Calvin: Time For An Inventory (8)

For to convince all men how little credit is due to the proofs which they adduce in support of their relics, it is to be observed, that the chief and most authentic of those which are seen at Rome are said to have been brought thither by Titus and Vespasian. This fiction is hot a whit more ingenious than if it were said that the Grand Turk went to Jerusalem in order that he might bring the cross of Christ to Constantinople. Vespasian, before he became Emperor, subdued and laid waste a part of Judea. Afterwards, when he had obtained the empire, his son Titus, whom he had left in command, took Jerusalem. Now, both of them were heathens, and cared no more for Christ than if he had never been born. In the same way, we may judge whether, in alleging that Godfrey of Boulogne, or King Louis, brought these relics, they have not lied with equal effrontery as when they said it was Vespasian. Besides, let it be considered what kind of judgment was displayed by that king to whom they give the name of St Louis, and by others like him. They had, no doubt, a semblance of religion, and a zeal, such as it was, for the propagation of the Christian name. But if the droppings of goats had been shown them, and they been told at the same time that they were the Virgin Mary’s beads, they would have worshipped them at once, without ever debating the matter, and would have sent ships to transport them to any place where they were to be set up and honoured. It cannot be denied they wasted both their resources and their bodily strength, and also spent a goodly part of their revenues in bringing back a heap of indescribable trifles and toys, by which the minds of men were so fascinated as to regard them as most valuable jewels. To give a clearer illustration of the fact, I may observe, that throughout the whole of Greece, Asia Minor, and Mauritania, and the whole of those countries which go under the name of the Indies, all the antique relics which our idolaters imagine that they possess here are there exhibited with the greatest confidence. How are we to decide between these two parties? Our people say that the relics were brought away from those places. The Christians who are living there affirm that they still possess them, and deride our foolish boasting. How can the dispute be decided without investigation—investigation, however, which cannot, and never will, be made? The only remedy is to despise both, and leave the matter as it is, in statu quo.

The last class of relics belonging to Christ are those which relate to events subsequent to his resurrection; e. g. the piece of broiled fish which Peter offered to him when he appeared on the sea-shore. It must have been wondrously well salted if it has kept for such a long series of ages! But, jesting apart, is it supposable that the apostles made relics of what they had actually prepared for dinner? Whoever does not perceive that the whole matter is an open mockery of God, I must leave as unworthy of being farther addressed on the subject. Then we have the miraculous blood which has flowed from many of the hosts at mass; as at Paris, in the church of John Arenarius, and also in that of John the Angel; as also at Dijon, and many other places. And, in order to enlarge the heap, they have added the impious knife with which the host was stabbed at Paris by a certain Jew. This knife the Parisians regard with greater veneration than the host itself. When Doctor à Quercus, who held the cure of St John Arenarius, found that the donations made to this host stood in his way, (his gains being diminished in proportion to what the knife received,) he indignantly exclaimed, that they were worse than the Jews, inasmuch as they were worshipping a knife which had been the instrument of violating the sacred body of Christ. I have adduced this instance, because the exclamation would equally apply to the spear, the nails, and the crown of thorns; all who adore them being, in the opinion of Master à Quercus, more impious than the Jews by whom Christ was crucified.

In like manner are shown the prints of his feet in a place where he is said to have appeared to several individuals after his ascension, as at Rome, in the church of St Lawrence, at the spot where he is said to have appeared to Peter, and foretold him that he was to suffer at Rome. Another of these foot-marks is to be seen at Poictiers, in the church of Arabegend, another at Soissons, and another at Arles. I deny not that Christ could have left the mark of his foot upon a stone. I only deny the allegation of his having actually done so. In the absence of all proper proof, I maintain that the whole ought to be regarded as a mere fable. But the most admirable specimen of this description of relics is the impression of his hips, which is seen at Rheims, on a stone behind the altar, and is said to have been left at the time when our Saviour turned mason, in order that he might build the vestibule of that church. The blasphemy is so execrable, that I am almost ashamed to mention it.

