Calvin: Time For An Inventory (9)

With regard to the Virgin Mary, as they give out that her body is not on the earth, they are of course prevented from pretending to have her bones; were it otherwise, I can well believe they would have given her a body of such a size as would suffice to fill a thousand sarcophaguses. What is denied with reference to the whole body, they have endeavoured to compensate by hair and milk. Some hairs are shown at Rome, in the church of Mary supra Minerva, at St Salvator’s in Spain, at Mascon, at Clugny, at Nocera, at Sanflor, at St James’s, and many other places. As to the milk, it cannot be necessary to enumerate all the places where it is shown. Indeed, the task would be endless, for there is no town, however small, no monastery or nunnery, however insignificant, which does not possess it, some in less, and others in greater quantities; not that they would have been ashamed to have it in hogsheads, but they thought the lie might be more plausible if they had only a small, quantity,—as much, for instance, as could be contained in a small gallipot or phial; for in this form it can be kept back from minute inspection. But had the breasts of the most Holy Virgin yielded a more copious supply than is given by a cow, or had she continued to nurse during her whole lifetime, she scarcely could have furnished the quantity which is exhibited. Again, I would fain know how that milk, which is at present almost everywhere exhibited, was collected, so as to be preserved until our time. We do not read of any person who had the curiosity to undertake the task. We read, indeed, that the shepherds worshipped Christ, and that the Magians presented gifts to him, but we nowhere read of her having given milk as a kind of return for their presents. Luke relates the prophecy which Simeon made to the Virgin; but he does not say that Simeon asked her to give him some milk. If the matter be only looked to, it will be unnecessary to offer any argument for the purpose of showing how utterly devoid of reason, and all appearance of probability, this wild dream is. It is strange how it never occurred to them to pare her nails, and get other things of that kind, when there was nothing else of the body they could get; but perhaps it was impossible for them to mind every thing.

The other relics of the Virgin, which they boast of having, form part of her wardrobe and baggage. First, there is a shirt at Chartrain, which is a very celebrated object of idolatry, and there is another at Acqs in Germany. It is needless to ask where they found them; for it is most certain that the Apostles and other pious men were not so foolish as to occupy their minds with such frivolities. But let its form only be examined, and I will instantly succumb, if the imposture does not become visible even to the eye. At Acqs, where is one of the shirts we have mentioned, it is carried round in solemn state fastened to a pole, and is as long as a white surplice. Had the Virgin been of the race of the giants, I don’t believe she would have had so long a shirt. To give more importance to the exhibition, they, at the same time, produce shoes belonging to St Joseph, which would only fit a boy or a dwarf. There is an old proverb, “A liar should have a good memory.” That proverb has been little attended to here; for so short has been their memory, that they have forgotten to attend to the measure of the husband’s shoes and his wife’s shirt. Now, let them run about, and, with the greatest veneration, kiss their relics which have not the least semblance of being genuine. I know of only two gowns, one at Treves, in the church of St Maximin, and another at Lisia in Italy. I should like much to examine them, that it might be seen what kind of web they are made of, and whether it is such as the Jews of that period were wont to weave. I should like also that the two gowns were compared together, to ascertain whether there is any similarity between them. At Bonne there is a certain scarf. Some one will ask me if I think it is fictitious. I answer, that I have the same opinion of it that I have of the two girdles, the one of which is at Prague, and the other at St Iago of Montserrat, and also of the slipper which is at St James’s, and the shoe at Sanflor. But if there were no other objection, every person not absolutely sunk in ignorance is aware that the pious had no such custom as that of collecting shoes and sandals, in order to make relics of them, and that for 500 years after the Virgin’s decease not one of these things was ever heard of. What need, therefore, for farther discussion, as if the matter were at all doubtful?

