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I watched this film last night- a documentary tracing the journey through one and half millennia of religious objects, saints remains and art made out of body parts.
My personal favourite was a little silver case containing the eyeball of a Catholic priest hung drawn and quartered some time around the reformation in England. Body parts were parboiled and displayed around town- at which point some brave soul popped out an eye ball to save as a keepsake.
What I was less aware of was the fact that for hundreds of years, in order to celebrate mass, the relics of saints were required- contained in mini- altars and often invested with huge power and wealth. It was this trade in body parts and objects- from the thorn crown of Jesus and bits of the ‘true cross’. to fragments of bone and hair purported to be from saints old and new that was one of the targets of the Reformation.
Certainly, growing up in an Evangelical reformed tradition we found all such things ludicrous- idolatrous and heretical even. They were one of the more visible things that seperated us still from any close relationship with the Catholic tradition.
Of course- we had our own objects of sanctification- I remember in one church I belonged to there was a carved communion table, which was moved about three meters- leading to bloody revolt by some members of the congregation.
The power of the symbol, and the anchor that connection to people who have gone before us in faith- these things seem to me to be important still.
As I watched the programme I was amazed at the obvious power that the objects had over the presenter- and also on me. It was difficult to be cynical in the face of such obvious veneration.
Having said all that- like most of our religion- it clearly had the capacity to go badly wrong. All that mad trading, and competition to get the best objects. And the possibility that the objects become more important than the object of the objects.
There is a shorter clip of the opening of a mini altar and examination of some remains (including hair supposed to have belonged to St John) here. In fact- I will add this video as a different post, as it is quite something.
I do not believe that I have any right to doubt the devotion of people who made objects like these, or who worshiped around them. Whilst I might not seek to collect any bits of saints to give meaning to my faith- I do believe that my experience of God is enhanced by symbols- by spaces and by objects within them.