The Catacomb Saints: Bedazzled Skeletons of the Counter-Reformation

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Skeleton of Saint Catherine, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria

Skeleton of Saint Catherine, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria

The Work of the Dead

In the third century BCE, Diogenes the Cynic famously insisted that a corpse was mere matter, fundamentally profane and profoundly irrelevant.  To emphasize his point, Diogenes ordered that upon his death his own body should be tossed over the wall of the city and be left unburied.  His friends were stunned.  “What!” they replied.  “To the birds and beasts?”  “By no means,” he answered.  “Place my staff near me, that I may drive them away.”  “How can you do that, for you will not perceive them,” they responded.  “How am I then injured by being torn by those animals, if I have no sensation?” he rejoined.[1]

Josse Lieferinxe, Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken (1497-99), Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

Josse Lieferinxe, Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken (detail) (1497-99). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

In The Work of the Dead:  A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, historian Thomas W. Laqueur explores an intriguing question:  Why do human beings care for the dead?[2]  Laqueur observes that Diogenes, with his “seemingly commonsense rejection of all that decency and custom prescribe,” made the case “against the pretensions of the dead body more uncompromisingly” than anyone else in the Western tradition.[3]  Laqueur further contends that “[i]f Diogenes had not existed, we would have had to invent him,” because “[w]e need someone to insist that the dead do not matter so that we can respond with reasons for why they do.”[4]  As Laqueur explains, “[t]he history of the work of the dead is a history of how they dwell in us—individually and communally.  It is a history of how we imagine them to be, how they give meaning to our lives, how they structure public spaces, politics, and time.  It is a history of the imagination, a history of how we invest the dead . . . with meaning.”[5]  In short, Laqueur writes, the dead “are a powerful category of the imagination,” and then as now, “the corpse is their token.”[6]

The Roman Catacombs

On 31 May 1578, laborers along the Via Salaria in Rome uncovered something mysterious in a nearby vineyard:  a dark, forbidding hole that disappeared deep into the earth.[7]  Further investigation revealed the hole to be the entrance to an ancient, subterranean cemetery known as the Coemeterium Jordanorum, or Jordanian Cemetery.[8]  The discovery of other ancient cemeteries soon followed.  Begun in the 1st century, these burial places were initially known as hypogaeum (a subterranean place) and later as coemeterium (a sleeping place).[9]  We, however, have come to know these Roman cemeteries by a different name:  the Roman Catacombs.

View of the Roman Forum

The cemeteries of the Roman Catacombs are linked by a multitude of galleries that cross and recross each other to form a vast labyrinth beneath the city.  As J. Spencer Northcote and W. R. Brownlow explain in Roma Sotterranea, “The galleries are from two to four feet in width, and vary in height according to the nature of the rock in which they are dug.  The walls on both sides are pierced with horizontal niches, like shelves in a bookcase or berths in a steamer, and every niche once contained one or more dead bodies.”[10]  Note that the Roma Sotterranea, published in 1869, states the niches “once contained one or more bodies.”[11]  In 1578, the bodies were still there.

Skeleton of Abbot Konrad II (center) with the Bodies of Four Catacomb Saints, Collegiate Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

Skeleton of Abbot Konrad II (center) with the Bodies of Four Catacomb Saints, Collegiate Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

The Protestant Reformation

Holy relics were anathema to proponents of the Protestant Reformation.  In his Treatise on Relics, for example, John Calvin railed against the use of relics as objects of worship.[12]  Early Christians, he wrote, obeyed “the universal sentence, that all flesh is dust, and to dust it must return.”[13]  In contrast, later Christians disinterred the bodies of the faithful “in opposition to the command of God . . . in order to be glorified, when they ought to have remained in their places of repose awaiting the last judgment.”[14]

Protestant disdain for relics, however, was not limited to verbal expressions of disapprobation.  Throughout Protestant Europe, countless relics were also physically damaged or destroyed.[15]  Paul Koudounaris observes, “Not even the esteemed church fathers such as St Irenaeus were safe.”[16]  The saint’s “nearly 1,400-year-old remains in Lyons were burned and cast to the wind by Huguenots in 1562.”[17]

Relics of Catacomb Saints, Church of Saint Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria.

Relics of Catacomb Saints, North Wall, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria

The Counter-Reformation

The Council of Trent, which met between 1545 and 1563, sought to address issues raised by Protestant reformers, including the preservation and veneration of holy relics.  Ultimately, the Council reaffirmed the significance of relics, declaring that “they who affirm that veneration and honour are not due to the relics of saints; or, that these, and other sacred monuments are uselessly honoured by the faithful . . . are wholly to be condemned.”[18]  However, acknowledging that relics had been the subject of much abuse in the past, the Council also introduced strict rules governing their visitation and authentication.[19]  For example, the Council declared that in the veneration of relics, “every superstition shall be removed [and] all filthy lucre be abolished.”[20]  The Council also required all new relics to be officially recognized before they could be offered for veneration.[21]

While the Council’s decision provided a doctrinal resolution to the relic debate, many churches now faced a more practical problem:  the Protestant Reformation had created a shortage of holy relics, particularly in areas close to Protestant regions.[22]  Given this scarcity, how would Rome meet the renewed demand for sacred relics?  Where would churches find new relics for devotional display?

