Monday, 4 November 2013

Relics: Ideological Messengers of the Church?

True Cross, Santo Toribio de Liébana, Spain.
(photo by F. J. Díez Martín).
This post has come out of a preparation for a class presentation on relics. The module name is 'the art of persuasion' and yet it seems that we have launched straight into the art without actually thinking consciously about the persuasion. Preparation for this course took place in July 2013 at the British Library with the 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion' exhibition and so finally I was able to draw on prior knowledge to apply to an area in which I am becoming increasingly familiar.[1] To see how relics were used by the king and state, I also read recent books and articles.[2] When I talk about 'relics' I'm referring to the bodily fragments and associated paraphernalia associated with the saint in question which are usually kept in reliquaries or altars in Catholic churches the world over. Given that my tutor will be talking about them specifically, I don't want to cover the same ground as her.

The origin of the word propaganda can be traced back to the place and period we are looking at, that is to say seventeenth century Rome. We have seen that the church was facing both internal and external challenges so were looking to maintain and strengthen its position. In the late sixteenth century a commission of cardinals was set up by pope Gregory XIII and charged with spreading Catholicism and regulation ecclesiastic affairs in heathen lands and by 1622 it was called the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide. In 1627, the College of Propaganda was established which trained young priests to go out on these missions and spread the word. So the first propagandist institute was simply a body set up to improve the dissemination of religious dogma.

Propaganda has taken on negative connotations over past century but we must remember that devices such as persuasion, propaganda, rhetoric are inherently neutral. The messages and ideology that they express are not. This is when the relationship of the communication method and what is being communicated becomes problematic. Throw a physical manifestation like a work of art or relic into the mix and suddenly the ideology becomes visible. So if 'propaganda becomes ineffective the moment we become aware of it', how do we know what to look out for when we see a work of art - and I include relics here - which is delivering a message on behalf on an institution like the Catholic Church?

I found a very useful set of educational slides on slideshare which got me thinking about how relics spread an ideological message.[3] As Howard Louthan writes, 'sacred relics and remains became a focal point in Rome's efforts to re-establish the church' (p168-169).[4]

Firstly for anything to qualify as propaganda, the 'message' must meet certain criteria of propaganda. There must be 1. A persuasive function; 2. A sizeable target audience; 3 A group's agenda to represent; and 4. A use of faulty reasoning and emotional appeal. The message not only has to incorporate all these criteria but there are many ways to deliver it, which they called categories. This is where I have had to be strict in order to meet the 10 min presentation time limit. There are many categories of propaganda so I outline the four most relevant to relics.

1. Transfer. This is the transfer of feeling and associations from one idea, person or symbol to another - they send an unspoken message to appeal to the emotions. As Alexandra Walsham defines, 'relics are material manifestations of the act of remembrance; they perpetuate memory in the guise of physical remains, linking the past and present in a concrete way'.[5] They form the static centre of a church which sits in the middle of the community, creating a powerful sense of belonging and identity. For instance a piece of true Cross in a precious reliquary (even if it isn't or it has had doubt cast upon it) is a symbol of Christ's sacrifice for Christians. This unites the community and has a profound emotional effect - this explains why Philip II had a difficult task in extracting loved relics from certain places.

2. Assertion. Assertion presents the debatable thing as fact, with no justification, relying on the premise that the people are gullible and will believe what they are told. The position of the catholic church is set out in a Council of Trent decree which instructs; 'the holy bodies of holy martyrs and others living with Christ...are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men'.[6] When the clergy assert that this relic is presented as the true arm of X, the head of Y or fragment of cross, they are ensuring the obedience of their congregations through their positions of authority, respect, trust and power. This demonstrates that relics function as religious and political capital but they are also economically and culturally valuable, becoming 'sacred commodities'.

3. Plain folk. People tend to distrust those they perceive as outsiders, and the plain-folk technique takes advantage of this instinct. Although the relic is seen as special and powerful, it is possible that it was associated with someone with humble origins. For instance, the relics of the crib that are preserved at St. Mary Major's in Rome emphasise Christ's humble birth. By giving the congregation something extraordinarily ordinary to venerate, they are persuaded that their religious heroes could walk amongst them sharing poverty, disease and hunger and be 'one of them'. For the church the relics adds an air of reassurance that the saints suffered more than you. A reminder to the people that life isn't that bad - offering saints as exemplar is an effective control mechanism. Not only that, during their lives some saints were good at weaving spun tales around their lives of being ordinary but touched by religion.

4. Testimonial. Testimonials take advantage of the fact that there are certain people we tend to trust—even if that trust is based on mere recognition, rather than true credibility. When people proclaimed that relics had performed miracles through healing the sick or changed their own matter, there would be an element of trusting the person telling the story. If a well-known figure or priest announced the miracle associated with the relic is real, then they would be trusted.

The way that relics spread the Catholic Church’s message is a perfect example of propaganda. They fulfil the different criteria, that is to say, they perform a persuasive function, a huge population sees them in churches, they have been officially endorsed by Council of Trent and most important, they appeal directly to people's emotions and religious fervour. However, concluding on a problematic note, if you were deeply immersed in that seventeenth century community and you sincerely believed they were holy relics and essential for your faith – would you accept that they were simply ideological messengers of the Church?

[1] David Welsh, Propaganda: Power and persuasion, (British Library, 2013)
[2] Guy Lazure, 'Possessing the sacred: Monarchy and identity in Philip II's relic collection at the Escorial', Renaissance Quarterly 60:1 (Spring 2007) pp58-93; Evonne Levy, Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque (University of California, 2004)
[3] 11 Techniques of propaganda,, accessed 2/11/13
[4] Howard Louthan, 'Tongues, toes and bones: Remembering saints in early modern Bohemia', in Alexandra Walsham, ed., Relics and remains, Past & Present Supplement 5 2010, (Oxford: OUP, 2010), p168-169
[5] Alexandra Walsham, ed., Introduction, Relics and remains, Past & Present Supplement 5 2010, (Oxford: OUP, 2010), p13
[6] Relics accessed 2/11/13

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