Thursday, September 01, 2005

Thursday, September 1, 2005

Two weeks ago, during a tour of our Cathedral, I was shown a relic of the true cross.

It used to be believed by the vulgar that there were enough pieces of this “true cross” to build a battleship. In the last century a French savant, Charles Rohault de Fleury, went to the great trouble of measuring them all. He found a total of 4,000,000 cubic millimetres, whereas the cross on which Our Lord suffered would probably comprise some 178,000,000. As far as volume goes, therefore, there is no strain on the credulity of the faithful.
—Evelyn Waugh, Helena (1950), Preface.

According to Wikipedia:

By the end of the Middle Ages so many churches claimed to possess a piece of the True Cross, that John Calvin famously . . . remarked that there was enough wood in them to fill a ship:

There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen. In some places there are large fragments, as at the Holy Chapel in Paris, at Poictiers, and at Rome, where a good-sized crucifix is said to have been made of it. In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.
—Calvin, Traité Des Reliques.

Santo Toribio de Libana in Spain presently holds the largest of these pieces and is one of the most visited Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites. It is possible that many of the extant pieces of the True Cross are fakes, created by travelling merchants in the Middle Ages, during which period a thriving trade in manufactured relics existed.

In 1870, Rohault de Fleury in his "Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion" (Paris, 1870) made a study of the relics in reference to the criticisms of Calvin and Erasmus. He drew up a catalogue of all known relics of the True Cross showing that, in spite of what various authors have claimed, the fragments of the Cross brought together again would not reach one-third that of a cross which has been supposed to have been three or four meters in height, with transverse branch of two meters wide, proportions not at all abnormal. He calculated: supposing the Cross to have been of pine-wood (based on his microscopic analysis of the fragments) and giving it a weight of about seventy-five kilograms, we find the original volume of the cross to be .178 cubic meters. The total known volume of known relics of the True Cross, according to his catalogue, amounts to approximately .004 cubic meters, leaving a volume of .174 cubic meters lost, destroyed, or otherwise unaccounted for. Other scientific study of the extant relics has been conducted which confirms that they are from a single species of tree. Four cross particles from European churches, i.e. S.Croce in Rome, Notre Dame, the cathedral of Pisa and the cathedral to Florenz, were microscopically examined. "The pieces came all together from olive." (Ziehr, William, Das Kreuz, Stuttgart 1997, Seite 63)

Needless to say, even a false relic is a good relic, if venerated.


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