Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Please Relics Me, Let Me Go....

Here, have some kittehs instead
This lecture was on relics and the cults of the saints and I was presenting – hence the post on propaganda. We have already touched on many of the topics related to saints and relics because they are so central to Catholic worship. Reaffirmed by the Council of Trent, in that particular session they discussed relics at the same time as images, so there is a mingling of ideas with many clerics not making a distinction between the two. 

On reflection and in my current state of mind – you try reading 20+books about Annibale Carracci in two days – the point our tutor made about Mary being the most miraculous was key. This is something I am going to revisit for my essay, however suffice to say that many icons of the Virgin were reframed and repositioned in Renaissance because of their perceived miraculous nature. For my real feeling on this entire subject, please see my concluding paragraph!

In the same way as images, reliquaries/statues could respond to prayer and votive offerings. There was class discussion regarding statues and images performing miracles and causing places to be regenerated due to pilgrim wealth. Some artefacts even decided they were in the wrong place and moved themselves, eg., House of Loreto was moved by the Virgin to a spot in Italy. This was a good way of sanctioning sacred locations and there were Virgin Mary competitions, all competing for ways to regenerate an area. I don’t think this was anything new, it had been happening all over Europe and the Middle East for years. However this period saw a dusting down and reinvigoration of the cults of saints.

Many of the images that include Mary also include saints. In Lanfranco’s St Lawrence, he is with his grill (instrument of torture) and kneel before her in devotion. It is an exemplary piece showing us how to behave. In this he is interceding with the Virgin on our behalf. This demonstrates what saints do, the role they play, and is clearly laid out visually. It fulfils the requirements of Trent, demonstrating clear rhetorical gestures, leading us emotionally on and in and the saint gets his rewarding for sacrifice by meeting the Virgin in heaven. In Guercino’s image of a donor presented to Virgin, we see the process of intercession for which the donor was hoping. 

In the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesco, French cardinal, Matthieu Cointerel (Contarelli in Italian) took his first name 'Matthew' as inspiration. In this way he could venerate his namesake – many people chose their own special saint and paid special attention to them in that way. Others choice saints because they were associated with their birthplace, trade, their heath or whatever was going on in their lives at that moment. For instance the Virgin was associated with many things, childbirth, health etc.

It was stressed again that saints set an example to the faithful and our tutor showed the image of St Cecilia giving alms – this demonstrates the central tenet of the church relating to good works/charity. Images show cause and effect, with good behaviour rewarded and the possibility of sainthood. Conversion was also high on agenda with images depicting the conversion of Protestants, heathens, infidels – all being brought back or welcomed to the faith. Saul had preached against Christ and had a famous damascene moment where he became the great apostle and preacher, forming Christianity. Caravaggio's interpretation of this shows him blinded by the light, the artist pares down superfluous detail and is closer to the narrative in Acts than the Michelangelo version.

Bernini’s sculpture of St Longinus also shows that moment of conversion in a gripping, theatrical, emotional way. It is as if the viewer is seeing it for first time for themselves - the more real the portrayal, the more real the event. The church is engaging the audience, competing for souls and minds and through the theatre of saints proclaims they are better than Protestants who sit thinking in a room. It is a dynamic and moving piece - Michelangelo was interested in the integrity of the block, Bernini undercut, attached sections and made sculpture more theatrical.

Another important point stressed again and again is that Rome was built on the blood of martyrs and saints. By restoring the churches, it emphasised the authoritative Christian heritage of Rome. The old relics of St Bibiana were reinterred under the altar in her church, the interior restored and a new façade for the front. On certain feast days her head would have been brought from Santa Maria Maggiore and displayed on the façade’s relic balcony on the central bay. The cult of the healing possibilities of Bibiana wasn’t new, this area of Rome was associated with a pagan cult of healing so this demonstrated the continuity of place and space in a remodelled church. Bernini’s cleverly lit figure with column, a relic of martyrdom gives her a dramatic edge.

The theatricality of relic presentation is taken to the extreme with the church and relics of St Alessio. He was an eastern saint, who ran away from home but was then later taken in by his parents who didn’t recognise him. In a Harry Potter moment, he lived in a cubbyhole under the stairs and now his relics are displayed in the same way on the altar. Kitch, horrible and doesn't work on many different levels. There are many versions of his legend and he became less and less important, now being downgraded to a very unimportant saint.

The problem of what you do when there are no bodily relics? Where Christ is concerned, items in which he may have come into contact are hugely significant, for instance, the column where he was flagellated. Artists went to great lengths to paint this column as accurately as possible because this is an attempt to prove the veracity of the relic – the size of the column in Reuben’s painting is the same as the relic in Santa Prassede and it looks ridiculous in the painting. The other contact relic mentioned were the Scala Sancta - Sixtus V was determined to make Rome pilgrim capital of the Christian world and so he went round appropriating stuff for propaganda. Christ went up stairs to be flagellated and Sixtus recreated this so that pilgrims could emulate Christ on their hands and knees. People are not allowed to touch these stairs so they are covered. 

Finally we looked at St Petronilla and the monumental Guercino’s burial. This was much loved in the 19th century. This painting sits in a key, prestigious location in St Peter’s which seems strange for a saint none of us have heard of. It has now been recreated in mosaic and the original is in the Capitoline museum. The narrative is the usual – an apocryphal story of a vulnerable mentally ill girl who would rather starve than be forced into a marriage. The painting shows two version of the saint - a  dead girl being ambiguously put down into the grave or pushed up from it. Then half way up she is being welcomed into heaven as a saint.

Her prime location in St Peters is due to the cosy relationship between religion and politics. When a dolphin-decorated sarcophagus was dug up, the French interest was engaged. ‘Her chapel became the burial place for French kings. Her association with the French crown stems from the fact that Charlemagne and Carloman were considered Saint Peter's adopted sons after 800. Petronilla, as the supposed daughter of Peter, became their patroness and of the treaties concluded between the Holy See and the Frankish emperors.’ During various politically turbulent times, the popes needed the French and so this link was pushed further – when asked to attack Geneva on behalf of the popes, Petronilla was moved to the prime spot in St Peter’s.

The course has stressed the theatricality of religion; in your drab miserable life, you can immerse yourself in awe and take comfort in the nearness of your dead holy heroes. Personally I think it’s all about church control and propaganda. But that’s just me! There will be no more religious stuff on here, despite the lecture last night on martyrs and torture, frankly I'm sick of the whole fecking lot of 'em. In the absence of a module next term, there will be a renewed effort for review and discussion about things that have enthralled me - rather than relentless religious cynicism. Can't wait.

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