University of Oulu

Arponen, A., Maijanen, H., & Immonen, V. (2018). From Bones to Sacred Artefact. Temenos - Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, 54(2), 149-83. Retrieved from

From bones to sacred artefact : the late medieval skull relic of Turku Cathedral, Finland

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Author: Arponen, Aki Voitto1; Maijanen, Heli2; Immonen, Visa1
Organizations: 1University of Turku
2University of Oulu
Format: article
Version: published version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 0.9 MB)
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Language: English
Published: Suomen uskontotieteellinen seura, 2018
Publish Date: 2019-06-26


The cult of saints and the subsequent interest in relics constituted one of the essential characteristics of medieval Western Christianity. In particular, relics and reliquaries are prime examples of the importance of materiality in devotion. In the present article we analyse one of the medieval skull relics of Turku Cathedral and its material characteristics in detail. Previous examinations undertaken in the 1920s and 1940s produced two theories of its origins and identification. By analysing the bone material and the narrative depiction of martyrdom embroidered on the silk wrapping, State Archaeologist Juhani Rinne connected the relic to St Henry, the patron saint of Finland and the cathedral, while State Archaeologist Carl Axel Nordman identified it as belonging to St Eric, the patron saint of the Kingdom of Sweden. By re-examining the central element of the skull relic, the bones, with osteological analysis and radiocarbon dating, we show both theories to be highly problematic. Our analysis reveals the complex material features of the skull relic and the medieval cult of relics.

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Series: Temenos. Nordic journal of comparative religion
ISSN: 0497-1817
ISSN-E: 2342-7256
ISSN-L: 0497-1817
Volume: 52
Issue: 2
Pages: 149 - 183
Type of Publication: A1 Journal article – refereed
Field of Science: 615 History and archaeology
Funding: This research was supported by the Eino Jutikkala Fund of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters and the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation.
Copyright information: © The Finnish Society for the Study of Religion. Under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license (, the users are free to share (copy, distribute and transmit the contribution) under the following conditions: the Work must be attributed to the Author and Publication, the Work may not be used for commercial purposes, the Work may not be altered or transformed.