which, according to Chief Abbot Endō Yūkaku, Mimorowake—son of the first century Emperor Keikō—is buried. The original temple is said to have been established in 825 by Kūkai, the pioneer of esoteric Buddhism. Among his many teachings, Kūkai espoused the concept of sokushin jōbutsu: that all living things carry within them the potential to attain Buddhahood.


The temple’s medieval statue of Fudō Myōō.
The temple’s medieval statue of Fudō Myōō.

Over the centuries, with this aim in mind, some devout followers attempted to mummify themselves prior to death through a punishing six-year regime. For three years they kept to a meager diet of nuts and berries while exercising relentlessly to eliminate body fat. This was followed by a further three years eating only bark and roots. In the final phase, they drank preparations made from the arsenic-laden water of a local spring and the lacquer-like sap of the urushi tree, eliminating intestinal bacteria and essentially varnishing their innards.

At the culmination of the process, a monk would enter a narrow stone pit and assume a position of prayer. This tomb was covered with a stone slab through which protruded a bamboo pipe to enable the subject to breathe. Each morning, if still alive, he rang a small bell. When the chimes finally ceased, the other priests would remove the pipe and seal the tomb, leaving it for a thousand days.

Frozen in Prayer for All Eternity

When the lid was opened, in most cases, the tomb contained a rotten corpse. But if everything had gone according to plan, there would be a perfectly preserved mummy, still in the lotus position. Thissokushinbutsu would be transferred to the temple, dressed in lavish vestments, and revered as a Buddha—one who had not died, but had rather entered a state of perpetual prayer for the benediction of mankind.

Shinnyokai-shōnin, the sokushinbutsu of Dainichibō.
Shinnyokai-shōnin, the sokushinbutsu of Dainichibō.

Along with an incredible collection of antique statues, some dating back to the Nara period (710–94), Dainichibō is home to the sokushinbutsu Shinnyokai-shōnin, a priest said to have achieved Buddhahood in 1786, at the age of 96. The nearby temple Chūrenji (also founded by Kūkai) also hosts a sokushinbutsu named Tetsumonkai-shōnin, as well as a series of sumptuous murals—some antique, some modern—decorating the ceilings of its many chambers.

In all there are some two dozen sokushinbutsu worshipped at temples throughout this region. Although monks attempting the feat became so numerous in the nineteenth century that the Meiji government outlawed the practice, Yamagata Prefecture remains the only place where successfulsokushinbutsu exist.



Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan:

Sokushinbutsu of Dainichi Temple: The self-mummified monks of Japan

The Japanese Art of Self-Preservation

The “Incorruptible” Hambo Lama Itigelov:

Dying to Live Forever: The Reasons behind Self-Mummification

Asceticism and the Pursuit of Death by Warriors and Monks

Buddhist mummies:


Toxicodendron vernicifluum:




Colored Bones, Varied Meanings (Katy Meyers Emery, 2011)

NOTE: The following article is taken from the Bones Don’t Lie wordpress. The author is an anthropology PhD student who specializes in mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology at Michigan State University.

When bones are recovered in archaeological contexts, they are not the white shiny ones you see hanging in the back of museums. Nor are they always tinted brown from years in soil. Bones can be a number of colors including black, red, yellow, white or green. Sometimes the coloration can be due to natural processes within the soil, and sometimes they are an indicator of cultural activities. Color can be painted or stained directly onto the bone or can be placed on the skin and become imprinted on the skeleton following putrefaction. It can also be accidental but still due to the nature of the funerary rituals. Whenever a bone appears to have a difference in pigment, or there is variation in color between individuals in a similar area or on a single individual, we need to investigate the reasons behind it.

A new article published in the Journal of Archaeological Science by Argáez et al. (2011) discusses the appearance of black pigmentation on skeletal remains from Mexico. The authors ascribe the coloring to a potential number of substances including manganese oxide, graphite, asphalt or bitumen, all of which create a black color on bone. The authors examined two populations from Mexico that had evidence of black coloration: Tlatelolco, a postclassical site from the 14th to 16th centuries CE and Tlapacoya, a preclassical site from the 10th to 8th centuried BCE. Three samples were taken from the first site and only one from the second. A small portion of the colored bone was removed from the skeleton, ground up, and was submitted to X-ray Fluo- rescence, X-ray Diffraction and Scanning Electron Microscopy. These methods revealed that the black substance on the boens could be attributed to bitumen, a black organic substance that is also found on the insides of shrouds from Albanian archaeological sites. Given the location of the coloring on the joints and knowledge of the region’s history, Argáez et al. (2011) argue that it was likely the coloring was accidental and was imparted during a dismembering process prior to burial. The bitumen may have been part of a hot substance, hot because the bone was thermally altered, that was used to ease in the dismemberment process by being a lubricant for tools.

Colored Bones 1

A number of remains around the world have been found with a reddish pigmentation. The primary cause of red and yellow pigmentation is from ocher, a clay-like soil that when combined with water can make a non-toxic oil like paint. When found at burial sites it is primarily assumed that the deceased individual’s skin was covered in red ochre as part of the funerary rituals. When the flesh decayed, the coloration was transferred to the bones. Wreschner (1980) traced the early evolution of man and the use of red ochre, and found it was a reoccurring symbol in early burials. Red ochre burials were first apparent at Neandertal sites like Quafza and Lagar Velho.With the rise of early modern humans there was an increase in its use. In Mesolithic groups in Europe, over half of the burials that have been recovered have red ochre staining. In the Natufian culture in the Mediterranean, individuals were buried with dentalium head bands, or with red ochre, or with both.

Colored Bones 2

Finding green stains is actual quite common in a number of historical and social contexts. Green stains occur when bones come into contact with copper or bronze that has begun to degrade. A study done by Hopkinson, Yeats and Scott (2008) look at the presence of green staining occurring on jaws in Medieval and Post-Medieval burials in Spain. Major stains were found on 18 of the 208 individuals recovered from a cemetery. The stains were only found at the mouth of the individuals and for some was so intense that the entire jaw was green including the teeth. The reason for this localized staining is due to the practice of placing a coin into the mouth of the deceased. This practices dates back to classical Greek mythology, where the dead were given money in order to pay the ferryman to take them across the river Styx. Although the rise of Christianity and Catholicism sought to break this tradition, it is still documented in art and literature. This staining shows that the act of ‘paying the ferryman’ continued even until the late Medieval period.

Colored Bones 3

Works cited
Argáez, C., Batta, E., Mansilla, J., Pijoan, C., & Bosch, P. (2011). The origin of black pigmentation in a sample of Mexican prehispanic human bones Journal of Archaeological Science, 38 (11), 2979-2988 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.06.014

Wreschner, E. (1980). Red Ochre and Human Evolution: A Case for Discussion Current Anthropology, 21 (5) DOI: 10.1086/202541

Kimberly A. Hopkinson, Sarah M. Yeats, and G. Richard Scott (2008). For Whom the Coin Tolls: Green Stained Teeth and Jaws In Medieval and Post-Medieval Spanish Burials Dental Anthropology, 21 (1), 12-17



The Traffic in Relics: some Late Roman Evidence (E.D. Hunt, 1980)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The Byzantine saint: University of Birmingham Fourteenth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies:


As the controversial monk Pelagius was defending his views before a synod of bishops in Palestine in December 415, news arrived of miraculous events at the village of Caphargamala in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem.1 Impelled by a series of dream-visions of the New Testament rabbi Gamaliel, the local presbyter Lucianus had unearthed three burials – of Gamaliel himself, his fellow-rabbi Nicodemus, and (the real prize) of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen (whose place of burial had been unknown since the time of his death). The bishop of Jerusalem and others hurried to the scene to preside over the revelation of Stephen’s remains: Lucianus (to whose first-hand account we owe our knowledge of these events) describes the fragrance that filled the air as the tomb was opened, such that ‘we thought we were in paradise’. In this heady atmosphere seventy-three people (it is asserted) were cured of sundry ailments, before the martyr’s body was solemnly laid to rest in the great basilica on Mount Sion in Jerusalem, on his feast day of 26 December.2

"Hair Relic" of St. Stephen Protomarty @ St. Stephen Church in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Hair Relic” of St. Stephen Protomarty @ St. Stephen Church in Cleveland, Ohio.

