Otranto Ossuary

My friend Grey just got back from a trip to Italy wherein he had the opportunity to visit Otranto Ossuary. I am envious! ^_^ This is one of the ossuaries I’d like to visit myself some day. He was kind enough to take several photos for me, which I’m sharing here. The bones are behind glass, so he said it was difficult to get a decent shot but here are the photos he sent me. (All photos by Grey Zane).

Otranto ossuary

I like this one the best, because it gives you a sense of the impact of the bones themselves, flanking the high altar.

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Here is a close up of the skulls.

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And here another.

Paul Koudounaris, in his wonderful book The Empire of Death, notes that this was the first Italian ossuary to house the remains of the battle dead. In 1480, Otranto was sacked by the Turks and priests were tortured and, along with locals, massacred.(1) In 1500, remains, upwards of 900 skulls and other bits were disinterred and moved to the ossuary, where they remain to this day. In the eighteenth century, they were canonized en masse.

These are powerful places, places that remind us the dead are always near; places that remind us of the rightness of veneration.

 

Note:

  1. See Koudounaris, Paul, The Empire of Death, London, UK: Thames and Hudson, 2011, p. 157.

Another Day at the Met

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I had to pop by school today to drop off a paper (profs wanted both hard and electronic copies) so my friend A. and I decided to spend the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. It’s a quick trip from the uni and we had a blast.

I had two goals going in: to see a 14th century pilgrim badge from the shrine of Thomas Beckett, and to see the reliquary of Mary Magdalene said to hold her tooth. For once, I was actually successful at seeing what I planned! My friend A. wanted to see the fashion exhibit “Manus x Machina,” so we did that too.

I’ve just finished taking a class on Medieval Pilgrimage and one of the last things we looked at was Thomas Beckett’s shrine at Canterbury. Pilgrim badges were mementos that pilgrims could purchase after having completed their pilgrimages (I have one from the shrine of Mary: the Loreto, in Prague from my trip there last summer). In this instance, these Canterbury badges are of special importance. Henry VIII ordered the original shrine to be melted down, its gold and gems once given in offerings to the saint stolen to enrich the coffers of the king. This was not uncommon. Protestants desecrated and destroyed many relics and shrines during their Reformation.(1) Badges like this one

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provide the only visual reference we have for what Thomas Beckett’s shrine originally looked like. This was once one of the most well-known and popular pilgrimage sites in Europe. The original shrine was elaborate and lush. As you can see in the image above, it had its own attendant who, ostensibly for a fee, would pull a rope that lifted the top of the shrine to reveal the body (which, from the looks of the badge, was visible in situ in the shrine anyway). The shrine was also said to possess what was then the largest ruby in England if not Europe. It disappeared after the original shrine was destroyed. You can just see a mark for it in the badge above.

After looking at the pilgrim badge, I finally went to see Mary Magdalene’s relic. It’s stunning. I’m actually really, really bothered by the fact that it’s in a museum where proper veneration cannot be paid (I feel this about certain Pagan statues as well). It belongs in a church, but if it were in a church I probably wouldn’t have gotten to see it…so I’m torn. I also find the Met’s labeling practices incredibly incomplete, sloppy, and irritating. Take Magdalene’s relic, for instance. There is the central and huge bit of rock crystal holding the tooth. That is clearly marked as Magdalene’s. But above that there is a disk holding relics of St. Francis, Clare, and possibly other saints as well but this is nowhere marked on the label. It’s frustrating for those of us who are researching such relics. I noticed half a dozen cases where the labeling was equally incomplete and in some cases, it was impossible to tell if the reliquary still contained the relic or not. The Met really should do better.

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Anyway, this particular relic dates from the 14th and 15th centuries (different parts of the relic were made in different periods).(2)

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After a brief stop for lunch in the American wing (they have a nice café and while there, I ran into a fellow student, which was cool. We had taken a pedagogy seminar this past semester together so we talked literature and art for a bit), A. and I went to the fashion exhibit. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it but oh my Gods it was WILD. There were even a few pieces 3D printed. I couldn’t look at them as dresses, but rather sculpture and that’s how I engaged with them. Some of them were particularly lovely (my favorites were a pink Chanel cloak covered in flowers and a dress from 1928, also flowered that looked like 1928 smashed into 1728—it had friggin’ panniers. It was awesome). There were unusual materials, and dresses from the mid 1800s, all the way up to the present from major design houses and unnamed women forgotten in the flow of history (an 1870 wedding dress of hand crochet lace was particularly memorable).

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The Met page about this exhibit has some videos that will give a glimpse of the dresses.

That was it. The drive home was a nightmare and took us four hours (traffic and every witless wonder in NYC on the road at the same time apparently) but the day was a good one and we plan to visit again soon. I’m leaving the Classics program to begin my studies in the Medieval Studies department at my uni (a decision I’ve long been pondering and one that will hopefully lead eventually to Theology) so I have a summer to acclimate myself to my new field before classes resume in the fall. Lots to learn, always.