The discovery of the Roman Catacombs seemed to provide a providential answer.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, oil on canvas (1863-883). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (detail), oil on canvas (1863-883). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

In his arresting book Heavenly Bodies:  Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, Paul Koudounaris notes that after their discovery in 1578, the dusky passageways of the catacombs became the focus of a “public obsession.”[23]  Koudounaris writes, “While no one was quite sure in the early years whose bones were down there, the consensus was that they must certainly be sacred because they dated from the blood-soaked days of state-sponsored persecutions.”[24]  In other words, it was believed the bones were those of early Christian martyrs.[25]

Soon, bones began to trickle northward as churches sought to replace relics lost during the Protestant Reformation with the bones of Katakombenheiligen or “catacomb saints.”[26]  These relics were officially authenticated, as required by the Council of Trent, although identification of could be tricky.  As Koudounaris explains, relic hunters first looked for funerary plaques identifying martyrs, but “[i]f the word ‘martyr’ was absent, a capital ‘M’ was considered sufficient as shorthand—although ‘M’ was also used in Roman times as an abbreviation for the name Marcus, memoria (memory), mensis (month) or manis (dead).”[27]  Similarly, the abbreviation sang, or simply sa, were believed to mean sanguis (blood).[28]  In the absence of written clues, symbols were used to decipher the graves of martyrs.  For example, the presence of a palm frond, long understood to be a symbol of martyrdom, could denote a martyr’s tomb.[29]  Alternatively, the presence of a phial or ampule was understood to mark the grave of a martyr because, it was believed, a sample of a martyr’s blood was commonly interred with the martyr’s body.[30]

Meanwhile martyrs lacking identifiable names were given new names in a process known as battezzati or “baptism.”[31]  Some were named after popular saints, such as Saint Boniface.  Others were named in Latin after virtues, such as Constantius for constancy, Clemens for clemency, or Innocens for innocent.

Relics of Saint Honoratus, Peterskirche, Munich Germany.

Relics of Saint Honoratus, Peterskirche, Munich Germany. The inscription on the reliquary reads, “Corpus S. Honorati, Martyris.” A second inscription on the side of the reliquary reads, “Hl. Honoratus aus den Katakomben.”

Recalled to Life

Churches treasured the relics they received from the catacombs, and they carefully prepared them for display in a manner befitting their stature.  Full skeletons were especially prized, although reconstructing them correctly could be difficult.  Koudounaris explains, “For extensive reconstruction, the bones would usually have to be sent to experts, most often to nuns who specialized in working with relics.”[32]  In addition to possessing the appropriate religious temperament to work with relics, these nuns also exhibited tremendous skill with textiles and the decorative arts.[33]

Once fully reconstructed, catacomb saints were lavishly decorated with gold, jewels, and sumptuous fabrics.  According to Smithsonian Magazine, the bones were frequently wrapped in a fine gauze to prevent dust from settling on the relics and to use as “a medium for attaching decorations.”[34]  Additionally, “[l]ocal nobles often donated personal garments, which the nuns would lovingly slip onto the corpse and then cut out peepholes so people could see the bones beneath.”[35]  In some cases, a nun would add her own ring to a skeleton’s finger as a personal touch.[36]

Saint Munditia, Peterskirche, Munich, Germany

Saint Munditia, Peterskirche, Munich, Germany

The resulting displays were majestic, resplendent, regal—though a modern observer might describe them as creepy.  Some catacomb saints wear wax masks over their brittle skulls.  Others feature glass eyes or eye sockets beset with jewels.  Many gesture as if still animate, suspended for a moment in time.

The men and women whom the catacomb saints were meant to inspire, however, responded positively to these displays.  They credited the skeletons with protecting their communities and working miracles on their behalf.  Some named their children after them.[37]  And when they died, many wished to be buried near them.

Waldauf Chapel, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria. These skulls formed part of the collection of Florian Waldauf. Waldauf donated his collection to the church in 1501.

Waldauf Chapel, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria. These skulls formed part of the collection of Florian Waldauf. Waldauf donated his collection to the church in 1501.

Ultimately, caring for the catacomb saints—the “special dead” as Laqueur calls them—was “a sign of piety, of love, of affection, and of religious devotion.”[38]  It was “a mark of civility and decency:  exactly what Diogenes rejected.”[39]  Saint Augustine had said, “The bodies of the dead, and especially of the just and faithful, are not to be despised or cast aside.  The soul has used them as organs and vessels for all good work in a holy manner.”[40]  Buried for centuries before their discovery, the catacomb saints are proof that Diogenes was wrong, that dead bodies are not irrelevant, that the dead do matter.  The catacomb saints were triumphs of the imagination invested with extraordinary meaning.  And they were recalled to life just when the Church needed them most.