The interment of Stephen’s remains in Jerusalem is far from the last word in the story. For, after his rediscovery, the first martyr was to become one of the most widely-travelled of Christian saints. According to a fifth-century sermon in praise of Stephen (attributed to bishop Basil of Seleucia) ‘every place is glorified and hallowed by your remains; your protection shines out overall the earth’. 3 Certainly it was not long before some of the relics reached Constantinople and the pious court of Theodosius II and his sister Pulcheria.4 The saint made a journey even further afield by the hand of the Spanish presbyter Orosius, on his return to Augustine in north Africa after the vindication of Pelagius by the Palestinian bishops;5 through this channel of distribution relics of Stephen were circulated among Christian congregations in Africa, where he effected miraculous cures and was believed to intervene in the life of the community in a variety of ways to alleviate day-to-day hardships (whether the consequences of nature or the Roman government).6 Orosius, unable to reach his native Spain, also deposited relics of Stephen on the island of Minorca, where the saint inspired the local congregation to an onslaught against their neighbouring Jewish population, and achieved a mass conversion.7

Relics of St. Stephen Protomartyr @ St. Andrew Memorial Church, South Bound Brook, NJ)
Relics of St. Stephen Protomartyr @ St. Andrew Memorial Church, South Bound Brook, NJ)

The distribution of relics

The widespread distribution of Stephen’s relics, and the miraculous achievements associated with them, illustrate what has become a ‘fact of life’ in the Christian Roman empire of the early fifth century. Christian saints escape from their tombs to become the possession of congregations far and wide.8 Churches denied traditions associating them with apostles and martyrs could acquire such pedigree by the import of relics, to lend authority and prestige: by such means, as is familiar, the city of Constantinople sought to make up for its lack of Christian history.9 In the era of St Ambrose, new churches were dedicated at Milan and elsewhere in northern Italy over the shrines of apostolic relics which had become the prize of eastern pilgrimages.10 So Gaudentius, bishop of Brescia, housed relics which he had himself acquired on such a journey;11 while the Holy Land pilgrim Silvia (whom tradition also associates with Brescia) is said to have promised her friends in the West that she would return with the remains of ‘many martyrs from the East,12 This traffic was predominantly, but not exclusively, from east to west – there was a ‘counter-flow’, for instance, in the sample of the remains of the three Christian missionaries martyred in 397 by the pagans of the Val di Non which was sent to John Chrysostom in Constantinople;13 or the Roman relics of Peter and Paul which Theodosius I’s praetorian prefect Fl. Rufinus (brother-in-law, incidentally, of the pilgrim Silvia) transported to grace his new church across the Bosphorus at Chalcedon.14 Clearly there was already a considerable One final example befits a symposium on the Byzantine saint: chief among the remains which Gaudentius carried back to Brescia were those of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, which he had acquired from the family of bishop Basil at Caesarea – both Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, in their sermons on these martyrs, acclaim the ubiquity of the soldier-saints: ‘they are offered hospitality in many places, and adorn many lands’.15

L-R: Relic of the True Cross from Mt. Athos. Relic of 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. Relic of St. Necktarios (oval box). These relics are located at St. Anthony's Monastery, Florence, AZ.
L-R: Relic of the True Cross from Mt. Athos. Relic of 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. Relic of St. Necktarios (oval box). These relics are located at St. Anthony’s Monastery, Florence, AZ.

Concern about translations

It is not self-evident why this distribution and proliferation of relics should have arisen in the later fourth century, especially in view of the long-standing assumptions of antiquity about not interfering with the dead in their tombs. Laws continued to be issued in the late empire reaffirming the traditional prohibitions against tampering with the dead,16 and in 386 this was specifically applied to the martyrs; in a law addressed to the eastern praetorian prefect Theodosius ordered ‘no person shall transfer a buried body to another place [by the time of Justinian’s Code the clause ‘except with the permission of the emperor’ is added] ; no person shall sell the relics of a martyr; no person shall traffic in them […] ‘.17 Not only the powers of the state were marshalled to preserve the body in peace; on occasions the saints themselves communicated their wish not to be disturbed. As early as 259, at Tarragona in Spain, bishop Fructuosus made a post mortem appearance to prevent the separation of his ashes and to secure proper burial;18 while, in their so-called ‘Testament’, the Forty Martyrs leave specific directions against any division of their remains. 19 Delehaye long ago observed a difference of practice here between East and West, and that Western Christendom (far less richly endowed with tombs of apostles and martyrs) was reluctant to sanction the disturbance of precious remains: the Roman Church in the time of Gregory the Great was still affirming that the saints’ bodies were inviolable (though promoting sacred objects which had had contact with the remains as substitute relics).20 Not long before the bishop of Jerusalem was enthusiastically transferring Stephen’s newly-discovered relics into the basilica on Mount Sion, Exsuperius, bishop of Toulouse in Aquitania, had reluctantly contemplated the removal of the body of the local martyr Saturninus to a new church – he needed to be reassured by a dream, and by imperial authorisation.21 But if Ambrose’s energetic excavations of martyrs’ remains are any guide, not all western bishops were so particular in respecting the peace of the dead.22

Some church authorities strove at least to contain the enthusiasm for relics pervading their congregations. As the shrines and miraculous accomplishments of Stephen proliferated in the African province, Augustine instituted the practice of publicly authenticating and documenting the martyr’s achievements, both to give the miracles currency and also to guard against fraudulent claims23 he warned against bogus monks going the rounds with relics for sale, alleged to be those of martyrs.24 Similarly a council at Carthage in 401 had urged congregations against shrines and relics which were not authentic but merely the result of ‘dreams and empty revelations.’25 The search for authenticity and the acknowledgement of the possibilities of fraud only emphasise the degree to which the movement of relics was now incorporated into the life of the Church; as does its emergence as a subject of ecclesiastical debate. Jerome’s defence of the cult of relics against Vigilantius’ attacks on the veneration of mere ‘scraps of dust’ is perhaps the classic contemporary statement:

“While the devil and the demons wander through the whole world and present themselves everywhere, are martyrs after the shedding of their blood to be kept out of sight shut up in a coffin from whence they cannot escape?”26

Relics of St. Ambrose of Milan
Relics of St. Ambrose of Milan

Later Theodoret was to parade before pagan critics the salutary deeds of martyrs achieved through their scattered remains.27 One theme is common to all such treatises and sermons – and fundamental to the thinking behind the spread of relics: that the saint is indivisible and omnipresent, and wherever the smallest portion of his remains is to be found he is there in his entirety. Thus Gaudentius on his fragments of the Forty Martyrs, ‘pars ipsa, quam meruimus, plenitude est,.28 With such an argument the Church came to terms with the increasing dismemberment of its treasured saints.

