Holy Prepuce  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The holy prepuce, or holy foreskin is one of several relics attributed to Jesus. At various points in history, a number of churches in Europe claimed to possess Jesus' foreskin, sometimes at the same time. Various miraculous powers were ascribed to it.


Circumcision of Jesus

By Jewish religious law, boys are circumcised on the eighth day following their birth, a ceremony marking them as Jewish. In the Christian calendar, based on the scriptural telling of the event, the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ is celebrated on 1 January, the Octave Day of the Feast of the Birth of Christ.

Luke 2:21 (King James Version), reads: "And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb."

Supposed preservation

The earlist reference to the supposed preservation of Jesus' severed foreskin comes in the second chapter of the apocryphal Arabic Infancy Gospel, which has the following story:

  1. And when the time of his circumcision was come, namely, the eighth day, on which the law commanded the child to be circumcised, they circumcised him in a cave.
  2. And the old Hebrew woman took the foreskin (others say she took the navel-string), and preserved it in an alabaster-box of old oil of spikenard.
  3. And she had a son who was a druggist, to whom she said, "Take heed thou sell not this alabaster box of spikenard-ointment, although thou shouldst be offered three hundred pence for it."
  4. Now this is that alabaster-box which Mary the sinner procured, and poured forth the ointment out of it upon the head and feet of our Lord Jesus Christ, and wiped it off with the hairs of her head.

Slate magazine article

An article by David Farley in Slate of 19 December 2006 presented the following account:

Foreskin relics were recorded in Europe beginning during the Middle Ages. The earliest recorded sighting came on December 25, 800, when Charlemagne gave the relic to Pope Leo III, when the latter crowned the former Emperor. Charlemagne claimed that it had been brought to him by an angel while he prayed at the Holy Sepulchre, although a more prosaic report says it was a wedding gift from the Byzantine Empress Irene. The Pope placed it into the Sanctum sanctorum in the Lateran basilica in Rome with other relics.

Depending on what you read, there were eight, twelve, fourteen, or even 18 different holy foreskins in various European towns during the Middle Ages. In addition to the Holy Foreskin in Rome, other churches and cities claiming to have the relic during the Middle Ages included the Cathedral of Le Puy-en-Velay; Santiago de Compostela; the city of Antwerp; Coulombs in the diocese of Chartres, France as well as Chartres; and churches in Besançon, Metz, Hildesheim, Charroux, Conques, Langres, Antwerp, Fécamp, Puy-en-Velay, two in Auvergne, and Calcata, Italy. Agnes Blannbekin in Vienna claimed one.

One of the most famous relics was sent to Antwerp in the Brabant in 1100 as a gift from King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, who purchased it in Palestine in the course of the first crusade. This prepuce became famous when the bishop of Cambray, during the celebration of the Mass, saw three drops of blood blotting the linens of the altar. He had a special chapel constructed and organized processions in honour of the miraculous relic; the chapel became a goal of pilgrimages. In 1426 a brotherhood was founded in the cathedral, van der heiliger Besnidenissen ons liefs Heeren Jhesu Cristi in onser liever Vrouwen Kercke t' Antwerpen (Brotherhood of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ in our beloved Lady's Church of Antwerp). Its 24 members were all abbots and prominent laymen. The relic disappeared in 1566. The chapel survives, decorated by two stained glass windows donated by king Henry VII of England and his wife Elizabeth of York in 1503.

The abbey of Charroux claimed the Holy Foreskin was presented to the monks by Charlemagne. In the early 12th century, it was taken in procession to Rome, where it was presented before Pope Innocent III, who was asked to rule on its authenticity. The Pope declined to do so. At some point, the relic went missing, and remained lost until 1856. A workman repairing the abbey claimed to have found a reliquary hidden inside a wall, containing the missing foreskin. The rediscovery led to a theological clash with people who believed the established holy prepuce of Calcata to be the only true relic; it had been officially venerated by the Church for hundreds of years.

During the Sack of Rome in 1527, attackers looted the foreskin given to Pope Leo III by Charlemagne. The German soldier who stole it was captured in the village of Calcata, Italy later the same year. Thrown into prison, he hid the jeweled reliquary in his cell, where it remained until its rediscovery in 1557. Many miracles (freak storms and perfumed fog overwhelming the village) followed. Housed in Calcata, the relic was venerated from that time onward, with the Church approving the authenticity by offering a ten-year indulgence to pilgrims. Pilgrims, nuns and monks flocked to the church. "Calcata was a must-see destination on the pilgrimage map."

The Roman Catholic Church ended controversy over competing relics by ruling in 1900 that anyone writing or speaking of the holy prepuce would be excommunicated. In 1954, after much debate, the Vatican changed the punishment to the harsher excommunication, vitandi (shunned).

Most of the holy prepuces were lost or destroyed during the iconoclasm of the Reformation and the French Revolution. In Calcata, the reliquary containing the Holy Foreskin was paraded through the streets of this Italian village as recently as 1983 on the Feast of the Circumcision (1 January). The practice ended, however, when thieves stole the jewel-encrusted case, contents and all. Following this theft, it is unclear whether any of the purported holy prepuces still exist.

Literary allusions to the holy prepuce

Voltaire, in A Treatise of Toleration (1763), referred to veneration of the Holy Foreskin as being one of a number of superstitions that were "much more reasonable... than to detest and persecute your brother".

In the "Ithaca" episode of James Joyce's novel Ulysses (1918), Stephen Dedalus contemplates the sacerdotal integrity of the holy prepuce.

Umberto Eco, in his book Baudolino (2000), has the young Baudolino invent a story about seeing the holy foreskin and navel in Rome.

An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town (2009), American writer David Farley, author of the earlier article in Slate, told his account of trying to locate the Holy Foreskin of Calcata.

In Chuck Palahniuk's novel Choke (2001), the main character is told he was cloned from Jesus' foreskin.

Television documentary

In a 1997 television documentary for Channel 4, British journalist Miles Kington travelled to Italy in search of the relic. He was unable to find any remaining example.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Holy Prepuce" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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