Saint Luke's Bones

June 24 2005 | by

IN THE MARCH 2005 issue of our magazine we gave a brief description of the life of Saint Luke, the author of the third Gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles. That article ended with the indication that we would give an account of the scientific examination performed on the mortal remains kept in the Basilica of Saint Justina in Padua, which ancient sources maintain belong to Luke the Evangelist. However, Pope John Paul's death, and the advent of Pope Benedict XVI, compelled us to postpone the article, which we now have the pleasure of presenting to you.

Pillar of the Church

Saint Luke was, as we were saying, an outstanding figure. Born probably into a rich family, he received a thorough and universal education. He was well versed in Greek and Hebrew, and penned his writings with a style that equalled that of the greatest writers of his age. A medical doctor by profession, Luke was also a painter and, as a member of the select few surrounding Our Lady, he received from her a number of holy secrets connected with the Nativity which later went into his Gospel. He then became Saint Paul's right-hand man and, after the latter's death, a great and indefatigable missionary. We also highlighted how strange it is that we should know so little about this monumental pillar of the primitive Church. He is, in fact, the Evangelist about whom we have the least information.
A person's true worth often comes out only after her or his death. Luke's case was no different. As his writings became more popular among the various underground churches, the cult of Saint Luke increased, and he became one of the most loved saints. Needless to say, a market developed for his relics, and separate pieces of his body eventually found their way to all the major cities of the Empire: Thebes, Constantinople, Padua, Antioch...
Tracing the intricate routes taken by these relics is an impossible task. From the documents available, we may however reasonably assume that our Evangelist died at the beginning of the second century in Thebes, Greece, at the age of 84. That city does in fact boast the presence of a pagan, attic-style sarcophagus hewn out of stone taken from a local quarry. Oriental tradition considers this sarcophagus as the first resting place of the Evangelist.
However, the Roman Martyrology indicates Bithnia, in modern-day Turkey, as the place of Luke's death, Bithnia celebrated the birthday of Blessed Luke the Evangelist who, after having suffered for the name of Christ, died filled with the Holy Spirit. The first Christians had the beautiful habit of using the expression 'heavenly birthday' to indicate a saint's death-day, that is, the day in which he or she awakens to Life Eternal in Jesus' Kingdom. The Roman Martrology then adds, His bones were later transferred to Constantinople, from whence they left for Padua.
This translation to Constantinople is well-documented. Procopius and Saint Jerome maintain that it occurred in the year 357, when Constantius was Emperor. Luke's remains were transferred to Constantinople together with those of Saint Andrew, the Apostle, and interred in the Church of the Holy Apostles (Apostoleion) in Constantinople. This church no longer exists, but it was in its time the blueprint for many other churches, including the Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice. A fire damaged the church some years later, but the flames left the coffins of the saints under the pavement untouched. The Emperor Justinian subsequently rebuilt the church in 527, and on that occasion ordered a shrine to be erected around Luke's tomb.

Relics in danger

Ancient traditions maintain that Luke's body and the relics of other saints were eventually moved to Padua. The year is a matter of speculation. Some medieval historians claim this transfer happened under the reign of Julian the Apostate, in other words between the years 361-363. Julian had received a Christian education in his youth, but subsequently renounced his faith and, once on the throne, set about restoring the ancient pagan religion throughout the Empire. The relics were therefore clearly in danger and might have been removed to a safer place. This, however, has never been proved.
Other documents suggest that the remains were taken to Padua during the iconoclastic rage which swept Oriental Christianity between the years 740-771. Under the influence of Islam and certain interpretations of the Bible, the iconoclasts (a Greek term which means 'image breakers'), were against the veneration of all sacred images and relics. Aware of the imminent danger, a priest called Urio, custodian of the Church of the Holy Apostles, fled from Constantinople with the relics of Saint Luke and Saint Matthias, and with an image of Our Lady painted on a wooden board. This painting is attributed to Luke himself, and can now be admired in the Basilica of Saint Justina above Luke's marble sepulchre. Urio may have repaired to Padua because there was a Greek community residing there at the time.
Luke's body was probably kept at Saint Justina right from the start because that church was one of the most important in the city, with close connections to the East, and because it was annexed to a monastery of Benedictine monks. Around the year 899, however, the body had to be hidden once again, because Padua was overrun by a horde of savage and destructive barbarians originating from the region around modern-day Hungary.

