Are You There, God?
On the power of religious relics.
“So, what?,” my friend wrote in response to my email from Ljubljana. “Someone had like a jar ready when John’s head got chopped off?”
- Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe by Caroline Walker Bynum. 440 pages. Zone. $32.95.
- Knock: The Virgin's Apparition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland by Eugene Hynes. 390 pages. Cork University Press.
“Well, I’m not convinced it’s actually his blood,” I wrote back. “It’s probably just as likely to be strawberry jam.”
I had accidentally stumbled upon Saint John the Baptist’s blood in Slovenia. It happens often enough in collections of medieval art: Body parts can be found scattered about the gilded and bejeweled representations of religious figures, usually where you least expect them. A tiny drawer pops out and there’s a mummified finger. Or you’re admiring a frame, only to notice it’s wrapped in human hair or has small bones wedged in the corners. And at the end of the this particular collection I found been a monstrance, all delicate crystal and gold, filled with John the Baptist’s blood. Or, some sort of sticky, thick residue of an absurdly red substitute.
Back at my hotel, I had written to my friend, trying to think through how such a thing came to exist. I understood the theories behind such objects — I went to the exhibition because I had been reading Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe. During the Middle Ages, there was a strong emphasis on the image of God in the daily practice of faith, what others throughout time have called idolatry. But for many, the representation of Christ was essentially Christ himself. Images could bestow miracles. They did not only gesture to the divine, there was something divine about them in and of themselves, despite their human origions. Like the human son of God, they transcended their earthly matter. If you kissed this image of Jesus’s wound, a startlingly vaginal looking spot on the page, you could save yourself from seven years in purgatory.
If a representation of a god can do that, imagine the power of an actual body. Jesus’s body could have no relics, as it is argued that every cell that had been discarded from his body — skin, hair, the blood bled on the cross — had been swept up to heaven during the ascension. But the saints are another story. And with the emphasis on the miraculous, the visionary, and the visual in the medieval church, soon every cathedral needed a reliquary or a monstrance with the fingernails, the bones, the skin, the hair, or the blood of a saint. Relics could, after all, perform miracles and healings; they still hummed in the frequency of the divine.
But there was a lie at the source of this miraculous monstrance in Slovenia. A fraud. This thing just appeared in the 13th century, the origins of John the Baptist’s blood unknown. Someone knowingly spooned in the jam or animal blood or whatever that substance is into the lovingly crafted monstrance and called it something else. This was a common enough occurrence, churchmen or peddlers lying about provenance, knowingly committing fraud, and out of that lie came miracles. Healings and good luck are attributed to a faked saint bone. The deaf can hear, the blind can see, the ailing are well, the crippled can walk, all because they came in contact with the relic and they believed. And so I wondered about the life of this little vial of blood. I wondered what the church leaders knew, and what they thought of the people who touched or kissed it and found themselves whole again. Perhaps they thought the lie didn’t matter, that it was the intense faith and love that sparked the miracle. “Miracle occurs,” as Bynum puts it, “in the space between object and believer. To the adherent, the power is in the image, but the miracle is an encounter with this power.” So then maybe what makes up the atomic weight of the object is actually just a small detail. Or maybe the church leaders were cynical enough to look at the people and see an ignorant rabble deluding themselves.
At the time I’m writing this, we are in the run-up to another Christmas. And yet the miracle of Christmas itself could be said to be a lie, or perhaps a mistake. A bit of confusion. Whatever actually happened with Jesus the Person, the story of Jesus the Son of God was cobbled together and adapted differently. To make a better story. He probably was not born in December. People argue about the actual birth date, but no one really thinks it was December 25. Symbolically Jesus was supposed to be the bringer of light, and that’s much more metaphorically dramatic in the dark days surrounding the solstice, and it aligns nicely with pre-existing rituals and holidays. Then there’s the problem of the historical accuracy of the King Herod story. But perhaps the most dramatic fudging of the true story is the idea of the virgin birth. It was something of an afterthought, added to the story in order to make it fit an already mistranslated prophecy. The prophecy of the birth of the messiah had specified a young girl, not a virgin. “Virgin” was probably implied, but if that was an explicitly important part of the prophecy, they could have used the word. They did not, but somehow, after the fact, it became the most important part of the story. In order to cobble together a miracle.
