Name given in early Christian times to a species of reliquary worn round the neck
Encolpion (Gr. enkolpion, that which is worn on the breast), the name given in early Christian times to a species of reliquary worn round the neck, in which were enclosed such relics as fragments of cloth stained with the blood of a martyr, small pieces of parchment with texts from the Holy Scriptures, particles of the True Cross, etc. The custom of bearing on the person objects of this character was evidently derived from the pagan practice of wearing buloe, containing amulets, round the neck as a protection against enchantment; the Church endeavored to purify this usage from superstition by substituting objects venerated by Christians for those to which they had been accustomed before conversion. According to St. Jerome, however (in Matt., c. xxiii), some of the faithful in his day attached a superstitious importance to these aids to piety; he censures certain classes of women who seem to have, in some degree, identified sanctity with an exaggerated veneration for sacred relics: “Hoc quod apud nos superstitiosae mulierculae in parvulis evangeliis et in crucis ligno et istiusmodi rebus, quae habent quidem zelum Dei, sed non secundum scientiam, factitant” (That which superstitious women amongst us, who have a certain zeal for God but not of right knowledge, do in regard to little copies of the Gospels, the wood of the cross, and things of that kind). Encolpia were of various forms, oval, round, four-cornered, and of various materials ranging from gold to glass. In 1571 two gold encolpia, square in form, were found in tombs of the ancient Vatican cemetery, engraved on one side with the monogram of Christ between the Alpha and Omega, and on the other with a dove. Another, now lost, was found in the tomb of Maria, wife of the Emperor Honorius, bearing the names of the imperial couple with the legend VIVATIS and the monogram. The famous treasure of Monza contains the theca persica, enclosing a text from the Gospel of St. John, sent by Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) to Queen Theodolinda for her son Adalaold. Another of the gifts of this pope to the Lombard queen was a cruciform encolpion containing a portion of the True Cross. Probably the most interesting reliquary of this form is a gold pectoral cross discovered at Rome in 1863, in the basilica of S. Lorenzo (fuori le mura), on the breast of a corpse. On one side it bears the inscription: EMMANOTHA NOBISCUM DEUS (Emmanuel, God with us), and on the other: CRUX EST VITA MIHI, MORS INIMICE TIBI (To me the Cross is life; to thee, O enemy, it is death). To the category of encolpia belong also the vials or vessels of clay in which were preserved such esteemed relics as oil from the lamps that burned before the Holy Sepulchre and the golden keys with filings from St. Peter’s chains, one of which was sent by St. Gregory the Great to the Frankish King Childebert.
MAURICE M. HASSETT