Calvin: Time For An Inventory (5)

We come now to the principal relics of our Lord, viz., those connected with his sufferings and death. And, first, let us consider the case of the cross on which he was suspended. I know it is regarded as a certain fact, that Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, discovered it. And I am not ignorant of what ancient Doctors have written, to prove that it undoubtedly was the cross on which our Saviour was crucified. Let all those have their due credit, though it was vain curiosity, or ill-judged religious zeal, that caused Helena to make the search for it. But assuming that her exertions to find out the cross are worthy of all praise, and that our Lord himself, after it was found, miraculously declared that it was truly his cross, let us see how the matter is to be viewed with reference to our own times. The cross which Helena found is said to be still at Jerusalem. And no one calls this in question, though it is plainly inconsistent with ecclesiastical history, which relates that Helena sent part of it to the emperor her son, by whom it was placed on a pillar of porphyry at Constantinople; and that she inclosed the remainder in a silver chest, which she gave to the Bishop of Jerusalem for preservation. Therefore, we must either accuse the history of falsehood, or the things told of the true cross in the present day are utterly vain and frivolous.

Again, let us consider how many fragments of it are scattered up and down over the whole globe. A mere enumeration of those of which I have a catalogue would certainly fill a goodly volume. There is no town, however small, which has not some morsel of it, and this not only in the principal cathedral church of the district, but also in parish churches. There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen. In some places, larger fragments exist, as at Paris, in the Holy Chapel, at Poictiers, and at Rome, where a crucifix of tolerable size is said to have been entirely made out of it. In fine, if all the pieces which could be found were collected into a heap, they would form a good ship-load, though the gospel testifies, that a single individual was able to carry it. What effrontery, then, thus to fill the whole world with fragments, which it would take more than three hundred men to carry? But they have fallen upon an explanation, and it is, that how much soever may be cut from it, it never grows less. But this device is too foolish and absurd for the superstitious themselves not easily to see through it. I leave it to all men to consider what certainty can be had as to the genuineness of all the pieces of wood which are worshipped in all the different places as the true cross. Whence certain fragments were brought, and by what way and means, I omit to say; some affirming that they were brought to them by angels, others that they dropt from heaven. Those of Poictiers say, that the piece which they have was stolen by a maid-servant of Helena, and carried off, and that she having afterwards fled, brought it, in the course of her wanderings, into that district. They also add to the story that she was lame. Such are the illustrious grounds on which they stimulate the wretched populace to idolatry. And not contented with imposing on the rude and ignorant, by displaying a piece of common wood as the wood of the cross, they have declared it every way worthy of adoration. The doctrine is altogether devilish, and Ambrose expressly condemns it as heathen superstition.

Next after the cross comes the title which Pilate ordered to be affixed to it, and on which he wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” But we must know the time, place, and manner, of its being found. It will be said that Socrates, the Ecclesiastical Historian, makes mention of it. This I admit. But he says nothing as to what became of it, and hence his testimony is of no great weight. Besides, that inscription having been written hastily, and on the spur of the moment, after our Saviour had been actually crucified, it is most irrational to suppose that it was a picture painted skillfully as for display. Were only one exhibited, it might deservedly be deemed false and fictitious, but when the people of Tholouse say that they have it, and those of Rome contradict them, and show it in the church of Santa Croce, they convict each other of falsehood. Let them, therefore, debate the matter among themselves as long as they please; in the end, if all things are duly examined, both will be proved false.

There is a still greater controversy as to the nails. I will mention those of which I have heard, and from them the merest child will judge how grossly the devil had deluded mankind, after having deprived them of all sense and reason, and so made them incapable of exercising any discernment in the matter. If ancient writers, and especially Theodoret, the historian of the ancient Church, say true, Helena ordered one to be fixed in her son’s helmet, and the other two to be fitted to his horse’s bridle. Yet Ambrose does not express an unqualified assent. For he says, that one was fixed in the crown of Constantine, that his horse-bit was made of the second, and that Helena kept the third to herself. We thus see, that twelve hundred years ago there was a controversy as to what became of the nails. What certainty, then, can we now have? The Milanese boast of having the one which was fitted to the horse’s bridle, while the inhabitants of Carpentras interpose, and claim it for themselves. But Ambrose does not say at all that it was fitted to the bit, but that it was made into a bit, an account which cannot by any possibility agree with what is affirmed by the inhabitants of Milan and of Carpentras. There are also two nails at Rome, one in the church of St Helena, and another in that of Santa Croce. Then there is one at Sienna, another at Venice, two in Germany, viz. at Cologne, in the church of the Three Maries, and at Treves. In France, there is one in the Holy Chapel, another in the possession of the Carmelites, another at the church of St Denis, in the Isle of France, another at Bourges, another in the Abbey of Ciseaux, and another at Draguignan. Here we have them to the number of fourteen. Moreover, each place seems confident of the sufficiency of the proof in its favour. One thing certainly I will concede, that all the claims are equally good, and hence nothing is simpler than to pass the same sentence upon all, namely, to account them all, in spite of their boasting, to be spurious. There is no other way of unravelling the matter.

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. 301–04

Calvin’s Inventory Of Relics


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