Veneration of Saints, Relics and Images


Reverence for the martyrs may be regarded as the starting-point of saint-worship. To the incentive from this source were added the longing after fellowship with the departed, and the bent to polytheism which still clung to the masses that poured into the Church after the conversion of Constantine. Already, at the close of the persecutions, honor to the memory of the martyrs was carried to an excess by a fraction of the Church. Very soon after that date, reverence was exaggerated into a species of idolatry; and prayers were addressed to the martyrs on the ground of their exaltation and their effective intercessions with God. Churches and chapels were built over their graves. Rites bearing the semblance of sacrifices to the glorified confessors were sometimes celebrated upon these hallowed spots. Augustine acknowledges the existence of such a custom, but asserts that it was observed only to a limited extent, and seeks to relieve it from any idolatrous intent. "Whatever honors," says he, "the religious may pay in the places of the martyrs, they are but honors rendered to their memories, not sacred rites or sacrifices offered to dead men as to gods. And even such as bring thither food -- which, indeed, is not done by the better Christians, and in most places of the world is not done at all--do so that it may be sanctified to them through the merits of the martyrs,--first presenting food and offering prayer, and thereafter taking it away to be eaten, or to be in part bestowed upon the needy." [De Civ. Dei, viii. 27.] In an epistle to Maximus he writes: "Let me assure you that by the Christian Catholics no deceased person is worshipped." [Epist., xvii.] And in one of his sermons he declares: "We do not regard the martyrs as gods, or worship them as gods; we do not prepare for them temples or altars or sacrifices." [Serm., cclxxiii.] Augustine in this represents the most sober and conservative temper of his age. A statement more in the line of the popular estimate of the martyrs is found with Theodoret, who wrote some years later in the fifth century. "While time," says he, "is wont to waste all other things, it has nevertheless preserved their glory incorrupt. The noble souls of the victors now traverse heaven and are present-with angelic choirs. No single tomb conceals the body of each; but cities and villages, sharing their remains, name them saviors and physicians of souls and bodies, and honor them as protectors and guardians of cities, and obtain gifts through their intercession with the Lord of the universe.... Shrines of the triumphant martyrs rise to view, shining and conspicuous, excelling in size, distinguished by every kind of ornament, and shedding abroad the gleams of their beauty. We visit these not once or twice or five times a year, but celebrate with frequent assemblies,--often even upon each day sing hymns of praise to their God; and those who are in health ask that this may be preserved; those who are suffering from any disease, that they may be delivered from their sickness. Men destitute of children supplicate for these, and barren women pray that they may become mothers. Those who have obtained a gift beseech that it may be kept secure. Those engaging in travel request of these that they will be companions of the way and guides of the journey; those who return safe render thanks, not addressing them as gods, but entreating them as divine men, and requesting them to be intercessors in their behalf. That those who trustingly seek obtain their wishes, their votive offerings openly testify, indicating the cure. For some suspend images of eyes, others of feet, others of hands made of silver and gold." [Græc. Affect. Curat., Sermo viii] Great diversities, no doubt, existed as respects the degree in which individuals were inclined to appeal to such intercessors; but the propriety of such appeal had become a common tenet at the end of the fourth century.

The honors bestowed upon the martyrs naturally came to be extended to others who were regarded as eminent examples of Christian devotion. From generation to generation, new names were added to the list of saintly intercessors. Among those claiming the foremost homage appeared the Virgin Mary. Prior to the closing pare of the fourth century, she received only the common veneration accorded to the saints. But after this time, owing, in some degree, to the prominence given to her name in the orthodox shibboleth of the Christological controversies, the tide set strongly in the direction of mariolatry. Before the death of Augustine, two dogmatic principles in favor of the special elevation of Mary had been broached; namely, her perpetual virginity, [To challenge this doctrine, at the end of the fourth century, was to incur bitter hostility, as appears from the fate of Helvidius, Bonosus, and some others.] and her freedom from actual (not original) sin, though the latter had not been as yet extensively advocated. The practice of dedicating churches and altars to her became popular. "Justinian I., in a law, implored her intercession with God for the restoration of the Roman Empire; and on the dedication of the costly altar of the Church of St. Sophia, he expected all blessings for Church and Empire from her powerful prayers. His general Narses, like the knights of the Middle Ages, was unwilling to go into battle till he had secured her protection."

Schaff, Church History, iii. § 82. We notice also that in the oath prescribed by Justinian to those undertaking public offices, Mary is placed next to the persons of the Trinity; then follow the four Gospels and the archangels Michael and Gabriel. (Novella ix.)

