The “Holy Coat of Trier”
TRIER, with a history stretching back 2,000 years, is the oldest city in Germany.* For centuries Trier has had strong connections with the Catholic Church. In 1996 the cathedral in Trier put a relic on display that supposedly is almost as old as the city itself. It is called the Holy Coat of Trier.
The coat is 62 inches [1.57 m] long and 43 inches [1.09 m] wide and has sleeves of half-length. It is made of cotton and, according to Hans-Joachim Kann in his book Wallfahrtsführer Trier und Umgebung (Pilgrimage Guide to Trier and Surroundings), was probably worn as an outer garment. Some estimates date the original garment—much of which has been repaired and reinforced with other textiles over the centuries—back to the second or even the first century C.E. If correct, that would make it a rare item of clothing, an interesting museum piece.
However, some maintain that the garment is not only rare but also holy—hence the name Holy Coat. This is because it is seamless, as was the inner garment worn by Jesus Christ. (John 19:23, 24) Some claim that the “Holy Coat” actually belonged to the Messiah.
How the coat came to Trier is uncertain. One reference work states that it was “presented to the city by the empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great.” Kann points out that the first reliable report of the tunic’s presence in Trier is from 1196.
The coat, which is stored in the cathedral, has been put on display at irregular intervals since the 16th century. For instance, this was done in 1655, shortly after the Thirty Years’ War, which had been very costly for Trier. The sale of pilgrimage mementos has on occasion generated much income.
There have been three “Holy Coat” pilgrimages this century— in 1933, 1959, and 1996. In 1933 the pilgrimage was announced the same day that Hitler was appointed chancellor of the German Reich. Kann points out that this coincidence of the two occurrences on the same date highlights the circumstances surrounding the pilgrimage. Uniformed Nazi troopers formed a guard of honor for pilgrims outside the cathedral. Two and a half million people viewed the robe that year.
Herbert, a resident of Trier for many years, compared the pilgrimages of 1959 and 1996. “In 1959 the streets were crowded, with stalls selling souvenirs on almost every street corner. This year the whole thing is much quieter.” Indeed, only 700,000 viewed the robe in 1996, a million short of the 1959 figure.
Why Do They Go to View the Robe?
The church emphasizes that the robe should not be seen as an object of veneration. The seamless robe is seen as symbolic of church unity. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that when announcing the pilgrimage, Bishop Spital said: “The unusual situation in our world challenges us Christians to have unusual answers. We have to stand against the swelling wave of hatred, brutality, and violence.” The bishop explained that viewing the robe would remind one of unity.
But why does anyone need the “Holy Coat” to be reminded of church unity? What if the robe should be damaged or disintegrate or be exposed as a fake? Would church unity then be in danger? What about people unable to make a pilgrimage to Trier? Are they less conscious of any unity within the church?
The Holy Scriptures make no mention of early Christians’ needing objects to remind them of the need for Christian unity. Indeed, the apostle Paul encouraged Christians with the words: “We are walking by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) The unity that true Christians enjoy is thus described as a “oneness in the faith.”—Ephesians 4:11-13.