A little over a week ago, reports emerged that the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, had sunk. The Moskva was a missile cruiser and, according to Russian state media, the ship had sunk following an explosion on board. The news created a buzz in the religious community because there are rumors that there was a fragment of the “True Cross” (the cross on which Jesus was crucified) on board at the time. If true, this would make the relic-toting warship the latest example in a long tradition where religious objects have been weaponized in conflicts.
In 2020, the Russian Orthodox Church announced that a reliquary containing a 19th-century metal cross was about to be delivered to Vice Admiral Igor Osipov, the then-commander of the Black Sea fleet. The cross was special because embedded within it was a small splinter of wood. It had been donated by an anonymous collector. The relic was supposed to have been transferred to the small chapel on board the Moskva. There are numerous questions to be asked here—was the wood from the True Cross? Was it transferred to the ship? Was the ship sunk by the Ukrainian military? Are reports about Osipov’s alleged arrest correct? —but the incident speaks to the phenomenon of religious weapons.
Beast Travel Digest
Get the entire world in your inbox.
Religious relics like the Moskva cross are objects that have a particular physical relationship to saints and other religious figures. Often these are bone fragments or the tufts of hair of religious figures (the Latin reliquiae just means “remains” or “what is left over”), but sometimes they are items that are closely tied to the holy deceased person. Examples of these second-class relics include clothes, jewelry, and significant personal possessions. In Roman Catholicism, objects (usually small pieces of fabric) that have come into contact with the remains of a saint are considered to be a lower (“third class”) form of relic. The phenomenon is not exclusively Christian: relics are important in Islam, some forms of Buddhism, and other smaller religions. It is not even exclusively religious. Anyone who has kept a lock of hair a loved one, the sweatshirt of the “one who got a way,” or a signed photograph of a celebrity understands the power of physical connection in contexts of grief, separation, and adulation.
In Christian denominations that utilize relics, these items are clearly hierarchized: a relic associated with Jesus, like the True Cross, is considered to be more powerful than a relic of a less-popular saint. These hierarchies extend to body parts: the head of John the Baptist, which “resides” in at least four locations, is special precisely because the New Testament has a whole story about it.
The origins of relic practices are obscure, but arguably the earliest evidence for Christian relic logic comes from the beginning of the third century. Dr. James Corke-Webster, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London, told The Daily Beast, “We get a glimpse of the origins of such thinking about relics in one of Christianity’s first martyr narratives, the Passion of Perpetua. As that story reaches its climax, a Christian on the cusp of his death turns to his jailor, tells him, ‘Don’t let these things upset you; let them strengthen you,’ then takes the ring off the man’s finger, dips it in his open wound, and returns it to him ‘as a symbol and a memory.’” This might seem alarmingly unhygienic, but the blood of the martyr transforms the ring into an object of religious power as well as a memento. “We can only wonder,” Corke-Webster added, “what the jailor did with the ring; I wonder if he realized he had the first deliberate relic in Christianity’s history?”
Because relics are associated with saintly individuals and heroes, they very quickly accrued a reputation as sources of deployable power. Pilgrims who visited the shrines of saints weren’t just tourists. Just like those who had visited shrines dedicated to Asclepius or the Delphic Oracle, they were looking for healing and answers. The logic of intensified power mean that relics quickly became protective. John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Antioch, said that the relics of the saints were more powerful than “walls, trenches, weapons, and hosts of soldiers.” As Patrick Geary puts it in his book Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages, “the bodies of saints were the security deposits left by the saints” they “brought the special protection of the saint to the community, shielding it from enemies both spiritual and temporal and assuring its prosperity.”
By the sixth century, the idea that a saint’s relics could protect a city and ensure military victory (over both enemies abroad and heretics within) had become a popular propagandistic tool. Conceptually, accruing relics was a means of reinforcing the defense system of a city or capital. Practically, it was a means of moving power around. When King Alfonso II of Asturias (northern Spain), a rough contemporary of Charlemagne, established a capital at Oviedo he invoked the legend of St. Turibius of Astorga. According to legend, the fifth-century saint had transported a huge chest of high-status relics relating to Jesus and other saints to Africa for safe keeping. The chest then moved to Toledo and then Oviedo in 711. Alfonso was able to use the mythology of relic transport to transfer political and cultural power to his new capital. The most famous relic is the Sudarium of Oviedo, the cloth that was supposedly wrapped around the head of Jesus at his burial. Even today, pilgrims detour to Oviedo to visit this Spanish companion piece to the Turin shroud.
This broad trend of using relics to cement political authority could be deployed in battle as well. Relics were portable and, thus, the thinking went the spiritual protection they afforded the possessor could be leveraged in military engagement as well. A fragment of the True Cross allegedly secured by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius became part of the spiritual arsenal of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was carried into battle by crusaders. And, according to historians Alan Murray and Norman Housely, was present at four battles in Egypt in the 11th and 12th centuries. When it was subsequently captured by Saladin, Richard the Lionheart attempted to ransom it. Queen Tamar of Georgia allegedly offered 200,000 gold pieces as ransom for it, but Saladin was no fool: the motivational power of the True Cross was worth more than that.
Though the formal use of relics in battle is a hallmark of the medieval period, we see echoes of it even more recently. In World War I, soldiers sometimes carried their Bibles into combat as a form of protection. A report of the events that followed the beginning of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July, 1916, notes that some members of the British military who perished were not discovered for three weeks. Eyewitness Gerald Brenan wrote “The wounded who could not be brought in, had crawled into shell holes… taken out their Bibles, and died like that.” This, of course, is a more personal and defensive use of the Bible, but it is part of a larger worldview of relic power.
Earlier this month, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that its faithful were holding back the antichrist. The comments were ambiguous, but he referred to “forces rising up against Russian lands,” and Kirill is widely seen as an ally of Putin. Certainly, if a fragment of the True Cross was present on the Moskva, it did not protect anyone from danger.