Ideas

How Jesus' foreskin became one of Christianity's most-coveted relics — and then disappeared

It's a relic deemed so taboo, the Vatican threatened excommunication to anyone who spoke of it. But for nearly 1,000 years before that, the 'holy foreskin' of Jesus Christ was widely considered to be the holiest of relics. IDEAS examines the story of an unlikely object of devotion.

During the Middle Ages, more than a dozen churches across western Europe claimed to have the 'holy foreskin'

The Circumcision is a painting by Giovanni Bellini. The New Testament states that after his birth, Jesus was circumcised according to Jewish tradition (Luke 2:21). (Wikimedia Commons/Giovanni Bellini)

University of Alberta PhD student James White always starts with a quick disclaimer before telling people about his thesis topic.

"I usually provide a one-minute introduction and warn them that what I'm working on, it's kind of strange," he said. "And the typical reaction is usually laughter or kind of a response of 'Really? This existed? This happened?'"

White is a PhD student in the history and classics department, focusing on religious studies. His thesis, which he will be defending in September, is called Ring of Flesh: The Late Medieval Devotion to the Holy Foreskin.

'My job is to try to get into the heads of medieval people and figure out what connections they were making and why,' says James White, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta (Laura McLean)

"The holy foreskin is both an object and an idea," White explained to CBC Radio's IDEAS.

"The idea is that Jesus, as a Jewish boy, was circumcised when he was eight days old, like Jewish boys are. And in the Middle Ages, people developed this idea that his foreskin might still exist on Earth. And they developed a devotion to it."

And it wasn't considered a strange devotion in the minds of Christians for nearly 1,000 years. 

"I think studying the holy foreskin is a nice ego check for all of us," said White. "People 700 years in the future are going to think we're pretty strange, too. We're not the ultimate modern, evolved human beings that we sometimes think we are."

He says contemporary obsessions with celebrity objects could be seen as bizarre to people outside our culture. For example, Judy Garland's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz now have an estimated worth of up to $3 million US. 

First mention of Jesus' circumcision

The first mention of Jesus' circumcision can be found in the Book of Luke 2:21.

"You know, what probably happened was some clever relic collectors were thumbing through the Bible. When they got to the Book of Luke, they read the part about Christ being circumcised on his eighth day," said David Farley, author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic and Italy's Oddest Town. 

"And one of them had a lightbulb moment and thought, 'Whoa, we could really make a heavenly sum if we, you know, told monks and priests and so on that we have a piece of Christ's flesh for sale!' Not surprisingly, the relic had the miraculous power of duplication, and depending on what sources you read, there were a dozen or almost two dozen places around Europe, mostly in France for some reason, that claimed they actually had the holy foreskin."

Relic culture

Throughout the history of Catholicism, relics — be they an alleged piece of the holy cross or the toe or finger of a saint — have been considered key to communing with the divine. Such holy relics were believed to withstand natural decay and were considered "incorruptible."

"And, of course, this is not just a saint, this is Jesus' body," said White, referring to the holy foreskin. "He has super-incorruptibility."

One of those alleged foreskin relics arrived in Rome around 799 AD when King Charlemagne presented it as a gift to Pope Leo III. It remained in the papal Sancta Sanctorum reliquary until the sacking of Rome in 1527. The invasion left half the population dead and many sacred relics were destroyed or stolen.

The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena, painted by Giovanni di Paolo, circa 1460. St. Catherine of Siena had a vision in which she married Jesus Christ and his foreskin served as the wedding ring. (Wikimedia Commons)

The holy foreskin, along with a piece of the holy cross, was said to have been discovered about 30 years later in the village of Calcata, just north of Rome.

"It'd be like if some A-list celebrity moved to your neighbourhood," said Farley. "It meant a lot [to the villagers]. And as the story goes, according to historical documents, the pope at the time eventually ruled that fate has made this very important relic find its home in this village of Calcata, so it shall remain there."

The church that housed the holy foreskin is called Chiesa del SS. Nome di Gesù — or the Church of the Holy Name, which is a reference to Jesus' circumcision and naming day. Every Jan. 1, the local priest would lead a procession around the village with the holy relic held high.

Pope Leo XIII, centre, with members of the Papal Secretariat in the garden of the Vatican, Rome, circa 1900. He issued a decree threatening excommunication to anyone who spoke or wrote about the holy foreskin. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Under pressure to banish Catholic practices that could be seen as culturally backward, the Vatican issued a decree in 1900 threatening excommunication to anyone who wrote about the holy foreskin, but it allowed the village of Calcata to continue its yearly procession. 

In 1983, just a few weeks prior to the Jan. 1 Feast of the Holy Circumcision, the local priest went to check on the relic but it was missing.

"People [in the village] were really upset," said Farley, who spent a year in Calcata trying to solve the mystery of its disappearance. Some suspected the local priest had given it back to the Vatican. Others believe it was stolen by Satanists. Another theory is that it was stolen and sold on the black market.

The mystery was never solved.

The relic and its meaning

"I actually don't care whether or not this foreskin existed," said White. "What matters to me is, why did people believe in it? What purpose did it serve for them? What did they get out of believing in it? What meaning did they attach to it?"

Miri Rubin, a professor of medieval and early modern history at Queen Mary University of London, says the worship of the holy foreskin made complete sense to people of that era, as Christians were committed to understanding God on Earth in fully human form.

Rubin is the author of a number of books on medieval Christianity including Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture.

She explains that a focus on Christ's genitals would have made him seem all the more human.

Circumcision of Christ, detail from Twelve Apostles Altar, painted by Friedrich Herlin of Nördlingen, 1466. (Public Domain/Friedrich Herlin)

"It also builds on the pathos of the child," she said. For people in medieval times, she said, the vulnerability of the naked Christ child in human form made him relatable. 

She points out that vials of what was supposed to be the breast milk of the Virgin Mary were also regarded as prized and valuable relics, and a few churches around Italy claimed to possess at least one.

And the value placed on such relics is not dissimilar to some contemporary cultural obsessions, she said.

"It's about desire, it's about longing, it's about scarcity," she said.

The Virgin and Child before a Firescreen, painted by a follower of Robert Campin, circa 1440. Vials of what was thought to be Mary’s breast milk were also highly prized relics. (Public Domain/National Gallery London)

Rubin said pilgrimages to places such as the Graceland estate in Memphis, Tenn., to experience Elvis's legacy are modern secular versions of this phenomenon.

"You have to go a long way to see the site, or you have to pay a lot of money to go to the concert, or you have to spend a lot of money to buy a copy of a certain celebrity's dress," she said.

"I mean, a lot of the marketing devices that we've just perfected with our technologies were there also in the Middle Ages around pilgrimage sites."

White says for some people, contemporary cultural items can be a "type of religion." He cites the first Superman comic from 1938, which sold on eBay for $3.2 million US in 2014, as a good example.

"And religion, of course, is cultural. So communing with God or communing with … Superman, you can get some similar feelings."
 

Guests in this episode (in order of appearance):

James White is a PhD student of history and religious studies at the University of Alberta. His thesis is called Ring of Flesh: The Late Medieval Devotion to the Holy Foreskin.

David Farley is a travel writer and author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town.

Miri Rubin is a professor of medieval and early modern history at Queen Mary University of London. Author of numerous books including Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture and Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews.

***This episode was produced by Tom Howell and Nicola Luksic. It is part of  our series, Ideas from the Trenches.***

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