Nay, they have even thought proper to calumniate the most holy Virgin, by representing her as excessively careful about decking her person, and combing her hair; for they show two combs that belonged to her. One of them is in St Martin’s at Rome, the other in St John’s at Besançon. It is probable there are a great many more in other places. If this is not to hold up the holy Virgin to derision, I know not what derision is. Moreover, they have not forgotten her marriage-ring, which is to be seen at Perugia. Because it is now customary with us for the husband at marriage to present his bride with a ring, they have imagined, without making more inquiry about the matter, that it was customary also at that time. What they have adopted for this purpose is a beautiful ring of great value, never thinking of the great poverty in which the Virgin spent her life. Of her wardrobe, part is seen at Rome, in the church of Joannes Lateranensis, of St Barbara, of Mary supra Minerva, and part at Blois, and also at St Salvator’s in Spain; at least, they boast of having some fragments of them there. I have also heard other places mentioned, but they escape my memory. To detect the imposture, it were only necessary to inspect the texture of this clothing. They seem to have imagined it as easy for the Virgin to put herself in full dress, as it is for them to deck their idols, which they are ever and anon furnishing with new attire.

It remains to speak of pictures—not pictures in general, but those which are specially celebrated for some singular quality. And, first, they pass off an imposture in the name of Luke, pretending that he painted four pictures of the Virgin, and that these are now at Rome. In the church of St Mary the Immaculate one of them is shown at the altar, where it is hung up, as they say, in devotion to her, together with the ring which Joseph gave her on her espousals. Another is shown at Rome also, in the church of Mary Nova, and is said to have been painted by Luke at Troas, and brought thither by an angel. Another is in the church of St Mary called Aracali, and is in the form of a cross. But at the church of St Augustine they give out that they have the most remarkable of all; for if they are to be credited, it is one which Luke carried constantly about with him, and even wished to be put into his coffin when he died. What blasphemy, I ask, to convert a holy evangelist of God into an impious idolator? And what pretence have they for holding that Luke was a painter? Paul calls him a physician, but on what grounds they assign to him skill in painting I have not the least idea. Even if it were true that he practised this art, it is not a whit more probable that he would have painted the Virgin than that he would have painted Jupiter or Venus, or any other idol. It certainly was not the practice at that period for Christians to have idols, nor was it introduced till long after, when the Church had been corrupted with superstition. Again, every comer of the globe is filled with pictures said to have been painted by Luke, as at Cambray, and many other places. And in what form? in such colours as one might be expected to employ in painting an abandoned woman. God hath so blinded them that they have shown no more consideration in this matter than the beasts that perish. However, it does not seem strange to me that they have attributed pictures of the Virgin to Luke, since they have practised similar imposition in the name of Jeremiah. Evidence of their impudence in this respect may be seen at Puteus, a town of Auvergne. Now, I should have thought it time for miserable men to open their eyes, and see through a matter so transparent. I say nothing of Joseph, though some are said to have his shoes, as at Treves, in the monastery of Simeon, and others to have his sandals, while to others are reserved his bones. The specimens already given should be a sufficient exposure of the absurdity.

I must, however, add the case of the archangel Michael, and his attendance on the Virgin Mary. It will be thought I am in jest when I speak of the relics of an angel. Comedians and players have laughed at this, but monkish and priestly impostors have not, therefore, ceased to deceive the people in good earnest. For the inhabitants of Carcassone boast that they have relics belonging to him, as do also those of Tours, in their church of St Julian. In the great church of St Michael, which is frequented by crowds of pilgrims, they show his dagger, which looks very much like the one boys play with. They show also his shield, which in appearance exactly corresponds with the dagger, resembling the brass circles which are put upon horses’ harness. Assuredly there is no man and no old woman so dull as not to see how ridiculous those things are. But because the lies are covered with the veil of religion, the iniquity of thus deriding God and angels is not perceived. Some may here object the express declaration of Scripture, that Michael fought with the devil. True; but if the devil were to be vanquished, it behoved to be with a stronger and a sharper sword than that one. Are they so brutish as to imagine that the war which both angels and believers wage with devils is carnal, and carried on with daggers and sharp weapons? But it is just as I have observed before: mankind have richly deserved, by their brutish stupidity, to be so deceived, while with perverse eagerness they have gone about in all directions collecting idols and images, to which they might give worship, instead of giving it to the living God.

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. 316–321

Inventory Of Relics


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One comment

  1. Now THAT is quite a list! The utter incoherence of such beliefs demonstrates the depth of the noetic effect of sin. Man is willfully blind in all of his idolatries.

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