home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the reliquary effect

9 april 2017

As I was reading Cynthia Hahn's Reliquary Effect, I remembered that somewhere I had a mass card containing a bit of fabric "touched to a blessed relic of St. Ann." That would be the grandmother of Jesus – maternal grandmother, needless to say – and hence something of a heavyweight in the choir of saints, who sits in Dante's Paradiso "tanto contenta di mirar sua figlia," so happy to look upon her daughter, the Virgin Mary (canto 32, line 134). Wow! and to think that I own a bit of cloth once in contact with a bit of St. Ann's forearm

except there must be more shards of St. Ann's forearm in existence than there are of your average dinosaur species. And I say this not to be (entirely) irreverent about the nature of Roman Catholic relics. They play an enormous, if contested, role in the history of the Catholic faith. Churches are built around these scraps, and as Hahn shows, compelling and unique artworks mediate between grubby bits of bone and the fabric of great cathedrals. The physical provenance of Catholic relics matters far less than the spiritual power that is believed to inhere in them. In fact, at times, the miraculous multiplication of relics like the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns was an acknowledged part of their power and appeal (153).

Of course, while some medieval Catholics dialed relic-reverence up to eleven, others (like Geoffrey Chaucer) expressed severe skepticism about the authenticity of your typical relic. Such skepticism would become a driving force in the Protestant Reformation. I had always known that the religion of my ancestors placed a lot of value on material things: the transubstantiated Host, the vestments and vessels of the Mass, the fabric of its churches. But I have also grown up in a Reformed and Counter-Reformed, Protestant-dominated, post-Enlightenment, post-Vatican-II intellectual culture which stresses the spirituality and otherworldliness of Christianity. Pagans worshiped statues, "graven images" as Jewish scripture calls them. Christians, I was taught, venerated ideas, not objects.

But as Hahn shows, this just isn't so. The power of bishops, popes, princes and kings, from late antiquity through the early modern period, inhered mightily in physical links to Christ, Mary, the apostles, and all the saints. The powerful and pious extended patronage to the arts in order to show off their relics, and in order to exercise private devotion. A common practice of royal believers was to take their relics out and just look at them – sometimes in the presence of VIP visitors, but sometimes just as one of the chief perquisites of their station in life. (Such devotion extended also to "joyaux," miniature holy scenes done in intricate enamel and metalwork [105-06].) Philip II, the "Armada" king of Spain in the 16th century, had a fabulous relic cabinet built in the Escorial (168). Painted doors swung open to reveal a dazzling assortment of head and hand reliquaries, as well as some treasure chests with miscellaneous saint-parts. But that was the public side. The cabinet also had a rear door that connected to the royal living quarters, so that Philip could get up in the middle of the night and cherish his stuff.

In other words, the veneration of relics wasn't showy bullshit, or at least wasn't all showy bullshit. Louis IX of France in the 13th century built the magnificent Sainte-Chapelle in Paris to show off, and to translate into glass and stone, the physical features of the Crown of Thorns. Charles IV, the 14th-century king of Bohemia who became Holy Roman Emperor, really was a holy guy (pace the famous quote about the Holy Roman Empire being none of the three). Hahn, who seems centrally interested in the extensive and often literally Baroque reliquary collections of Bavaria and Bohemia, spends quite a bit of time on Charles's endowment and patronage of St. Vitus' Cathedral in Prague, and of the Karlštejn Castle up in the hills above the city. Relics and their display were a serious and integral part of a grand artistic, theological, and intellectual project for Charles, even if to some of his descendants they were likely just a pile of fungible moolah.

Or worse, objects of derision. When one reads that the treasures of St. John Lateran in Rome included lentils from the Last Supper (116), we're approaching Life of Brian territory. Yet the secular world has its own versions of such relics. A physician in New Jersey reportedly possesses Napoleon's penis (223). I myself have a couple of baseballs in clear plastic spherical reliquaries, with signatures of Hall of Famers. Hahn prints a 13th-century description by Nicolas Mesarites of the "ten precious relics" of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, including the Crown of Thorns (that one really got around), a stainless nail from the Crucifixion, "the lance, the purple cloak of mockery and the stone from the tomb of Christ" (112). But I have made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York several times to see Babe Ruth's locker and Ted Williams' bat. In fact, much like the True Cross, items like the bats of great ballplayers have been splendidly splintered into little bits and embedded in baseball cards, just like my mass card of St. Ann. And baseball even has bullshit relics of its own, including the famous Cooperstown ball that somebody'd found in a trunk in the 1930s and persuaded the Hall of Fame curators was the original baseball used by Abner Doubleday in the first game ever played in 1839. This baseball is much less likely to be authentic than the Shroud of Turin, but it used to be unironically on display in the museum as the originary relic of the National Pastime.

Hahn charts the development of contemporary, secular, and celebrity relics as far as Napoleon, leaving the reader to extrapolate in his or her favorite reliquary direction much as I've just done with baseball. She concludes her study by looking at three 20th-century artists who employed reliquary techniques (Joseph Beuys, Paul Thek, and Anselm Kiefer) – here, except for Thek, who deliberately though lovingly mocked actual body reliquaries, the connections can get a bit strained. She also looks a bit at Asian and African traditions of relics. Clearly The Reliquary Effect is a study that could multiply into several others, much like the miraculously ever-regenerating Crown of Thorns itself.

Hahn, Cynthia. The Reliquary Effect: Enshrining the sacred object. London: Reaktion, 2017.