Where is Saint Andrew’s Head?

Recently in my Church History class, I have been discussing the Photian schism and the events leading up to the Cardinal Humbert’s delivery of a papal excommunication on the altar of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. All this formalized the growing tensions and produced a formal schism between the Catholic Church and what became the Eastern Orthodox Church. Humbert previously warned the Patriarch of Constantinople “Either be in communion with Peter or become a Synagogue of Satan.”

Since today is the Feast Day of Saint Andrew, I taught the class how Constantinople claims Saint Andrew as the “founder” of the see of Byzantium, that is Constantinople. We discussed the traditional relationship between St. Peter (Rome) being estranged from his brother St. Andrew (Constantinople).

We also discussed the lifting of the excommunications that occurred under Pope Paul VI before the close of the Second Vatican Council and the “handing over of the head”.

Few people know about the “handing over of the head”. There are four shrines surrounding the high altar in St Peter’s Basilica. Under the high altar are the bones of St. Peter. The four shrines surrounding the altar house Christendom’s four most coveted relics and are adorned with the statues of corresponding saints:

  1. the largest portion of the true cross (St. Helena)
  2. the miraculous veil of St. Veronica (St. Veronica)
  3. the lance that pierced the side of Christ (St. Longinus)
  4. the skull of St. Andrew (St. Andrew)

The statue of St. Andrew’s shrine is depicted in the photo above. However, the skull of St. Andrew is no longer housed in this shrine.

The skull originally made its way to Rome when it was to Pope Pius II in 1461 by Thomas Paleologos (brother of the last Byzantine emperor). It was placed in the shrine depicted above when the new Basilica of St. Peter’s was constructed. As an ecumenical gesture of good will, Pope Paul VI in 1964 had the skull removed from its place in St Peter’s and returned to the Greek Orthodox Church in Patras where it remains to this day. Thus, one of the four column shrines surrounding the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica is without its relic. This is because the head has been handed over to the Orthodox.

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