(Greek egkolpion , 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 relics as fragments of cloth stained with the blood of a martyr, small pieces of parchment with texts from the Holy Scripture , 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 bullae , containing amulets, round the neck as a protection against enchantment; the Church endeavoured 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 Omegain Scripture) , 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 TIBE (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.
The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.
Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.
No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.
Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online