Relics of Saint Catherine, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria

Relics of Saint Catherine, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria


[1] Marcus Tullius Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (C.D. Yonge, trans, 1890), at 55-56.

[2] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead:  A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (2015).

[3] Id. at 35.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 17.

[6] Id. at 79.

[7] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead:  A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (2015).

[8] Id.

[9] J. Spencer Northcote and W. R. Brownlow, Roma Sotterranea (1869), at 29.  As the authors explain in their preface, the book was based largely on Giovanni De Rossi’s two-volume Roma Sotterranea (1864, 1867), various articles from the Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana, and other scholarly works and papers.

[10] Id. at 26-27.

[11] Id. (emphasis added).

[12] John Calvin, Treatise on Relics (Valerian Krasinski, trans., 2008), at 55.

[13] Id. (emphasis omitted).

[14] Id.

[15] See Koudounaris, supra note 7, at 30.  Koudounaris observes that Clavin’s followers “proved particularly destructive.  They sacked churches and ruined relics in large numbers, variously broken, discarded or set aflame.”  Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] The Council of Trent:  The Twenty-fifth Session (J. Waterworth, ed. and trans., 1848), at 234.

[19] Id. at 235-36.

[20] Id. at 235.  The Council also prohibited the visitation of relics “by any perverted into revellings and drunkenness.”  Id.

[21] Id.

[22] See Koudounaris, supra note 7, at 31.

[23] Id. at 33.

[24] Id.

[25] See, id.  Koudounaris states, “The relic hunters who descended into the catacombs . . . were specifically seeking the graves of martyrs.”  Id.

[26] Id.  Koudounaris cites a 1907 study of catacombs saints in Switzerland to provide a sense of the scale of the exhumations.  According to the study, Swiss churches alone possessed over 150 full skeletons and approximately 1,000 fragmentary collections of relics from the catacombs.  Id.

[27] Id. at 39.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id. at 45.

[31] Id.

[32] Id. at 63.

[33] Id.

[34] Rachel Nuwer, “Meet the Fantastically Bejeweled Skeletons of Catholicism’s Forgotten Martyrs,” Smithsonian Magazine, 1 October 2013, available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/meet-the-fantastically-bejeweled-skeletons-of-catholicisms-forgotten-martyrs-284882/.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Nuwer, supra note 34.  Indeed in some cases, nearly half the children born in a town after the arrival of a catacomb saint would be named after the saint.  Id.

[38] Laqueur, supra note 2, at 41.

[39] Id.

[40] Id. (quoting Saint Augustine, De Cura Mortuum Gerenda, in Treatises on Marriage and Other Subjects (Roy J. Deferrari, ed., 1955) at 353).

Skull of a Catacomb Saint, Waldauf Chapel, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria

Skull of a Catacomb Saint, Waldauf Chapel, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria

Saint Innocent and the Massacre of the Innocents

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Rubens 1

Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents (detail), oil on panel (c. 1638), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

The Holy Innocents

The Massacre of the Innocents is sometimes invoked as an example of man’s potential for savagery and brutality in war.  In Henry V, for example, King Henry conjures the specter of Herod while addressing the governor and citizens of Harfleur, warning:

Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command; . . .
If not, why, in a moment look to see . . .
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.[1]

It should be remembered, however, that the Massacre of the Innocents was a calculated act, a politically motivated event, rather than a mere accident of war.  Its victims were helpless children, all under the age of two years.  According to the Golden Legend, the Holy Innocents, as they came to be called, were considered holy and innocent “by reason of their life, of the death they suffered, and of the innocence they attained.”[2]

Though mentioned only briefly in the Bible, the Holy Innocents were eventually bestowed their own feast day sometime during the late 4th to late 5th centuries.[3]  Also known as Innocents’ Day or Childermas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents was once a day of role reversals, akin to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, which placed children in authority over adults.  Today, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, celebrated on 28 December, is a day of pranking and general tomfoolery similar to April Fools’ Day in some parts of the world.  In the town of Ibi, Spain, for example, the festival of Els Enfarinats famously features a coup d’etat and a fierce battle of eggs and flour bombs that is waged throughout the town.

Who were the Holy Innocents, though, and why were they massacred in the first place?

Killing of the Innocents, stained glass, Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France.

