|The cult of relics
||[Apr. 22nd, 2017|04:43 pm]
We visited the cathedral again today, having decided that joining a guided tour was a price worth paying for access to the parts of the building only accessible on those terms (the "throne of Charlemagne" - not actually the throne of Charlemagne - in the first gallery, and the gothic choir which houses the remains of Charlemagne - probably). There's too much of a crowd - both our own group, and others - to allow the sort of access I'd really like, but as an unexpected bonus our guide (Oliver) was excellent, good-humoured under stress and full of information.
This is an end view of the coffin / reliquary (picture it as shaped like a house) which is believed to contain the bones - most of them - of Charlemagne (he was declared a saint in the twelfth century by the antipope). And unlike just about every reliquary you've ever come across, there is good reason to believe that it contains what it is claimed to contain: the bones of a man of 60 or 70, of exceptional height. I don't know whether these were dated, but there is a continuous record back to Charlemagne's original interment in a rather fine classical marble sarcophagus depicting the rape of Proserpina.
I was so grateful that our tour had allowed even this brief approach to this glittering artifact, but we had seen plenty of bling in the Cathedral Treasury yesterday. No-one before Oliver had been prepared to talk intelligently about relics as a phenomenon, what they really are and what they tell us about the people who cared about them (I wrote at some length about this in the context of the Books of Outremer, of which desperance promises us a new edition soonest, hooray!). The audioguide to the Treasury talked not only about the relics of Charlemagne, and the random fragments of the Crown of Thorns and splinters of the cross, not to mention teeth of various saints, in the collection, but also explained - without batting an eyelid - the four great relics in the possession of the cathedral. These are:
- the gown worn by the Virgin Mary (to whom the cathedral is dedicated) when she gave birth to the Christ child
- the swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus
- the loin cloth worn by Jesus during His Crucifixion
- and the cloth on which the severed head of St. John the Baptist was placed
I don't think we are expected to take this literally for one moment - because, seriously? But in that case, what are these objects? And they do seem to be genuinely old - really old - textiles (some information about that dress). It would be interesting to know more.
In Trier we had seen (sort of - through glass, and darkly) their relic, the Holy Robe, which is supposed to be a tunic worn by Jesus, and brought to Trier by St Helena (which is pretty weak provenance, but at least it goes through the motions). They don't try to claim much in the way of authenticity, either, but argue that the seamless robe symbolises Christian unity (possibly because both are getting a bit tattered). The city was gearing up for one of its periodic celebrations of the robe, when it will be displayed to pilgrims, so here's a silly story from a previous event.
This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.