A center for Christian shrines will open at the Russian St.John the Evangelist Orthodox University in Moscow within the next few months. The new center is designed to contribute to the ongoing effort to “separate the wheat from the chaff”, or genuine artifacts from good-quality fakes.
The need for this has become apparent in the last few decades, after church relics and shrines began to return to Russia after years of religious stagnation. Pyotr Yeremeyev, Father Superior of St.John Orthodox University, comments.
"Many Orthodox reliquaries and shrines were removed from churches after the 1917 Revolution. Researchers are currently trying to determine where they belonged on the basis of their fragments and fragments of church inscriptions. Hopefully, the newly created center will benefit churches of Moscow and assist our brothers in the Lord from other cities."
The Moscow Center for Christian Shrines will be headed by Mikhail Arteyev, a graduate of the University of Geneva, who holds a master’s degree in theology.
"We started our research project with collecting and streamlining information on Christian shrines and relics. As it turned out, many Christian relics revered in Orthodox tradition and worshipped by believers, remained unaccounted for in church records. For example, vestments and fragments of the Protecting Veil of the Holy Mother of God needed accounting for in terms of their origin and significance. As we set up a center for religious artifacts in Voronezh, we thought that our primary concern would be providing historical accounts for their origin and value. However, it’s their authenticity evaluation that has taken the center-stage as forged artifacts are now entering Russia along with genuine ones.
The most glaring instance of counterfeit relics on Mikhail Arteyev’s memory is related to fraud.
"We traced a Greek deacon who brought fake relics to Russia. He put bones from a Greek cemetery into precious sarcophaguses and presented them as saint relics. The deacon was eventually imprisoned on charges of fraud and embezzlement but the forged shrines he used to import are still in Russia."
Verifying church relics requires extensive knowledge and cutting-edge equipment. The analysis of the Shroud of Turin and the relics of St.Nicholas of Myra was conducted by archaeologists, anthropologists and chemists at the request of the Vatican. The genetic analysis of the relics of St. Luke the Evangelist proved that the relics belonged to a native of Syria. As is known, St.Luke was born in the Syrian city of Antioch. As for the Moscow center, it has a less ambitious agenda for now, Mikhail Arteyev says.
"Our top priority is to establish the authenticity of a relic by tracing its origin. We’ve succeeded in finding a particle of the Holy Cross whose history dates back to Empress Helena. According to the tradition, it was Empress Helena who acquired the True Cross. We have traced the relic to its current resting place in Europe and we have established its authenticity through historical survey. As for genetic and radiocarbon analysis, we have the equipment for it but this kind of research is not on our present-day agenda as we deal with historical and documentary records in the first place."
After years of cooperation, Russian relic researchers and their colleagues from European and American universities and the Vatican have unveiled a number of falsifications of world significance, including the forged sign of Versailles’ Bishop Pierre-Antoine-Paul Goux and the counterfeit seal of the Vicariate of Rome.