Ma­te­rial mir­a­cles

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Dr An­gela Hes­son

Saint Aux­elius’s head rests del­i­cately upon an em­broi­dered pil­low, his face veiled in di­aphanous muslin, one hand poised con­tem­pla­tively against his cheek. His cos­tume of elab­o­rate gold fil­i­gree is dec­o­rated with pre­cious jew­els: ru­bies, sap­phires, di­a­monds and pearls anoint his re­clin­ing form, from the pin­na­cle of his head­dress to the tips of his slip­pered feet. That the saint has been dead for over 1000 years only com­pounds the strange, the­atri­cal beauty of the spec­ta­cle, his creamy skull and the deep re­ces­sions of his nose and eye sock­ets pro­vid­ing ghostly con­trast with the gaudy splen­dour of his adorn­ments. En­closed and ex­hib­ited in his elab­o­rate glass tomb, his re­cum­bent body in­con­gru­ously jux­ta­poses the ex­quis­ite and the grotesque, part sleep­ing beauty, part grim reaper.

The story of Saint Aux­elius and his life­less brethren, the cat­a­comb saints of North­ern Europe, is a pe­cu­liar one, em­bed­ded in the post-re­for­ma­tion cri­sis of faith that prompted a dra­matic re­turn to dec­o­ra­tive ma­te­ri­al­ism in prac­tices of wor­ship. Ex­am­ined for the first time in a lav­ishly il­lus­trated vol­ume by art his­to­rian Paul Koudounaris, these holy bod­ies emerge as sym­bols of that most cu­ri­ous min­gling of the cor­po­real and the meta­phys­i­cal which char­ac­terises the relic tra­di­tion. Koudounaris traces the com­plex his­tory of these fig­ures, col­lected and reimag­ined with the ex­plicit pur­pose of fill­ing a spir­i­tual, emo­tional and phys­i­cal gap left by the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion purge of the Catholic Church’s most beloved icons. Af­ter count­less for­mally sanc­ti­fied relics were de­stroyed over the course of the 16th cen­tury, the need to source ap­pro­pri­ate re­place­ments led church of­fi­cials lit­er­ally un­der­ground, to the re­cently dis­cov­ered an­cient burial cham­bers be­neath Rome, where the in­terred bod­ies of per­se­cuted Chris­tians had, for cen­turies, re­mained undis­turbed.

The saints’ am­bigu­ous sta­tus is fur­ther com­pli­cated by the fact that they were not, in any tra­di­tional or of­fi­cial sense, sainted. Trans­ported across the Alps from Italy into Ger­man-speak­ing re­gions of Europe from the mid-1500s, their ar­rivals peak­ing in the 17th and 18th cen­turies, the cat­a­comb saints were, in the vast ma­jor­ity of cases, the bod­ies of un­known peo­ple. Their in­tern­ment dated from the early Chris­tian era, and al­though lack­ing ver­i­fi­able means of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, the re­mains were widely be­lieved to have been those of mar­tyrs who sac­ri­ficed their lives rather than re­lin­quish their faith. As such, while not for­mally be­at­i­fied, nor, in the ma­jor­ity of cases, in any way ac­tu­ally con­nected to the saintly iden­ti­ties they were as­signed, they were per­ceived nonethe­less as le­git­i­mate con­duits of the Holy Spirit. In or­der to dif­fer­en­ti­ate these more in­for­mally sanc­ti­fied bod­ies from those that had been of­fi­cially des­ig­nated by the Pope, they were col­lec­tively en­ti­tled the Katakomben­heili­gen (cat­a­comb saints).