The influence of the pagan past

We may wonder, with Vigilantius, what was the attraction for pious individuals and congregations in the possession of these bones and ashes. In some respects it seems to represent only the thinnest Christian veneer veiling the traditional practices of pagan antiquity. When St Makrina, for example, like many others, kept by her precious fragment of the wood of the Cross, it functioned much as a pagan talisman – a good luck charm to keep misfortune at bay.29 Superstition knew no religious boundaries. Similarly, relics deposited in churches afforded potent collective protection for congregations, even (of course) whole communities. 30 Yet there was more to this than institutionalised superstition. The saints who were present in diverse places through the mobility of their remains turn out to be late Roman patroni par excellence; their intercessions would vanquish the influence of earthly potentes. The language of patronage pervades our accounts of the accomplishments of saints and martyrs through their relics: so Gervasius and Protasius in Milan would overwhelm the forces of the Arian court of Valentinian II;31 so, too, Stephen, in effecting the conversion of the Jews in Minorca, outclassed the worldly standing and aristocratic prestige of the Jewish leaders.32 The record, furthermore, of Stephen’s interventions at Uzalis in north Africa is that of the patronus communis of the Christian congregation, behaving as a leading local citizen protecting the interests of his clients in the community.33 Not for nothing is emphasis placed on the relics representing the physical praesentia of the saint in the earthly community – access to his influence and patronage demanded that he be present in their midst, and not confined in a distant (and unknown) grave.

Relic of St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church with original authentics dated 1766 signed by Domenico Giordani.
Relic of St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church with original authentics dated 1766 signed by Domenico Giordani.

The relics of the Holy Land

The experience of these late Roman congregations may be illuminated by reference to a specific group of relics which came to the fore in the fourth century those from the holy places of Palestine.34 St Makrina’s fragment was only one of the many pieces of the wood of the Cross scattered, according to bishop Cyril of Jerusalem, all over the Mediterranean world.35 The enthusiasm to possess a portion of the sacred wood is vividly glimpsed in the story, told to the pilgrim Egeria in Jerusalem, of the worshipper who had bitten off a piece as he knelt down to kiss the relic.36 As with the remains of apostles and martyrs, so the wood of the Cross came to adorn the foundation of new churches: a martyrium at Tixter in Mauretania, for instance (359), or Sulpicius Severus’ new basilica at Primuliacum in Gaul (c.400).37 A close second in popularity to the True Cross was the earth from the Holy Land on which Christ had walked – St Augustine knew of an ex-official in his diocese who had a lump of Holy Land earth hanging in his bedroom.38 The favoured quarry for such soil was the spot at the summit of the Mount of Olives said to have borne Christ’s last footprints on earth before the Ascension (the footprints, like the True Cross in Jerusalem, were miraculously preserved despite the depradations of the relic-hunters).39 Another increasingly popular Holy Land relic (or very nearly a relic) was a small flask of oil from the lamps which burned at the Holy Sepulchre – the same variety of memento was favoured by devotees at the shrines of saints.40

06_08_28_relic_monica 06_08_28_relic_Augustine

We are in a position to understand something of the kind of devotion which surrounded the acquisition of these Holy Land relics thanks to the record of the early pilgrims at the holy places in the years after Constantine.41 There is already a clue in the ampullae, the oil-flasks mentioned above: surviving examples are distinguished by the realistic representations of the shrines at the holy places as they appeared to contemporary pilgrims – they give us an idea of what the holy places actually looked like.42 Pilgrims, we are reminded, went to the Holy Land not just to be there, where Christ had been, but also to see the evidence of his presence on earth before their eyes.43 For Jerome, it was the ‘eyes of faith’ which revealed to the pilgrim Paula the whole biblical scene in all its detail at the sites she visited – the Bethlehem manger and the surrounding characters assembled (even the star shining above), the Cross with Christ hanging upon it, and so on.44

Throughout her travels in the Holy Land hers was an essentially visual experience, conjuring up to a vivid imagination the biblical past in the Palestine of the present. The pilgrims’ experience was not confined to the New Testament: others, like Egeria, saw (for example) in the Sinai desert the very bush from which the Lord had spoken to Moses out of the fire, or saw in the sand on the shores of the Red Sea the tracks of the Egyptians’ chariot wheels disappearing into the waters.45 The imagination came to be aided not only by the constant reading of the appropriate biblical passages in situ but also, in Jerusalem, by the development of a distinctive church liturgy designed to re-enact, in strongly visual terms, the events of Christ’s life at the places where they had occurred.46 Egeria’s description of the round of worship in Jerusalem captures the immediacy and visual realism of experiences such as accompanying the bishop from the Mount of Olives into the city on Palm Sunday – a direct echo of Christ’s own entry into Jerusalem – or hearing the Passion narratives read at Golgotha on Good Friday: ‘you could hardly believe how every single one of them weeps during the three hours, old and young alike, because of the manner in which the Lord suffered for us.’47

The characteristic pilgrims’ response at the holy sites was thus, with the ‘eyes of faith’, to recreate the biblical past as a present reality; and to come away from the Holy Land with relics from the holy places, wood of the Cross, a portion of earth, was to enable that present reality to be recreated wherever the relics might come to rest. The experience of pilgrims in the Holy Land might thus become the experience of congregations far and wide, and of those who had never been anywhere near the holy places. The point is discussed by Paulinus of Nola in a letter he wrote to Sulpicius Severus to accompany a fragment of the Cross which he was sending for the dedication of Sulpicius’ new church at Primuliacum.48 All that Severus will see with the naked eye is a few scraps of wood: but his ‘interior eyesight’ will be stimulated to behold the whole series of biblical events surrounding the Crucifixion and their implications for belief – he will see ‘the whole force of the Cross in this tiny fragment’. Paulinus is sending the relic, he urges, so that Severus may possess the physical reality of the faith which he has long adhered to in the spirit. There seems little reason to doubt that Severus’ ‘interior eyesight’ here and the pilgrims’ ‘eyes of faith’ are one and the same; and that, through the medium of the relic of the Cross, the immediacy and vividness of the pilgrims’ experience is being reproduced far away from the Holy Land. The Cross and its implications are to be as present to the community in Aquitania as they are on Golgotha.


The part and the whole

Against this background the ubiquitous presence of the saint or martyr through the distribution of his remains becomes, I believe, less of an abstraction. Picture the scenes described by Jerome, as the remains of the prophet Samuel were transported from Palestine to the court of Arcadius at Constantinople: as the relics made their journey the route was lined by the faithful, linking the Holy Land to the Hellespont (so he asserts) in a unison chorus of acclamation; they were welcoming, not a casket of dust and ashes, but the prophet himself as though he were still among them ‘quasi praesentem viventemque’.49 The fragmentary relics were the visible testimony of the prophet’s continued presence. The same kind of language will be found characterising the devotion to martyrs and their relics. Asterios of Amaseia pictured the tomb of the martyr Phokas as evoking a vision of the saint’s life and martyrdom – and he has an explicit parallel with pilgrims at the Holy Land site of Mamre visualising the biblical history of Abraham and the patriarchs which the shrine commemorated so Gregory of Nyssa portrays the faithful approaching a casket of relics of the martyr Theodore:

“Those who behold them embrace them as though the actual living body, applying all their senses, eyes, mouth and ears; then they pour forth tears for his piety and suffering, and bring forward their supplications to the martyr as though he were present and complete” […J. 51


Victricius bishop of Rouen, an enthusiastic collector of relics, justifies the practice in similar terms: the physical remains, the ‘blood and gore’ (‘cruor et limus’) are what the eye sees; yet through this visual experience the ‘eyes of the heart’ (another variant of the ‘eyes of faith’) are opened to apprehend the presence of the saint himself – ‘where there is any part, there is the whole’.52 Victricius’ relics of saints have the same capability as Sulpicius Severus’ fragments of the Cross: to engender the effective presence of the saint in the Christian community which possessed his relics.

France's Amiens Cathedral contains a preserved skull (facial bone sans lower jaw) which is supposedly St. John the Baptist.
France’s Amiens Cathedral contains a preserved skull (facial bone sans lower jaw) which is supposedly St. John the Baptist.