The leaden casket

After the year 900, the relics disappeared from the annals of history. It was only after many years that the Benedictines, while sifting through the ancient memorabilia stored away in the most hidden recesses of their monastery, gradually began to uncover long-lost documents, objects and relics of saints. One day, they came upon a coffin (a rectangular casket made of lead) which appeared to be that of Saint Luke. It was, for them, a long awaited discovery, and the confirmation of various oral and written traditions. The finding occurred amid a flurry of supernatural events, such as mysterious heavenly perfumes, apparitions, and dreams. The day of the discovery, April 14, 1117, is still remembered in Padua.
The statement or affidavit describing the finding gives a detailed account of the objects found near or around the coffin: an image of three calves' heads (the ancient symbol of the Evangelist), a double cross impressed on the outside of the lead casket, and a grey marble tablet with the inscription 'S.L. Evang' on it. These findings spurred the abbot of the monastery, Domenico, and the bishop of Padua, Gerardo Offreducci, to leave at once for the near-by city of Ferrara where Pope Alexander III happened to be residing at the time, and to have the Pope authenticate the remains.
This finding marks the beginning of the veneration of Saint Luke's relics in Padua. The devotion grew and, in 1313, the box containing the relics was placed in a worthier setting: a marble sepulchre erected precisely for this purpose inside a chapel especially dedicated to Saint Luke.
The church of Saint Justina became a place of pilgrimage, and the envy of other churches and monasteries. In 1562 the construction of a new huge and stately Basilica of Saint Justina was terminated, and Luke's relics were transferred inside the new shrine with great pomp. The relics were placed in their current location, in the left transept.

Father Giulio Pagnoni

Saint Luke's body remained undisturbed until 1998, when it was decided to set up a scientific commission to examine it with unprecedented rigour.
As promised in the previous article, we will now publish the exclusive interview with the man who has personally supervised the investigation from beginning to end: Father Giulio Pagnoni, from the Benedictine Community of the Abbey of Saint Justina in Padua.
It all began in 1992, says Father Giulio. The bishop of Padua, Antonio Mattiazzo, received an unexpected request from Hieronymos, the Greek-Orthodox Metropolitan of Thebes, who had come to Padua to pray at the tomb of Saint Luke. Thebes, as mentioned earlier, was the first burial place of our Evangelist. The Metropolitan approached the bishop of Padua with the request for a fragment of the relics. The fragment would be placed in the empty sepulchre in Thebes to enhance veneration in that city. The Metropolitan specified that the gesture would foster ecumenical relations between the Eastern Church and Roman Catholicism.
Surprised, the bishop of Padua spoke with the Abbot of our Benedictine Community. They both concluded that honouring this request would be a beautiful sign of desire for reconciliation, but the decision also brought with it a moral dilemma: what proof was there that the relics really belonged to Saint Luke? It became clear that a scientific examination was necessary.

When did the examination actually begin?
Before the scientific examination actually got underway, it was decided to set up a preliminary commission, composed by historians, which would collect and examine all the documents available. The commission worked for some years, and was able to ascertain some very interesting facts. It discovered that, in 1354, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, had ordered the removal of the skull kept in Saint Justina's. It therefore became imperative to determine whether that cranium, now in the Cathedral of Saint Vitus in Prague, belonged to the rest of the skeleton in Padua. The bishop of Padua lodged a request with the Cardinal of Prague, who gladly agreed to collaborate.
The actual scientific examination began on September 17, 1998, when the massive marble slab covering the sepulchre was slowly removed.