The process of con­ver­sion from de­cay­ing skele­ton to or­na­mented icon, en­throned and en­shrined, was a com­plex and pro­tracted one, re­quir­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tion of nu­mer­ous skilled work­ers, in many cases nuns spe­cially trained in the prepa­ra­tion of relics. The most ex­pert of these were the Do­mini­can sis­ters in En­netach in South­ern Ger­many, who ex­e­cuted all as­pects of a saint’s trans­for­ma­tion, from the sta­bil­i­sa­tion of the skele­ton it­self to the ap­pli­ca­tion of dec­o­ra­tive tex­tiles. Upon ar­rival at the monastery, the con­di­tion of the bones would be as­sessed and those deemed suf­fi­ciently durable for more com­plex ar­tic­u­la­tion and dec­o­ra­tion would then be­gin their lengthy prepa­ra­tion for dis­play. Af­ter the ap­pli­ca­tion of a sta­bil­is­ing an­i­mal glue, the bones were, de­pend­ing upon their con­di­tion, set with wire, wrapped with gauze, and fre­quently re­con­structed with wax, wood, or pa­pier-mâché. The ap­pli­ca­tion of pre­cious stones, (or in the cases of less af­flu­ent re­li­gious houses, their paste equiv­a­lents) was fre­quently un­der­taken by sec­u­lar crafts­peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enced in work­ing with me­tals and gems. Af­ter a saint’s of­fi­cial ‘trans­la­tion’, he or she would be car­ried through the town and in­stalled in a con­spic­u­ous po­si­tion in the church, usu­ally in a cor­re­spond­ingly lav­ish shrine or upon an al­tar or pre­della.

Saint Va­lerius, housed in the Au­gus­tinian monastery at Wey­ern, is an ex­em­plar of the ex­cesses of the­atri­cal­ity and or­na­ment that char­ac­terise the Katakomben­heili­gen. Adorned from head to toe in pre­cious gem­stones, rich tex­tiles and gold­work, and crowned with a golden di­a­dem, his vis­age is lent an in­con­gru­ous live­li­ness by the ad­di­tion of sparkling blue sap­phires in place of the eyes, lid­ded with del­i­cate folds of muslin. The saint’s teeth are phys­i­cally and sym­bol­i­cally recre­ated in disks of tiny, del­i­cately wo­ven pearls. His ex­posed ribcage is threaded with match­ing strings of pearls, and teardrop ru­bies nes­tle at his throat. That the skele­ton it­self is not so much con­cealed but aug­mented by the dec­o­ra­tion is in it­self sig­nif­i­cant. There is, in­her­ent in these con­struc­tions, the tra­di­tion of me­mento mori, the sym­bolic, evoca­tive jux­ta­po­si­tion of glory and de­cay that serves as a re­minder of hu­man mor­tal­ity and the fleet­ing­ness of ma­te­rial ex­is­tence.

The sta­tus of the cat­a­comb saints was, from the out­set, po­lit­i­cally charged, even pro­pa­gan­dis­tic. They sym­bol­ised, in their newly ap­pointed splen­dour, the de­fi­ant resur­gence of a Catholic Church de­ter­mined to vis­i­bly re­assert its tra­di­tional prac­tices of wor­ship. In keep­ing with their rev­o­lu­tion­ary sta­tus, many of the saints’ associated at­tributes seem sur­pris­ingly mil­i­taris­tic. Swords were among the most pop­u­lar of these, and Koudounaris iden­ti­fies a dual mean­ing in their in­clu­sion, ‘re­fer­ring to the saint’s own mar­tyr­dom, but also iden­ti­fy­ing the skele­ton as a Miles Christi, or Sol­dier of Christ, risen and armed for bat­tle.’ Ac­cord­ingly, cos­tumes fea­ture breast­plates, tas­sets,

1 gauntlets, and a pro­fu­sion of abun­dantly jew­elled hel­mets, of­ten com­plete with vi­sors the­atri­cally raised to re­veal the skull be­low. These el­e­ments, ren­dered not in steel but in the most lux­u­ri­ous gold threads, silks, fil­i­gree and gem­stones, are both threat­en­ing and se­duc­tive, mark­ers of ma­te­rial wealth and spir­i­tual re­bel­lion.