The traffic in relics, then, may be seen to have originated from a species of devotion which hankered after physical objects and remains which could be seen to embody, for individual and community, the saint and his powers. That there were many whose piety had this concrete, visual propensity may be established from the evidence of pilgrims’ reactions to the holy places, and the evident reality, for them, of the biblical past which they commemorated. For the Church at large, the age of the martyrs was past; but that did not mean that their presence could not be revived (on a much more widespread scale than their previous earthly existence (through the circulation of their remains. It may be supposed that St Stephen was as real a presence to the Christian community in Minorca or to the congregations in north Africa as were the living holy men of Syria or Egypt – and his impact on local life comparable to theirs.

The purported head of Saint John the Baptist, enshrined in its own Roman side chapel in the San Silvestro in Capite, Rome
The purported head of Saint John the Baptist, enshrined in its own Roman side chapel in the San Silvestro in Capite, Rome


  1. For a recent summary of the political background, see J .N.D. Kelly, Jerome: his life, writings and controversies (London 1975), 317ff.
  2. The text of the Epistultz Luciani (Avitus’ Latin translation of the presbyter’s account) is to be found in PL 807ff.
  3. Basil Seleuc. 42 (PC 85. 469).
  4. Chronographia, s.a. 420 (ed. de Boor, 86-7): a fragment of Stephen’s right hand in return for Theodosius’ gift of a gilded cross for Golgotha.
  5. For Orosius as the bearer of the relics, see Aviti, PL 41. 805-8.
  6. For the arrival of the relicli in Africa, see Augustine, 317-8 (PL 38. 1435ff.), and the record of miraculous cures in Civ. Dei xxii.8. For incidents at Uzalis, De Miraculis S. Stephani (PL 41. 833ff.).
  7. The events are described in the Letter of Severns, bishop of Minorca, PL 82Iff.
  8. The classic study remains H. Delehaye, Les origines du culte des martyrs (SubsHag 20 (1933]), ‘Developpements du culte des martyrs’.
  9. g. Philostorgius, HE iii.2 (Andrew, Luke, Timothy); cf. Jerome, Chron. (ed. Helm) s.a. 356, with G. Dagron, NaiSSllnce d’une capitale (Paris 1974), 409.
  10. See E.D. Hunt, ‘St Silvia of Aquitaine’,JTS 23 (972),370-1.
  11. Gaudentius, xvii. 14ff. (ed. Glueck, CSEL 68).
  12. Not. Ep. 31.1. On Brescia, see iTS 23 (1972), 362ff. and P. Devos, ‘Silvie la sainte pelerine II’, AnalBolln (1974), 321ff.
  13. Trident. Ep. 2 (PL 13. 552ft).
  14. Callinicus, Vita Hypatii, 66 (ed. Bartelink [SC 177),98); on Rufinus, see John Matthews, Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court (Oxford 1975), 134ff.
  15. The story of the Forty Martyrs (its first appearance in the West) is the theme ofGaudentius, xvii (loc.cit); cf. Basil Caesar. at PC 31.521, and Greg.Nys. at PC 46. 784.
  16. CTh 17, passim; e.g. ix.17.4 (356): ‘nothing has been derogated from that punishment which is known to have been imposed on violators of tombs’.
  17. CTh 17.7, with Cl iii.44.14.
  18. Martyrium Fructuosi, 3 (H. Musurillo, The acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford 1972], 182).
  19. Testament of the Forty Martyrs, 3 (Musurillo, 354).
  20. Delehaye, Les origines,
  21. , 67 (citing the Acta Saturnini)
  22. In addition to Sts Gervasius and Protasius, Ambrose brought to light Sts Vitalis and Agricola, and Sts Nazarius and Celsus; cf. F. Homes Dudden, The Life and Times of St Ambrose (Oxford 1935), 316ff., and Delehaye, Les origines, 75-80.
  23. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (London 1967), 414-5, based on fundamental studies by Delehaye. For the text of a libellus documenting authentic cures, see August. Serm. 322 (PL 38. 1443).
  24. De opere monachorum, 36.
  25. Carthag. 13 Sept 401 (CChr 149, 204)
  26. Contra Vigil. 6; on the treatise in general, Kelly, Jerome, 286ff.
  27. Theodoret, Cure of Pagan Ills, lO-ll (ed. P. Canivet [SC 57]): ‘no one grave conceals the bodies of each of them, but they are shared out among towns and villages, which call them saviours of souls and bodies, and doctors, and honour them as founders and protectors [… )’.
  28. Tract. xvii.35-6; cf. Theodoret, loc.cit., with Chromat. Aquilei. (ed. J. Lemarie, SC 164) Sermon 26.1 Paul.Nol. Corm. 27.440ff., Victricius, below, 179.
  29. Nys. Vita Macrinae, 30 (P. Maraval [SC 178], 240ff, with notes). Cf. Jerome, Comm. in Matt. iv, 23.5 (CChr 77.212), on the phylactenes carried by ‘superstitiosae mulierculae’.
  30. As at Primuliacum: Paul.Nol. 31.1
  31. g. Ambr. Ep. 22.10
  32. At Severi 4 (PL 41. 823).
  33. De miraculis Stephani, iLl (PL 41. 843); cf. P. Brown, Augustine ofHippo, 413.
  34. For a catalogue of Holy Land relics, see B. Bagatti, ‘Eulogie Palestinesi’ OCP 15 (1949), 126-66.
  35. Cyril, Catecheses, 10, x.19, xiiiA. For testimonia of the fragments of the Cross, see A. Frolow, La relique de la vraie croix (Paris 1961), 155ff.
  36. Eg. 37.2.
  37. Tixter: MEFR 10 (1890),440-68 (=CIL viii, suppl.iii, 20600]; cf. similar dedication at Rusguniae, CIL viii, 9255 (with J.F. Matthews, CR 88 (1974],104). Primuliacum: Paul. Ep.31.1.
  38. Civ. Dei, xxii.8 (CChr 48. 820); cr. the Donatists who venerated earth from the Holy Land, id. Ep. 52.2.
  39. Sev. Chron. ii.33.8; cf. Paul.Nol. Ep. 31.6 (on the Cross)
  40. On these flasks, cr. Anton. Placent. 20 (CChr 175. 139). Martyr-shrines: Joh.Chrys. Hom. in Martyres, PC 50. 665: ‘Lobe efaion hagion (…J’.
  41. For the texts, see ltineraria et alia geographica (CChr 175 (1965]), and translations by J.D. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels (London 1971) and Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades (Warminster 1978).
  42. See A. Grabar, Ampoules de Te”e Sainte (paris 1958). For their use in reconstructing the original building at the Sepulchre, cf. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, , and ‘The Tomb of Christ’, Levant 4 (1972), 83-97.
  43. Nol. Ep. 49.14
  44. Jerome, 108.9ff; cf. Kelly, Jerome, U8ff., on Paula’s ’emotional transports’. For Jerome’s more succinct version of his own experience, see Apol.c.Ruf iii.22
  45. Burning Bush: Eg. 4.6ff., Chariot tracks: Pet. Diac. (deriving from Egeria) Y5 (CChr 175. 100-1); Orosius, Hist. i.10.17, knew they were still visible.
  46. The liturgy is described by Egeria, Eg, 24ff.; cf. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, 54ff. The best modern study is A. Renoux’s introduction to his edition of the Armenian Lectionary, PO 35 (1969). For Bible-reading, cr. It.Eg. 4.3 (10.7.
  47. Palm Sunday: Eg. 31 (ND 31.3) Good Friday: ibid. 37.7.
  48. Nol. Ep. 31.lff.; the fragment had been brought from Jerusalem by Paulinus’ kinswoman, Melania the elder.
  49. Vigilant. 5. For Samuel’s arrival in Constantinople, cf. Chron. Pasch. s.a. 406 (ed. Dindorf,569).
  50. ix, PG 40. 301-4: the worshippers become ‘spectators’ of the biblical record.
  51. in S. Theod. PG 46. 740B.
  52. De Laude Sanctorum, 10.
Relic of the skull of Saint John the Baptist in Munich.
Relic of the skull of Saint John the Baptist in Munich.

