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blood, or – so closely was the body connected with heaven – something that had merely touched one of his or her relics was contained in a jewelled casket or statue. St Gregory of Nyssa tells us that pilgrims crowded round their saint “like bees around a hive” to ask for his help or seek a healing miracle. The new sacred geography of Europe tes-
tified both to the spread of Christianity and the unity of Christendom. After the fall of Rome, it linked the Christian world together, as relics were donated by Eastern Churches to the lost western provinces. The shrines, located outside the city in the cemetery area on the margins of the town, provided the bish- ops, who were becoming the new leaders of Western society, with a power base that was distinct from the pagan centres of public life in the city centre. The pilgrims who thronged to these shrines
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were not blindly credulous. They would not have been as preoccupied with authenticity of a relic as we are today, because the rituals enabled them to feel the saint’s presence there for themselves. In the pre-modern world, rit- ual was not the product and expression of religious ideas that were taken on faith; on the contrary, these ideas were largely the prod- uct of carefully crafted ritual. Like a great theatrical performance, a carefully devised ritual could have a powerful effect on those participants who knew how to respond to it with imagination and sympathy. Pilgrims would arrive at a shrine wearied by the rigours of their journey, fasting, and with a sense of heightened anticipation. They were thus primed for a transformative experi - ence. The shrine itself, with its glimmering mosaics, magical light, fragrant incense and luxuriantly shady trees carefully reproduced the imagery of paradise, so a pilgrim imme- diately felt that he or she had entered a different dimension. The architecture pointed constantly beyond itself: the covered surfaces, submerged chambers, grilles and gates hinted tantalisingly at something that was just out of reach and endlessly elusive. We have largely lost the skill of ritual, which is essentially an imaginative “play” of make- believe, requiring participants to behave as if something were the case and finding in con- sequence that they are suddenly caught up in the rite and are no longer pretending. Our thinking is more literal and discursive, and this has sometimes made religion problematic. But the very contradictions of the relic cult enabled those pilgrims who would have found it impossible to follow the abstruse theological debates about the Incarnation to appreciate the essential paradox of all religious thought. Pilgrims had to overcome their natural
aversion to a dead body by kissing the relic; this subversion of normal responses propelling them into an alternative state of mind. We do not cope well with death in modern society: we speak of people “passing away” and try to push death out of sight. But the cult of relics helped pilgrims to embrace mortality. In the ancient world, contact with a corpse was usu- ally polluting, but Christians now declared that dead flesh, symbol of humanity’s ultimate defeat, was redolent of the divine.
The crippled and the sick cured at the tomb of St Nicholas, by Gentile da Fabriano, 1425. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
A society’s heroes reflect its values and our modern cult of celebrity perhaps reveals a disturbing triviality at the heart of our culture. The medievals, however, revered men and women whose heroism had elevated them to a divine level. The public reading of the mar- tyr’s story (passio) did not dwell on his or her agony for its own sake but concentrated instead on his or her miraculous impassivity. “This martyr did not blench under torture,”
Victricius, Bishop of Rouen, reminded his congregation as he stood beside the city’s relics. “This one was cut about, yet stood up still.” A divine power had been at work, which had transformed their suffering into triumph. But the rites were also a potentially sub- versive critique. In a harsh and exploitative society, for example, the passio presented the martyr as a victim of a cruel and unjust imperial power and the sanctity of the “patron” saint threw into poignant relief the corruption of the patronage system here on earth. The shrine was home to society’s rejects – the cripples, the possessed, the mentally ill and the destitute, who were given shelter and employment there and were always included in the great processions. They would walk beside the aristocrats and bishops in a demonstration of how society ought to be. Finally, the golden reliquaries that will be
on view in “Treasures of Heaven” had their own message. In medieval culture, gold was often seen as “dead” matter. It symbolised the tribute extorted from the masses by the aris- tocracy, who decked themselves in golden ornaments and weapons. But in the intricately crafted and jewelled relic cases, profane wealth had been redeemed and transferred instead to the realm of the sacred. It is a modern habit to reject vehemently what has been personally superseded, but the cult of relics reminds us that, like our medieval forebears, we have our blind spots. It is surely an act of pietas to honour a devotion that was for centuries central to Catholic spirituality.
■Karen Armstrong is a religious writer and commentator. Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in Medieval Europe is at the British Museum, London, 23 June-9 October.
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