When Anthony spoke again

January 05 2003 | by

The profound and anxious silence of those present in the Basilica turned into loud applause when on January 6, 1981, the tomb of St. Anthony was opened for the first time since 1263. The solemn opening known in ecclesiastical language as a recognition of a saint’s relics, was undertaken for the seven hundred and fiftieth anniversary of St. Anthony’s death.

Almost two hundred people, Church authorities, Franciscans, doctors, architects and workers, witnessed the event which was made possible by a special decree of Pope John Paul II, entitled Sanctus Antonius and dated January 1, 1981. The Holy Father also appointed a Pontifical commission for this undertaking. It was headed by Pietro Cardinal Palazzini and included Antonio Mauro, who was then Pontifical Delegate for the Basilica and Bishop Lorenzo Antonetti, Secretary of the administration professors and doctors of anthropology, anatomy and medicine at the University of Padua. Their task was to study, analyse and make sure that measures were taken to preserve the relics for future generations.

Opening of the tomb

The opening was scheduled for seven o’clock in the evening and began with a reading of the papal decree and a commemoration of Saint Anthony’s death. The climax arrived when the left wall of the tomb was opened and the coffin containing the Saint’s body was removed. At this moment the silence could no longer be contained and everyone broke into applause because, finally, the distance of seven hundred fifty years which separated us from the Saint of Padua had been bridged.

A richly embroidered yellow cloth covered completely what proved to be a wooden coffin. The coffin measured 1.85 meters (6 ft. 2 in.) in length, 49.50 cm (1 ft 6 in.) in width and 51 cm (1 ft. 7 in.) in height. It was opened rather easily. To everyone’s surprise, another wooden ‘coffin’, smaller in size, was found within: 1.09 m. (3 ft. 7 in.) in length, 38.05 cm. (1 ft. 3 in.) in width, and 30.05 cm. (1 ft.) in height. It bore three official seals. Inside this coffin were found three bundles wrapped in red damask with gold trimming - one containing bones and a skull; another, bodily remains (hair and bone fragments); and, the third, a habit. To every bundle was attached a small, rolled up scroll. Each identified the contents of its bundle. Part of the third scroll is unfortunately damaged, but it seems to refer to the habit in which Anthony died and was buried.

When the Friars had sung two hymns of thanksgiving, the Te Deum and the Magnificat, they accompanied this ‘coffin’ with its remains, carried by the Minister General and Provincials, to the Hall of Bishops, where the contents would be examined by the members of the different Faculties of the University.

The history of Anthony’s mortal remains

As we know, Anthony died on Friday, June 13, 1231, at Arcella. At his own request, he was being taken from Camposampiero to the Church of Our Lady, Mater Domini, where in fact he wanted to die and be buried.

Almost immediately after his death, there developed a debate concerning who was the rightful owner of the precious relics. Three groups were involved: the people of Capo di Ponte where he spent his last day, the Poor Clares of Arcella, and the Friars of Our Lady, Mater Domini. The Paduan civil authorities, led by Stefano Badoer, and Bishop Giacomo Corrado decided that he was to be buried at the Friars’ small church in Padua. As the first biographer of Anthony points out in his Assidua, the decision was taken to respect the wishes of the Saint. He had a special love for that church and convent.

Thus, according to that biography, four days after his death, on Tuesday, June 17, 1231, the Friars enclosed the Saint’s remains in a wooden coffin after a solemn procession with hymns, praises and spiritual canticles, and buried it in a grave that was not deep in the church dedicated to the Virgin.

That very same day, many who suffered from various infirmities were carried there and soon regained health through the merits of Blessed Anthony.

The news of these miracles and the fame of his sanctity spread so rapidly that Pope Gregory IX canonised him at Spoleto eleven months later, on May 30, 1232.

The first Recognition: 1263

The small church where he was buried quickly proved inadequate for the large crowds of pilgrims who came to venerate the Saint’s grave. The construction of a larger church was therefore undertaken next to the smaller one.

This single-nave basilica in the form of a Latin cross and with a central dome was completed within a short time. On April 8, 1263, the body of Anthony was transferred to it.

It was St. Bonaventure, general of the Franciscan Order and later Bishop and Cardinal, who was responsible for this ‘second burial’. When he discovered that the Saint’s tongue had been miraculously preserved, he exclaimed in words which since then have remained a favourite prayer: O blessed tongue which always blessed the Lord and induced others to bless Him, now everyone knows how many merits you gained before God. St. Bonaventure removed the tongue at this time and it became part of the relics of the Basilica.

Pilgrims could venerate the Saint’s body with greater ease in the new Basilica. The coffin was enclosed in a sarcophagus which, elevated above the ground by four marble columns, stood at the center under the dome. The sick who came looking for cures could find a place below it. At the present, the location of this sarcophagus is marked by a large L in the pavement before the sanctuary of the Basilica. The L stands for the Latin word ‘Locus’ or ‘place’.