Alexander the Monk’s Text of Helena’s Discovery of the Cross, BHG 410 (John W. Nesbitt, 2003)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Byzantine Authors: Literary Activities and Preoccupations. Texts and Translations dedicated to the Memory of Nicolas Oikonomides, pp. 23-42:



Afterwards the emperor [Constantine] despatched his praiseworthy and God-beloved mother Helena to Jerusalem with letters and money in abundance for the bishop of Ailia, by name Makarios, in order to search for the glorious cross and erect buildings upon the holy sites, the empress herself having made the request, asserting that some divine vision appeared, commanding her to go to Jerusalem and to bring to light the holy places buried by the impious and become hidden from sight, up to her own day. The bishop, learning of the coming of the empress, assembling the bishops of his province, met her with due honor. At once she ordered the bishops to make a search for the longed-for wood. Since all were at a loss concerning the place [of its burial] and from feelings of uneasiness began describing an array of different things, the bishop of the city ordered all to affect silence and in earnest offer prayer to God on behalf of this. Upon doing so the place by the will of God was revealed to the bishop, in which was situated a temple and cult statue of the unclean daimon. Then the empress, using imperial authority, gathering together a very great quantity of builders and workers, ordered the foul building to be overthrown to its foundations and to cast away the dust far off from there. Upon this being done, there came to light the divine monument and the place of Golgotha and not far off three buried crosses. Diligently searching they also found the nails. From whence therefore despair and anxiety gripped the empress, who demanded which was the cross of the Lord. The bishop through faith resolved the problem. For there was a woman (one of the leading citizens) in ill-health and all despaired of her chances. And while she was breathing her last [the bishop], bringing each of the crosses, found the answer. For it required only the shadow of the salvific cross to approach the sickly woman for the motionless and limp patient at once through divine power to jump up, crying with a great voice and glorifying God. Empress Helena with great joy and fear having taken up the life-giving cross carried off a portion with the nails for her son. She had made for the remainder a silver casket that she gave to the bishop of the city for a remembrance to all generations. And she decreed that churches be built in the form of life-giving remembrances on Holy Golgotha and in Bethlehem in the cave where our lord Jesus Christ submitted to a birth according to the flesh, and on the Mount of Olives where the Lord upon blessing his disciples ascended. And so after doing many other good things in Jerusalem she returned to her son. Having received her with joy, he placed the piece of the precious cross in a the appearance of the cross be celebrated with annual commemorations. Some of the nails he had forged for his helmet, whereas others he had added as studs to his horse bridle, in order that he might fulfill what was said by the Lord through his prophet, to wit “On that day shall there be holiness upon the horse bridle unto the all-powerful Lord” (Zachariah 14: 20).

In his Introduction the author states that it is his intention “to compose a historical narrative on the finding of the life-giving cross, the all-holy and all-revered cross on which our lord Jesus Christ allowed himself to be stretched out, whereby he destroyed the power of the devil and the tyranny of death and bestowed on those believing in Him unknowable salvation.” I accept the author at his word and therefore reject the notion that he copied out and appended to his composition Cyril of Jerusalem’s letter to Constantius about the appearance of the cross over Jerusalem. Alexander was not concerned with the post-Constantinian history of the cross and indeed the opening lines of Cyril’s narration (at 3.1-4) totally contradict portions of Alexander’s story of Helena’s adventures in Jerusalem. The relevant section of Cyril’s letter reads as follows:

“For…in the days of your Imperial Father, Constantine of blessed memory, the saving wood of the cross was found in Jerusalem (divine grace granting the finding of the long hidden holy places to the one who nobly aspired to piety)….” In Cyril’s account, there is no mention of the identity of the person who found the cross, but it is specified that the person who discovered “the long hidden holy places” was a man. Additionally, Alexander was not a mere copyist. He was an historian. He was not a great historian, but he told his story in his own way and for this reason I submit that Cyril’s letter represents nothing more than a later addition to Alexander’s original text…

Let us now conclude by examining in some detail Alexander’s narrative regarding Helena’s finding of the cross. The purpose here is to compare Alexander’s narration with prior accounts, to see in what ways it is similar or varies and, following that, to suggest what purpose Alexander had in mind in writing his specific version of Helena’s invention. We shall proceed with the first task by summarizing each section of the Treatise’s version and listing within the section the versions of earlier writers regarding the same events.

Helena finding the True Cross, Italian manuscript c. 825
Helena finding the True Cross, Italian manuscript c. 825


Alexander the Monk: Constantine and Helena share joint responsibility for initiative. Constantine sends his mother to Jerusalem to identify the location of the cross and build churches; Helena is inspired to the same task by a divine vision.

V(ita) C(onstantini): Constantine orders the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Helena visits the Holy Land and initiates construction of various churches. No mention of cross.

Ambrose of Milan: Helena goes to Jerusalem and visits. The Spirit inspires her to search for the wood of the cross.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): (Spurred by divine visions), Helena travels to Jerusalem (“in order to lay hold of the holy places and seek out the venerable wood of the Cross”).

Rufinus: “Helena…was alerted by divine visions and traveled to Jerusalem (divinis admonita visionibus, Hierusolyma petit).”

Socrates: Helena, summoned by dreams, goes off to Jerusalem.

Theodoret: Helena, now aged, travels to Jerusalem with letters for

Bishop Makarios from Constantine. In these letters Constantine directs Makarios to clear the area of Christ’s tomb and to erect on the spot a church.



Alexander the Monk: Helena, met by Makarios, orders the bishops to search for the wood.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): Helena inquires of inhabitants of the town where Christ was crucified.

Rufinus: “[Helena] traveled to Jerusalem, where she asked the inhabitants where the place was where the sacred body of Christ had hung fastened to the gibbet Socrates: Helena searches zealously for the tomb of Christ, where buried, he arose.


Alexander the Monk: God reveals the place to dig, an area where there was situated a pagan temple and cult statue. She gathers workmen and they clear the site. Three crosses are found and the nails. No mention of the titulus.

Ambrose: Helena goes to Golgotha and has the ground opened where three gibbets are found, the nails and the titulus.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): the location is revealed, a place where there was a statue of Venus; workmen topple “the polluted structures” and, upon excavating, bring to light three crosses.

Rufinus: the location is “indicated to her by a sign from heaven”; beneath a statue of Venus set there are uncovered, in a jumble, three crosses and the titulus.

Socrates: those opposed to Christianity had covered with earth the site of Christ’s passion and established a temple there with a cult statue. The situation becomes clear to Helena. She has the statue toppled and the earth cleared. The cross is uncovered in the tomb, along with the crosses of the two thieves, and the titulus composed by Pilate.

Theodoret: “When [Helena] saw the area where the passion had occurred, she immediately commanded that the abominable temple be knocked down and the statue be carted off”.



Alexander the Monk: confronted by three crosses Helena wonders which cross was the one on which Christ was crucified. Makarios solves the problem. He approachesa lady of rank who is close to death. It requires only the shadow of one (the true) cross to fall near the woman and at once she is cured (see Acts 5: 15: the sick await Peter, hoping that at the least his shadow will fall upon them).

Ambrose: the identity of the true cross is guaranteed by the presence of the titulus attached to it.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): With the empress, Makarios visits a noble lady who is gravely ill. He brings all three crosses. He prays and then touches the woman in vain with two crosses. As soon as the shadow of the third draws near she is cured.

Rufinus: the titulus is of no help. Accompanied by the empress, Makarios, bringing along all three crosses, visits a woman of distinguished position who is near death. He touches her with all three crosses, but only the true cross cures her.