Parallel with the honors paid to martyrs and other saints, and like them gradually passing from a natural and normal respect to a kind of superstitious worship, were the honors rendered to their relies. The passage cited from Theodoret shows how sacredly such memorials were treasured by different places, and how great benefits were supposed to depend upon their presence. A striking index of the gross form which veneration of relies sometimes assumed is supplied by Evagrius, who lived in the latter part of the sixth century. Speaking of the martyr's remains, which were regarded as the glory of the church of St. Euphemia, he says, "There is an aperture in the left side of the coffin, secured with small doors, through which they introduce a sponge attached to an iron rod, so as to reach the sacred relies; and, after turning it around, they draw it out, covered with stains and clots of blood. On witnessing this, all the people bend in worship, giving glory to God." [Hist. Eccl., ii. 3.] It would appear, however, that relic-worship did not gain the ascendency without being vigorously challenged by at least a few. Vigilantius, a presbyter of Barcelona in Spain, and a contemporary of Jerome, heaped open scorn upon the idolatrous practices of his time, and named those engaged in them "worshipers of ashes, and idolaters."

A conspicuous place among relics was occupied by fragments of the cross. The assumed discovery of this took place as early as the time of Constantine. His mother, Helena, had the honor of bringing to light the sacred memorial. Being in search of the Holy Sepulcher, she caused the idolatrous temple, which cumbered the site, to be removed. "The tomb," writes Theodoret, "which had long been concealed, was discovered; and three crosses, the memorials of the Lord, were perceived near it. All were of opinion that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him. Yet they could not discern upon which one the body of our Lord had been nailed, and upon which His blood had fallen. But the wise and holy Macarius, the bishop of the city, succeeded in resolving this question. After engaging in prayer, he induced a lady of rank, who had long been suffering from disease, to touch each of the crosses; and the efficacious power residing in that of the Saviour manifested its identity. In fact, it had scarcely been brought near the lady, when the inveterate disease left her and she was healed." [Hist. Eccl., i. 18. Compare Rufinus, Hist. Eccl., i. 7, 8; Socrates, i. 17; Sulpicius Severus, Hist. Sacra, ii. 34.] Soon the world was filled with splinters of the true cross; and there was genuine occasion for the theory, broached by some, that the wood of the original was miraculously replenished. Relics of other kinds also became suspiciously plentiful. Even in the verdict of those believing in relies, the trade in this species of merchandise was overdone, and attempts were made in the direction of its limitation.

Relic-worship naturally added greatly to the impulse to visit sacred places. Great multitudes were turned towards Palestine. Chrysostom speaks of the whole world as streaming to the site of Christ's birth, suffering, and burial. Rome was also a favorite pilgrim resort, both on account of the worldly celebrity of the city and the sanctity given it by the graves of the great apostles. The relies of St. Stephen attracted many to Hippo in North Africa. Multitudes in quest of miracles flocked to the tomb of Martin of Tours in Gaul. Meanwhile there were emphatic cautions against an overestimate of the virtue of pilgrimages. Jerome affirmed that the place of the crucifixion profits those only who bear their cross, and that heaven is as accessible in Britain as in Jerusalem. [Epist. lviii., ad Paulinam.] Gregory of Nyssa pointed to the immoralities flourishing in pilgrim resorts as a proof of the little worth of that which is addressed merely to the senses. "Change of place," says he, "brings God no nearer. Where thou art, God will come to thee, if the dwelling of thy soul is so prepared that God can dwell and rule in thee." [Opera, Tom. iii., Epist. ii.]

The development of tendencies to image-worship was not so radical and universal, in this period, as was the growth of saint and relic worship. At the close of the fourth century it had become quite common to adorn churches with pictures, especially with scenes from the history of martyrs. This, however, was obnoxious to some, as appears from the decided reprobation of such a practice by Epiphanius. Near the same time a fraction of the Church began to pay a superstitious homage to the pictured or sculptured representations of venerated persons. "I know," says Augustine, "that there are many worshipers of tombs and pictures." [De Moribus Eccl. Cath., § 75.] At the same time, he intimates that such persons were to be found only among the ignorant, superstitious, and nominal Christians. Augustine's judgment on this subject was largely prevalent in the Latin Church for a considerable interval after his time. "In the Church of the West," says Neander, "this moderate policy, holding to the mean between unconditional repudiation of images and their worship, maintained itself into the next period, as we see from the example of the Roman bishop, Gregory the Great." [Kirchengeschichte, iii. 412.] In the East, on the other hand, even the better class imbibed the superstition of the more ignorant; and in the course of the sixth century it became the dominant custom to honor those who were objects of special veneration by doing obeisance before their images. The theory which lay back of the practice may be seen in the following statement from the apology of Leontius, a bishop of Cyprus, in this century: "The images are not our gods, but they are images of Christ and His saints, for the commemoration and honor of whom, and for the adornment of the churches, they are employed and are venerated. For he who honors the martyr honors God, and he who worships His mother pays homage to Him, and he who honors an apostle honors Him who sent him." Much after the manner of the Emperor Julian's defence of idol-worship, Leontius commends the veneration of images, by reference to the tokens of endearment which affectionate children might bestow on the memorials of an absent parent. He claims, also, gracious effects from images in healing the possessed and in converting the ungodly. [Mansi, xiii. 43-54.]

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