Reliquaries

I did not intend for these posts to become a travelogue, but since I am still here and have the luxury of time, Que Sera, Sera.

Before I address the title topic, a few observations: 1) the sun does (rarely) shine in Northern Italy in January, and 2) it warms spirits but does not remove the chill from the air – maybe all this stone radiates cold into bones.  3) Italian college students travel down narrow cobblestone streets in packs of no less than 30 – tough to walk through, so I just plaster myself to the plaster and let them pass, and 4) Italian college students congregate in (and just outside of) bars in packs no less than 50.  I usually go to bed early and only have to deal with the left-behind mess the next morning.  Pity the old clean up men (with their long straw brooms) that have the walkways sparkling again by mid-day.

So, my previous Bi-Lateral Observational Grit, uh WebLog mentioned St. Anthony’s relics.  Since Anthony died recently (1306), only 34 years of age, and very important already to the church and the populace, his body and other relics of his life were well preserved.  Anthony lived at the height of the Relic Pilgrimage fad, when Christians from all parts of the settled world would flock during holidays to the Cologne Cathedral to visit the bodies and propped up heads of The Three Kings, or Saint Luke’s skull in Prague, or John the Baptist’s tooth in Munich.  Every large church in Europe was required by the Vatican to have at least one relic of a saint, even if it was a knuckle or toenail.

So, in essence the holy saints of the Catholics got carved up – usually after death.  These bodily parts were the most sacred of the treasures, but rings and capes would also suffice.  The body parts would be carefully sealed in glass and surrounded by a “reliquary” or container, more often than not made of intricately designed solid gold and jewels.

St. Anthony was no exception.  When I went to pay my respects to the patron saint of Padua, I was impressed by his solid white marble tomb, surrounded by paintings and wall art of incalculable value – Carravagio’s, Bellini’s, etc.  Then I followed signs pointing to the very back alter of his gigantic cathedral, where the relics of St. Anthony were displayed.  Fortunately, the guards had just returned from their obligatory 3 hour lunch break and had opened the Reliquary for inspection.

The line of worshippers (all others) and gawkers (me) was not long due to the winter season, but during the summer months I understand the line would snake out the door – a 45 minute wait.  First, I viewed Anthony’s dirt-stained reddish cape and then his original coffin, a simple oak box with two smaller compartments.  I made out the Italian plaque to say his skeleton was stored in one and his innards in the second.

From what I understand, he was buried in this simple way in 1306 but was exhumed again in 1360 after the grand church was built to house his remains (he had been granted sainthood in record time due to popular pressure).  When the ancient priests opened his oak casket, they found that his body had decomposed normally, but that his tongue was remarkably (I think in Italian they said, “Miraculously”) intact, pink and ready for the next rousing sermon.  So of course they cut it out of his mouth and saved it in a relic vessel to inspire all succeeding generations, along with his vocal chords and lower jaw.  Each is displayed in its separate gold vessel in St. Anthony’s Reliquary.

You can imagine my horror when I first laid eyes on these.  My stomach did flip-flops when I gazed at the 700 year old tongue, jaw and (now black) vocal chords preserved behind glass. Ugh!  I exited the Reliquary probably too quickly.

After I returned to my room and settled my nerves with some vino rosso, I began to understand the logic of preserving these body parts.  Anthony was the greatest religious orator of his day.  The priests had seen the relatively good condition of these fleshy parts of his vocal system as a sign from God.  Anthony had been blessed by God for spreading his word.

Inspiring as this story may be, I hope nobody preserves my tongue, or any other body part to inspire succeeding generations of writers.  There is very little chance of this, but I just wanted to get my request out there while I still walk among the living.  It’s one thing trying to preserve shattered slivers of the holy cross, but let the dead rest in peace, not pieces.  Amen.

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2 Responses to Reliquaries

  1. chs says:

    I second that amen. My kids were absolutely horrified to see a dead body on display when we were in Rome. I can only imagine their reaction to preserved body parts.

  2. Wow! I thought seeing an Egyptian mummy in the museum at Sforeza Castle in Milan was creepy. I must say that tongue image is one I’d rather not have lodged in my brain, but fascinating story. I cannot fathom how the tongue survived natural decay and retained its color. Arsenic poisoning? Some other preserative?

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