Socrates: the titulus plays no role. Makarios seeks a sign from God and God sends one. “And the sign was such”. A certain woman of the district was near death. Makarios arranges that she receive the touch of all three crosses. When touched by the first two she shows no improvement but when she receives the touch of the third cross, she is healed.

Theodoret: confusion reigns over the identity of the true cross. Makarios solves the problem. He has a woman who is near death touched by the three crosses: it requires only the approach of the true cross and the lady is cured.

The titulus crucis and relics of the True Cross can be seen in Rome's Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
The titulus crucis and relics of the True Cross can be seen in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.


Alexander the Monk: Helena reserves a portion of the true cross and the nails for Constantine. She has a silver casket made for the remainder and gives it to Makarios. She has churches built on Golgotha, in Bethlehem, and on Olivet. Constantine places the piece of cross in a gold box and gives the box to the bishop, ordering the day of the cross’s discovery to be annually commemorated. Some of the nails are added to his helmet and others to his bridle.

Ambrose: Helena finds the nails: from one she has made a bridle and from the other a diadem.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): Helena builds a church at the find spot of the cross. She searches for the nails and finding them she has several inserted into Constantine’s helmet, and others are smelted and mixed with metal of his bridle. She returns with a portion of the cross for Constantine, but leaves behind the remainder, which is placed in a silver casket and given to Makarios.

Rufinus: Helena has a church built at the site of the discovery of the cross. The nails still adhered and these she brought to Constantine. From some he has made a bridle and with others he outfitted himself with a helmet. “As for the healing wood itself, part of it she presented to her son, and part she put in silver reliquaries and left in the place; it is still kept there as a memorial with unflagging devotion.”

Socrates: “The mother of the emperor had a splendid house of prayer built on the site of the sepulchre (called “New Jerusalem”)…. She left behind there a portion of the cross enclosed in a silver casket  as a memorial for those wishing to observe [it], the remainder she despatched to the emperor.” Helena also finds the nails and sends them to Constantine. He has them fashioned into bridle-bits and a helmet. Helena has other churches built: one at Bethlehem and another on the mount of the ascension.

Theodoret: mention of the nails and their disposition. Helena has some nails placed in the imperial helmet; the remainder she had made into a horse bridle in order to fulfill the ancient prophecy of Zacharias. She has a portion of the cross sent on to Constantinople and the rest placed in a silver casket which is given to the bishop of the city, requesting that he watch over these “memorials of salvation”. She has churches of great workmanship constructed.

Geronda Ephraim's mother, Nun Theophano, holding a piece of the nail from the Cross, at Holy Archangel Michael Monastery, Thassos (a dependency of Philotheou Monastery).
Geronda Ephraim’s mother, Nun Theophano, holding a piece of the nail from the Cross, at Holy Archangel Michael Monastery, Thassos (a dependency of Philotheou Monastery).

The invention of the cross involves three different traditions. We have been following only one, and so before we proceed, we might take a moment and reflect upon the other two. The beginning of the fifth century saw the emergence of two new versions of the finding of the cross. Both are of Syrian origin and are re-workings of the older Helena version. One is the “Protonike” legend: a story in which the central character, Protonike, said to be the wife of Emperor Claudius (41-54), converts to Christianity and visits Jerusalem where she discovers the true cross in the sepulchre, hands it over to James, and builds a church over the tomb. This version was known at first only in Syriac, then later in Armenian. The second is the “Judas Cyriacus” legend: a version in which Helena goes to Jerusalem and orders an assembly of the Jews. Among them is a certain Judas who is brought before her and interrogated. He asks God to show him the place where the cross is buried. God gives him a sign and he uncovers three crosses, one of which restores a dead man. Helena provides the cross with a mount and encases it in a casket. She builds a church on Golgotha and Judas converts. Judas, now Cyriacus, finds the nails for her; she has bridles made from them. This retelling, popular in the Middle Ages because of its anti-Jewish flavor, was read in many languages, the earliest versions of which are in Syriac, Greek, and Latin. The fifth-century Byzantine historian, Sozomen, knew of the Judas Cyriacus legend: “Some say that a certain Hebrew who lived in the East had prior knowledge [of the location of the cross] from paternal records….” Sozomen rejects the legend, declaring it more likely that divine matters are revealed through “signs and dreams”, than through records of the past. We may reasonably assume that Alexander the Monk had knowledge of this legend. Like Sozomen, Alexander rejected the Judas Cyriacus tradition. It is not difficult to understand why: one of his objectives is to give full and sole credit for the discovery of the cross to Constantine and his mother.

We see this in the way Alexander has crafted his narration. In the Introduction he has Constantine send his mother to Makarios with letters and money for the purpose of uncovering the cross and erecting churches on holy places. Alexander has borrowed the phrase “with letters”, as well as the notion of Constantine’s participation in the cross’s discovery. The latter states that Constantine had a letter composed in which he directs Makarios to clear the area where Christ was entombed and to build on the site a church. In a second letter he speaks of the financial arrangements for the construction. In other words, Constantine knows where Christ’s tomb is located and hence, by implication, where the cross is to be found. All that is required is for Helena to go to Jerusalem and seek it. On the other hand, there was a strong tradition, beginning with Ambrose (395), that Helena, aroused to action by dreams, traveled to Jerusalem on her own initiative. To accommodate this version, Alexander simply grafted it on (though awkwardly) to his initial statement: “the queen herself, having made the request, asserting that some divine vision appeared, commanding her to go to Jerusalem….” From this point until almost the very end, Helena occupies center stage. She finds and identifies the cross and is responsible for the building of churches on Golgotha, in Bethlehem, and on Olivet. Constantine reappears in an interesting context. Helena returns to her son and Constantinople bearing a piece of the true cross. Upon placing it in a gold box and giving the relic to the bishop of the city, Constantine decrees that the appearance of the cross be celebrated with annual commemorations. Since the geographical setting of Alexander’s remark is Constantinople, we may reasonably infer that Alexander is attesting that in his own day (the sixth century) the feast of the Cross was being celebrated at the capital.

At base Alexander’s Treatise is a work of pilgrimage literature. If anyone doubts the validity of Scriptures—of Christ’s birth, crucifixion, and ascension—they need only visit Jerusalem and its environs. All the important sites connected with the unfolding of salvation are marked by holy structures. The cross exists. It was prefigured in the Old Testament. It became hidden after Christ’s death. Pagan rulers came and went. But now, through the efforts of Constantine and Helena, it can be seen, if not touched. But the miracle of the infirm woman, related in the various accounts of Helena’s discovery, including Alexander the Monk’s, makes it clear that one may expect benefits (a cure of physical affliction?) from “only the shadow of the salvific cross”. Propinquity is sufficient.

In concluding I would observe that Alexander’s Treatise differs from previous accounts of Helena’s discovery of the True Cross in length. Nevertheless the Treatise is a coherent example of pilgrim propaganda. It is clearly meant to entice people to undertake a trip to Jerusalem and to explore the sites where the drama of Salvation occurred and where testimony in Gospel accounts can be visually affirmed. In the same visit the infirm might find physical, as well as spiritual, comfort. Since it is pilgrimage- driven, I would say it is reasonable to postulate that the Treatise was written before the reign of Heraclius and the disruptions to pilgrimage traffic which his rule witnessed.

Alexander’s emphasis on the joint responsibility of Constantine and Helena for the discovery of the cross raises an interesting possibility about the date of their sainthood. Some thirty years ago Laurent published a seal (poorly known) of the seventh century depicting on the obverse a representation of a saint holding a globus cruciger who is identified on the reverse as St. Constantine. The seal indicates that by at least the late seventh century Constantine had become a saint. In my opinion, one of Alexander’s goals was to promote the cult of Saints Constantine and Helena and it was for this reason that he joins the two together and emphasizes their equal credit for the discovery of the cross.

