From the Archives: Cataloguing the relic collection

POST BY MAllen

R/50 contains 60 relics of saints of the early church, pieces from the cross, the table of the last supper, and the column of flagellation of Christ
R/50 contains 60 relics of saints of the early church, pieces from the cross, the table of the last supper, and the column of flagellation of Christ

In this blog post Jonathan Roche, a PhD student who undertook work experience in the Jesuits in Britain Archives, gives an account of his work cataloguing the relics. 

The Jesuits in Britain Archive holds a large, previously uncatalogued collection of relics and associated items. Over the past few months I have spent two to three days a week working on them, examining each in turn to prepare a detailed list for the archivist. Relics are not usually found in archives, but then Jesuits in Britain Archive hosts a number of unusual and non-‘traditional’ items, such as a number of antiquarian books and religious objects as well as manuscripts, letters and lots more. The relics in the archive have come from a variety of locations. Some have ended up in the archive following the closure of smaller Jesuit houses — e.g. Manresa house — or when they have changed locations — for instance, Heythrop College; others have come from individual Jesuits’ personal collections which were moved to the archives following their deaths. The archive’s position as the central depository for everything to do with the British Province of the Society of Jesus makes it a natural destination for these items. Working to produce a catalogue of the archive’s relics has been a fantastic opportunity, one which I am very glad to have had.

Relics are objects that have a direct association with a saint or Jesus and are divided into three categories. A first-class relic is a physical remain of a saint — for example a piece of their bone or hair — or an object with a direct association to the events of Jesus’ life — such as a fragment of the True Cross. A second-class relic is an item that a saint wore — a shirt or glove etc. — or one that they frequently used — a crucifix, bible, rosary etc. A third-class relic, meanwhile, is any object that has touched a first- or second-class relic. The majority of third-class relics in the Jesuits in Britain Archive are small pieces of cloth, but there are also several iron nails that have touched the first-class relic of the nail from the crucifixion.

Generally relics are held in reliquaries. These protect the relic and allow it to be venerated. Many were designed with portability in mind: they might be carried as part of a procession on the saint’s feast day or on other holy days, or they might be designed to be worn around an individual’s neck as a necklace or locket (e.g. R/118). Others are designed to be displayed in public and form a part of worship (e.g. R/37). Given the central place of relics in worship historically, and the emphasis placed on the holiness of the objects they contain, reliquaries were often intricately designed, made out of precious metals such as silver, or decorated with jewels. In addition to the materials used, reliquaries are often beautifully decorated, particularly when they are intended for public display, and the relics within are usually labelled, although, due to the confines of space, these labels are often abbreviated (in R/35 for example, St Stanislauw Kostka is abbreviated to ’S. Stan. Kostk.’).

The number of relics in a reliquary varies immensely. Many contain a single saint’s relic but others contain multiple relics. These are often in pairs or in threes, but the largest in the archive that I have catalogued contains sixty relics (see main image). When relics are grouped like this, the choice of saints is often very deliberate. R/45, for instance, contains relics of SS Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, the two most prominent founding members of the Jesuits; R/67, meanwhile, contains relics of St Charles Lwanga and St Matthew Mulumba, two Ugandan martyrs often venerated together. Through larger reliquaries such as R/51, it is possible to read a history of the Church: R/51 contains relics of Christ, the apostles, the early Church fathers, and saints through the time of its manufacture.

As well as decorations and the relic(s) itself, reliquaries also contain important features confirming the authenticity of the relics within. Often located within the inside back of the reliquary is a red wax seal and wire/string. The relic is tied into place with the wire and then this wire is sealed into place with the wax. Whilst the wax was still soft it was imprinted with the seal of the office of the person authenticating the relic (normally a bishop or leader of a religious order). If the wire is broken, or is not there at all, the authenticity of the relic can be questioned.

Alongside the authentication in the relic itself, relics are also issued with authentication certificates. Normally written in Latin, although sometimes in the vernacular, these documents attest to the contents of the reliquary. They describe what the relic is — for example APR/1 states ‘ex ossibus Beatorum Martyrum Marci Crisini Canonici Strigonicuris, Stephini Pongracz, et Melchioris Godecz Sac’ (fragments from the bones of the blessed martyrs Blessed Marko Krizin canon of Esztergom, Blessed Melchior Grodziecki, and Blessed Stephen Pongrácz) — and giving a few details about the reliquary — APR/1, again, states ‘in theca ex metallo ovalis figurae crystallo occlusa, filo serico rubri colris obligata et sigillo nostro obsignata’ (in a metal oval theca with a glass front, held with red silk thread and sealed with our sign). These certificates are normally signed by the bishop or leader of the religious order, although sometimes a secretary completes it on their behalf.

Over time it is not uncommon for relics to become separated from their authenticating certificates. As relics are lent to different churches and institutions, the certificates get misplaced or left behind. As a result, the Jesuits in Britain Archive has hundreds of authenticating certificates without the corresponding relic and vice versa. By creating a detailed catalogue of both the archive’s relics and its authentication papers, it will be possible to compare lists with other archives and establish where the relics and their certificates are.

Cataloguing is an important aspect of documenting collections. It creates accurate descriptions of the collection, enables identification of any preservation needs, and widens access to the materials. With this in mind, a large part of the cataloguing work I did on the relics involved writing accurate descriptions of the relics and their reliquaries, noting what relics each reliquary contains, the materials the reliquary is made out of, any decorations and labels, the size of the reliquary and so on. The authenticating wax seal and wire are also recorded, as is whether the relic has an authenticating certificate. If the reliquary has any preservation needs — for instance if there is mold, or if the glass is broken — these are recorded too. Additionally, any details which can be identified concerning the relic’s custodial history are entered onto the catalogue although there is much more to be done on this front.  The more detail that can be added to the catalogue, the greater its usefulness both for the archive and for historians wanting to work with the relics in the future.

Some of the relics have numbers from the archives they were previously held at and these are noted also, but all the relics need new archival numbers attached to them. Four categories of identifying number were created for this task: ‘R’ for relics, ‘APR’ for authenticating papers with a corresponding relic, ‘PR’ for authenticating papers without a relic, and ‘O’ for all other objects and items found in the relics collection.

In total I catalogued over 700 relics in 185 reliquaries, and almost 300 authenticating certificates during my placement at the Jesuits in Britain Archive, but there is still more to be done. There are more relics to be catalogued and then there is the additional research required to examine the relics’ custodial history. The project is fascinating, and I am very pleased to have spent time working on it. The experience of working with the relics, learning more about the historical and contemporary uses of relics in Catholic worship, and learning more about how an archive works was a great learning experience. Hopefully once the project has been completed the catalogue will be a useful source for historians working on relics and material history, and will help the archivist make informed decisions about how to preserve the collection.

If you are interested the relic collection and the work of the Jesuits in Britain Archives in general, or to find out about volunteer and work experience oportunities with us, please contact us.