What are Relics?

Today, relics mean different things to different people. At their heart, they are a way of connecting with past generations who are no longer with us. Many of us retain objects that link us to the past in this way.

“My Dad died when I was young and I have his cufflinks because every time I pick them up and hold them I am taken back to when I was younger helping him fix his cufflinks on his shirt before he went out for the night. Through them I still feel connected to him.”

The term “relic” holds a specific meaning when considering the history of the Christian religion. The modern English word originates in the Greek and Latin used across the later Roman world. From the Near East to Britain, early Christians used the Greek word leipsana or the Latin reliquiae to refer to the remains of holy men and women: saints.

Most relics relate to the bodies of the saints or objects associated with them during their lives. Throughout the history of Christianity, religious relics—just like family keepsakes and souvenirs—created a tangible, physical connection with the past. The word often used in the Middle Ages for a shrine containing relics was memoria—a memory.

In the early Church, relics were not intended to be worshipped by Christians; they were to be honoured and venerated. The idea was summed up by St Jerome in the early 5th century, and often echoed.

 “We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels … For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are.” – Jerome, Letter to Riparius (404)

“Saints are venerated in the Church, according to tradition, and their authentic relics and images are held in honor” – Second Vatican Council (1963)

Before travelling to Aotearoa New Zealand in the late 19th century, Bishop John Joseph Grimes SM, assembled a collection of saints’ relics. Those relics were intended to shape a vision for a new Christian society in the southern hemisphere.

Nearly a century later, Bishop Grimes’s relic collection was buried beneath the cathedral he founded. By the 1970s, relics were no longer seen as central to Catholic worship. Recovered when the cathedral was deconstructed in 2021, the collection spans 2000 years of Christian history and provides a remarkable insight into the worlds of the late Roman Empire, the European Middle Ages and Reformation, and the settler society of Christchurch.

This exhibition explores the rich history of relics, establishing how they came to be in Ōtautahi Christchurch, and examining their significant impact on Christian culture and faith.