Though I saw it all around
Never thought I could be affected
Thought that we'd be the last to go
It is so strange the way things turn

Saturday, January 15, 2011

She's a Little Slice of Heaven

Spent the day viewing The Treasures of Heaven at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Exceptionally fascinating, and somewhat gruesome. The majority of the show was dedicated to the display of the relics (some of which still contain the remains). There was a lot of information on the development of the "Cult of Saints", and the evolution of the form and function of reliquaries. There were various teeth encased in rock crystal, thorns of the Crown of Thorns, and plenty of splinters of the True Cross.

There's a part in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose where he criticizes the fetish of such relics. the main character mentions having seen the skull of St. John the Baptist as a Child, and his belief that if all the splinters of the True Cross were brought together, the would form a forest of crosses. I did have occasion for some grim humor. Like the one reliquary that held the head of a saint. The main vessel was a covered silver bowl, originally created for a different purpose, but then used to hold the severed head of the saint. There were some notches cut in the top to either hold sticks of incense or to pour water or oil through and create "contact" relics (something pilgrims could take home to show the neighbors - or act as relics in their personal shrine - other favored ways to get something for themselves included lower cloth to touch the remains and therefore become holy itself). The part of it I found facinating was that someone had to be looking at the bowl and think, "You know what would look good in there...".

Lots of story bones there, including the last part that showed the real meaning of iconoclasts (the breaker of icons). See, while most religious history likes to gloss over what Martin Luther did, the resulting Reformation wasn't exactly either bloodless or easy. Many churches were ransacked, and their relics broken, scattered, and desecrated. Many smaller churches were "whitewashed" (ie. stripped of their religious iconography and statuary and had the highly decorated walls covered in white. This was all in a reaction to the perceived adoration of the materiality of the saints, the sale of indulgences (also tied in some ways to the saints) and the realization that many relics were frauds.

The final piece, though, was a recent reliquary given to the Cleveland Diocese that contains some fragments of the True Cross. The piece was commissioned in 1993.

The other surprise for me was to see some of the reliquaries that are like the Holy version of the Hot Wheels Big Wheel with niches for many relics. They were like a Cabinet of Curiosities, only with parts of people wrapped in cloth. I had seen some with four or five relics, but had never thought there would be some (other than transportable altars) that held over twenty individual pieces.

All and all a full day.

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