In my initial entry on this series I had a look at the burial practices of the early church. Showing that up until the 4th century the normative practice was to bury the dead, this included the martyrs. In my second entry I chart how the martyrs themselves had come to be understood as a proportion of the church body set apart and famed for their spiritual potency both in battling the spiritual enemies of the church and interceding for its members whilst present on earth.

Over time this distinction contributed to the forming of spiritual hierarchy amidst the members of the church whose upper echelons was increasingly not just populated by martyrs but ascetics and others who displayed the characteristics traditionally associated with that of the martyr. To wage spiritual warfare against the enemies of the church and to intercede and guide its members.

Initially the active participation of martyrs and the saints more broadly wasn’t seen to be active and ongoing after death. Yet the growing conception of spiritual hierarchies in the church found reception in the broader milieu of the period which contributes to its extension and development over the centuries. What we’ll look at in this next entry is how the saints came to be seen as able to exercise agency after their deaths and how their remains came to be seen as potent receptacles of the grace they had experienced and shared with the church during their lifetime.

Gods, Twins, and Angels of the 3rd century

The idea of spiritual guardians, duplicates, or friends during the 3rd century of the Church seems to have enjoyed a relatively ubiquity amongst the people of the Roman Empire during this period, regardless of their professed faith. Ammianus Marcellinus, a pagan soldier and philosopher, wrote the following in his history of the Roman Empire…

For the theologians maintain that there are associated
with all men at their birth, but without interference with
the established course of destiny, certain divinities
of that sort, as directors of their conduct; but they
have been seen by only a very few, whom their
manifold merits have raised to eminence.

Ammianus Marcellinus, The Chronicles of Events, Book 21. Omens of the death of Constantius Augustus

Ammianus wrote this in the 4th century but this belief had influenced and animated a great many influential people for centuries by this point within the Empire. Peter Brown in his account of the development of the Cult of the Saints writes…

The great men of the third century had been those whose visions made plain that they enjoyed an exceptional degree of closeness to their invisible guardians. In 240, the young Mani began his career as a preacher with experiences of contact with his protector so intimate as to culminate in the fusing of his subjective identity with that of his higher self, his heavenly twin:

Coming to me, the spirit (the heavenly twin) chose me, judged me fit for him, separated me by drawing me away from the sect in which I was reared…. I made him mine, as my very own.

In 310, Constantine prepared carefully for his conquests with a vision of his Apollo: “You saw him and recognized yourself in him … young and gay, a bringer of salvation and of exceeding beauty.

The Cult of the Saints, Chapter 3. The Invisible Companion p. 52

This accomplice was considered variously to be a twin of sorts, a daimon, a guide that as an idea went back as far as Plato and is discussed extensively in his Symposium. Walter Burkert is his work on Greek Religion describes a daimon in terms that bear more than a passing resemblance to that which Ammianus describes…

A special being watches over each individual, a daimon who has obtained the person at his birth by lot, is an idea which we find in Plato, undoubtedly from earlier tradition.

Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, p.335

This conception found forms of expression in the Christian church by the 3rd century who frequently understood the daimon as a form of guardian angel. Creatures which occupied a role that even in the Church served purposes resemblant of how Diotima describes that of the daimon in Plato’s Symposium acting “between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them.” We see this stated explicitly by Gregory the Wonder Worker, a follower of Origen, in an oration praising his tutor…

If I may seek to discourse of anything beyond this, and, in particular, of any of those beings who are not seen, but yet are more godlike, and who have a special care for men, it shall be addressed to that being who, by some momentous decision, had me allotted to him from my boyhood to rule, and rear, and train — I mean that holy angel of God who fed me from my youth, as says the saint dear to God.

Gregory Thaumaturgus, Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen, Argument 4.— The Son Alone Knows How to Praise the Father Worthily. In Christ and by Christ Our Thanksgiving Sought to Be Rendered to the Father. Gregory Also Gives Thanks to His Guardian Angel, Because He Was Conducted by Him to Origen

The holy angel of Gregory is articulated in terms that is very much in keeping with the mode we can see of the pagan daimons and very much in keeping with that described by Ammianus Marcellinus. Angels, after all, are mentioned clearly and explicitly in scripture and do serve as messengers repeatedly between God and man. It seems no surprise in some ways that they would come to be conceived as the Christian analogue to the Pagan daimon. Yet as time goes on we see not just discussions of such creatures but their addressal directly. Gregory of Nyssa writes in the 4th century…

We beseech you, whether you dwell in the air above or in some celestial circle or angelic chorus, that you assist the Lord or worship him as a faithful servant with the powers and virtues. Come from that place to those who beseech you, invisible friend! You have learned of his death, a means by which you might give double thanks to God who conferred this favor through one passion and one pious confession that you may rejoice in the blood he shed and in the grievous fire he endured.