A new chapter was opened in the history of St. Anthony’s relics in 1350, when Cardinal Guido de Boulogne-Sur-Mer came as a pilgrim to the famous shrine. Since he wanted to leave a tangible sign of his presence, the Cardinal had a reliquary carved for the Saint’s jaw from which St. Bonaventure had withdrawn the tongue. The inscription at the bottom reads: This work was done August 1, 1349. At the same time, Anthony’s left forearm was placed in still another reliquary. By the year 1350, therefore, the Basilica could openly display three relics of St. Anthony—his tongue, jaw and forearm.

The skull, bones, other bodily remains (organic matter, mould, bone dust) and habit were first wrapped in three bundles and then placed in the smaller ‘coffin’ which, in its own turn, was put within the larger coffin. This was done because no one wanted to discard the larger coffin despite its signs of deterioration. Finally, wrapped in yellow cloth, it was placed in a new tomb which had in the meantime been built at the left of the sanctuary. This tomb was prepared after the Basilica had been enlarged. We know that the present structure dates from 1310.

Almost two hundred and fifty, years later, in 1593, the ‘new’ altar-tomb and its chapel were embellished by Tiziano Aspetti, Tullio and Antonio Lombardo, and Jacopo Sansovino.

Results of the Recognition

The recognition made in 1981 produced surprising results. Throughout January, several experts, professors from the University of Padua, examined the relics. The personal veneration of these men for the Saint did not prevent them from carrying out scrupulous scientific analyses. V. Meneghelli of Human Anatomy, C. Corrain of Anthropology, P. Sanbin of Palaeography, and A. Novello of Pathology studied all the problems and questions raised by the mortal remains of St. Anthony.

First, they catalogued all the bones. In this way, it was possible to establish which parts of his skeleton were missing. Second, through the analysis of his anatomy certain things could be ascertained: Anthony’s height, age and appearance.

It became immediately apparent that the state of conservation was good even at so great a distance in time. The result was partly due to the large quantity of incense and other preservative substances found in the coffin.

The examination showed that the skeleton is almost complete. The commission compared the jaw of the reliquary with the rest of the cranium and declared that the two parts belong together.

Anthony’s appearance

The truly new discoveries concern Anthony’s appearance. For the first time we can say something definite about his physical features. From the measurements of his skeleton, we know that he was 1.68 metres (5 ft. 6 in.) tall. If we compare this with the average height of people at the time (1.62 m. or 5 ft. 4 in.), then Anthony was somewhat taller.

Anthony’s skull structure permits us to say that his face was rather narrow but oval and elongated. His forehead must have been low. If we compare these facts with the 1328 painting of St. Anthony by the school of Giotto, found in the Basilica and usually considered to be a true representation of the Saint, then we must say that it does not portray him as he must have appeared.

Further data indicate that Anthony belonged to what is commonly called the Mediterranean type. His profile and structure point to a noble and refined bearing. This tends to confirm what a biographer asserts: Anthony de Bulhoes was born of noble parents, his father being Martin, a knight of King Alfonso, and his mother, Mary, of no lower estate.

The Saint’s shin-bones just below the knees are enlarged. Members of the commission suggest that this is due to his spending much time on his knees. And, indeed, his biographers tell us that he enjoyed prayer and contemplation. The bones of his feet are also enlarged and this would confirm what we know about Anthony’s long travels—from Portugal to Morocco, from Sicily to Assisi, and then throughout northern Italy and southern France.

In the bundle which contained the other remains of his body, the scientific commission found particles of skin which belonged to the lower jaw, and two pieces of cartilage which control the vibration of the vocal chords. These two discoveries suggest that not only Anthony’s tongue but also his whole vocal apparatus had been preserved until the first recognition conducted by Bonaventure, almost thirty-two years after the Saint’s death.

Cause of Anthony’s death

Toward the end of their study, the professors and doctors offered their hypotheses concerning the cause of Anthony’s death. Traditionally it has been conjectured that he had died from dropsy. This explanation, according to them, is too general and does not clarify anything. In Anthony’s time, the term ‘dropsy’ was used to indicate any number of ailments. Even the proposal that Anthony died from cirrhosis of the liver or from a kidney failure is inadequate. Either of these would have provoked unconsciousness at death. Anthony’s biographers, on the other hand, state that he was fully lucid when he died. Finally, the commission excludes an intestinal tumour as a cause because it would have left signs of metastasis in the bones. None exists. With all of this in mind, the doctors conclude that Anthony most likely died from simple fatigue provoked by his work and heavy penances. These had exhausted his vital system.

Thanks to this recognition of the remains of St. Anthony, we have gained much valuable information about his appearance, personality and holiness. He was a truly dynamic man and a true friend of God, someone who dedicated his whole life to the preaching of the Gospel and to the service of others.

Updated on October 06 2016