Around 828, some Venetian merchants were in Alexandria on a mission. They made their way into the Coptic cathedral where the body of St Mark the Evangelist was preserved. Having somehow squared the custodians, the Italians slit open his shroud and carried the remains to a waiting ship. They covered them with pork to discourage Muslim customs officials from looking too closely, and sailed back to the Lagoon. “History records no more shameless example of body snatching, nor any,” as John Julius Norwich put it, “of greater long-term significance.”
In the Middle Ages, the dead were very powerful – not all of them, but those who had led exceptionally holy lives. This is the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at the British Museum: Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe. It will contain, among other sometimes grisly items, alleged fragments of the True Cross, the foot of St Blaise, the breast milk of the Virgin Mary, and the hair of St John the Evangelist (or at any rate, the sumptuously decorated objects made to house these things).
Click here to read this article from the Daily Telegraph
See also British Museum to host “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relic and Devotion in Medieval Europe”