Gregory of Nyssa. In Praise of Blessed Theodore, the Great Martyr

Gregory here is writing with reference to the martyrdom of a member of the church and is requesting the ‘invisible friend’ to join in the praise of the martyr for his sacrifice. Even here it is worth noting that during this period the martyr himself is spoken of rather than addressed himself. Yet that distance between the martyr and the ‘invisible friend’ was one fast closing as we’ll come to see.

Saintly Companions of the 4th century

Paulinus of Nola was a Bishop born a number of decades after Gregory of Nyssa and is notable for his devotion to an earlier 3rd-century martyr of Nola, Felix, who died in about 251AD. Paulinus wasn’t just inspired by Felix but devoted, to such a degree that Felix had come to be understood as something not entirely dissimilar to himself. Peter Brown writes of Paulinus…

When Paulinus writes about his relationship with Saint Felix, he pointedly and lovingly transfers to a dead human being all the sense of intimate involvement with an invisible companion that men in previous generations had looked for in a relationship with the non human figures of gods, daimōnes, or angels. Precisely because Paulinus makes so clear how much of his relationship with Felix follows an ancient outline, we can measure how intimate a figure the patron saint could become for the men of late antiquity. At the same time, the fact that the relationship can be expressed as one between two human beings means that the rich blood of late-Roman bonds of friendship and dependence now flows into the tissue of the invisible world. Felix has a human face. Relations with him are modeled on expectations molded by human experience. What is more important, perhaps, is that this human experience carried with it so much of the precise flavor of the day-to-day life of the men of the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Felix was not a timeless idealized figure: he was very much a patronus and an amicus as Paulinus and his readers recognized such beings, only too well, in the tight-knit world of the Roman aristocracy and its dependents.

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints, Chapter 3. The Invisible Companion p. 55

Brown here points out that whilst this belief drew on the degree pedigree that the invisible friend or daimon possessed in the ancient world it had now become enmeshed in, and a mirror of, the Roman systems of social patronage. By attaching the idea of the invisible friend to the saints of the Church it took on a new potency that when coupled with the belief that such individuals enjoyed a close relationship with God within the spiritual hierarchy saw saints, not as obstacles to God but means to him. For Paulinus in devoting himself to Felix, he came to seem himself bound to the martyr and to share in something of his prestige. Brown continues…

In a way, Paulinus was born with Felix; and by baptism and ascetic withdrawal, he has been “reborn” with Felix. Felix’s festival, the day when Felix, by dying, was “born” from earth to Heaven, has become Paulinus’s true birthday:

I have always honored this day in such a way that I would treat it as my own birthday rather than that day on which I was born…. Ill-starred the day when I came forth, from evil stock to evil deeds; blessed the day when my protector was born for me to Heaven.

This is a carefully chosen paradox, charged with ancient associations. For only a linking of the identity with an ideal invisible companion thought of as a bond as close as the joining of the genius to the person at birth, could console Paulinus and his austere friends for the sadness of finding themselves born into the flesh.

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints, Chapter 3. The Invisible Companion p. 57

The historic practice of commemorating a martyr and more generally a saint on the anniversary of their ‘birthday’ had taken on a new understanding now. Paulinus here links his baptism (birth) to the martyrdom of Felix which had historically been commemorated in the church for some time by this point This change, however, incorporates broader beliefs from outside the church leading to Paulinus having a relationship with Felix similar to that which Brown describes of Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, and his heavenly twin the “fusing of his subjective identity with that of his higher self”. Felix wasn’t Paulinus but their identities were intertwined now.

The blending of pagan belief with Christian loyalty and devotion within the broader context of the patronage systems of Roman society had now reached a form properly recognisable as the Cult of the Saints. The saint was no longer just commemorated but praised and implored to for their intercession on behalf of the votaries. Individuals within the church possessed special and intimate relationships with them.

Even for those who didn’t possess such intimate relationships with particular patron saints could even now appreciate the mediatory power of them. Augustine, in a sermon on Stephen the Martyr himself stating “Let us take the benefits of God through him, our fellow servant” (Sermon 319.8.7). The Saints played the role that had once been occupied by angels as mediators between man and God. Yet they had the added advantage that they were contextualised, relational, and personable even. They had walked the same streets and suffered the same pains the Church did as it remained on earth. More importantly, their bodies remained on Earth amongst the Church, these became relics.