Killing of the Innocents, stained glass, Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France

The Slaughter of the Innocents

The only Gospel writer who mentions the Massacre of the Innocents is Saint Matthew, who explains that Herod ordered the massacre after mysterious Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem inquiring about a newborn king.  “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” the Magi asked, somewhat indiscreetly.  “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”[4]

According to the Golden Legend, “Herod was troubled when he heard of this, fearing that someone might have been born of the true royal line and might expel him as a usurper of the throne.”[5]  Nevertheless, perceiving an opportunity to discover the whereabouts of his potential challenger, Herod feigned interest in worshipping the new king and slyly asked the Magi to bring him news once they had found him.  “Go and search carefully for the child,” he told them.  “As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”[6]  Herod had no intention of worshipping the child, however.  Rather, he intended to kill the newborn king, quite literally in his infancy.

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi (detail), tempera and oil on panel (c. 1478-1482), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi (detail), tempera and oil on panel (c. 1478-1482), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi returned home by another route.  According to the Golden Legend, when the Magi did not report back to him, Herod initially thought they had been deceived by the star and were too ashamed to face him with the news.  Herod subsequently gave up the search for the child.  Eventually, however, “when he heard what the shepherds had reported and what Simeon and Anna had prophesied, all his fears returned.”[7]

According to Saint Matthew, “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.  Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:  ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’”[8]

Courage and Callousness

In his study From Criminal to Courtier:  The Soldier in Netherlandish Art, 1550-1672, David Kunzle explains that the Massacre of the Innocents became an increasingly popular subject in art in the 13th and 14th centuries.[9]  Over time, two “non-biblical, legendary embellishments” crept into depictions of the event, altering the way the massacre was perceived.  The first, which lent “both realism and political edge” to such scenes, was the portrayal of mothers fiercely resisting the slaughter of their children.[10]  The second was the inclusion of Herod himself, callous and dispassionate amidst the carnage.

Works by artists such as Cornelius van Haarlem and Peter Paul Rubens attempt to portray some of the confusion, anguish, and brutality that surrounded the massacre.  In these depictions, the mothers of the Holy Innocents desperately interpose themselves between Herod’s soldiers and the helpless children of Bethlehem.  They claw at the soldiers, tearing their faces and gouging their eyes.  They frantically shield their children, but to no avail.  Pale, lifeless corpses already litter the landscape.

Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents (detail), oil on panel (c. 1638), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents (detail), oil on panel (c. 1638), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

Kunzle notes that though not mentioned in the Bible, the resistance of the mothers “is surely as natural as the grief.”[11]  He further comments that their resistance may have been an “indictment of those unnatural mothers who instead of trying to protect their children like the mothers of Bethlehem . . .  abandoned, killed or aborted them, crimes increasingly common and increasingly severely punished in the 16th century, after being more or less winked at in earlier centuries.”[12]

In contrast, Herod is commonly portrayed as a cold, detached observer of the events.  Often, he is shown seated on a high throne,“ordaining the massacre.”[13]  The position, Kunzle argues, emphasizes Herod’s pride and arrogance.[14]  In Matteo di Giovanni di Bartolo’s The Massacre of the Innocents, for example, Herod is portrayed as a large figure with a crown, peering down from a throne from which he calmly directs the violence below.[15]  Sometimes, Herod is also depicted with counsellors, whose presence, Kunzle suggests, “gives the order to massacre the colour of a deliberate act of state rather than a furious personal impulse.”[16]  Herod has also been known to be accompanied by a pig.

Reliquary Shrine

Reliquary Shrine with Scenes from the Life of Christ (detail), champlevé enamel on copper (c. 13th century), Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland. At right, Herod sits enthroned, his arm raised, while the devil whispers in his ear.

Herod’s Pig

“Those who kill, get killed,” Kunzle tells us.[17]  “Killers of sons get killed by sons.”[18]  Unsurprisingly, then, Herod’s barbarous order did not go unpunished.  We learn from the Golden Legend that one of Herod’s infant sons had been “given to a woman in Bethlehem for nursing” and consequently was slain with the Holy Innocents during the massacre.[19]  On hearing this, the emperor August allegedly remarked, “I had rather be one of Herod’s pigs than sons.”[20]  Apparently, this comment inspired one 15th-century artist to insert a pig into a version of the Massacre of the Innocents.[21]  I am not aware of other such pigs loitering about similar depictions of the event, however.

