Did Russia’s Sunken Moskva Warship Try To Use A Religious Weapon?

Just over a week ago, reports emerged that the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, had sunk. The Moskva was a missile cruiser and according to Russian state media the ship had sunk after an explosion on board. The news caused a stir in the religious community because there are rumors that there was a fragment of the “Vera Cruz” (the cross on which Jesus was crucified) on board at the time. If true, this would make the relic warship the latest example in a long tradition in which religious objects have been weaponized in conflict.

In 2020, the Russian Orthodox Church announced that a reliquary containing a metal cross from the 19th century was about to be delivered to Vice Admiral Igor Osipov, the then commander of the Black Sea Fleet. The cross was special because embedded in it was a small splinter of wood. It had been donated by an anonymous collector. The relic was supposed to have been moved to the small chapel aboard the Moskva. There are numerous questions to ask here: was it the wood of the True Cross? Did he transfer to the ship? Was the ship sunk by the Ukrainian army? Are the reports about Osipov’s alleged arrest correct? —but the incident speaks to the phenomenon of religious weapons.

Beast Journeys Summary

Get the whole world in your inbox.

Religious relics such as the Moskva cross are objects that have a particular physical relationship to saints and other religious figures. These are often bone fragments or locks of hair from religious figures (the Latin relics it simply means “remains” or “what is left over”), but sometimes they are elements that are intimately linked to the deceased saint. Examples of these second-class heirlooms include clothing, jewelry, and significant personal possessions. In Roman Catholicism, objects (usually small pieces of cloth) that have come into contact with the remains of a saint are considered a form of lower relic (“third class”). The phenomenon is not exclusively Christian: relics are important in Islam, some forms of Buddhism and other minor religions. It is not even exclusively religious. Anyone who has kept a lock of a loved one’s hair, a “he who got away with murder” sweatshirt, or a signed photograph of a celebrity understands the power of physical connection in contexts of pain, separation, and adulation.

In Christian denominations that use relics, these elements are clearly hierarchical: a relic associated with Jesus, such as the True Cross, is considered more powerful than the relic of a less popular saint. These hierarchies extend to body parts: John the Baptist’s head, which “resides” in at least four places, is special precisely because the New Testament has a whole story about it.

The origins of relic practices are obscure, but arguably the earliest evidence for Christian relic logic comes from the early 3rd century. Dr. James Corke-Webster, Senior Lecturer at King’s College London, told The Daily Beast: “We can glimpse the origins of such thinking about relics in one of Christianity’s earliest martyr narratives, the Perpetual Passion. As that story reaches its climax, a Christian on the cusp of death turns to his jailer and says, ‘Don’t let these things bother you; may they strengthen you,’ then he removes the ring from the man’s finger, dips it into his open wound, and returns it to him ‘as a token and a memento.’” This may seem alarmingly unhygienic, but the blood of the martyr transforms the ring into an object of religious power, as well as a keepsake. “We can only wonder,” Corke-Webster added, “what the jailer did with the ring; I wonder if he realized that he had the first deliberate relic in the history of Christianity.

Because relics are associated with heroes and holy individuals, they very quickly amassed a reputation as sources of deployable power. The pilgrims who visited the shrines of the saints were not just tourists. Like those who had visited the sanctuaries dedicated to Asclepius or the Oracle of Delphi, they were seeking healing and answers. The logic of heightened power means that the relics quickly became protective. John Chrysostom, bishop of Antioch, said that the relics of the saints were more powerful than “walls, trenches, weapons and hosts of soldiers.” As Patrick Geary says in his book Living with the dead in the Middle Ages“the bodies of the saints were the security deposits left behind by the saints” that “brought the special protection of the saint to the community, protecting it from enemies both spiritual and temporal and ensuring its prosperity.”

By the sixth century, the idea that the relics of a saint could protect a city and ensure military victory (both over enemies abroad and heretics within) had become a popular propaganda tool. Conceptually, hoarding relics was a means of bolstering a city’s or capital’s defense system. Practically, it was a means to move power. When King Alfonso II of Asturias (northern Spain), a crude contemporary of Charlemagne, established a capital at Oviedo, he invoked the legend of Saint Toribio of Astorga. According to legend, the 5th-century saint had transported a huge chest of high-status relics related to Jesus and other saints to Africa for safekeeping. The chest was then moved to Toledo and then to Oviedo in 711. Alfonso was able to use the mythology of relic transport to transfer political and cultural power to the new capital from him. The most famous relic is the Shroud of Oviedo, the cloth that supposedly wrapped the head of Jesus in his burial. Even today, pilgrims detour to Oviedo to visit this Spanish piece that accompanies the Shroud of Turin.

This broad trend of using relics to cement political authority could also carry over into battle. Relics were portable, and thus it was thought that the spiritual protection they provided to the possessor could also be put to good use in military combat. A fragment of the True Cross supposedly secured by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius became part of the spiritual arsenal of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. He was carried into battle by the Crusaders. And, according to historians Alan Murray and Norman Housely, it was present at four battles in Egypt in the 11th and 12th centuries. When he was later captured by Saladin, Richard the Lionheart attempted to rescue him. Queen Tamar of Georgia reportedly offered 200,000 gold pieces as ransom, but Saladin was no fool: the motivating power of the True Cross was worth more than that.

Although the formal use of relics in battle is a hallmark of the medieval period, we see echoes of it even more recently. In World War I, soldiers sometimes carried their Bibles into combat as a form of protection. A report of events following the start of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916 notes that some members of the British Army who perished were not discovered for three weeks. Eyewitness Gerald Brenan wrote: “The wounded who could not be brought in crawled into the shell holes… took out their Bibles and died like that.” This, of course, is a more personal and defensive use of the Bible, but it is part of a larger worldview of the power of relics.

Earlier this month, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said his followers were holding back the antichrist. The comments were ambiguous, but he did refer to “forces rising against Russian lands,” and Kirill is seen as an ally of Putin. Certainly, if a fragment of the True Cross was present in Moskva, it did not protect anyone from danger.

Add Comment