Murial of Saint Helena Finding the True Cross of Christ. at St Helena's church which is inside the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Murial of Saint Helena Finding the True Cross of Christ. at St Helena’s church which is inside the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

The True Cross: Chaucer, Calvin and Relic Mongers (Joe Nickell, 2010)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Investigative Files, Volume 34.6, November/December 2010: 

Calvin suggested that “if we were to collect all these pieces of the True Cross exhibited in various parts, they would form a whole ship’s cargo.”

Pieces of True Cross

Although there is little justification in either the Old or the New Testament to support what would become a cult of relics in early Christianity, such a practice did develop. The earliest veneration of Christian relics can be traced to about ce 156 when Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred and his burned remains were gathered for veneration. In time, the distribution and veneration of packets of dust and tiny fragments of bone or cloth, and the like–associated with martyrs and saints–became common. At about CE 400, St. Augustine deplored the excesses and outright fraud of the relic business, disparaging “hypocrites in the garb of monks for hawking about the limbs of martyrs,” adding skeptically, “if indeed of martyrs” (Encyclopedia Britannica 1978, s.v. “Relics”).

Among other, later, critics was Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1340-1400), whose great unfinished work The Canterbury Tales contains a satirical attack on relic mongering. An even more scathing condemnation comes from John Calvin (1509-1564), the Protestant reformer, whose Treatise on Relics is a surprisingly modern look at the Roman Catholic Church’s veneration of relics. Both Chaucer and Calvin weighed in on those most quintessentially Christian relics, fragments of the reputed Holy Cross itself. Here is a summary of their views, supplemented by my own investigations and research on the cross, which according to legend was discovered in the fourth century by St. Helena.

Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’

The Pardoner is a man who openly discusses his false actions of selling fake relics to others. He is honest to his task of fraud and openly tells a tale about three rioters who kill themselves.
The Pardoner is a man who openly discusses his false actions of selling fake relics to others. He is honest to his task of fraud and openly tells a tale about three rioters who kill themselves.

The Pardoner is a man who openly discusses his false actions of selling fake relics to others. He is honest to his task of fraud and openly tells a tale about three rioters who kill themselves.

The Canterbury Tales (ca. 1386 -1400) is Geoffrey Chaucer’s fictional classic compilation of stories told by traveling pilgrims, including the host of the Tabard Inn in Southwark, England, from whence said Pilgrims set out, wending their way to Canterbury Cathedral. “The Pardoner’s Tale” satirizes phony relics in a classic of skepticism worthy of a brief retrospective here. The Pardoner–one who sells the church’s forgiveness of sins–is a pretentious fellow, as hinted in the opening lines:

“My Lords,” said he, “in churches when I preach, I do take pains to have a haughty speech, And ring it out as roundly as a bell, For I know by rote all that I tell. My theme’s to be the same and always will That ‘Greed is at the root of all evil.'”

But the Pardoner is merely a hypocrite. First, he displays his letters of approval signed by the Pope. Then he brings out his reliquaries, with bits of cloth and other alleged relics, including the shoulder bone of a sheep, and declares:

“If when this bone be washed in any well, If cow, or calf, or sheep, or ox should swell From eaten worm, or by a snake’s been stung, Take water of that well and wash its tongue, And it is healed forthwith; and furthermore, Of poxes and of scabs and every sore Shall every sheep be healed, that of this well Drinks a draft; take heed of what I tell.”

He adds that the relic-treated water will cause farm animals to multiply and will put an end to all human jealousy, including distrust of a wife’s faithfulness–even if she has lain with two or three priests! Of another ruse, he admits,

“By this trick I’ve won, year by year, A hundred marks since I was Pardoner. I stand as if a cleric in my pulpit, And when the common people down do sit, I preach, so as you’ve heard me say before, And even tell a hundred falsehoods more.” Acknowledging his hypocrisy, he states: “Thus can I preach against the self-same vice Which I do use, and that is avarice. But, though I too am guilty of that sin, Yet can I make other folk to turn From avarice, and hurry to repent. But that is not my principal intent.”

The Pardoner then goes on to tell his tale. (It features three young rogues who set out on a drunken quest to slay evil Death. An old man directs them to a spot where they instead discover a treasure of gold coins. Unfortunately they end up killing each other out of avarice and so indeed find death.)

Finished with his morality tale, the Pardoner makes a direct pitch to his host, who rails against the fraudulent relics while indicating his own belief in the relic of the True Cross. The Pardoner begins the exchange:

“Come forth, sir host, and offer first then, And you shall kiss the relics every one, Yes, for fourpence! Unbuckle now your purse.” “Nay, nay,” said he, “then I’d have Christ’s curse! It shall not be, however you beseech me. You would have me kiss your old breeches, And swear they were a relic of a saint, Although they’re stained with your own fundament! But by the cross which Saint Helena found, I’d like to have your bollocks in my hand Instead of relics or reliquarium; Let’s cut them off, I’ll help to carry them; They shall be enshrined within a hog’s turd.” This pardoner answered not a word…. (The Knight helps make peace between the two men, whereupon the pilgrims “rode forth on their way.”)

Now, Chaucer’s own view of the True Cross is unstated, but having it endorsed by his central character, a good Christian and a man of seeming integrity, suggests that Chaucer accepts the relic allegedly found by St. Helena as authentic. Nevertheless, if he does not condemn all relics outright, Chaucer does identify and disparage fraudulent relic practices. At the time when he was writing, this was a bold stance for a writer to take. Reformist John Calvin, however, writing a century and a half later, took the matter several steps further.

Calvin on Relics


John Calvin’s condemnation of relics is sweeping. In his Treatise on Relics (1543), he observes that “the desire for relics is never without superstition, and what is worse, it is usually the parent of idolatry” (Calvin 1543, 218). He is unrelenting in his withering look at relics–from the reputed Holy Blood, “exhibited in more than a hundred places” (226), to the many bogus Holy Shrouds (including today’s controversial one, which was kept at Nice in Calvin’s time; it wasn’t transferred to Turin until 1578 [Nickell 2009, 40]).

Calvin had much to say about the pieces of the alleged True Cross–the location of which was supposed to have been miraculously revealed to St. Helena in ce 326. Calvin suggested that “if we were to collect all these pieces of the True Cross exhibited in various parts, they would form a whole ship’s cargo.” He also said that there were more relics of it “than three hundred men could carry!” adding: “As an explanation of this, [the relic mongers] have invented the tale, that whatever quantity of wood may be cut off this true cross, its size never decreases. This is, however, such a clumsy and silly imposture, that the most superstitious may see through it” (233).

Calvin specifically refers to the alleged fragment known as the Titulus Crucis (cross title board). Bearing the inscription “This is the King of the Jews,” the Titulus–with text in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew–was ordered by Pilate to be placed on the cross (Luke 23:38). Two churches, Calvin delights in observing, lay claim to this relic. Actually, Helena supposedly divided the Titulus into three pieces, only one of which now remains–kept, as Calvin noted (234), in Rome’s Church of the Holy Cross.

Modern science has validated Calvin’s skepticism of the Titulus. First, the artifact contains a number of anachronisms and other problematic elements that indicate it is a probable forgery (Nickell 2004). For example, although the Hebrew (or Aramaic) letters are correctly written from right to left, so–incorrectly–are the Greek and Latin lines. Based on my research on the history of writing, as soon as I saw this error (See my drawing, figure 1), I thought it a prima facie indication of spuriousness. (See my Pen, Ink, and Evidence [Nickell 1990].)