The First Christian Martyrs

The Holy Innocents are considered the first Christian martyrs, and as martyrs, they are sometimes shown holding palm branches, a common symbol of martyrdom.[22]  It is unclear, though, how many children may actually have been killed in the massacre.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “The Greek Liturgy asserts that Herod killed 14,000, the Syrians speak of 64,000, [and] many medieval authors of 144,000,” a number apparently derived from the Book of Revelation.[23]  However, considering the parameters of Herod’s order—to kill “all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under”—the number of dead would likely have been far more modest than any of these estimates.  In her book Saints in Art, Rosa Giorgi suggests the number killed may have been around twenty.[24].  Giorgi notes that “images of this episode have traditionally been more focused on the atrocious violence and mothers’ anguish than the number of casualties.”[25]

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery (Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America), Washington, DC, USA

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery (Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America), Washington, DC, USA

The Relics of Saint Innocent

The Catholic Encyclopedia identifies a number of churches that purportedly possess relics of Holy Innocents.  These churches include the Abbey of Saint Justina (Abbazia di Santa Giustina) in Padua, Italy; Saint Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore) in Rome, Italy; Lisbon Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa) in Lisbon, Portugal; and Milan Cathedral (Duomo di Milano) in Milan, Italy.  The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (Basilica Papale San Paolo fuori le Mura) in Rome also claims to possess relics of the Holy Innocents, and an apsidal mosaic in the church depicts five of the Holy Innocents as young boys, dressed in white, bearing palm branches.  A curious monastery in Washington, DC, also lays claim to a link to the Holy Innocents, though not through relics like those of the churches described above.

Descending into the fake catacombs of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, in the Brooklands neighborhood of Washington, DC, is slightly unsettling.  After shuffling down a set of stairs and under an arch labeled “Nazareth,” one first encounters a gleaming, marble replica of the shrine of the Annunciation in Nazareth before continuing into the “catacombs.”  The experience is perplexing, like drinking a German beer in the Germany Pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center.  Still, there is a certain allure to place.  It is air-conditioned and dust-free, and not particular creepy—until one happens on the body of a small boy, encased in glass, resting serenely on red silk cushions.

Saint Innocent, Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, Washington, DC

Relics of Saint Innocent, Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, Washington, DC

The boy is crowned with a golden wreath, above which hovers a golden halo.  His head is tilted slightly to the right and a gentle smile plays across his pale, waxen face.  He wears a white silken tunic, which is bejeweled around the neck, and a red ribbon hangs loosely about his waist.  His hands and feet are covered in golden gauze, and his left hand, crumpled loosely into a fist, rests atop his body cradling a palm branch.

Saint Innocent's hands are visible through the gauze covering his hands.  The palm frond tucked beneath his left hand is a symbol of martyrdom.

Saint Innocent’s hands are visible through the gauze covering his hands. The palm frond tucked beneath his left hand is a symbol of martyrdom.

The boy is Saint Innocent (Saint Innocentius), a boy no older than eight years, who was apparently killed during the Roman persecutions of the 2nd century.  Near his body, a sign explains that he was “buried in the Catacombs of St. Callistus for several centuries” before his relics were removed to a chapel in Hinsdale, Illinois, and then subsequently transferred to Washington, DC.  The sign further states that a phial of the boy’s blood, an indicator of martyrdom, was also found with the body along with an inscription that read “Innocentius in pace,” or “Innocent resting in peace.”  The phial found in the catacombs is now stored in the glass reliquary case with the saint’s body.  Lastly, the informational sign explains that “[w]hile the skull [of Saint Innocent] has been covered with a beautiful wig, the hands and feet are covered only with gold gauze, thus permitting the bones to be seen easily.”

Saint Innocent is not a Holy Innocent, but he serves as a representative of all those who, as the Golden Legend states, were “innocent in their lives and upright in faith.”[26]  Recognizing this symbolic connection, another sign above Saint Innocent’s reliquary reminds visitors that December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day of remembrance of Christianity’s young, first martyrs.

Interior of the Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery (Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America), Washington, DC, USA

Interior of the Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery (Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America), Washington, DC, USA


[1]  William Shakespeare, Henry V, III, iii, 27-41.

[2]  Jacobus de Voragine, 1 The Golden Legend:  Readings on the Saints 56 (William Granger Ryan trans., 1993).

[3]  The feast is first mentioned in the Leonine Sacramentary of about 485.

[4]  Matthew 2:2.

[5]  Golden Legend, supra note 2, at 57.

[6]  Matthew 2:8.

[7]  Golden Legend, supra note 2, at 57.

[8]  Matthew 2:16-18.

[9]  David Kunzle, From Criminal to Courier:  The Soldier in Netherlandish Art 1550-1672 (2002), at 35.

[10]  Id.

[11]  Kunzle, supra note 9, at 46.

[12]  Id.

[13]  Id. at 38.

[14] Id. at 42.

[15]  Painted circa 1480-1490, the work is located at the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

[16]  Kunzle, supra note 9, at 42.

[17]  Id. at 39.

[18]  Id.

[19]  Golden Legend, supra note 2, at 58.

[20]  Kunzle, supra note 9, at 40 (quoting Macrobius).  However, this quip may relate to a different event altogether.  The Golden Legend states Augustus made these remarks after learning that Herod had deliberately ordered the death of two of his sons.  In response, the Golden Legend quotes Augustus as saying, “I would rather be Herod’s swine than his son, because he spares his swine but kills his sons.”  Golden Legend, supra note 2, at 58.

[21]  Kunzle, supra note 9, at 40-41.