But once the Virgin Mary was released onto the world, the world took her and ran in different directions. She was perhaps a fraud, as many prefer to overlook the fact that, virgin or not at the time of Jesus’s birth, she did manage to have several children of much more earthly origins after that. Either way, each group of Christians was able to overlook whatever they wanted in order to see what they needed. From the Black Madonna of Poland to the blue robed Mary of France, each people interpreted Mary in their own way. As pointed out in Christian Materiality, medieval icon of the Virgin Mary portray her in widely different ways, from dark hair to blond, from girlish to womanly, from round face to long, from decked in black and holding her dead son to alone and veiled. And yet when you see any painting of Mary, she is instantly recognizable, despite the lack of visual coherency. It’s the emotion of the piece, the subtle cues, the intent. A man paints a woman, we see the Virgin Mary.
Mary was linked very quickly to healings and miracles, as she made earthly appearances through Christendom. Bynum notes that the popularity of the Virgin Mary made the church a little nervous. She was embraced quickly and wholeheartedly, and many of the medieval icons show her in a prominence that would have made church leaders uncomfortable. In one reliquary in Bynum’s book, a wooden Mary contains the trinity within her body. She is the world in which they exist. That was way off from what the religious figures wanted its followers to believe, but as the medieval age passed and Christianity evolved, the Virgin Mary remained a figure just as important as the Trinity, and sightings of her on Earth increased.
The church had much to gain from these appearances, just as it had from tolerating the believers’ outsized worship of the woman. Places like Lourdes, where, after a young girl had visions of Mary in 1858, became, and remains, a place of pilgrimage. If you want an earthly explanation for the divine vision, you would generally first look at who was profiting. But the truth is that there were too many to effectively narrow it down. A 14-year-old girl was suddenly heralded as a prophet, the townspeople financially profited from the influx of pilgrims, the parish received increased attendance and importance, and even people who heard about it from afar had their doubts allayed.
An investigator of a later sighting, in late 19th-century western Ireland, made the case that perhaps the whole thing was set up with a magic lantern. This particular sighting, examined in Eugene Hynes’s Knock: The Virgin’s Apparition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, was peculiar. The Virgin Mary did not converse with a young girl; she appeared with two other figures, one Joseph and the other debatable, in front of a small group, and remained for hours. (Interestingly, again Mary was the central figure, with the others bowing in supplication to her. She did not look down demurely, but looked straight ahead at her audience.) None of the heavenly visitors moved or spoke. When they were approached, they seemed to retreat and had no physical solidity. They stood still, in a bright light, hovering above the ground in postures familiar to all who have seen the religious statuary that decorates many Catholic cathedrals, and then faded away. Hence the theory of the magic lantern, projecting a two dimensional image outside the church of the Irish area of Knock. None of the witnesses reported seeing any source of the light, but then we all know that under certain circumstances we all see what we want to see.
Again, the question becomes, well, if someone set this up, who was it? And what was his motivation? But too many people benefited from the appearance of Mary, Joseph, and a generic “bishop” figure who was identified later as John the Baptist in a process of elimination. The area became a site of pilgrimage, although it never reached the importance or popularity of the Lourdes sighting. The church regained its congregation, which had been slipping away during this time of great political tumult. And the people present, who had survived the famine but were facing yet another time of failed crops and potential starvation, had their faith renewed. Any number of people, from an ousted archbishop to a townsperson facing poverty to one of the witnesses, could have set up a magic lantern in the hopes of cashing in on the blessings that followed such a sighting.
