Saturday, September 22, 2012

Bits & Pieces


As the Britannica puts it:
...monasteries, cathedrals, treasuries and holy places all over the world hold vast collections of cherished relics. These fragments of bone, hair, tooth and miscellanea were never simply religious decoration. They provided a physical comfort to those surrounded by the intangibility of god and the devil, and also were believed to hold miraculous power. In the Bible, objects touched by Jesus and his disciples had healing powers, so why shouldn’t the same be true of the very remains of their bodies, and those most saintly of saints?

On a tour of various European capitals - and smaller towns - and peeking into their churches and crypts, it is difficult to avoid these various bits and pieces. Saints, in particular, seem to have left their body parts strewn about the ancient world, and they've been gathered up and revered for centuries.

The Britannica goes on:
Far more common are the relics of the apostles and saints. There has always been a scramble among monasteries and cathedrals to have the holiest relics, sometimes regardless of how they obtained them. Relics were often stolen from churches during times of war, taken to the victor’s home country and displayed to be venerated by their own people. “Often the idea for the theft came in the form of a dream or vision, which was widely considered to be the way God and saints communicated. Often the saint itself decided. If the saint allowed itself to be taken without punishing the thieves and if the saint continued to produce miracles, then clearly he or she was happy in their new home.” 
King Saint Stephen - statue in Pest.

Budapest: You can read about Stephen I, the (probable, if you don't count Attila the Hun) first king of Hungary, here. He lived around the year 1000 - in fact, his coronation date is given as Christmas Day 1000, or 1 January 1001. He seems to have lived a useful and pious life, but sadly lost his son to an early death. Wikipedia tells us that:
 Without a living heir, on his deathbed, King St. Istvan raised with his right hand the Holy Crown of Hungary, and prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, asking her to take the Hungarian people as her subjects and become their queen.  
Bear in mind that right hand -- it forms part of the subsequent story. In 1038 Stephen was canonised as a saint by the then Pope, becoming:
 the first canonized confessor king, a new category of saint. He is venerated as the patron saint of Hungary, kings, children who are dying, masons, stonecutters, and bricklayers.
Basilica of King St Stephen, Budapest

St Stephen, as befits a patron saint, seems popular and revered in Hungary. 20th August is his saint's day, and is a public holiday. The main church in Budapest is the basilica of King Saint Stephen. And his right hand? Preserved as a Holy Relic in the Basilica:
The king's right hand, known as the Holy Right, is kept as a relic. Hungarians interpreted the incorruptibility of his right arm and hand - with which he had held the Holy Crown aloft from his deathbed when asking Virgin Mary to be the Queen of the Hungarians - as a sign that the Blessed Virgin Mary had accepted the king's offer to her of the Hungarian people, and she remains officially their queen. The incorrupt arm was divided among European royalty, but the Holy Right of King Saint Stephen was placed in a town built solely for the purpose of keeping it, the town in Transylvania called "Szent Jobb", or Holy Right. Later, the Holy Right was transferred to where it is today, the Basilica of King Saint Stephen in Budapest. 
The mummified right hand of King Saint Stephen.

 Venice: A tour of Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice is on every tourist's list, and you can marvel at the mosaics, and the marvellous gold and enamel altar screen studded with jewels -- under which is preserved the remains of the parton Saint of Venice, Saint Mark.

St Mark's Basilica, Venice.
Here is Wikipedia's life of St Mark, including the interesting information about how his bits and pieces (except his head, which is apparently still in Alexandria) came to Venice:
In 828, relics believed to be the body of St. Mark were stolen from Alexandria by two Venetian merchants and taken to Venice, where the Byzantine Theodore of Amasea had previously been the patron saint. A basilica was built there to house the relics. A mosaic in St Mark's Basilica, Venice depicts sailors covering the relics with a layer of pork. Since Muslims are not allowed to touch pork, this action was done to prevent Muslim intervention in the relics removal.
Saint Mark and his symbol, the Lion.
Just be prepared if you venture into the Treasury of the Basilica - in addition to some ancient and rare religious objects such as bowls, vases and monstrances, there is a small room to one side, crammed to the gills with, er, bits and pieces. Bones, hair, splinters of woods, whole limbs - all collected and preserved by the merchants of Venice in the heyday of the Republic, to the greater glory of the Republic and its Basilica.

The Duomo of Amalfi.

Amalfi: But is isn't just the big cities that go in for this. Amalfi may be a small southern Italian town these days, but from 839 to 1075 Amalfi was one of the four great Maritime Republics. As such, it needed of course to go find some bones of a saint with which to crown the splendour of its Duomo. And being very resourceful, the merchants of Amalfi came back with the remains of Saint Andrew. Sant' Andrea is the parton saint of Amalfi to this day. Of course, he is also the patron saint of Scotland and a dozen other places - he has an interesting history. But it is his Amalfiani connection we're concerned with here.

The Wikipedia entry on Saint Andrew explains:
In 1208, following the sack of Constantinople, those relics of St Andrew and St Peter which remained in the imperial city were taken to Amalfi, Italy, by Cardinal Peter of Capua, a native of Amalfi. The Amalfi cathedral (Duomo), dedicated to St Andrew (as is the town itself), contains a tomb in its crypt that it maintains still contains the rest of the relics of the apostle. On 8 May 2008 the relic believed to be Andrew's head was returned to Amalfi Cathedral.
What Wiki doesn't mention, is that each year, around his Saint's day, the head of the  bronze statue of St Andrew in the crypt of the Amalfi Duomo is said to exude a mysterious and holy substance known as "manna". Yes, even today the inhabitants wait for this miraculous happening, as they have been doing since 1304.

As to St Andrew's actual skull, a little internet research was not enough to trace its supposed journey with any certainty. It apparently was left in Patras, where St Andrew was crucified a martyr, while the rest of him went to Constantinople (where the Amalfianis, er, stole it). The skull later, after various peregrinations, ended up in at Peter's Basilica in Rome (with a few other bits - a snippet of his shoulder blade was sent at one time to Scotland). I might have wondered about the Wiki reference to the return of the skull to Amalfi, except that on a memorable visit to the crypt recently, I happened upon a "showing" of the skull in question. Behind the big altar with the bronze statue of the saint a custodian was revealing the holy skull to two women penitents, who touched and - erk - kissed it. They said a few private prayers; we remaining tourists stood respectfully; then the custodian closed the silver and gilt box in which it is kept, covered it with red velvet drapery, and locked it away securely.

Sant' Andrea - or a bit of him.

Careful handling.

Locked safely away.

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