Friday, 11 September 2015

The bones of Saint Thomas

I was curious if there were some relics of our guild patron saint Thomas spread over Europe (or India). The answer is yes - and, surprisingly, there is an almost complete skeleton of him! The story is that after Saint Thomas was slain, he was initially buried in India. In the 3rd century, however, his bones were transported to Edessa in Mesopotamia (the place from the feast with the hand of the cupbearer) by the Indian King Mazdai (Misdeus), where a tomb was build for him. In 13th century the bones were 'rescued' together with the tombstone to Italy, as the shrine with the bones was threatened by the Turks. The relics made an intermediate stop at the island of Chios in the Aegean. From there they were stolen by Leone Acciaiuoli, captain of a ship from the fleet of Manfred, prince of Taranto, and taken to Ortona in Italy were they arrived on 6 September 1258. In Ortona, the relics were kept in the basilica San Thomasso Apostolo, which was desecrated by the Turks in 1566. After this event the remains were kept in an gild copper urn that was made in 1612 by Tommaso Alessandrini from Ortona.

From the 17th century to today, the shrine has been opened several times to do some surveys (which bones are there) and even some research. Between 1983-1986, the shrine was opened for a protection and preservation project. The opportunity was also taken to do some scientific research on the bones of the apostle. This was done under supervision of prof. dr. Arnaldo Capelli, prof. dr. Sergio Sensi, prof. dr. Luigi Capasso (paleopathology) and prof. dr. Fulvio Della Loggia, all from the Faculty of medicine from the University of Chieti. The anthropological examination on the remains of the skeleton established that the bones belonged to a relatively long male individual with delicate bone structure, with a height of 1 metre 60 cm plus/minus 10 cm. At the age of death the individual was between 50 and 70 years old, with a fracture of the right cheekbone caused by a sharp blow shortly before or after death. The person did also suffer from rheumatism or artritis, which could be seen at the small joints of the hands. Furthermore, a small osteoma (bone tumour) was found in the frontal region of the skull.

  
 The gild copper urn holding the most of the remains of Apostle Thomas.

As can be seen from the photo of the skeleton, several bones are missing, especially the bones of the arm. In 1953, a wrist bone of the right arm was extracted from the Ortona skeleton and given to the Indian church. It now resides at the Marthoma Pontifical Shrine in Koddungalloor in Kerala, India, one of the places where Thomas supposedly has built a church.


The shrine with the right wrist bone of Apostle Thomas in Koddungalloor. 

Another bone from the arm of Thomas is found in a relic in the church of Saint Nicholas in Bari, Italy. The Cronicon Bari mentions that a French bishop, cousin of Baldwin of Le Bourg, Lord of Edessa, returning in 1102 from the Holy Land and from Edessa, left the relic of St. Thomas the Apostle in the Basilica in Bari, The reliquary itself is dated to 1602-1618 and has the form of a right arm holding a spear in the iconography of the martyrdom suffered by the Apostle, and rests on a base containing a relic of the Magdalene. The bone of Thomas can be seen through a window of the reliquary. In 2009, the bone was measured and compared to the bones in Ortona. The upper arm bone has a length of 23 cm; this can be used to calculate the full body length, resulting in a length of 163.4 cm plus/minus 2 cm, more or less the same as the skeleton in Ortona. The left upper arm of Bari is missing in Ortona, so this bone could be from the same person. 

Imm1
The reliquary S. Tommaso Apostolo in Bari. The central window shows a rectangular bone set.

Imm2
On the long sides that surround the window, some words are carved: on the left side from bottom to top "Brachii SANCTI THOMAE Apostles" and on the right side in descending order "ECCLESIAE SANCTI NICOLAI BARENSIS".


Surprisingly, another arm bone of Thomas is found in Maastricht, the Netherlands, in the treasury of the Basilica of  St. Servaes. Curiously, the treasury text mentions this as the right arm bone of St. Catherine, but the text that can be seen through the window of the reliquary clearly state: St. Thomas Apollona (Apostle). Perhaps this is the missing right upper arm bone from the Ortona skeleton.




The reliquary containing a right arm bone of St. Thomas in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Also some finger bones are lacking in Ortona. The bone from the index finger of 'doubting' Saint Thomas, which touched the wound of Christ, can be found in the Basilica Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome Italy. Some say that this relic has been in Santa Croce from the time of St. Helen (third century, i.e. the time that the body was moved to Edessa). In the centre of the reliquary, remade after the French revolution,  is an oval case with both sides of crystal in which a holder in the shape of a finger with two openings in the side is placed. Through the openings the finger bone can be clearly seen. Some other finger pieces of Thomas did return from Edessa to India (instead of to Europe). A reliquary with some hand bones is preserved in the St. Thomas Museum in Milapore.