De­spite the ar­ti­fice in­her­ent in their con­struc­tion and the ab­sence of tra­di­tional con­se­cra­tion, these bod­ies op­er­ated, both spir­i­tu­ally and cul­tur­ally, in the role of the relics they re­placed, and rit­u­als of pub­lic dis­play and cel­e­bra­tion were in­te­gral to this. To this day, in the town of Roggen­burg in ru­ral Bavaria, the bones of Saints Sev­e­rina, Va­le­ria, Lau­ren­tia and Venan­tius are each year re­moved from their richly dec­o­rated crypts in the for­mer Nor­ber­tine monastery church, placed on lit­ters, dec­o­rated with flow­ers, and car­ried down the nave and around the church upon the shoul­ders of lo­cal teenagers. The ritual, known as a Lieber­fest, has been en­acted by the towns­peo­ple for over 200 years, func­tion­ing as a ges­ture of thanks to these

beloved icons for their cen­turies of ser­vice to the con­gre­ga­tion, as well as for their imag­ined mar­tyrly sac­ri­fice. Roggen­burg’s saints are among the more ex­tra­or­di­nary of their kind. By the 19th cen­tury, af­ter the ini­tial ex­cite­ment about their ar­rival had waned, the in­escapable cor­po­re­al­ity of their forms proved too con­fronting for some mem­bers of the lo­cal con­gre­ga­tion. To as­suage dis­com­fort around such man­i­fest re­minders of mor­tal­ity, the skulls were fit­ted with pa­pier-mâché masks painted in imag­ined like­nesses of the liv­ing saints, an ef­fect which, to a 21st cen­tury spec­ta­tor, only com­pounds the eeri­ness of the spec­ta­cle.

In­her­ent within the relic tra­di­tion is the no­tion that these arte­facts are, in a sense, ac­tive; that their spir­i­tual agency ex­tends be­yond the realm of in­spi­ra­tion, and into that of the tan­gi­ble. Ac­cord­ingly, the cat­a­comb saints gained much of their sta­tus through ac­counts of their associated mir­a­cles. At the Ca­puchin con­vent in Stans, Ger­many, the newly ar­rived bones of Saint Pros­per were im­me­di­ately cred­ited with the mirac­u­lous heal­ing of the mother su­pe­rior, who had, ac­cord­ing to ac­counts, been suf­fer­ing from a fever that broke on the day that the skele­ton was re­ceived. Such events en­dowed the relics, and their associated re­li­gious houses, with sig­nif­i­cant sta­tus, and led to the des­ig­na­tion of the bones as those of a ‘heal­ing saint’ to whom the lo­cal pop­u­lace might sub­se­quently ap­peal for cures of their own. Tales of mir­a­cles at­trib­uted to a mar­tyr’s bones were kept in ‘miracle books’, which faithfully recorded the al­le­vi­a­tion of ail­ments, from foot pain to in­con­ti­nence to nose­bleeds. The saints were also widely per­ceived to have pow­ers of divine in­ter­s­es­sion in nat­u­ral events: Saint Dona­tus of Det­zem, Ger­many, was reg­u­larly called upon to pro­tect the lo­cal pop­u­lace from light­ning strikes, hav­ing ear­lier been cred­ited with sav­ing the life of a priest who was, some­what iron­i­cally, struck dur­ing prepa­ra­tions for the saint’s pro­ces­sion into the city.

Their great pop­u­lar­ity among con­gre­ga­tions meant that many churches and monas­ter­ies ac­quired large col­lec­tions of saints, func­tion­ing not only as a source of spir­i­tual suc­cour to lo­cal peo­ple, but also as a means of in­come gen­er­ated by vis­it­ing pil­grims. Reg­u­lar do­na­tions made to the church in the saints’ hon­our des­ig­nated their worldly value in ad­di­tion to their more spir­i­tu­ally el­e­vated role. Wor­ship­pers could also make more per­sonal do­na­tions in the form of jew­ellery or other valu­able or­na­ments, which would be added to the saint’s body or shrine. Rings were a par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar choice, and many saints’ hands grew crowded with these ma­te­rial man­i­fes­ta­tions of their devo­tees’ spir­i­tual fer­vour.

