The term translation, from the Latin translatio, when used in Orthodox Christian tradition, relates to the formal movement of holy objects, most commonly of relics related to saints, from one place to another. Usually only the translation of the remains of a saint's body would be treated most formally, while secondary relics such as fragments and items of clothing are treated with less ceremony.
In the early years of the church the disturbance, let alone the division, of the remains of martyrs and other saints, was not practiced. They were allowed to remain in their often unidentified resting places in cemeteries and catacombs, always outside the walls of the cities, but as martyriums began to be built over the sites of burial, it was considered beneficial to the soul to be buried close to the remains of saints. Thus, large "funerary halls" were built over the sites of martyr's graves. The earliest recorded removal of saintly remains was that of St. Babylas at Antioch in 354. This may have been because the newer city of Constantinople lacked the many older saintly graves of Rome. These translations soon became common in the Eastern Empire, although still banned in the West. Thus, Constantinople was able to acquire the remains of Saints Timothy, Andrew, and Luke, and the division of bodies also began. In the fifth century, the theologian Theodoretus declaring that "Grace remains entire with every part". A slab from an altar dated 357, found in North Africa but now in the Louvre, records that relics from several prominent saints had been deposited beneath it.
From the fourth century, non-anatomical relics, above all that of the True Cross, were divided and widely distributed. While in the West a decree of emperor Theodosius I only allowed the moving of a whole sarcophagus with its contents, the upheavals of the barbarian invasions caused a relaxation of the rules, as relics needed to be moved to safer places.
In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great requested of the ruler of Scythia Minor, Junius Soranus (Saran), that he should send him the relics of saints of that region. In 373 or 374, the relics of Sava the Goth was sent to him in Caesarea Mazaca of Cappadocia, accompanied by a letter, the 'Epistle of the Church of God in Gothia to the Church of God located in Cappadocia and to all the Local Churches of the Holy Universal Church'. The sending of Savas' relics and the writing of the actual letter has been attributed to Bretannio of Tomi. This letter, written in Greek, is the oldest known writing to be composed on what is now Romanian soil.
The formal translation of relics became a solemn and important event, the memory of which is now often remembered with a feast day associated with each significant translation.
As the division of relics became common, distribution of fragments of the relics of saints became widespread. By the late eighth century all new Christian churches had to possess a relic before they could be properly consecrated. This led to the now common wide spread use of relics throughout the world. New churches, built in areas newly converted to Christianity as well as new parishes for expanding populations, needed relics, and this encouraged the translation of relics and fragments of relics to far-off places. Additionally, these relics became collectible items, often placed on Icons associated with the saint, of which ownership became a symbol of prestige for cities, kingdoms, monarchs, and individuals.
- Eduard Syndicus; Early Christian Art; p. 73; Burns & Oates, London, 1962;Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) on the Louvre slab and True Cross.