Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Incorrupt Body of Justinian the Great

19th century print showing soldiers of the 4th Crusade
discovering the incorrupt body of Justinian I in AD 1204.
On November 14, AD 565, the Roman Emperor Justinian passed to his eternal reward after a long and extraordinarily eventful reign of 38 years. But this post is not about Justinian's legendary works or even the circumstances surrounding his death. It is, instead, about an event that happened a full 639 years after his death.

On the fateful day of April 13, AD 1204, the knights of the Fourth Crusade, driven mad by thoughts of vengeance and visions of tremendous wealth, successfully breached the massive sea-walls of Constantinople. Once the city had fallen and most resistance had been quelled, the disgraced crusaders began a systematic search for loot of all kinds. In this effort, they did not spare even the wondrous churches of Constantinople, and one of their targets was the Church of the Holy Apostles which had served as an imperial tomb for centuries. The Byzantine historian, Nicetas Choniates, an eye-witness to the siege writing only a few years after the event, picks up the tale from here:
Exhibiting from the very outset, as they say, their innate love of gold, the plunderers of the queen city conceived a novel way to enrich themselves while escaping everyone’s notice. They broke open the sepulchers of the emperors which were located within the Heroon erected next to the great temple of the Disciples of Christ [Holy Apostles] and plundered them all in the night, taking with utter lawlessness whatever gold ornaments, or round pearls, or radiant, precious, and incorruptible gems that were still preserved within.
Here's where things get really interesting, however. When the disgraced crusaders violated the tomb of the emperor Justinian the Great, they received a severe but momentary shock. Choniates continues:
Finding the corpse of Emperor Justinian had not decomposed through the long centuries, they looked upon the spectacle as a miracle, but this in no way prevented them from keeping their hands off the tomb’s valuables. In other words, the Western nations spared neither the living nor the dead, but beginning with God and his servants, they displayed complete indifference and irreverence to all. [Taken from Magoulias: O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniat─ôs
Most Catholics are familiar with incorruptibility as the remains of some of the best known saints -- from Saint Cecilia in antiquity, to Saint Bernadette in the 19th century, to Saint Pio of Pietrelcina in modern times, have displayed the phenomenon. The origins of incorruptibility are mysterious and it is normally considered a sign of extraordinary sanctity, though clearly some of the saints' bodies considered among the incorrupt have been embalmed, coated with wax, or otherwise preserved through some very non-spiritual means.

While Orthodox Christians have considered Justinian a saint for centuries, he is not considered such by Catholics. It is a shame that no Western ecclesiastic or historian saw fit to record the remarkable occurrence of his exhumation. Equally sad is that no remnant of the emperor's relics or the accouterments seem to have survived the desecration of his tomb.

It is interesting to note, however, that within a year of his death in AD 565, Justinian seems to have adopted a heretical position known as Aphthartodocetism. A semi-Monophysite heresy, Aphthartodocetism held that the body of Christ was incorruptible, impassible and that the incarnation was real only in appearance. Given the central tenet of this heresy, it is interesting to speculate on the state of Justinian's corpse when discovered by the fallen crusaders and the message, if any, worldly or divine, it was meant to send.

If there was a message there, however, the disgraced crusaders were too busy worshiping Mammon to catch it.

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