 

Notes:

  1. See “The Stripping of the Altars” by Eamon Duffy for a good overview of the damage and desecration the Reformation caused in England to holy sites.
  2. See this site for a little bit more info.

 

 

 

Visiting Relics in New York City

shrine ceiling holy redeemers

(The ceiling of the relic shrine)

I had a bit of an adventure today. For quite a few months I’ve been wanting to visit the Church of the Holy Redeemer (173rd E. 3rd Street, between Avenues A and B in Manhattan). I found out that this is one of the very few churches containing a saint’s body in the US. I have an interest, both academic and personal in relics, bones, ossuaries and the like, but they’re rare commodities in the United States. Such things are, for the most part, a Catholic phenomena and the United States was predominantly settled by Protestants. By the time we gained a substantial Catholic population, elaborate relic chapels were falling out of favor even amongst European Catholic communities. So I was, needless to say, very excited when I found that there was a full body relic (as well as 104 smaller relics) right here in New York City.

It’s bitterly cold here in New York today, so I almost cancelled my outing but I’m so glad I didn’t. I met up with two good friends after work (I teach on Friday mornings in the Bronx), MAG and FMF and we braved the cold to go look at some bones. It was awesome.

most holy redeemer

(The relic shrine with the body of St. Datian)

St. Datian was an obscure Roman martyr. His relic – in this case the saint’s complete body encased in wax—was translated to the US in the late 1800s and rests in the church with over one hundred other relics (bits and pieces, not full bones or bodies). He was apparently a one time persecutor of Christians who converted. Little else is known about him. In addition to St. Datian, the small relic chapel (gone are the days when a body of a saint would take pride of place near the main altar) holds over one hundred other, small relics. The church itself, though relatively plain on the outside is more ornate German baroque style. It’s in some disrepair, but still quite lovely inside (though it doesn’t hold a candle to a European Church of the same caliber). According to what I was able to find on the net, the church is open until 8pm, but they closed up around 4pm, almost chasing us out.

So we got there and found the relic shrine, away from the main altar in a nook on the right, one of several devotional nooks lining either wall. The shrine is lovely and it was a shame that it wasn’t well lit (though this may have been because the church was getting ready to close for the day. The only shrine well lit was Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which I’ll talk about in a moment). St. Datian is small—it always surprises me how small the bodies of some of these saints are. I’ll bet he’s barely over five feet!) but the design of the shrine was quite aesthetically pleasing.

sleepy saint datian

(not the best photo: it was very, very dark and he was behind glass)

A completely unexpected surprise was the shrine to Mary. Apparently, this church is a recognized, official pilgrimage site dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Her shrine was beautiful (though the sign, informing devotees that the candles were electric and we should not use matches to light them had me chuckling a bit). I think this was the most beautiful part of the entire church. The stained glass above and around the icon of Mary was breathtaking.

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(the Mary chapel)

All in all it was a most satisfying visit, though I do want to go back when the Church is well lit.

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(the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help)

 

(all images are mine. Please do not use without permission.)

 

 

 

 

Visiting with Maria Goretti Part II

So I’m sitting in my train, waiting to start the journey back to New York. Two hours earlier I was in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston visiting the saint. It has been a day, though the day is not yet even half way done, of intense introspection. It’s good to have days like that sometimes. This trip was certainly a marvel for me, all in deeply internal ways that I could never begin to explain well to someone else.

I was lucky this morning. I was one of the first ones to the Cathedral. I came in through a side entrance so I didn’t see the large banners posted at the main until I left, but on both sides of the main aisle, whereby one might approach the saint, there were two banners, each indicating clearly how to venerate, what was permitted (15 seconds per person to keep lines moving) and what wasn’t (photos). They did a really good job of presentation. There were larger banners ringing the sides of the church explaining who Maria was, what this tour was all about, etc. as well.

I was one of the first ones there so I actually got to go up to her twice and I probably spent longer than fifteen seconds before the reliquary too. She had an honor guard—which makes sense for protection of her relic. Four of them were lined in pairs right as you approached and they handed out prayer cards of her and two were stationed on either side of the glass reliquary case.

She’s so SMALL!! I knew that she was just under twelve when she died, but somehow I didn’t picture her to be so small– barely four feet– and delicate. I’m still wrapping my mind around someone trying to rape and then when they couldn’t, when she fought her attacker off, kill this child. It makes her story all the more powerful for me.