Another paleographic error is found in the Greek line. Although it is written in mirror-image fashion from right to left, one letter–the z–is not reversed. This further emphasizes the problematic nature of the writing and suggests that the writer may not have been familiar with the ancient languages. Unless we accept the rationalizations of the Titulus’s defenders (Thiede and d’Ancona 2000, 96-100), spelling errors also cast doubt on the inscription. Another doubtful feature is the letters having not just been painted but first incised into the wood–a seemingly gratuitous enhancement–whereas one would instead expect a hastily prepared placard intended to be used quickly and then discarded.

Indeed, such suspicions are confirmed via radiocarbon dating. A sample of the walnut wood ( Juglans regia) was taken from the back of the slab, cleaned to remove any contamination, and then subjected to the carbon-dating process. Control samples of varying ages were also included to confirm the accuracy of the process. The tests on the Titulus revealed that it was made between ce 980 and 1146 (Bells and Azzi 2002)–a date range incompatible with its alleged first-century origin, but consistent with the period (1144-1145) when the artifact was apparently acquired (Nickell 2007, 86-90).

The Fragments

Over the years I have encountered pieces of the alleged True Cross (figure 2), together with the pious legends of their acquisition. In my own collection are a pilgrim’s token of the True Cross (reputedly made in the seventh century by mixing clay with some ash from a burned piece of the cross) and a small bronze Byzantine cross of about the same time period (Nickell 2007, 79, 93). The latter was a legacy of Constantine the Great (274-337), who made Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion after having a miraculous vision of a flaming cross in the sky–a vision, as doubtful as it is, of late vintage (Nickell 2007, 77-79).


It is another reputed vision–that of Constantine’s mother, Queen Helena (later St. Helena)–to which is attributed the finding of the True Cross. In 326, nearly three centuries after the crucifixion, Helena went to Jerusalem where she allegedly discovered the site of the cross’s concealment, supposedly with divine inspiration: either by heavenly signs, dreams, or the guidance of a Jew named Judas. In fact, she supposedly located, beneath rubble, three crosses–supposedly of Jesus and the two thieves crucified with him (Matthew 27:38)–but was unable to distinguish which was Jesus’s own. Each cross was then tested on a mortally ill woman, and one–according to the fanciful legend–miraculously healed her, thus proving it was the Vera Crux, the True Cross.

Supposedly a portion of the cross was given to Constantine, while another was taken to Rome. The main portion remained in the custody of successive bishops of Jerusalem; it was captured by Persious in 614 but then victoriously returned in 627. Finally, in 1187 it was lost forever, after crusading Franks occupied Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, alleged fragments of the True Cross and Roman nails from the crucifixion proliferated. As early as the mid-fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 315-386) wrote that “already the whole world is filled with fragments of the wood of the Cross.” From the fifth century on, a “cult of the Cross” developed and churches were erected in the True Cross’s name. In a letter, St. Paulinus of Nola (353-431) dared to explain (and Calvin would later satirize, as we have seen) the claim that, regardless of how many pieces were taken from the cross, it never diminished in size–a “fact” that has been compared with Jesus’s miracle of the multiplying loaves and fishes (Cruz 1984, 39).

In Turin in 2004, I was able to view a purported piece of the True Cross, set in a cruciform reliquary (along with a purported relic of the Holy Blood). The lighted reliquary is the focal point of a relic chapel–the crypt of the Church of Maria Ausiliatrice–which contains a fabulous collection of some five thousand relics of saints, exhibited in seemingly endless panels and display cases along the walls. Included are relics alleged to be from Mary Magdalene and, more credibly, St. Francis of Assisi.

In 2009 in Genoa I saw no fewer than four pieces of the “True Cross” arrayed in an elaborate reliquary cross (figure 2). The fragments were specifically claimed to be from the True Cross–or so “tradition has it.” (Translation: “This is only a handed-down tale.”) Known as Croce degli Zaccaria (or “cross of the Zaccaria”), it was formerly owned by a family of that name, who were among the major merchant traders of the eastern Mediterranean when Genoa was at its commercial and political peak. The reliquary was reportedly first commissioned in the ninth century, then remade in its present form (again see figure 2) between 1260 and 1283–a gilt and bejeweled cruciform artifact now displayed in the Museum of the Treasury of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence) of Genoa (Marica 2007, 6; “Museum,” n.d.).

Again, the lack of any credible provenance (its traceability to some known point)–together with the incredible proliferation of such fragments and even the suspicious neatness of these four pieces of the “True Cross”–makes the Croce degli Zaccaria a piece to be entirely skeptical of, not revered.

The Titulus Crucis, allegedly the placard on Jesus’ cross, as mentioned in the Gospels, has now been radiocarbon tested.
The Titulus Crucis, allegedly the placard on Jesus’ cross, as mentioned in the Gospels, has now been radiocarbon tested.


There is no credible evidence that Helena, or anyone, found Jesus’s cross (with or without accompanying crosses of the two thieves) in the fourth century–or at any other time for that matter. The provenance is laughable. Even more so is the absurd tale of its miraculousness: its infinite ability to restore itself, no matter how many pieces were taken from it.

The proliferating pieces of the True Cross have been rivaled for outlandishness by many other bogus relics–such as over forty shrouds of Jesus and multiple corpses of Mary Magdalene (Nickell 2007, 40, 116). Geoffrey Chaucer and John Calvin were justifiably critical of relic hucksterism in their respective times, and we–with our modern scientific means of analysis, such as radiocarbon dating–must be no less so. n


I am grateful to my many Italian friends–notably Massimo Polidoro, Luigi Garlaschelli, and Stephano Bagnasco–for helping make possible my visits to many relic sites in Italy. At the Center for Inquiry, Director of Libraries Timothy Binga assisted as usual with research. Financial assistance came from John and Mary Frantz and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, whose executive director is Barry Karr. I also want to express my gratitude to Paul Kurtz and his Prometheus Books for publishing John Calvin’s Treatise on Relics and inviting me to write the introduction. To the many others who help make such investigations possible: CFI staff, donors, friends, and family–especially my wife, Diana Harris–I express my sincerest thanks.

The Titulus Crucis, allegedly the placard on Jesus’ cross, as mentioned in the Gospels, has now been radiocarbon tested.


  • Calvin, John. 1543. Treatise on Relics, trans. Count Valerian Kasinski 1854; 2nd ed. Edinburgh: John Stone, Hunter and Co., 1870, 217-18; reprinted, with an introduction by Joe Nickell, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009, 49-112.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. Ca. 1386-1400. The Canterbury Tales. Various editions, e.g., trans. by Coghill (2003) and Tuttle (2006); see also No Fear (2009) and Dunn (1952).
  • Coghill, Nevill, trans. 2003. Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. London: Penguin Books.
  • Cruz, Joan Carroll. 1984. Relics. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor.
  • Dunn, Charles W., ed. 1952. A Chaucer Reader: Selections from The Canterbury Tales. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. 1978. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • Marica, Patrica. 2007. Museo del Tesoro di San Lorenzo. Genoa, Italy: Sagep Edditori Srl.
  • “Museum of the Treasury of the Cathedral of St. Lawrence of Genoa.” N.d. Four-page guide text in English, provided by the museum.
  • Nickell, Joe. 1990. Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.——. 2009. Introduction to Calvin’s Treatise on Relics 1543. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009, 7-48.
  • ——. 2007. Relics of the Christ. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
  • No Fear: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. 2009. New York: Spark Publishing (div. of Barnes and Noble).
  • Thiede, Carsten Peter, and Matthew d’Ancona. 2002. The Quest for the True Cross. New York: Palgrave.
  • Tuttle, Peter, trans. 2006. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics.
Geronda Ephraim's mother, Nun Theophano, holding a piece of the nail from the Cross, at Holy Archangel Michael Monastery, Thassos (a dependency of Philotheou Monastery).
Geronda Ephraim’s mother, Nun Theophano, holding a piece of the nail from the Cross, at Holy Archangel Michael Monastery, Thassos (a dependency of Philotheou Monastery).