Friday, July 01, 2011

official suppression of "dying god" mystery made people crazy...,

Guardian | Relics may be no more than fragments of tortured bodies, but to Anglo-Saxons they promised a glimpse of heaven and were enshrined in glorious works of art, as the British Museum's magnificent exhibition shows. In 1190, Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, himself destined to be canonised one day, visited the abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, to venerate the monastery's greatest treasure, an arm bone of St Mary Magdalene. The relic was duly produced, sheathed in silk, but Hugh sliced open the wrapping, to see and kiss the bone. Then, to the mounting horror of the monks, he tried to break off a piece, and when that failed, gnawed at it, first with his incisor and then with his molar teeth, at last snapping off and pocketing two splinters. What he had done, he declared defiantly, had honoured the saint as Christians honour their Lord when they receive his body and blood in communion.

That notorious incident brings into focus some of the central themes of the British Museum's magnificent new exhibition. St Hugh's startling behaviour reflected these themes: the universal medieval belief that relics, the fragmented bodies of the saints, were charged with holiness and power, worth journeying great distances to see; the prestige which ownership of such relics brought (the Burgundian abbey of Vézelay was a rival claimant to Mary Magdalene's relics); ambiguity over whether the power of the relic could be tapped through its appearance – concealed in this instance by its silken cover – or by brute physical contact with its sanctified matter; the comparison between the holiness of the relics of the saints, and the holiness of the body and blood of Christ in the Mass; and finally the lengths to which some would go to secure even tiny fragments of the relic for their own church or community.

The cult of relics was already a thousand years old when Hugh staged his raid on the relic-house at Fécamp. In the earliest eyewitness martyrdom story, the account of the execution and cremation of Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna in AD156, the narrator tells how "we took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather . . . to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom". The martyr's shrine and the remains of his shattered body were defiant affirmations of the central Christian belief, that defeat in the cause of Christ was in fact a transcendent victory. The body brutalised by torture and death would shine one day in glory, as Christ's risen body shone, and was already a channel of divine healing and consolation. Christians flocked to the graves of the martyrs, and treasured oil or water or cloth that had come into contact with their blood or bones.

The prestige of these shrines was so great that it seemed to threaten the institutional authority of the church and its bishops, but the problem was solved by moving the bodies of the martyrs under the cathedral altars. The charisma of the saint was thereby united to the power of the institution, the grave of the martyr identified with the tomb of Christ, relic and eucharist joined in a single overwhelming nexus of holiness. One of the most dramatic objects in the exhibition is a sixth-century marble altar, from Ravenna or Constantinople. On it, theatrically carved curtains are drawn back to reveal a central void, through which the faithful could have access to the relics of the saint in the shrine below.

As this suggests, initially it was the grave of martyrs that was the holy place (and later, the grave of any holy person). In the conservative west there was at first reluctance to divide holy bodies. When the Empress Constantina asked Pope Gregory the Great for the head of St Paul, he responded with horror stories of workmen struck dead for accidentally disturbing the apostle's rest, and sent her instead holy oil and "brandea", pieces of cloth, which had been in contact with the relics. But escalating demand made the division of the bodies of the saints necessary, and the dismemberment the saints had endured in their martyrdoms may have made it seem symbolically appropriate. The Fifth Council of Carthage required every altar to have relics "buried" within it, and as Christianity spread north and west, demand greatly exceeded supply. In the churches of Carolingian Europe and Anglo-Saxon England, the relics of the martyrs of the early Roman church were prized above all, symbols of Christian triumph over the still potent forces of paganism, and at the same time a coveted link to the glories of ancient Rome. One ninth-century Roman deacon, Deusdona, ran a lucrative international trade in holy bodies, ransacking the Roman catacombs for the bones of "saints" and sending them by mule-train to the kings, bishops and monasteries eager to acquire them. And those unable to procure a whole body had to settle for a skull, a rib or a finger bone.