[22]  See, e.g., Albrecht Classen, Childhood in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance:  The Results of a Paradigm Shift in the History of Mentality 123 (2005) (“The Holy Innocents became the first Christian martyrs because of their chronological and geographical proximity to Christ and because they died in his stead.”); Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 167 (Stefano Zuffi ed. & Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., 2002).  In Ruben’s Massacre of the Innocents at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany, angels from heaven tumble to earth bearings crowns of martyrdom instead.

[23]  7 Catholic Encyclopedia 420 (Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds 1910).  The verse from Revelation cited in the text above reads, “And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders:  and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.”  Revelation 14:3.

[24] Giorgi, supra note 23, at 167.

[25]  Id.

[26]  Golden Legend, supra note 2, at 56.

Saint of the Salt Castle: Discovering Saint Rupert in Salzburg, Austria

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Statue of Saint Rupert (detail), Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint John the Baptist (Stiftskirche St. Peter und Johannes der Taüfer), Berchtesgaden, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert (detail), Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint John the Baptist (Stiftskirche St. Peter und Johannes der Taüfer), Berchtesgaden, Germany

Salt of the Earth

In his wide-ranging history of salt, Salt:  A World History, Mark Kurlansky retells the story of a French princess who infuriated her father by declaring she loved him like salt.  “Only later,” Kurlansky writes, when the king “is denied salt does he realize its value and therefore the depth of his daughter’s love.”[1]  Because salt is “so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive,” Kurlansky explains, “we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”[2]  Salt was so precious, Roman soldiers were once paid an amount of money for the purchase of salt, known as a salarium — that is, a “salary.”[3]  Salt was also fundamental to the growth of several European cities, including the great city of Salzburg, Austria.  The name “Salzburg,” in fact, derives from the German word for salt (Salz) and the word for castle (Burg).

View of Hohensalzburg Castle from Mirabell Palace and Gardens, Salzburg, Austria

View of Hohensalzburg Castle from Mirabell Palace and Gardens, Salzburg, Austria

The rise and development of Salzburg, however, was far from inevitable.  By the 7th century, the city, then known as Juvavum, was in ruin following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the catastrophic breakdown of public infrastructure throughout the region.[4]  The work of an enterprising saint, and a little bit of salt, however, helped revive Salzburg’s fortunes.  The saint was Saint Rupert, first Bishop of Salzburg, whose likeness appears throughout the city and region to this day.  He is commonly portrayed carrying a vessel of salt, his traditional emblem in art — and an apt attribute for the patron saint of the Salt Castle.

Statue of Saint Rupert, Salzburg Cathedral, Salzburg, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert, Salzburg Cathedral, Salzburg, Austria

Man of Salt

Who was Saint Rupert, and why is he so closely associated with Salzburg?  According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Saint Rupert was either a Frank or an Irishman who had once been Bishop of Worms.[5]  In approximately 697, Saint Rupert and several companions traveled to Regensburg to visit Duke Theodo of Bavaria, a powerful ruler “without whose permission nothing much could be done.”[6]  Saint Rupert eventually converted and baptized the duke, who afterwards became Saint Rupert’s patron.  With the duke’s support, Saint Rupert reestablished Christianity along the Danube, in an area stretching from Regensburg to Lorch.[7]

Instead of settling in either of these places, however, Saint Rupert chose to establish himself in the “old ruined town of Juvavum.”[8]  Juvavum contained a number of Roman-era buildings, though most were “dilapidated” and “overgrown with briars and brushwood.”[9].  The ancient town’s main advantage was its location in a prospering commercial area, in a region rich in salt.

Statue of Saint Rupert, Cemetery of Saint Sebastian, Salzburg, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert, Cemetery of Saint Sebastian, Salzburg, Austria

Saint Rupert petitioned Duke Theodo for the territory of Juvavum, and the duke readily agreed.  Soon after, Saint Rupert erected the town’s first church, the Church of Saint Peter (Stiftskirche Sankt Peter), at the base of the Mönchberg.[10]  He also established the town’s first monastery and its first convent, Nonnberg Abbey, whose first abbess, Saint Erentrude, was Saint Rupert’s niece.

Part of Duke Theodo’s original donation included rich salt deposits, which were mined for their precious crystals.[11]  Saint Rupert is credited with establishing these first salt mines, which would become a source of the city’s great wealth and grandeur in later centuries.[12]  As the city prospered, wealth from salt mining enabled the arts to flourish.  Today, however, the influence of salt on the city’s growth and prosperity has been all but forgotten.  Instead, Salzburg is celebrated as an elegant city of music, the birthplace of Mozart and, more recently, the backdrop of the perennially popular movie The Sound of Music.

View of Salzburg from Festung Hohensalzburg.  Salzburg Cathedral, with green dome, is visible in the foreground, to the right.

