Corpisanti. The Catacomb Relic-Sculptures in the Valkininkai and Buivydžiai Churches

The exhibition of the Church Heritage Museum presented the relics-sculptures from the Roman catacombs, the so-called corpisanti (Latin ‘holy bodies’). From the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century, they were globally distributed across over twenty countries. In the centre of this exhibition were the relics-sculptures of St. Boniface and St. Florian, the only two surviving examples of corpisanti in Lithuania. The exhibition represented the ritual translation (translatio) of these relics to the Valkininkai and Buivydžiai churches, the symbolic and religious meaning of the sculptures, the historical environment and artistic features, written and iconographic sources, the radiographic analysis of the relics of the holy martyrs, as well as other geographically closest cases evidencing the relics of this type that were destroyed, lost or survived outside Lithuania, and bearing witness to the phenomenon that has reached our times.

In 1578, Catholic Europe joyfully welcomed the discovery of the Roman catacombs, which in the context of the Catholic reform was perceived and assessed as a proof that the Roman Church was standing on the bones of early Christian martyrs who died for their faith. The catacombs became “the mines of sanctity”. The remains of the bodies of unknown saints mined there would be given names, placed inside wooden boxes locked with a wax seal and, accompanied by an authenticating document, sent out to various European dioceses. When the Council of Trent (1545–1563) confirmed the importance of relics for everyday religious practice, the bones of the early martyrs acquired a wide morphological gamut: from whole-body relics to smaller fragments.

Rather than quelling widespread engagement with relics amongst European elites, the wars and upheaval, and the advent of the Enlightenment in the 18th century instead catalysed a renewed fervour for the cult of relics. From the middle of the 18th century until the mid-19th century, the phenomenon of catacomb relics-sculptures became a new, final stage in distributing the catacomb relics by the Roman Catholic Church. Relics-sculptures were produced in specialized workshops in Rome from mixed materials and fragmentary bones mined from the Roman catacombs. These relics-sculptures combined the sacred relic and reliquary container into a single form in lifelike imitation of a whole holy corpse. These were typically male figures dressed as ancient Roman soldiers with a short tunic, sandals, sword, and laurel or flower crown and palm branch. This image widespread in the iconography of saints was symbolic of martyrdom and often referred to the saints who, according to the hagiographic tradition, served in the Roman army during the times of the persecution of Christians and, despite the mortal danger, publicly converted to Christianity.

During the Catholic reform, the churches of different countries including Lithuania built closer relations with Rome, bishops and heads of religious orders started bringing the mined “new relics” to their home churches, and nobles sought to procure them for their family mausoleums. In this way parishes would receive their holy patrons. Impressively decorated relics, transferred to glass coffins and displayed for veneration, would attract pilgrims pleading for graces from close and afar.

The Jesuits were the first to bring the “holy bodies” from Rome to Lithuania in 1608. Twenty-three years later, on July 6, 1631, the ceremonial delivery of thirty-nine holy bodies and smaller relics to Vilnius churches took place. On that day, Vilnius Cathedral and the Churches of St. Casimir, St. John and St. Ignatius received the relics. Voivode of Navahrudak, Mikołaj Sapieha (1558–1638), was the first among the nobles to bring the relics of the catacomb saints to Kodeń (today Poland) in 1631. Four holy martyrs became patrons of the Sapieha family and the town of Kodeń.

In the middle of the 18th century, life-size relics-sculptures started to be brought to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This exhibition presents, according to researchers, one of the earliest surviving corpisanti (Latin ‘holy bodies’) in Europe – the relic-sculpture of St. Boniface the Martyr from Valkininkai. In 1766, it was ceremoniously brought to the Loreto Chapel of the Valkininkai Franciscan convent church by the provincial of the Franciscan Province of Lithuania, Antoni Bonaventura Bujalski (1726–1782). In 1832, after the tsarist authorities abolished the convent, the relics together with St. Anthony’s altar were transferred to the still unfinished parish Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the end of the Second World War, the Germans blew up the former convent. In 1970, during the reconstruction of the church, the coffin with the relic-sculpture of St. Boniface was hidden under the church floor, and it was not until the turn of the century that was it returned to the new St. Anthony’s altar.

The “holy body” of St. Florian of Buivydžiai was exhibited here for the first time. It was brought from Rome in the late 18th century by the Brzostowski-Radziszewski family that governed Buivydžiai. Today, the relic-sculpture is held in its original place – in a depression of a cave-shaped altar built from iron-sand, in a chapel of an unusual four-sided pyramid shape, where the family’s deceased were buried.

The exhibition also showcased the geographically closest surviving relic-sculpture – the body of the holy martyr St. Justin held in Mosar (now Belarus). A nobleman of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Antoni Tadeusz Koszyc (b. 1720), elder of Zarech’e, after an audience with Pope Benedict XIV, brought it from Rome to his family’s estate in Myadzyel. The translation of the relics took place in the 1750s, thus St. Justin should also be considered one of the early corpisanti. In the mid-19th century, the “holy body” was transferred to the altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary of St. Anne’s Church in Mosar.

Iconographic and written sources contain references to the cases of corpisanti that did not survive, e.g., the translatio of the bodies of the martyrs St. Fortunatus and St. Theophilus initiated by Tadeusz Franciszek Ogiński (1712–1783), which took place in the second half of the 18th century. Based on the case of St. Clement in Grodno in 1780, festivities of delivering the relics of the holy martyrs may have lasted as long as three days and attracted thousands of believers.

After the uprising of 1864, when the tsarist authorities were closing the monasteries, the relic of the catacomb saints were transferred to other, still functioning monastery boarding houses, as it happened with the corpisanti of St. Valentine and St. Faustus of the Vilnius Trinitarian monastery, which were transferred to the auspices of the Vilnius Bernardines. Photographer Jerzy Hoppen managed to capture these corpisanti before the Second World War in the Chapel of St. Florian (The Three Magi) on both sides of the high altar, but the fate of these and many other relics-sculptures from the Roman catacombs after the war is unknown. When Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union, the churches were closed and the corpisanti were scattered, and the only surviving examples are the “holy bodies” of St. Boniface and St. Florian.

Exhibition curators: Kamilė Jagėlienė, Sigita Maslauskaitė-Mažylienė, Vaiva Vasiliauskaitė
Scientific consultants: Liudas Jovaiša, Ruth Sargent Noyes
Project coordinators: Violeta Indriūnienė, Indraja Kubilytė, Laura Misiūnaitė, Vidmantė Narvidaitė, Rita Pauliukevičiūtė, Livija Salickienė, Sandra Stonytė
Architect and designer Povilas Vincentas JankūnasFunding for the 

Partners: National Museum of Denmark, Vilnius University Library, Wróblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences
Sponsor BTA Insurance
Media sponsors:, Vilnius 700, UAB JCDecaux Lietuva, IQ magazine

The organisers of the exhibition would like to thankthe Lithuanian National Museum of Art, Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Valkininkai, St. George’s Church in Buivydžiai, Cultural Heritage Centre, Vilnius University Library, Wróblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, J H. E. Bishop of Vitebsk Aleh Butkevich and the Curia of Vitebsk for the lending of exhibits.

The event is free and is presented as part of the programme
Museum’s activity is provided by: Vilnius Archdiocese, Lithuanian Council for Culture

More information: email, tel. +37052697800


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