I was able to sit for quite some time in the first few rows of the church almost right in front of her. I prayed and sat in silence for a long time. I tucked the third class relics (when you touch an item to the body or reliquary of a saint in Catholic theology, it becomes a relic itself, third class.* All the prayer cards we were given had been touched to her reliquary) safely away and stayed as long as I could. I had actually intended to stay longer, but after about forty minutes, every Catholic school in the city suddenly arrived (LOL), so I thought it best to leave. They were respectful, but with that many people suddenly filling the church the opportunity for silence and solitude was gone. I headed back to the hotel and caught an early train home.

I did find out that amongst other things, Maria Goretti is the patron saint of those who lost their parents too early.

Now I know why I had to come.

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(This is the image on the prayer cards we were given. Maria’s mother, who was alive at the time of her canonization, said of all the paintings she’s seen of her daughter, this one looks the most like Maria. Sadly, no actual photographs of the girl ever existed.

*First class relics are the actual remains of the saint him or herself. In this case, the reliquary itself that contains such remains is considered likewise a first class relic. Second class relics are comprised of anything the saint wore or handled. Third class relics are items touched to a first class relic.

St. Maria Goretti in Boston

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When I was a child I was fascinated by Maria Goretti. Going to Catholic school from Kindergarten on, one learns about the stories of the various saints as a matter of course. They’re vividly presented and the gruesome horrors of many of their martyrologies linger long and deep in the minds of small Catholic children – or at least they did for me. I always found their trials and sacrifices inspiring, humbling, and it all made me want to be a better human being. Now, of course, my faith is very different. I’ve been a polytheist for thirty years, deeply devoted to my Gods, but I still find inspiration in the spiritual valor of certain saints. There are some things that cross traditions and they continue to inspire and we continue to be in a spiritual dialogue of sorts, across religions, across centuries, across a gulf of experience that resolves in the desire to do right in devotion. I continue to learn from them and as far as I’m concerned, in the chaos and brutality of our world, we need all the inspiration we can get. Sometimes encountering something special about a saint that I particularly liked as a child, is like unexpectedly running into an old acquaintance or friend

That’s how it was here. On Friday, one of my students told me that the body of Maria Goretti, the youngest saint ever canonized by the Church was on a special tour of the US. She was in NYC last week but alas I had missed her. My student kindly sent me the tour schedule and I discovered that she would be in Boston on October 5. I was supposed to work at an art gallery that I co-own in Beacon, but my husband, seeing how disappointed I was, offered to work for me so that I could get myself to Boston on Sunday and Monday. I took him up on that and here I am, sitting in a hotel room in Downtown Boston nervous as hell and waiting for tomorrow to arrive.

That’s the thing about this: I am nervous. Last night before I left New York, I was terrified. I thought perhaps it was that I am traveling alone (I usually travel with a companion) but I’ve traveled alone before to places farther afield than Boston! Then I thought it was just a weird type of separation anxiety from my husband but there was no reason for that. I just got back from a month long pilgrimage. We’ve been separated for far more than two days. It was only as I was chatting with him before bed that I realized why I was having such tremendous anxiety: the last time I was in Boston was several years ago, when my mother was still alive. Then it hit me: We were so incredibly close. When she died part of me went with her and I have been pushed to go on these pilgrimages partly to get that part of myself back. It’s almost a type of soul retrieval. I know it’s a type of soul healing. With that epiphany my fear dissipated.

What Maria Goretti has to do with all of that, I’ll probably never know. My mother, like I myself, was a polytheist. Maria Goretti is the patron saint of purity and mercy and perhaps that’s the thing: I need to be clean in my work and far more compassionate with myself than I have ever learned how to be. I told my husband that sometimes I feel very small, like a lost and motherless child. Sometimes I hurt so badly and the world seems very confusing, as though I exist as a child within myself. Maybe I do and as he calmed me, I realize that if that is the case, then there is also the battered carapace of the adult to protect that child and maybe that is all adulthood is: sorting through the layers, learning to live with the scars, and finding joy and adventure in between.

Coming up on the train today, I read a short bio of Maria Goretti. I knew her story from childhood of course but I wanted to refresh my memory and put myself in the right frame of mind. On the surface she was a young, illiterate Italian peasant girl. She was murdered when she was not yet twelve resisting the assault of a man intent on raping her. The bio I read was fairly gruesome, including the charming detail that when the multiple stab wounds (which included perforated lungs and intestines) were treated at the hospital, no anesthetic was used (I’m not quite sure why not). She died defending her virtue. Apparently even at eleven, she was known to be quite devout and after her death, miracles were attributed to her to the point that she is known as a ‘wonder worker.’ Her canonization roughly forty years after her death was the only time in the history of the Church that a saint’s mother was alive and present for the service. I can’t help but wonder what that experience must have been like for her mother. Maria’s story can be found here.

So that is it. I’ll post more tomorrow after I have visited her reliquary. It’s on view all day. For now, even though it’s terribly early (barely seven pm EST!), I’m off to bed. My journey will continue soon enough and I want to be well rested.