Who were the members of this commission?
In 1982 a scientific examination had already been conducted in Padua on the relics of Saint Anthony, so the bishop decided to turn to the same scientists who had already worked on Anthony's remains. Vito Terribile Wiel Marin, professor of Anatomy and Histology at the University of Padua, was chosen as president of this new commission. In this capacity he was advised by professor and monsignor Claudio Bellinati, Professor Gianmario Molin and Professor Mariantonia Capitanio. The first team of experts was composed initially by fifteen university professors, but this group gradually widened to include other experts.
Every object found in the tomb required in-depth analysis by a whole series of experts: numismatic researchers, metallographers, chemists, crystallographers.... Needless to say, the recognition went on for years. It finally ended on June 6, 2001, after 86 working sessions and the involvement of at least thirty of the world's leading scientists in the various fields.

Could you describe the various phases?
First the 2-ton marble slab covering the sepulchre was carefully removed. The sepulchre was found to contain a lead metal coffin of about 180cm x 48cm, and about 40cm high, with a sloping, triangular shaped cover. The seals, dating from the 16th century, were broken and the lid removed. It was found to contain an almost intact human skeleton, only the cranium was missing. A few days later the cranium arrived from Prague; it fitted perfectly to the topmost neck bone.

Were there any sign on the coffin indicating that the body was really that of Saint Luke?
A number of findings add considerable weight to this hypothesis. First, an eight-armed cross on one of the sides of the coffin. This type of cross is the fusion of the Greek cross and the St. Andrew cross. It was a Jewish-Christian symbol used in charnel houses in Palestine around the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Next to the coffin were found two small lead tablets with inscriptions stating that the body belonged to Saint Luke. The tablets were made during the Renaissance, but a linguistic analysis of the inscriptions revealed that the texts were conceived before the 4th century. The inscriptions were therefore copied from earlier documents.
The lead of the coffin and the traces of lead attached to the bones were analysed, and it was found that the saint's body had decomposed inside that particular coffin. Other examinations, such as the palinological analyses performed on the material inside the coffin, revealed the presence of plant-pollens typical of Mediterranean vegetation. The coffin contained, for example, the pollen of Greek pine, which is only found in Greece and the surrounding districts. Moreover, it was found that the coffin and the skeleton were contemporaneous. Endless other tests were carried out, and the results were finally collected in a 750-page volume!

Were the remains carbon dated?
Carbon dating, a very reliable method, was carried out on a fragment of the femur (thighbone) in two distinct laboratories, one in Tucson, Arizona, the other in Oxford, England. The results suggest a date ranging from the second half of the first century to the fourth century. Experts say that solar radiation in the first centuries of our era was somewhat irregular, so these dates contain a certain degree of error. However, we may safely conclude that the skeleton belongs to the first centuries of Christianity, and not to the Middle Ages.

What do all these results tell us about the person buried in that coffin?
The man inside that tomb was a sturdy-built, 1.63 meters high individual. The bone formation of his feet suggests that he had walked a lot in his life. The analysis of his bones also reveals that he suffered from age-induced arthrosis, and that he had also experienced malnourishment in his youth. The curvature of his rib-bones indicates the presence of a pulmonary emphysema. His death took place between the ages of 75 to 85, and his osteoporosis was at normal levels.
The DNA of one of his teeth revealed that he belonged to one of the races inhabiting Syria at the beginning of Christianity, and excluded a Greek origin.
In conclusion, this long and scrupulous examination has added considerable weight to the most ancient sources, that is, that the relics kept in the Basilica of Saint Justina in Padua are really those of Saint Luke. Though we cannot be absolutely certain, this is certainly where the results are leading us.

And what became of the request of the Metropolitan of Thebes?
On September 17, 2000, a Catholic delegation, headed by the bishop of Padua and by a monk from our Abbey, went to Greece with a rib from Saint Luke's skeleton, the one closest to the heart. It was given to the Metropolitan Hieronymos as a significant relic to venerate in the empty tomb in Thebes. This act was highly appreciated by the Greek Orthodox Church, and the rib was placed in that same ancient sepulchre which, according to ancient sources, was the first resting place of our Evangelist.

Updated on October 06 2016