And blessings did follow. Believers quickly chipped away the mortar of the gable where the apparition was reported, thinking that perhaps the divine light that shone upon it left some magical qualities. Reportedly, the mortar cured everything from earaches to dumbness. The church was flooded with donations for fancier equipment and upgrades to its decorations. A Catholic committee was established to investigate the sighting, but they were not what you would call thorough. They were more than ready to admit the miracle of the day. And the people of Knock did not starve, if that could be said to be related. The famine did not repeat, and donations of food and relief from other countries kept the people fed.
Professor David Berman posited the theory of a magic lantern a century after the apparition first appeared. He points the finger at Father Cavanagh because, as Hynes sums it up, “the priest had a motive to engage in deliberate deception.” Father Cavanagh was the subject of a boycott after he sided with the landlords in the brewing Land War of the late 19th century and preached for restraint. But the congregation wanted, at the very least, solace and not admonishment. They responded by walking out of service. They were suffering and living under the threat of another mass starvation and wave of emigration, and they thought the church should be on the side of the meek and the poor, not the British landlords who were evicting families and occupying their lands.
If Father Cavanagh was behind the apparition, he should have learned history’s lesson that the Virgin Mary is difficult to control. While many appearance sites came to be considered holy and sacred, many other appearances were thought to be a form of scolding. Some interpreted her visit as a declaration that the church and its priests were not doing their jobs. Which is how this particular appearance at Knock was widely interpreted. The source may have hoped the apparition would suggest this parish was so pure that even the Virgin Mary came to service. But the people believed the message was a different one, that Mary was asking Father Cavanagh to tend to his flock and listen to their suffering. Whatever the intention, if there was one, Father Cavanagh soon found himself agreeing with the congregation. The substance of his sermons changed, and soon he was siding with the tenants.
Hynes goes through the motions in relaying how a magic lantern could have been set up to fool the witnesses. Some people tried to recreate the scene and were satisfied that it would have worked; others did the same and concluded the opposite. Hynes implies that it doesn’t really matter whether it was a fraud or not. The result is the same. Whether the object was a fake or not, the miracle of the event was something lying in between the apparition and the people, and between the time and place. The part of me who hates ambiguous endings and must know how everything works chafes at the idea of an unsuccessful investigation. Part of my impulse upon seeing the John the Baptist monstrance was to break the glass and take the substance to a lab for testing. Perhaps I would make a pitiful witness to an extraordinary event, looking for the strings or the light projected from afar.
But then again, maybe I don’t give myself enough credit. Last Christmas day, I found myself at yet another medieval art museum, a place I know very well. Part of the charm of the Gemäldegalerie is its utter predictability. I have been going there since I moved to Berlin, and nothing has ever changed. Every painting is in exactly the same place; even the security guards seem to have the same assignments. And yet on that day, I myself was in need of a little sign from above. I was forcing myself to go to the Galerie, as it was either that or spend the day in bed, crying. It had not been a good winter. I walked in expecting comfort, and instead entered the very first room and was startled to see that one painting had changed. In the place of the standard 15th-century pieta was a massive painting of a broken and bleeding Jesus, weak and staring at the floor, being held up by his Father. God looked out from the painting not with the compassion and agony of the Virgin Mary, but with a passionless and unwavering expression. Embarrassingly enough, I started to cry in front of that painting.
Two weeks later I was back in the neighborhood, appallingly early for coffee with a friend, so I popped in. I wanted to see the painting again, and to and write down the details of its origins. But the painting was gone, replaced once again with the pieta that belonged in that spot. I could have asked a guard, I suppose. But I chose not to. Whatever happened between object and subject, I willingly let it be a mystery. Instead of finding out that the paintings had been swapped by accident, and the other was back in storage where it belonged, I accepted it as a sign that not only was my suffering not impressing or moving God on that Christmas day, but that it was merely a speck in the history of believers and doubters alike. When there’s suffering, we’ll take whatever solace we can get. • 5 January 2012
Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Berlin, but spent many years in Chicago.