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E05123: Paulinus of Nola, writing in 401 and 407, in Nola (southern Italy), describes how perfumed oil was poured into the tomb *Felix (priest and confessor of Nola, southern Italy, S00000) and collected to create contact relics; account in the Natalicia.

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posted on 2018-02-22, 00:00 authored by frances
Paulinus of Nola, Natalicia

Paulinus twice describes a practice which took place in Nola. Regularly, perfumed oil would be poured into the tomb; the resulting discharge was thought to have miraculous powers.

Natalicium 6, verses 38-39 [AD 400]

martyris hi tumulum studeant perfundere nardo,
ut medicata pio referant unguenta sepulchro.

'Others eagerly pour spikenard on the martyr's burial place, then withdraw the healing unguents from the hallowed tomb.'

Paulinus of Nola, Natalicium 13, verses 583-642 [407]

... super ipsum
martyris abstrusi solium claudente sepulchri
cancello latus in medio sit pagina quaedam
marmoris, adfixo argenti uestita metallo.

ista superficies tabulae gemino patet ore
praebens infuso subiecta foramina nardi.

quae cineris sancti ueniens a sede reposta
sanctificat medicans arcana spiritus aura,
haec subito infusos solito sibi more liquores
uascula de tumulo terra subeunte biberunt,
qui que loco dederant nardum, exhaurire parantes,
ut sibi iam ferrent, mira nouitate repletis
pro nardo uasclis cumulum erumpentis harenae
inueniunt ...

'Above the tomb of the enclosed martyr, where a rail encloses the sides of the sepulchre, there is visible a kind of marble slab on which a silver covering is superimposed. This table set over the tomb has twin holes, allowing perfume to be poured into the recesses below. From the holy ashes stored there comes a healing breath and a hidden fragrance, conferring a sacramental quality on the pouring vessels. For after they had poured in the liquid perfume, and at once as usual scooped it from the tomb lying below the earth, and those who had bestowed the nard on the tomb prepared to draw it up to apply it on themselves, they found the vessels miraculously filled not with nard but with a heap of dust which burst out from below.'

The devotees found not only strange dust in the oil, but also pieces of bone (ossiculis). Fearing an animal had entered the tomb, they opened it. Yet no animal was found, and Felix remained undisturbed.

Text: Dolveck 2015. Translation: Walsh 1975, lightly adapted by Frances Trzeciak.
Summary: Frances Trzeciak.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Felix, priest and confessor of Nola (southern Italy) : S00000

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Poems


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Italy south of Rome and Sicily Italy south of Rome and Sicily

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Nola Cimitile

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Nola Adriatic Sea Adriatic Sea Adriaticum Mare Cimitile Adriatic Sea Adriatic Sea Adriaticum Mare

Major author/Major anonymous work

Paulinus of Nola

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miraculous sound, smell, light Unspecified miracle

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy

Cult Activities - Relics

Contact relic - oil Making contact relics

Cult Activities - Cult Related Objects

Ampullae, flasks, etc.


The Natalicia are a series of poems which were composed by Paulinus of Nola (ob. 431), to be delivered annually on Felix’s feast day (14 January) between 395 and 408. These poems were written and delivered before Paulinus became bishop of Nola. Natalicium 1 was composed in Spain whilst the rest of the poems were written and delivered at Nola. They provide an insight into the development of the cult of Felix in Nola under Paulinus. They are often understood in the classical tradition of ‘birthday poems’ – in this case Felix’s birthday being the day he was reborn in heaven. Yet Roberts (2010) has argued they equally incorporate tropes from epideictic poetry and speeches delivered at public festivals. Additionally, Nat. 3 and 4 – sometimes called the Vita Felicis – draw on hagiographic tropes. The Natalicia have been re-edited in their original order by Dolveck (2015), the numbering we follow. A concordance with the numbering of Wilhelm Hartel's earlier edition (1894) is offered below: Natalicium 1 (395) - Carmen 12 Natalicium 2 (396) - Carmen 13 Natalicium 3 (397) - Carmen 14 Natalicium 4 (398) - Carmen 15 Natalicium 5 (399) - Carmen 16 Natalicium 6 (400) - Carmen 18 Natalicium 7 (401) - Carmen 23 Natalicium 8 (402) - Carmen 26 Natalicium 9 (403) - Carmen 27 Natalicium 10 (404) - Carmen 28 Natalicium 11 (405) - Carmen 19 Natalicium 12 (406) - Carmen 20 Natalicium 13 (407) - Carmen 21 Natalicium 14 (408) - Carmen 29


The Natalicia here provide evidence for the practice of creating contact relics by pouring oil into a tomb and collecting the resulting discharge. This practice is documented extensively archaeologically in Syria, though there only in the case of small reliquaries (not whole tombs as here), but it is less well attested in the Latin West. Here, Paulinus provides evidence that the practice did take place in fifth-century Nola; indeed his description is the most detailed narrative account we have from anywhere in the Christian world of how these new relics were produced. His description can be compared with archaeological evidence from excavations in Marseille at a church dedicated to unknown saints: the so-called rue Malaval church. These excavations found a raised marble shrine - presumably from the fifth century - of two unknown saints, set in the apse of the church, surrounded by sarcophagi of people wanting to be buried close to the saints (ad sanctos). They found a pipe which entered the shrine from above which would allow oil to wash over the stone sarcophagi within. An outlet pipe was also present, for the collection of the oil. In this case, the oil was not in direct contact with the relics, but the similarities with the practice documented at Nola are striking. See E05136.


Edition Dolveck, Franz, Carmina, Paulini Nolani, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015) no. 21, pp. 293 – 493. Translation P. G. Walsh, The Poems of Paulinus of Nola, Ancient Christian Writers (New York: Newman Press, 1975) pp. 73-105; 114-201; 209-220; 254-307. Further Reading Moliner, Manuel, 'La basilique funéraire de la rue Malaval à Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône)', Gallia: Archéologie de la France antique 69(2) (2012) 131-36. Mratschek, Sigrid, ‘Multis enim notissima est sanctitas loci: Paulinus and the Gradual Rise of Nola as a Center of Christian Hospitality’, Journal of Early Christian Studies, 9(4) (2001) 511-53. Trout, Dennis, Paulinus of Nola: Life, Letters and Poems (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975). Roberts, Michael, ‘Rhetoric and the Natalica of Paulinus of Nola’, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, 95(2) (2010), 53-69

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