The index finger of St. Thomas in Rome, Italy.


Piece of a hand Bone of St. Thomas in the St. Thomas Museum in Milapore, India.


Finally, a second skull of Saint Thomas exists (really a miracle!) in the Greek orthodox monastery of Saint John the Theologian on the island on Padmos, Greece. It is kept in a large embossed silver goblet with a lid of silver with a very rich Venetian rug. Byzantine Emperor Alexios Kommenos (11th century) had the relic bound with silver strips, both lengthwise and over the top. Where the silver strips crossed, they were adorned with precious stones. After it was completed, it was presented to St. Christodoulos, the founder of the monastery.

The second skull of Thomas Apostle in an orthodox monastery on the island Padmos in Greece. 

Other Thomas artefacts


Some other artefacts related to St. Thomas are his tombstone, which made the same trip from Edessa to Ortona as the skeleton, and also resides in the Basilica San Thomasso Apostolo. The tombstone measures 137 by 48 cm and has a thickness of 48 cm and is made of chalcedone. This tombstone is actually a plaque used to cover a tomb made of lower quality material, a practise used in early Christian times. The plaque has an inscription and a bas-relief that similar to those in the Syrian Mesopotamian area (i.e. where Edessa is situated). The inscriptions are in Greek unicals and are dated from the 3rd to 5th century and mention 'thomas osios' (holy Thomas or Saint Thomas). More careful study of the inscription found some traced signs over the words, which would change the meaning slightly to that of 'the real Thomas'. The bas-relief depicts a religious figure with a halo in the act of imparting, with the right hand, the blessing (according to the rites of the Eastern Church and indicating the first two letters, in Greek, of the word Christ).  In the left hand he holds an object that could be a sword, which is a clear reference to the martyrdom of Saint Thomas. The lower part of the stone has two holes of different sizes, such as those found in various tombs of the early centuries of Christianity,  in order to introduce balms or make libations on the grave of the deceased. When it came to the tomb of a martyr, the broader was also used to provide relics from contact. 

 A close look at the tombstone from Edessa in the Basilica San Thomasso Aposotolo in Ortona. 

The following relic of Saint Thomas is a bit strange; it is said to be the tip of the lance that took the life of the saint. It was recovered from the (original Indian) grave during a Portuguese excavation in the 16th century and is now preserved in the Milapore St. Thomas Museum in India. However, it is also said (see above) that Saint Thomas was slain by a sword, which would mean this reliquary is a hoax. Death by the sword is also depicted on the Thomas Teppich in Wienhausen, Germany and in the windows of Chartres Cathedral in France.


The reliquary with the tip of the lance that took the life of St. Thomas 
in the Milapore St. Thomas Museum.

Modern science


Now imagine what you can do with all these bones using modern 21st century research techniques (not those employed 1983): check his exact age using C14 radiocarbon dating; extract some DNA from the bones or teeth and you would have the complete genome of the doubting Apostle himself. Having the genome, the geographic origin of the skeleton can be deduced (does he come from the Galilee region). As Thomas is sometimes called Dydimus ('the twin' - in fact the name Thomas means twin in Aramese), he is therefore by some thought to be the brother of Jesus (for instance in the Book of Thomas the Contender, one of the New Testament apocrypha represented in the Nag Hammadi library, a cache of Gnostic gospels secreted in the Egyptian desert). If one takes this to be true, then you would have the genetic material of Maria and Joseph as well (actually the brother idea might not be that strange: Joseph was a carpenter and likely would pass his knowledge to his siblings. If Thomas was given the woodworking knowledge by Joseph, his voyage to India to build a palace is less far-fetched as it seems). More down-to-earth, simple DNA fingerprinting (a now common forensic technique), would also allow to compare all the scattered arm bones of the saint. Check, for instance, if  the forearm in Bari and the index finger in Rome originate from the same person. 

And you could also use 3-D forensic facial reconstruction techniques to shape the face of Thomas in clay...

Sources used:

Website of the Basilica San Thomasso Apostolo.
The website of Keith Hunt on Doubting Saint Thomas in India
And many other internet sources, including some utterly confusing Indian ramblings on St. Thomas.

3 comments:

  1. Fascinating read! Many thanks for taking your time and for this thorough overview!

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  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. We do not allow religious replies on this medieval woodworking blog, hence the above comment has been deleted. Saint Thomas is only interesting to us because he was the medieval patron saint to woodworkers.

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