View of Salzburg from Festung Hohensalzburg. Salzburg Cathedral, with its distinctive green dome, is visible near the center of the photograph.

Skeletons at the von Trapp Wedding

Located 17 miles east of Salzburg, in the charming lakeside town of Mondsee, Austria, the parish church of Saint Michael (Pfarrkirche St Michael), is the second largest church in Upper Austria.  Built in the late 15th century, the twin towers and pale yellow of the church’s exterior may strike some as vaguely familiar.  As it turns out, the church served as the setting of Fraulein Maria’s wedding to Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

The interior of the church features striking vaulted ceilings, a riot of carved and painted figures, and various gilded Baroque altars, including five by the famed Swiss sculptor Meinrad Guggenbichler.[13]  The church also houses a number of relics, some of which make brief cameos in the wedding scene of The Sound of Music. The relics of Blessed Konrad II are the most notable.  Located directly above the tabernacle behind the high altar, the seated skeleton of Blessed Konrad II, a 12th century abbott of Mondsee, peers out from behind a glass enclosed niche.  The skeleton’s head is surrounded by a ray halo, and his left hand clutches a staff and palm frond, indicating a martyr’s death.  Apparently, Blessed Konrad II was killed defending his monastery, and his fellow monks believed his murder qualified him for martyrdom.[14]

Seven-Part Reliquary with the Relics of Blessed Konrad II of Mondsee, Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

Seven-Part Reliquary with the Relics of Blessed Konrad II of Mondsee, Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

An array of other relics, carefully arranged in two large reliquary cases, are displayed to Blessed Konrad II’s right and left.  The relics include various skulls and bones first collected and displayed in the church in the mid-18th century.  Below the reliquary cases, four additional skeletons may be seen reclining in individual cases, two triangular and two rectangular.  The skeletons look relaxed in their padded niches and observe the world as if from window of a passing train.  The skeletons belong to catacomb saints exhumed and transported to Mondsee from the catacombs of Rome. The altar itself is a remarkable early Baroque work by the sculptor Hans Waldburger.  Dating to 1626, the altar features a depiction of Saint Michael the Archangel placidly slaying a dragon.  The altar is the only extant altar by Waldburger.[15]

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria.  The high altar, which dates to 1626, is the work of Hans Waldburger.

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria. The high altar, which dates to 1626, is the work of Hans Waldburger.

Salzburg Cathedral

Saint Rupert died in 710, and is buried in the crypt of Salzburg Cathedral.  Consecrated to Saint Rupert and Saint Virgil in 774, the cathedral has been rebuilt and modified several times since its founding.  In 1167, for example, the Counts of Plain, knights loyal to the the emperor Barbarossa, set fire to the cathedral, burning it virtually to its foundation.[16]

Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

The cathedral was rebuilt, but burned again in 1598.  The subsequent rebuilding effort, led by Salzburg’s archbishop at the time, Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, outraged city residents who were shocked by Wolf Dietrich’s ruthless destruction of the cathedral’s cemetery, including the desecration of countless graves, for the rebuilding project.[17]  After Wolf Dietrich was captured and imprisoned by Bavarian troops in a dispute over salt mining rights, Wolf Dietrich’s successor, Markus Sittikus von Hohenems, commissioned a new architect to complete the cathedral’s reconstruction.

Interior of Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Interior of Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Reconsecrated in 1628, the new, Baroque cathedral remained virtually unchanged until 1944, when a bomb crashed through the dome, destroying part of the chancel.  After extensive renovations, the cathedral was consecrated a third time, in 1959.  The three gates to the cathedral commemorate the three consecrations by displaying the years “774,” “1628,” and “1959” in gold above the portals.[18]

Back to the Salt Mines

Although Saint Rupert does not hover above the tabernacle of Salzburg Cathedral like Blessed Konrad II in Mondsee, images of Saint Rupert throughout the church and city serve as a reminder of his role in the city’s early history.  As already noted, Saint Rupert is frequently shown carrying a vessel of salt, an acknowledgment of his influence on Salzburg’s salt trade.  The container of salt, however, may hint at another of Saint Rupert’s accomplishments.  In addition to establishing the city’s first salt mines, Saint Rupert was responsible for changing the city’s original name, Juvavum, to something more relevant and more enduring.  The name he chose, of course, was “Salzburg,” the Salt Castle.

High Altar, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom) Salzburg, Austria

High Altar, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom) Salzburg, Austria.  Saint Rupert is depicted atop the altar carrying a barrel of salt in his left hand and a bishop’s crozier in his right.  Saint Virgil is also represented atop the altar, opposite Saint Rupert.

Statue of Saint Rupert, Saint Andreas Parish Church, Berchtesgaden, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert, Parish Church of Saint Andreas, Berchtesgaden, Germany

Interior of Dome, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Interior of Dome, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria. The dome was pierced by an aerial bomb in WWII.  Repairs to the cathedral were not completed until 1959.


