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Bill Thayer

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Scooping up Relics

[image ALT: A large bronze basin. It was used by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III to bring to Rome the relics of St. Bartholomew the Apostle. It is in the church of S. Bartolomeo all'Isola in Rome.]

A bronze basin against a background of faux-marbre
on a wall of the S aisle.

It pays to walk around slowly and to keep your eyes open. The problem is, that faced with something like the interior of S. Bartolomeo,

[image ALT: A large and ornately decorated hall. It is the nave of the church of S. Bartolomeo all'Isola in Rome.]

human nature takes over and it's not so easy to do; we get overwhelmed by all the gilt and stucco and paintings (not only in the part you see here, but in the chapels off the side aisles of which you can just barely catch a glimpse).

Yet very often the one important thing to see, that gives you the key to the whole church, is none too glamorous. Here, it's a simple bronze basin, and it takes no great genius to see it: just walk slowly, keep your eyes peeled — and read any little labels you see.

The 9c Arab-made basin, says the label, was used by the Holy Roman emperor Otto III to bring to Rome the relics of St. Bartholomew; and sure enough, those relics lie under the high altar, and as you may have seen on my orientation page to this church, the inscription on the façade announces it plainly: In hac basilica reqviescit corpvs S. Bartholomaei Apostoli: in this basilica rests the body of S. Bartholomew the Apostle.

There are a lot of things that label does not say, however: you are about to watch this bronze basin and its contents "take over" a church dedicated to someone else entirely.

It all hinges on a strange young man, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Born in 980, he'd been made emperor when he was 3 years old, and seems to have found in religious asceticism a place to put his energies and his enthusiasm. On May 3, 996 his handlers had succeeded in placing one of his relatives, Bruno of Carinthia, on the papal throne as Gregory V, and on May 21, the pope officially crowned him emperor: it looks very much like the other half of a bargain. On the other hand Otto took his title of Roman emperor seriously, and lived in Rome for as much of the rest of his short life as his duties allowed.

Also in 996, Otto fell under the sway of Adalbert, a pious and ascetic bishop of Prague; so when (in 998 or 999) the old man was killed by the pagan Prussians as he was trying to convert them to Christianity, the emperor vowed a church in his honor in the center of his imperial city of Rome.

Now the first thing you did in the Middle Ages when you wanted to found a great church is acquire some important relics to serve as a magnet for pilgrimages. As it turned out, Otto was on a pilgrimage of his own, much of it actually on foot, to the famous sanctuary of Michael the Archangel on Monte Gargano nearly 400 km away on the SE coast of Italy; on his way back, passing thru the then important city of Benevento, he asked its citizens for their best relics to take with him to his new church. Now the Beneventans had in their possession both the relics of the apostle St. Bartholomew and those of the 4c saint, Paulinus of Nola; who can refuse an emperor? As far as it is possible to make out at a distance of a thousand years, he was given those of the apostle, or at least that's what he was told; but when he got to Rome with this bronze basin and its contents, he got wind of someone having switched relics on him, and possibly given him those of St. Paulinus. Just to be sure, he asked for those as well, and both sets of relics were placed in our church, which for a century or so was officially the church of S. Adalberto (and S. Paolino), but little by little the more famous relics took over and it gradually became known as St. Bartholomew.

You'll have noted that the vagaries of these bones, so typical of the Middle Ages, create some confusion as to just whose relics do lie under the main altar, especially since both sets of relics, along with those of a S. Exuperantius and a S. Marcellus — there are several saints by these names — were kept together for hundreds of years in an antique porphyry urn in the crypt under the main altar. On May 14‑15, 1909, however, what are thought to be the relics of Paulinus were translated to Nola his see. Since, however, the remains of these saints may well have become commingled over the centuries, it is now quite impossible to tell, short of carbon-dating, DNA analysis and the other techniques of modern science, who exactly lies under the altar of S. Bartolomeo: Otto's basin may well be the clearest witness we have.

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Page updated: 2 Jun 22