Remains of saint’s reliquary found in church crypt

The remains of the reliquary of St. Svithun, long believed to have been sent to Denmark and melted down 500 years ago, have been found in the crypt of the church dedicated to him in Stavanger, Norway.

The find consists of a gilded copper plate measuring five by ten centimeters with small holes along the edges which indicate that it has been attached to a larger object, for example a wooden plate. The archaeologists see this in connection with a gilded silver medallion with an animal motif, and several decorative glass gems.

“We were very surprised when we carried out an X-ray examination of the copper plate. The image clearly reveals a church building with tower and roof, columns and windows,” says conservator Bettina Ebert.

According to the archaeologists, all these finds can be connected to the reliquary of St. Svithun.

St. Swithun was the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester from 852 until his death in 863. His remains were translated to a shrine inside the new cathedral at Winchester a century later, and so many miracles occurred during and after the move that the Winchester monks lodged a protest at having to drop everything and go to church to celebrate every time a miracle happened, even multiple times a night. They gave up when Swithun appeared in a dream and told them they had to go to church or he’d stop doing miracles. He was thereafter canonized a saint by popular acclaim.

His relics were translated again when the new Norman cathedral was built in 1093, and while most of the core set remained there, some of his bones were shared with other parishes and shrines in the Middle Ages. The Winchester shrine and St. Swithun’s remains were destroyed in the frenzy of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1538.

Stavanger got the saint’s arm bone because its first bishop, Bishop Reinald, came to the newly-established bishopric from Winchester and began construction of its cathedral in around 1100. Contemporary sources say Reinald already had the arm in Stavanger in 1112. The cathedral was completed in 1125.

The excavation of the basement of the church was triggered by the chance discovery of a 700-year-old ivory figurine of Melchior, one of the Three Kings, kneeling before the Christ Child. The follow-up investigation unearthed an ivory of the Virgin Mary. They were parts of two different altarpieces.

Many precious objects followed the discovery of the ivory figurines: gilded fragments of liturgical objects, hundreds of pieces from the old stained glass windows, a burial chamber, likely of a bishop, a woven gold band from the fine vestments of a church official, the papal seal of Boniface VIII (r. 1294–1303), and an enameled metalwork fitting with an intricate geometric decoration. Also found in the excavation were 160 coin and bracteates plus 60 fragments of coins and bracteates. This is Stavanger’s largest ever medieval coin discovery. More utilitarian objects from daily life were uncovered as well, like a tablespoon and an ear spoon.

While there is no detailed description of the reliquary that held the holy humerus (or ulna, or radius), reliquaries shaped like churches studded with colorful gem-like stones were popular in medieval Norway. That means somebody defied the Reformation zealots who busted up the cathedral’s stained glass windows for their idolatrous Catholic imagery and secreted the saint’s relics under the North Tower to keep them from being destroyed.

“In terms of quantity and significance, the finds in the basement have exceeded all expectations and reflect more than 1,000 years of Stavanger’s history. They demonstrate the cathedral and city’s clerical wealth and contact with Rome in a way not previously seen in the archaeological material,” [excavation leader Sean] Denham says.

Visitors will be able to see these treasures and more in the museum’s 2025 exhibition celebrating the cathedral’s 900th anniversary.

2 thoughts on “Remains of saint’s reliquary found in church crypt

  1. In the UK there’s a long standing tradition that, if it rains on St Swithin’s day (July 14th, I believe), it will rain for 40 days thereafter.

    Largely unproven, statistically…..
    Similarly, in Wales, folk-belief of a cat washing behind it’s ears, is said to foretell rain.
    Now, that is totally reliable – sooner or later it will rain regardless.

  2. I was married on St Swithun’s Day in 1982. It poured with rain in the morning, but the clouds parted as we reached the Registry Office, and gave us a glorious summer afternoon. I forget about the next forty days of weather.

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