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E06117: Adomnán, in his On the Holy Places, relates a story the Franco-Gallic bishop Arculf heard, during his recent visit to Constantinople, about an image there of *Mary (mother of Christ, S00033), which miraculously exuded oil. Written in Latin at Iona (north-west Britain), possibly 683/9.

online resource
posted on 2018-08-16, 00:00 authored by gschenke
Adomnán, On the Holy Places - Book Three

1. Arculfus sepe memoratus et de sanctae matris Domini Mariae toracida certam nobis relationem, quam in Constantinopolitana urbae ab expertis quibusdam testibus dedicit, indubitanter enarrauit inquiens: 2. In eadem metropolitana ciuitate imago beatae Mariae in breui tabula figurata lignea in pariete cuiusdam domus suspensa pendebat. 3. De qua cum quidam stolidus et duricors homo percunctaretur cuius esset propriae, a quodam respondente dedicit quod esset sanctae Mariae semper uirginis figura faciei. 4. Quod audiens ille Iudeus incredulus diabulo instigante eandem de pariete ualde iratus tulit imaginem et ad uicinam cucurrit domum ubi humana stercora per longarum foramina tabularum egesta supra sedentium uentribus degeri solent (5.) ibidemque ob Christi ex Maria nati dehonorationem imaginem matris eius per foramen super humanum stercus inferius iacens proiecit et ipse supersedens per idem foramen aluum purgans proprii stercus uentris super toracidam beatae Mariae paulo ante inibi depositam dimittens stolidissime agens effudit et post turpissimam illam uentris purgationem ille infelicissimus discessit homo. 6. Quid uero postea gessit aut quo modo uixit uel qualem uitae terminum habuit inconpertum habetur.

7. Igitur post illius discessum maligni alius de Christianorum plebe superuenit felix homo zelotipus Dominicarum rerum sciens quod factum fuerat, imaginem sanctae Mariae requisiuit et inter human stercora absconditam inueniens subleuauit et diligenter abstergens et lauans aquis emundauit mundissimis secumque in domu honorificae collacatum habuit. 8. Mirum dictu, ex eadem beatae Mariae imaginis tabula uerum ebulliens distillat semper oleum; quod Arculfus, ut referre solet, propriss conspexit oculis. 9. Hoc mirabile oleu honorem protestatur Mariae matris Domini nostri Iesu Christi, de quo pater ait: In oleo sancto meo linui eum. Item psalmigraphus ad ipsum filium Dei loquitur dicens: Uncxit te Deus Deus tuus oleo laetitiae prae participibus tuis [...]

The oft-mentioned Arculf gave us an accurate rendering also of a true story about a representation of the holy Mary, mother of the Lord, which he learned from some well-informed witnesses in the city of Constantinople. On the wall of the house in the metropolitan city, he said, a picture of the blessed Mary used to hang, painted on a short wooden tablet. A stupid and hardhearted man asked whose picture it was, and was told by someone that it was a likeness of the holy Mary ever virgin. When he heard this that Jewish unbeliever became very angry and, at the instigation of the devil, seized the picture from the wall and ran to a building near by, where it is customary to dispose of human excrement by means of openings in long planks whereupon people sit. There, in order to dishonour Christ, who was born of Mary, he cast the picture of His mother through the opening on the human excrement lying beneath. Then in his stupid folly he sat above himself and evacuated through the opening, pouring out the excrement of his own bowels on the representation of the holy Mary which he had just deposited there. After that disgraceful action the hapless creature went away, and what he did subsequently, how he lived, or what sort of end he had, is unknown.

After the scoundrel had gone, one of the Christian community came upon the scene, a fortunate man, zealous for the things of the Lord. Knowing what had happened, he searched for the picture of the holy Mary, found it hidden in the human excrement and took it up. He wiped it carefully and cleaned it by washing it in the clearest water, and then set it up in honour by him in his house. Wonderful to relate, there is always an issue of genuine oil from the tablet with the picture of the blessed Mary, which Arculf, as he is wont to tell, saw with his own eyes. This wondrous oil proclaims the honour of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus of whom the Father says: 'With my oil I have anointed him.' Likewise the psalmist addressed the Son of God himself when he says: 'God thy God hath anointed thee with the oil of joy beyond thy companions' ...'

Text and translation: Meehan 1958, 118-9, modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Mary, Mother of Christ : S00033

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Pilgrim accounts and itineraries


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Britain and Ireland

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


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

Iona St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Major author/Major anonymous work


Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Destruction/humiliation of images

Cult activities - Use of Images

  • Other forms of veneration of an image

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle after death Miraculous behaviour of relics/images

