Calvin: Time For An Inventory (10)

To proceed in order, we must now consider the case of John the Baptist, who, according to the account given in the Gospel, that is, according to the truth of God, after being beheaded, was buried by his disciples. Theodoret relates that his sepulchre, which was at Sebastia, a town of Syria, was some time afterwards opened by the heathen, who burned the body, and scattered the ashes to the wind. It is true, indeed, Eusebius adds, that some inhabitants of Jerusalem came and secretly carried off a portion, which they removed to Antioch, and which Athanasius afterwards inclosed within a wall. Sozomen wrote that the head was conveyed to Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius. The testimony of ancient history, therefore, is, that the whole body was burned, with the exception of the head, and that all the bones and all the ashes were scattered, except a very small portion, which was carried off by some hermits of Jerusalem. Now, let us see how much is said to be extant. The people of Amiens say that they have the front part of the head; and in the skull exhibited by them a wound appears, which they say Herodias inflicted with a knife. The inhabitants of Joannes Angelicus contradict them, and show the very same part. But the remainder of the head, viz., that reaching from the forehead back to the neck, was formerly in Rhodes, and is now, I think, in Malta; at least the Templars did pretend that it was restored to them by the Turks. The back of the head is at Nevers, and the brain at Novium Rantroviensis.1 And yet, notwithstanding, part of the head is in the church of Joannes Morienus. Then his jaws are at Besançon, in the church of John the Elder. Another part is at Paris, in the church of Joannes Lateranensis, and the tip of the ear is at Sanflor, in Auvergne, while the forehead and the hair is in St Salvator’s, in Spain. At Noyon, also, is a certain portion, which is wont to be exhibited in great state. There is also a part, but I know not what, at Lucca. Is all this true? Go to Rome, and you will hear that the whole head of John is in the monastery of Sylvester. Poets feign that in Spain there once lived a king, named Geryon, who had three heads. If our fabricators of relics could say the same thing of John the Baptist, it would be a great help to their lies. But since there is no room for such a fable, to what excuse will they resort? I am unwilling to press them so far as to ask how his head was cut into such minute portions as to become capable of distribution in so many various places, or how they got it out of Constantinople. I only say that John must have been a monster, or that they are impudent impostors in exhibiting so many fragments of his head.

But this is not the worst. For the people of Sienna say that they have got his arm, an allegation contradicted, as we have already observed, by all ancient history. Nevertheless, the imposture is tolerated, nay even approved; for in the kingdom of Antichrist nothing is thought wicked which tends to increase the superstition of the people. Besides, they have invented another fable, viz., that when his body was burned, the finger with which he pointed out Christ to his two disciples remained entire, and was not injured in the least. But this not only does not accord with ancient history, but may easily be confuted by it. For Eusebius and Theodoret relate that when the Gentiles seized the body it was all consumed to the very bones. Assuredly, had anything so miraculous happened with regard to the finger, they would not have omitted to mention it; for in other respects they are rather too fond of narrating such trifles. But supposing the fact to be as alleged, let us see for a little where this finger is to be found. There is one at Besançon, in the church of John the Great, another at Tholouse, another at Lyons, another at Bourges, another at Florence, and another at the church of Fortuitus, near Mascon. All I would do here is to ask my readers not to harden themselves against evidence so clear and certain—not to close their eyes in such bright light, and allow themselves to be led astray, as it were, in the dark. If there were jugglers, who could so impose on our eyesight as to make it appear that there were six fingers on one hand, we would yet guard cautiously against imposture, and try to detect it. Here, however, there is nothing that even looks like a clever trick. The whole question is, whether we are to believe that the same one finger of John is at Florence, and in five other places, as at Lyons, Bourges, and other towns; or, to state the matter in fewer words, whether we are to believe that six fingers make no more than one finger, or that one finger makes six? I have mentioned only places that are known to me, but I doubt not that, if inquiry were made, as many more would be discovered, and that fragments of the head also would be found of bulk sufficient to make up the head of an ox. But that nothing might be omitted, they pretend that they have got his ashes also, some of them being at Genoa, and others at Rome, in the church of Joannes Lateranensis. The historical account is, that they were scattered to the winds. How does this agree with what is said, especially by the Genoese?

It now remains to consider certain articles which are a kind of accessories of the body, for instance, the shoe which is at Paris in the monastery of the Carthusians. It was stolen some twelve or fifteen years ago, but another forthwith made its appearance; and, indeed, so long as shoemakers exist there will be no want of such relics. They give out that in the church of Joannes Lateranensis at Rome they have got his girdle, of which there is no mention in Scripture. It is only said that he had his raiment of camel’s hair. This raiment they choose to convert into a girdle. They say they have also in the same place the altar in which he said his prayers in the desert, as if at that time it had been the custom to erect altars in every place, and on every occasion. It is strange they do not also make him perform mass. At Avignon they have the sword with which his head was cut off, and at Acqs, in Germany, the linen cloth which was placed under him in the act of beheading him. How, I would fain know, was there so much kindness and civility in the executioner as to cover the bottom of the dungeon with a carpet at the time he was going to put the Baptist to an ignominious death? I would also like to know how these things happened to come into their hands. Is it probable that the executioner, whether he were a courtier or a common soldier, gave the linen cloth and his sword, that they might be converted into relics? As they wished to make the collection of relics so very perfect, they have blundered sadly in overlooking the knife with which Herodias is said to have wounded him in the eye, and likewise all the blood that must have been spilt, together with his tomb. But perhaps the mistake is in me. It is quite possible that these famous articles are exhibited in places I am not acquainted with.

John Calvin | “An Admonition Showing the Advantages Which Christendom Might Derive From an Inventory of Relics” in Tracts Relating to the Reformation, Vol. 1 | Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844, pp. 321–324

1 The words in the original are Novii Rantroviensis. The translator has not been successful in finding the modern name. It is probably a misprint, as it is not found in Hoffman, or any of the usual Dictionaries.

Calvin’s Inventory Of Relics


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One comment

  1. Perhaps you’ll allow a little venting on my part…
    Like a Sabre, Calvin was so astute to point out these wicked practices, and this has been a very interesting and sad depiction of Roman Catholicism.
    The Lord graciously called of out of that sorry scheme some 25 years ago, so I’d rather forgotten these foolish, pagan ways. Sadly, I’ve left behind my brother, sister, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews that stayed and who still question me as to why I’ve ‘left the faith’. I left a disease for a cure.
    You’ve led of down yet another rabbit path to see if they still have relics – oh yeah! Well I’d forgotten. A mummified head of Bernadette here, a finger of Bonaventure there. Every altar is said to contain a relic. My word!
    Catholics are a slippery kettle of fish though, with a twisted answer and a misapplied scripture to back up their traditions, such as, well Peter’s handkerchief or Paul’s shadow as proofs.
    My brother recently recommended Richard John Neuhaus to me in hopes i might return home because well RJN left Protestantism. And then his name popped up on the HB briefly. So down the trail went i. In a landmark essay in First Things RJN compares the Roman majesterium to our creeds, confessions and catechisms, saying they’re essentially the same thing in principle! While yes we have our references of written works, it’s a far cry from the vicar of Christ, the pope, pontificating inerrencies from the Vatican.
    How far afield from the simplicity and beauty of Christ and the Gospel message.
    Thank God for his mercy and grace to save such as me from that claptrap and worse.
    There goes my brother off on another pilgrimage to Avignon, or to burn incense at a shrine for a recently deceased family member.
    I’ll continue to pray.
    Keep up the great work.

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