According to an old tradition, Luke the Evangelist was born in Antioch (Syria), died at a very advanced age (84 years) and was buried in the city of Thebes, capital of the Greek region of Boeotia. From here – as it is confirmed by St. Jerome – his remains were removed to Constantinople and conserved in the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles in the second half of the 4th century.
In the Middle Ages, more precisely in the 11th and 12th centuries, in the cemetery area of Prato della Valle adjacent to the monastery of St. Justina, the remains of numerous saints were unearthed. Manuscripts dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries, based on hagiographic texts of earlier date, relate a new discovery (inventio) that occurred in 1177: they speak of miraculous phenomena (fragrant smells associated with the remains, people having dreams within which apparitions linked to the discovery occurred), and they also mention the identification of the titulus (i.e. the inscription hearing the name of the dead person) and of the symbol featuring three calves on the case containing the remains. All this spurred abbot Dominic and the bishop of Padua, Gerardo Offreducci, to travel to Ferrara in order to meet Pope Alexander III (who was currently stationed there), so that he would certify that the corpse belonged to St. Luke.
But how the remains were in Padua, and not in Constantinople? The manuscript mentions that the remains of St. Luke, together with the relics of St. Matthias, were removed from Constantinople in the times of the Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363 AD); other sources suggest the 8th century iconoclast persecution as probable date for the transfer: actually historians are still evaluating the plausibility of such hypotheses.
The Benedictine monks, who had established themselves in Padua in the Abbey of St. Justina before 1000 AD, started to venerate the remains of the Evangelist with considerable care; around the year 1313 they built a marble sarcophagus within which to place the remains encased in lead. Soon afterwards, in 1354, Emperor Charles IV of Luxemburg, king of Bohemia, acquired the skull, which ended up in the cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague, then capital city of the Empire: it has been conserved there till the present day. In Padua’s abbey, various literary texts were composed – some for liturgical use – intended to strengthen faith in the authenticity of the relics and to divulge the fame of St. Luke. In 1436, the painter Giovanni Storlato was commissioned to portray a series of scenes that relate the life of the saint, the transfer of the relics from the East, and their resurfacing in Padua on the walls of the chapel dedicated to St. Luke.
In 1463, a dispute arose with the Franciscans Minor of St. Job in Venice who contended that they possessed the body of the “authentic” St. Luke, which was transferred to Venice from Bosnia following Ottoman aggression in the Balkans. A careful reconnaissance of both remains ensued, the conclusion of which conferred authenticity to the Paduan relics. A century later, in 1562, when the construction of the actual basilica was nearing completion, the marble sepulchre was transferred with great pomp to the left arm of the transept.