To proceed, let us now attend to what is said of images, I mean not those which are usually made by painters, sculptors, and artists—(the number of these is infinite;)—but of those which possess some special claim to respect, and are regarded as singular and precious, as being of the nature of relics. Of these there are two kinds; for some have been miraculously formed, as that which is shown at Rome, in the portico of the church of St Mary. There is another also in the church of Joannes Lateranensis; and another, in which there is a picture of our Lord, said to have been taken at the time when he was twelve years old. There is also another at Lucca, which they say was painted by angels, and is called “The Holy Countenance.” These follies are so absurd, that I would lose my pains, and feel I was absurdly wasting my time, were I to dwell upon them. It is sufficient, therefore, merely to have noticed them in passing; for everybody knows that painting is not at all an office which belongs to angels, and that the means by which our Lord wished to make himself known, and imprinted on our memory, was very different from lifeless images. Eusebius relates, in his Ecclesiastical History, that our Saviour sent his picture, painted to the life, to King Abgarus; and this is somewhat more certain than a fiction taken from the Chronicles of Milan. But though the fact were so, how came they to obtain it from King Abgarus? It is said to be at Rome; but Eusebius says not that it was in existence up to his day. He only speaks by hearsay, as of a thing which had occurred long before. Is it to be believed, that it was brought to light six or seven hundred years after; and, quitting Persia, travelled as far as Rome?

Pictures of the cross have been fabricated in the same way as those of our Saviour’s person. It is given out at Brescia, that they have the very cross that appeared to Constantine. I will not dispute the matter with them; I only send them to the Cortonians, who firmly maintain that they possess it. Let them litigate the matter between themselves, and then let the one who gains his plea come forward, and we will give him his answer. Indeed, it is not difficult to find an answer that will convict them all of folly. For when some writers say that a cross appeared to Constantine, they mean not a material cross, but the figure of a cross which was exhibited to him by a visible representation in the sky. Therefore, although the fact were true, it is clear that they have fallen into a very stupid blunder, and reared up their imposture without giving it the shadow of a foundation.

But there is a second species of images which are regarded as relics, in consequence of certain services which they have performed. To this class of images belong crucifixes, on which the beard grows; for instance, one at Burgos in Spain, another in the church of St Salvator, and another in that of Aurengia. Were I to dwell upon this for the purpose of demonstrating what folly, or rather brutish stupidity, it is to believe such a thing, I should make myself ridiculous. The whole matter is so absurd in itself, that it cannot be at all necessary to spend time in refuting it, and yet the wretched populace are so dull, that the great majority of them think it just as certain as the gospel. With these, also, I class those crucifixes which have spoken, and of which there is a great multitude. But let us content ourselves with one, by way of example, viz., the one which is at St Denis in France. It spoke, they say, when it testified that the Church was dedicated. Leaving others to consider how far the importance of the matter called for such utterance, I only ask how an image of the cross could have been in the Church at that time, when, according to the custom used at dedications, all the images are removed from the Church? How did it manage to steal away and conceal itself, so as not to be removed with the rest? We see how easy a matter they must suppose it is to deceive the world, since they care not how much they contradict themselves, but deem it enough to belch forth their lies with open mouth, giving themselves no concern about any objections that might be urged. Lastly, we have got tears also; one, for instance, at Vindon, another at Treves, in the church of St Maximin, another at Orleans, in the church of Peter Puellare, besides many which are unknown to me. Some of these are said to be natural tears, as the one at St Maximin; for, according to their chronicle, our Lord let it fall when he was washing the disciples’ feet. Others are miraculous, as if it were to be believed that crucifixes of wood had so much feeling in them that they could shed tears. But we must pardon them this fault; they were ashamed to think that their images could do less than had been done by those of the heathen. The heathen pretended that their idols occasionally wept, and these crucifixes, therefore, must receive the same right, and be put on an equal footing!

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. 312–16

Calvin’s Inventory Of Relics


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!