Calvin: Time For An Inventory (7)

In regard to the linen clothes in which our Saviour’s body was wrapped, I would, in like manner, ask how it comes, that while the Evangelists carefully enumerate the miracles which took place at the death of Christ, and omit nothing which is pertinent to the history, this wondrous miracle so completely escaped them, that they say not a word about the impression of our Lord’s body which was stamped on his grave-clothes? The circumstance surely was as worthy of being mentioned as many others. John declares that Peter went into the sepulchre, and saw the linen clothes lying in a place by themselves, but he makes no mention of the miraculous impression. It cannot be supposed that he would have suppressed so wondrous a miracle, had it really been performed. But another doubt occurs. It is nowhere said by the Evangelists that the linen clothes were carried away out of the sepulchre by the disciples or the holy women. Though they do not speak in express terms, they rather insinuate that they left them there. Then the sepulchre was guarded by the soldiers, and of course the linen clothes remained in their power. Is it likely that they gave them to some pious individual for the purpose of being converted into relics; especially when it is considered that the Pharisees had bribed them to perjure themselves by declaring that the disciples had secretly stolen away the body? It is almost unnecessary to add, that the imposture may be completely detected merely by inspecting the impression which is exhibited. It is perfectly clear that it was painted by a human hand. I cannot cease wondering how those who framed the imposture were so dull of understanding as not to use more craft in the doing of it; and, still more, how others were so silly as to allow themselves to be blindfolded, and thereby unfitted to see through a matter so very transparent. Nay, it appears that they have painters at hand. For one napkin happening to be burned, another was forthwith produced. No doubt, it was affirmed to be the same that was shown before, but the picture was so fresh that there would have been no room for the falsehood, had not eyes been altogether wanting to perceive it.

To conclude in one word, their impudence will be proved by an argument which cannot be gainsayed. In all the places where they pretend to have the grave-clothes, they show a large piece of linen by which the whole body, including the head, was covered, and, accordingly, the figure exhibited is that of an entire body. But the Evangelist John relates that Christ was buried, “as is the manner of the Jews to bury.” What that manner was may be learned, not only from the Jews, by whom it is still observed, but also from their books, which explain what the ancient practice was. It was this: The body was wrapped up by itself as far as the shoulders, and then the head by itself was bound round with a napkin, tied by the four corners, into a knot. And this is expressed by the Evangelist, when he says that Peter saw the linen clothes in which the body had been wrapped lying in one place, and the napkin which had been wrapped about the head lying in another. The term napkin may mean either a handkerchief employed to wipe the face, or it may mean a shawl, but never means a large piece of linen in which the whole body may be wrapped. I have, however, used the term in the sense which they improperly give to it. On the whole, either the Evangelist John must have given a false account, or every one of them must be convicted of falsehood, thus making it manifest that they have too impudently imposed on the unlearned.

I would never come to an end were I to go, one by one, over all the absurd articles which they have drawn into the service. At Rome, in the church of Joannes Lateranensis, is shown the reed which was put into our Saviour’s hand as a sceptre, when he was mocked and scourged at Pilate’s judgment-seat. At the same place, in the church of Santa Croce, is shown the spunge which was offered to our Saviour containing vinegar mixed with gall. How, I ask, were those things recovered? They were in the hands of the wicked. Did they give them to the Apostles, that they might preserve them for relics? Or did they, themselves, lock them up that they might preserve them for some future period? What blasphemy, to abuse the name of Christ by employing it as a cloak for such drivelling fables! The same account must be given of the money which Judas received to betray his Master. The Evangelist relates that it was returned by himself in the synagogue of the Pharisees, and was afterwards employed in the purchase of a field to bury strangers in. Who got back this money out of the hands of the seller of the field? It would be too ridiculous to say it was the disciples. Some more plausible account must be given. If they answer that it took place a long time after, the thing will be still less plausible, since in that case the pieces of silver must have passed through many hands, and been mingled with other pieces. They will, therefore, require to show that the owner of the field actually sold it with the intention of getting possession of these pieces of money, that he might be able to use them as relics, or to sell them over again to the faithful. Of this, however, there is no mention whatever in the ancient Church.

There is a similar fiction with regard to the steps of Pilate’s judgment-seat. These exist at Rome, in the church of Joannes Lateranensis, together with the holes into which they say that drops of blood fell from our Saviour’s body. In like manner, in the church of Praxed is shown the pillar to which he was bound when he was scourged, and three other pillars in the church of Santa Croce, round which he was led when taken away to die. I know not how they Game to dream of all these pillars. This much, at least, is certain, that they are the offspring of their own brain; for we read not a word of them in the whole Gospel history. We read, no doubt, that Christ was scourged; but that he was bound to a pillar is their own invention. It must be obvious, therefore, that these impostors have done nothing else than attempt to rear up a huge pile of lies. In doing this, they have carried their license to such a length that they have not hesitated to make a relic of the tail of the ass on which our Saviour rode, and which is exhibited at Genoa. But it is not so much their impudence that astonishes us as the infatuation and stupidity of men, in religiously embracing such absurdities.

Here, perhaps, some one will allege it to be improbable that the relics which I have now named would be exhibited with so much pomp if they were not able to show whence they came, and by whose hands they were received. I answer, in one word, that nothing like probability is employed to cloak these transparent lies. For how much soever they may shelter themselves under the name of Constantine, or King Louis, or some of the Popes, all this avails them not when they have to prove that fourteen nails were used in fixing our Saviour to the cross, that a whole hedge was plaited in making his crown of thorns, that the spear’s point produced three other points, that his robe was so multiplied as to be converted into three, or that it changed its form so as to be metamorphosed into a robe for mass, to which it had not the least resemblance, or that one napkin produced as many other napkins as a hen does chickens, or that our Saviour was buried after a different fashion from that which the Evangelists relate. Were I to take a lump of lead, and pointing to it, to say, “This gold was given me by such a prince,” I would deservedly be thought mad. At all events, my assertion would make no change upon the colour or the nature of the lead, so as to convert it into gold. In the same way, when it is said, “See what Godfrey of Boulogne sent into these quarters after he had subdued Judea,” though the lie is obviously repugnant to reason, will we allow ourselves to take the account without using our eyes to see what lies plain before them?

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. 308–312

Calvin’s Inventory Of Relics


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