Relics, Images, Hierarchies, and Neoplatonism

The belief in the patron saints, the baptised daimon, meant that martyrs and saints were now understood not just to bless and intercede for the church in their lifetime but to continue to do so after death. With the rise of new expressions of platonism in the 4th century we see this cult take on a new dimension best reflected in this quote from Basil the Great who appropriates the platonic notion of forms to talk about the trinity…

How, then, if one and one, are there not two Gods? Because we speak of a king, and of the king’s image, and not of two kings. The majesty is not cloven in two, nor the glory divided. The sovereignty and authority over us is one, and so the doxology ascribed by us is not plural but one; because the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype. Now what in the one case the image is by reason of imitation, that in the other case the Son is by nature; and as in works of art the likeness is dependent on the form, so in the case of the divine and uncompounded nature the union consists in the communion of the Godhead.

Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 18.45

This quote, in particular, would go on to be used by John of Damascus centuries later to argue for the worship of icons but it applies all the more so to artefacts left behind by the noble dead themselves. Arguably the relic itself constituting a form of an image not made by human hands. We see this in a description of the martyr’s soul in relation to its remains by Gregory of Nyssa…

For the soul which is ascending is fond of residing in its own inheritance and converses in an incorporeal manner with its own brethren; the body a deserving and immaculate vehicle for that purpose which never allows the harm originating from its own passions to reside with incorruptibility.

Gregory of Nyssa. In Praise of Blessed Theodore, the Great Martyr

Here Gregory points out that all that is ultimately left behind by the martyr’s tomb is that which is incorruptible. It isn’t an echo of the person so much as God’s grace itself. The remains by proxy then become something else, purer and more refined when the soul moves on from it. However, a few lines later we catch a hint of the potential discomfort experienced by many at this approach to remains. For even though the idea of something like a guide or spiritual patron had been accepted even amongst pagans the fusion of it with a person who had once been alive, and their remains, was alien to Pagan, Jew, and a proportion of Christians. Gregory writes…

No one should lightly disregard the tomb, but if this person opens himself to persuasion, he is liable to have no share in the repugnance of this present age, thereby avoiding the burden of the human condition.

Gregory of Nyssa. In Praise of Blessed Theodore, the Great Martyr

Yet he makes the argument that if one is open to the idea, one might find blessing instead of repugnance. Yet this implies it wasn’t yet such a settled at this time of writing, despite the fact that Christianity was now openly tolerated at the time of writing. Gregory then goes on to give a description of the remains installed into his own assembly…

Should a person have both the good fortune and permission to touch the relics, this experience is a highly valued prize and seems like a dream both to those who were cured and whose wish was fulfilled. The body appears as if it were alive and healthy: the eyes, mouth, ears, as well as the other senses are a cause for pouring out tears of reverence and emotion. In this way one implores the martyr who intercedes on our behalf and is an attendant of God for imparting those favors and blessings which people seek.

Gregory of Nyssa. In Praise of Blessed Theodore, the Great Martyr

Gregory is speaking at a time when the remains of the martyrs were being transferred and installed into church buildings. Yet this was a practice which in certain quarters had been going on before its installation into churches proper and hadn’t always been accepted. We read of one account in the early 4th century in the midst of the Donatist controversy about an Anti-Donatist Bishop who rebuked a donatist-sympathising congregant who had taken to the practice of carrying a relic about with her.

On the death of Mensurius, Caecilian was nominated as his successor. The part he had taken against the would-be martyrs was then brought up against him. The religious world of Carthage divided itself broadly into two sections, the moderate and rigoristic parties, or the supporters and opponents of the principles of Caecilian. At the head of the latter was a devout and wealthy lady named Lucilla, who had been severely rebuked by the archdeacon for superstitious veneration for martyrs’ relics.

Henry Wace and William Coleman Piercy, Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century. Caecilianus (2), archdeacon and bishop of Carthage

An alternative argument put forward was that Lucilla actually wasn’t rebuked for venerating the martyr’s relics but that the relics themselves weren’t attributable to a martyr. Yet whatever one believes the fact that this wealthy individual had possession of one outside of the domain of the church authorities was a pattern pointing to a source of tension which was only exacerbated during the early years of the church’s liberty. Who determined, and who owned, the relics of the martyrs?


In this latest entry, we explored the relationship between angels, daimons, and the saints themselves with regard to the idea of spiritual patronage and how this translated into early beliefs regarding the practice of relics. We saw how Christian loyalty to the martyred dead bled into and transformed the long-standing Pagan theology and philosophy of the day leading to what Brown calls the ‘hominisation’ of the spiritual world.

With the spiritual world becoming populated with people, the saints, it was also inevitable that it would reflect back into the material world. This manifested itself in the worship of the remains they left behind and over time a growing formalisation of hierarchy within the church itself.

In the next entry, we’ll look, in the context of the churches ascendancy, how the different parties within the Church responded to the practice of growing pubic relic veneration. This will include both its advocates and detractors and how the changes to the church manifested themselves in the layouts of church buildings themselves in the 4th century. This will be my penultimate entry and the last before I wrap up this series.

3 thoughts on “Christianity and Relics. Part Three: Spiritual Guides

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