Back in 2005, when I was contributing to one ezine, I wrote the article about medieval cults and saints that was picked up by several news aggregators and witches’ websites. My understanding of what sites existed out there had instantly expanded.
Italy is making news this year, starting with two Leonardo da Vinci exhibitions in Manchester and a discovery of Leonardo’s portrait over in Italy, a Venice Biennale, and now a new discovery: Galileo’s fingers and a tooth.
The practice of removing body parts of saints and heros dates back to the time immemorial, and as Richard Allen Green, reporting for CNN, notes, it is somewhat bizarre that Galileo who was persecuted by the Church was subjected to a very religious act by his admirers. What this manifests is that Galileo, the inventor of the telescope, the discoverer of Jupiter’s satellites, and the supporter of the Copernican heliocentric theory, was revered as a saint scientist. Interestingly, the body parts were only removed in 1737 – at the height of the Enlightenment, the period renowned for its scientific explorations and discoveries.
For instance, Robert Torkington went on a pilgrimage in 1516. In his account, which is one of the earliest English travel diaries, he jots down the shrines and relics he had seen on his way. Venice was stocked with ‘the holy bodies and arms’, ‘the faces, the fingers, the teeth’ of the saints, and, quite correctly, he concludes that all this ‘is a great marvel to see’. One of the Cistercian monasteries there preserved a bone of St. Mary Magdalene, and the Benedictine monks stored one of the pots, in which Christ turned water into wine. Some of the most fascinating relics were located in Padua: the rib of St. Bonaventure, the tongue of St. Anthony, ‘yet fair and fresh’”, and the finger of St. Luke ‘that he wrote the gospel with’. And St. John the Baptist’s finger, with which he pointed to Jesus, was preserved both in France and on the Isle of Rhodes.
Fingers and bones were not the only collectables in pious medieval Europe. There were an enormous number of places that claimed to have a chalice, in which Joseph of Arimathea had collected Christ’s blood. Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland was erected especially for the Holy Grail. The oddity of the story is in that a benefactor of the chapel had received the Grail from a Templar a hundred years after the last Templar had died. The quantity of nails from the Cross that was kept in reliquaries across Europe could build a house. And some sites have boasted to have exceptionally rare relics: at one, a faithful could see hay from Jesus’s cradle; at another, he would see the milk of the Holy Virgin.
The Legend of St Ursula
Then and now, the cults were invented and legends were spread. One of the best known myths of medieval times is related to St. Ursula’s pilgrimage, on which she was accompanied by her servants. A medieval misreading of Latin “XI MV” as ‘11 thousand virgins’ instead of ‘11 virgin martyrs’ has led to a long-lasted mistake, widely commemorated in art. The strangest cult of Saint Guinefort flourished in a village, where the worshippers sent their prayers to none other, but a greyhound.
These days the possibility of such mistakes is dramatically low. The advent of the paparazzi and of the internet meant that there would be no confusion as to what the idol is. Centuries back, the papal inquisitors were frightened to hear that the villagers worship someone hairy, with a tail. Today no-one would have time to get perplexed, because Saint Guinefort would make it in the news before the inquisitors could reach the village. However, it does not mean that there are no longer any myths. Is Elvis alive or not? Films like “The Velvet Goldmine” seem only to support the view that fame can bore a person to the extent that he stages his own death. If we presume that Elvis had not died, aren’t we waiting then for his Second Coming? The bigger the idol, the less people believe that he can perform a human act of death. And it is quite logical, because the gods and kings do not die, do they?
The illustration is taken from Lady Lever Art Gallery’s website and represents the panels from The Legend of St Ursula and 11,000 virgins. The panels date back to 1400-1410 and were painted by the masters of Valencian School. Four more panels are now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.