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Jews


On the Holy Places records across three books the travels of Arculf, an otherwise unknown Gallic bishop (sanctus episcopus gente Gallus), through diverse sacred sites in Jerusalem (Book one); Palestine, Syria, and Egypt (Book two); and Constantinople and Sicily (Book three). In the preface, Abbot Adomnán of Iona (ob. 704) explains that ‘in response to my careful enquiries he dictated to me … this faithful and accurate record of all his experiences … first I wrote it down on tablets (tabulis): it will now be written succinctly on parchment (in membranis breui)’. Bede, writing in 731, would lreport that Adomnán gave a copy of the volume to King Aldfrith of Northumbria (northern Britain) on a visit to his kingdom (Ecclesiastical History, 5.15). We know from Adomnán himself and other Irish sources that at least two such visits took place, in 687 and 689, thus establishing the latter date as the probable terminus ante quem for the work. Its terminus post quem is more difficult to determine. Meehan supposed that the Third Council of Constantinople (680-81) might have occasioned Arculf’s visit to the imperial capital. This is attractive, although ultimately conjectural. Yet if it were the case, we might – helped by Adomnán’s claim that the bishop spent nine months at Jerusalem – date Arculf’s adventures to around 679-82, and thereby the composition of On the Holy Places to no earlier than about 683. The work appears to have been popular. It survives in 22 manuscripts, the earliest of which are 9th century continental productions. Bede spoke of its ‘many readers’ (legentibus multis), and produced his own abridged version of the text in around 703. On the Holy Places is more, however, than a straightforward itinerary. Adomnán embellishes and adapts Arculf’s account throughout with his own authorities on the Holy Land: chiefly the works of Jerome, but also texts such as Sulpicius Severus’ Chronicle, Hegesippus’ Histories, Iuvencus’ History of the Gospels, Eucherius of Lyon’s On the Layout of Jerusalem, as well as the Bible. Recent scholarship has also identified the degree to which the narrative of On the Holy Places is highly controlled and exegetical; this has asserted the text’s sophisticated theological qualities and, significantly, the authorial primacy of Adomnán, raising him above his status in older studies as merely Arculf’s amanuensis or ‘stenographer’ (O’Loughlin 2007). This has led in turn to the radical proposition that Arculf may perhaps have never existed, and been only a literary device of Adomnán. It appears strange, O’Loughlin has suggested, that Arculf’s journey appears to have accorded so well with Adomnán’s literary and theological interests; besides, the bishop is unheard of elsewhere, and the probability of him coming to Ireland or north-west Britain via a shipwreck (as Bede claimed), after a journey around the eastern Mediterranean, seems doubtful. This may go too far. Further work has now reasserted the degree to which – in addition to, and in dialogue with, its literary models – Adomnán’s text does contain important evidence for the later 7th century Near East, which must have almost certainly come from a recent, eyewitness account (Hoyland and Waidler, 2014). The arguments against Arculf’s existence are in any case not compelling. Franco-Gallic episcopal lists survive patchily enough from the 7th century to account for his disappearance from his homeland’s records, while the suggestion he came directly to Britain through a shipwreck, after being swept away by storms, is made only by Bede, writing some years later: Adomnán and Arculf’s encounter could well have involved less drama than the Northumbrian monk imagined. Other sources show that connections between Gaul and the 7th century Irish church were relatively strong. It should not seem too surprising that the abbot of Iona might have found the opportunity to interview a figure such as Arculf at some point, shipwreck or not. Adomnán’s account focuses almost entirely on biblical sites – many of his titular Holy Places are those directly associated with the life of Christ, and therefore not included in our database. Beyond these, the cult activity he reports almost exclusively revolves around Old and New Testament figures, most prominently Mary: of the post-biblical saints, only Jerome (E06084) and George (E06094) receive mention. Although Adomnán reports that Arculf visited a cult site of the latter in Palestine, he saves this story for his third book, set predominantly in Constantinople. This is noticeably distinct in tone from those that precede it, and the only part of the work to feature miracles, two of which explicitly involve the veneration of images and the gross ill-doing of those who offend them (E06094, E06117). If Brubaker and Haldon (2011) are correct in arguing that neither the Byzantine cult of images, nor the controversy over them, predated the period c. 680, then these closing passages of On the Holy Places would seem to confirm that Bishop Arculf’s journey was indeed a real one, and cannot have long preceded Adomnán’s adaptation and propagation of his account.


This story may be important evidence for conflicting ideas about the veneration of images in the period c. 680, although it has been noted that Gregory of Tours told an arguably comparable anecdote around a century earlier, about a Jew stealing and stabbing an image of Christ, which then miraculously bled (Glory of the Martyrs, 21: the similarity is argued by Woods 2002, 38-9). It may be possible, however, that the 'Jewish' identity of the villain of Adomnán/Arculf's story is only meant metaphorically, referring to his rejection of holy images.


Editions: Meehan, D.M., Adamnan’s De locis sanctis (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 3; Dublin, 1958), with English translation. Bieler, L., Adamnanus, De locis sanctis libri tres, in: Itineraria et alia geographica (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, 175; Turnhout, 1965), 175-243 (see also 249-80 for Bede’s version). Further reading: Brubaker, L., and Haldon, J., Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850: A History (Cambridge, 2011), 50-68, 781-2. Hoyland, R.G., and Waidler, S., "Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis and the Seventh-Century Near East," English Historical Review, 129 (2014), 787-807. Ní Dhonnchadha, Máirín, "Adomnán [St Adomnán], (627/8?-704)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), O’Loughlin, T., Adomnán and the Holy Places: The Perceptions of an Insular Monk on the Locations of the Biblical Drama (New York, 2007). Woods, D., "Arculf's Luggage: The Sources for Adomnán's De locis sanctis," Eriu, 52 (2002), 25-52.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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