Faith and Mystery, Interwoven ; A Rare Religious Tapestry, Recently Discovered Tucked in a Corner in a Local Convent, Purports to Contain Relics from 365 Saints -- and Some from Jesus Christ Himself

By Vogel, Charity | The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), January 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Faith and Mystery, Interwoven ; A Rare Religious Tapestry, Recently Discovered Tucked in a Corner in a Local Convent, Purports to Contain Relics from 365 Saints -- and Some from Jesus Christ Himself


Vogel, Charity, The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)


It traveled here from Rome, and then disappeared from view for nearly 100 years.

Now, a rare tapestry that has been found in Buffalo has become both a mystery and a symbol of enduring faith.

The artifact, which today hangs in the sacristy of St. Joseph's Cathedral, contains the relics of saints of the old Roman Catholic calendar: 365 of them.

But the reliquary's wonders do not stop there.

A translation of the Latin inscriptions around the reliquary's central image of a cross -- bearing the motto "In Hoc Vinces," or "In this [sign] you conquer" -- reveals that relics at the center of the tapestry purport to be relics of the life and Passion of Jesus Christ himself.

The fragments, which bear inscriptions that were also translated for The Buffalo News by two Latin experts, are labeled as being from sources including:

Jesus Christ's seamless garment worn at the Passion, for which the soldiers cast lots; the sponge used to moisten the lips of Christ as he was dying on the cross; the Crown of Thorns placed on Christ's head; the purple robe placed on Jesus during his Passion; and the Holy Shroud, in which Christ's body was laid in the tomb, among other artifacts.

Surrounding the Christ-centered relics is a "calendar" showing months of the year, with saints' relics next to each date -- each one labeled in cramped, antiquated script.

Among them are major Christian figures, including: St. Ann; St. Veronica; St. Francis Xavier; St. Patrick; St. Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary; St. Mary Magdalene; St. Bonaventure; and many more.

Relic experts and religious figures in Western New York and elsewhere caution that a 19th century reliquary -- such as this one, discovered by a local nun, appears to be -- might likely contain some relics whose authenticity is doubtful.

But it also might well contain real relics, experts said.

"Rome goes back a long way," said Monsignor James F. Campbell, rector at St. Joseph's Cathedral, where the reliquary was recently installed. "And they have relics of all of those saints."

One New York City-based expert on reliquaries who has helped stage major exhibits of the items from around the world called Buffalo's new find "fascinating."

"I've never seen something like this in connection with America," Dr. Holger A. Klein, at Columbia University, said of the embroidered tapestry. In showing a calendar of a complete year, it echoes other rare reliquary pieces dating to the 16th century.

"This is actually a very valuable piece -- and it's more valuable to Buffalo, because it has this history," said Klein, who has published a book on the relics of the True Cross.

In New York, an official at the New York Province of the Society of Jesus called the process of figuring out authenticity in such matters "not so simple."

"There are many interesting but probably inauthentic relics of saints -- of Mary, of John the Baptist, of the apostles," said the Rev. J. Peter Schineller, archivist for the Jesuit province, who helped The News translate some parts of the reliquary.

But, said another religious official, what matters about the reliquary is not necessarily the truth of the relics themselves -- but the faith they nurture.

"Whether or not the tiny speck is historically from the Crown of Thorns is not so important as that the tapestry which bears the speck reminds people of the historicity of the crucifixion," the Rev. Thomas R. Slon, executive assistant to the Provincial in the New York Province of the Society of Jesus, said in an email to The News.

"And [that it] renews fervor in the work that God has done for us in Jesus' Passion."

A gift to Bishop Timon

Standing behind the reliquary's authenticity is its provenance.

The story as told by diocesan sources is this: The intricately embroidered artwork came to Buffalo's brand-new Catholic diocese in the 1850s or early 1860s, as a gift from the Vatican and Pope Pius IX to Bishop John Timon. …

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