A reader keeps the thread undead:
Your fascinating series reminds me of a summer tour I took as a teenager with a youth choir from Montana, where I grew up. I’d been raised Presbyterian, and though my home church was neo-Gothic and quite beautiful, it included none of the statuary and shrines of American Catholic churches, and certainly no sign of European churches’ veneration of relics and remains. Death was kept at a prim distance; open caskets for example were considered both spiritually suspect and (though this was unspoken) in terrible taste.
One of our first stops on the trip was Salzburg, and I vividly remember stumbling on St. Sebastian’s Church and Cemetery, near our hotel, a place teeming with carved memento mori - skulls, snakes, bones, bats, and winged hourglasses [example seen to the right]. In the walled cemetery, a statue of a ragged corpse – sunken-eyed and grimacing, as if decomposed – rose out of an above-ground tomb. I’d never encountered such morbidly bracing imagery and didn’t then have the familiarity I would discover later – through works of Schubert, Freud, Hermann Broch, and many others – with the Austrian intimacy with death.
A few days later we sang in the gorgeous abbey church of Mondsee, not far from Salzburg, where five skeletons, bejeweled and richly vested, are encased in the high altar. (It’s the same church where the wedding scene from The Sound of Music was filmed; you can see the skeletons as the camera pans upward if you know to look for them but they’re hidden by the overall detail.) We usually sang in churches, and throughout the tour it was much the same - a niche of monks’ skulls in a Swiss village chapel, glass coffins displaying remains, the haunting crypts and mausoleums of Père Lachaise, silver hearts encasing saints’ organs, dimly-lit Roman catacombs. The encounters in these places cracked open the WASPish Christianity of my childhood and my sense of mortality as little else did, except subsequent encounters with death itself.
Decades later on trips to Mexico, I was struck by the the unflinchingly gruesome depictions of Christ’s torture and crucifixion in churches there, and it would bring to mind that summer as a 17-year old. It is impossible not to be moved and horrified by some of the depictions, and I would not say I could regularly worship near them. But they and their European variations have deepened my own faith, making it both more mystical and more visceral, paradoxically more alive, for which I’m very grateful.
I haven’t thought as much about relics as I probably should have, but they keep popping up when you read about medieval history. People thought of relics as having supernatural power. This gave them very real economic value.
For example, there was a movement called the “peace and truce of god” that was designed to constrain noble violence, which was seen as one of the most significant societal problems at the time. Churchmen would summon nobles to a meeting, where they’d be confronted with a big display of all the relics the local churches were able to muster. The relics were used to frighten the nobles into making pledges to limit their violent conduct in certain ways.
And relics played a big role in the Crusades. Everyone wanted relics, and everyone was aware that some of the relics floating around Europe were fakes. People thought that the best way to get authentic relics of very old saints was go to to the source, the Holy Land. So in a sense, relics were a resource, sort of like oil, that the Holy Land possessed and that Europeans wanted.
There’s a famous incident that took place during the First Crusade, at the siege of Antioch. The crusaders were very discouraged and there was a lot of talk about packing it in and going home. Someone claimed to have had a prophetic dream that showed him where to find a relic of the holy lance, the spear used to pierce the body of Christ during his crucifixion. There was debate about whether the dream was valid, but when they dug in the place specified by the dream, they found a relic. This pushed everyone toward sticking with the project, and had a big effect in keeping the siege and the crusade going.
Obviously, there were some who felt the whole thing had been staged. And at the Battle of Hattin, during the Third Crusade, Saladin was able to capture an object that was believed to be part of the true cross. It had been brought into battle because the crusaders believed it would give them an edge. The loss of the relic was a really big deal – it loomed large when people tallied up the losses from that crusade. It was very significant to the Europeans.
I know that the blog has been talking about body parts, and that neither the holy lance nor the true cross were parts of anyone’s body. But in the medieval world, they were all relics, and these stories illustrate the extent to which relics were invested with power. I don’t know enough about the subject of relics to come up with good stories about body part relics that make the same point.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the discussion in the blog about relics has been the part about how the idea of relics ties into the notion of bodily resurrection. That’s something pretty important, I think, and I had never thought of it before.
But before I thought about that, the thing about relics that was most interesting to me was how primitive the whole thing seemed. Medievalists like CS Lewis and Tolkein present medieval Christianity in a really positive light – the Christianity that dates back from the time that Europe was Christendom seems better, in some respects, than today’s Christianity.
But when you read about the holy lance at the Siege of Antioch, it’s kind of jarring to think about where people’s headers were at. The idea that the fate of the crusade hung on such a story seems insane, and the crusaders seem sort of childish and easily fooled. They seem to be more superstitious than religious. And I find the prospect of armed men of that mindset traveling great distances to conquer foreign territory to be pretty frightening.
One of the really great things about Catholicism is that there are these strange fragments of medieval thinking that have been preserved, in some form, to the present day. I’d put relics in that category. I don’t know what people think about them now. I suspect that most modern Catholics don’t really think about them.
But whenever I’m in Paris (which isn’t often, lately), I always visit the cathedral at St. Denis, and walk through the crypt where the bones of all of the ancient kings and queens of France are kept. And I’m always interested to think about how the revolutionaries felt it was worth the trouble to turn the pantheon into a reliquary for secular saints, to counter act the symbolic power of St. Denis. That might have been the idea’s last gasp.
Think about how differently we think about the bodies exhibition at the South Street Seaport. I haven’t seen it, because I’m squeamish about such things, and there have been allegations that the bodies of criminals and perhaps political prisoners from China were used for the display. But while the innate fascination with human body “stuff” pulls people to the exhibition, we justify and explain our fascination with science, rather than religion. We just want to see how the ligaments are attached.
I think that this is one of those subjects that’s most interesting in an “archaeology of thought” sort of way. The idea of relics has a long, complicated, and surprisingly intense history. The shriveled stump that’s left of it today is kind of creepy and mostly interesting in a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” kind of way, but not much more. Who would think that the idea had enough power at one time to play a significant role in the conduct of several wars?
Maybe that’s the message we ought to take from the subject on this day in 2013. Maybe relics ought to remind us that when you go to war, there’s a pretty good chance that your reasons are actually crazy. Maybe relics can serve as a reminder that when you think you have to go and kill people in a war for moral reasons, a lot of the time you’re just being batshit crazy. Maybe the ideas that seem fighting for today will fade in the future, and they won’t seem worth dying over any more.
By the way, I just checked, and someone is selling what they claim is a piece of the true cross on Ebay. It’s only $245.