Yet such de­vo­tions have never been with­out con­tro­versy. The relic tra­di­tion has al­ways been a fraught one, coloured by anx­i­ety about idol­a­try and framed, in Protes­tant terms, within the re­gret­table Catholic propen­sity for ma­te­ri­al­ism and false wor­ship. Even within the Catholic Church it­self, the re­la­tion­ship with relics has been am­biva­lent. Relics could be used as de­vo­tional aids, but should never, it was de­creed, be per­ceived as hav­ing their own power dis­tinct from that of the de­ity. The dis­tinc­tion be­tween ven­er­a­tion and wor­ship was not al­ways clearly de­fined or agreed upon, how­ever. Anx­i­eties sur­round­ing the su­per­sti­tious na­ture of some acts of de­vo­tion were ul­ti­mately at­tached to the cat­a­comb saints, as they had been to the orig­i­nal relics de­stroyed in the Re­for­ma­tion spirit of pious aus­ter­ity. Crit­i­cism was am­pli­fied by sug­ges­tions that the cre­ation of the saints was, in ef­fect, an act of cal­cu­lated and per­haps mer­ce­nary fraud. The 18th cen­tury protes­tant bishop Gil­bert Bur­net de­clared that ‘the Bones of Ro­man Slaves…are now set in sil­ver and gold with a great deal of other costly Gar­ni­ture, and en­ter­tain the su­per­sti­tion of those who are will­ing to be de­ceived.’

2 That the pop­u­lar­ity of the saints waned as swiftly and dra­mat­i­cally as it arose is again tes­ta­ment to their highly emo­tive qual­ity. As the 18th cen­tury gave way to the nine­teenth, ac­cu­sa­tions of ma­te­ri­al­ism and idol­a­try in­ten­si­fied, and the jewel-en­crusted skele­tons came in­creas­ingly to be per­ceived as po­tent and dis­qui­et­ing sym­bols of the Catholic Church’s ca­pac­ity for mor­bid­ity and deca­dence. Many were ac­tively de­stroyed or buried in anony­mous plots. Some were sim­ply re­moved from pub­lic view, se­creted in crypts or vaults where they would not at­tract at­ten­tion or cen­sure. Oth­ers were sold to pri­vate col­lec­tors or mu­se­ums, whether as pri­vate de­vo­tional aids, or as cu­riosi­ties akin to the two-headed calf or pre­served foe­tus in a jar.

Yet in iso­lated pock­ets of Ger­man- speak­ing Europe, af­fec­tion for the saints per­sisted. A case study in this con­tin­u­ing at­tach­ment ex­ists in the town of Rot­tenuch in Bavaria, where in 1803, the sec­u­lar mag­is­trate had elected to auc­tion the town’s two saints. Their lo­ca­tions re­mained known, how­ever, and in 1977, 174 years af­ter the saints were sold, the towns­peo­ple raised suf­fi­cient funds to have them re­turned. To this day, Saints Primus and Feli­cianus con­tinue to be pub­licly hon­oured in all of their dis­qui­et­ing, ex­trav­a­gant glory.

Those saints that sur­vive in­tact ex­ist not only as ob­jects of ex­tra­or­di­nary crafts­man­ship and un­canny fas­ci­na­tion, but as in­escapably phys­i­cal re­minders of the church’s com­plex, emo­tion­ally and po­lit­i­cally charged vac­il­la­tions be­tween aus­ter­ity and ma­te­ri­al­ism, au­then­tic­ity and ar­ti­fice. They re­main po­tent, fan­tas­tic mark­ers of the ob­ses­sive cor­po­re­al­ity and mys­ti­cism of the relic tra­di­tion, in­fused with the spirit, and fash­ioned of the flesh.

Pho­tos by Paul Koudounaris.

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