[1]  Mark Kurlansky, Salt:  A World History 6 (2002).

[2]  Id.

[3]  2 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 2653 (5th ed., 2002).

[4]  Juvavum was one of the principle towns of the Roman frontier province of Noricum.

[5]  1 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 700 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[6]  Id.

[7]  Id.

[8]  Id.

[9]  13 Catholic Encyclopedia 229 (Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds 1912).

[10]  Id. The church was established where Saint Maximus, a follower of Saint Severin, was martyred in 476.

[11]  Id.

[12]  Saleem H. Ali, Treasure of the Earth:  Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future 34 (2009).

[13]  John Bourke, Baroque Churches of Central Europe 266 (1958).

[14]  Blessed Konrad II of Mondsee, Saints.SPQN.com, available at http://saints.sqpn.com/blessed-konrad-ii-of-mondsee/.

[15]  10 Dictionary of German Biography 314 (Walther Killy et al., eds, 2006).

[16]  Salzburg Cathedral, Salzburg Travel Guide, http://www.salzburg.info/en.

[17]  Id.

[18]  Id.

Relic of the Holy Diaper: The Swaddling Clothes of Jesus

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Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on panel (1477), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on panel (1477), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Swaddling Clothes

One of the more remarkable relics on display in the Reliquary Treasury of Dubrovnik Cathedral is the “diaper” of Jesus.  The relic is displayed in a bulky silver reliquary, profusely ornamented with winged figures, clunky arabesques, and other decorative accents.[1] While most translations into English describe the relic as a “diaper” or “diapers,” it could more accurately be described as the “swaddling cloth” or “swaddling clothes” of Jesus.[2]

Veneration of Jesus’ swaddling clothes is more frequently associated with Aachen, Germany, where a more famous set of swaddling garments has been kept since the 13th century.  Housed in the golden Shrine of Saint Mary (Marienshrein) at Aachen Cathedral, the swaddling clothes (Windel Jesu) were rarely put on public display prior to the 14th century.[3]  Since then, the relic has been exhibited in Aachen approximately every seven years.[4]  In comparison, the swaddling clothes kept at Dubrovnik Cathedral are regularly displayed in the cathedral’s astonishing treasury of saintly relics.

Marienschrein

Marienschrein (Shrine of Saint Mary), gold (1230-1239), Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany

Christmas Stockings

In a paper on Jesus’ swaddling clothes, Sophie Oosterwijk explains that since antiquity, “medical tradition held that the newborn child might develop deformed limbs if left unswaddled; therefore, swaddling clothes were considered absolutely essential not just for ordinary infants but also for the Christ child.”[5] Consequently, until about the 14th century, depictions of the Nativity commonly showed the infant Jesus tightly swaddled, his face serene in a cloth cocoon.[6]

Some paintings of this period, however, show the infant Jesus unswaddled, presumably mere moments after his birth.  According to one tradition, Jesus’ struggling parents were forced to reuse Joseph’s hose, the only extra cloth they had at hand, as makeshift swaddling clothes.[7]  Paintings inspired by this story frequently portray Joseph removing his shoes and stockings or ripping his hose into strips as Mary waits nearby.  “Mary, take my hose and wind your dear baby in them,” Joseph tells Mary in an early 15th century Nativity painting from a church in Lezignan.[8]  In another, Joseph seated on the ground with one bare foot extended, carefully cuts his hose into strips with a knife while a recumbent Mary watches from a mattress.[9]  Rogier van der Weyden’s famous Columba Altarpiece has also been tied to this tradition, though Joseph’s stockings are portrayed more subtly:  two squares of cloth laid in Jesus’ manger have been interpreted as Joseph’s repurposed hose.[10]

Joseph Malouel?, Nativity, oil on tempera (c. 1400), Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph Malouel?, Nativity, oil on tempera (c. 1400), Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium (courtesy Wikimedia Commons). Here, Joseph can be seen cutting one of his stockings with a knife as Mary watches and the infant Jesus waits in a manger.

As Oosterwijk observes, the tradition of Joseph and his hose “illustrates the medieval need to explain the details of the Virgin’s reported confinement far away from the comfort of a regular nursery . . . , thus emphasizing Christ’s humility.  Instead, it is Joseph in his role of the family provider, rather than that of a natural father, who finds the solution for the lack of swaddling clothes by donating his own hose to cover the newborn Christ with in the cold winter night.”[11]

Adoration of the Magi (panel detail), Columba Altarpiece, oil on oak (c. 1455), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

Adoration of the Magi (panel detail), Columba Altarpiece, oil on oak (c. 1455), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.  The two squares of cloth padding the manger at left have been interpreted as Joseph’s hose.

God and Man

A curious book titled Excrement in the Late Middle Ages further explores the history and deeper theological meaning of Jesus’ swaddling clothes.  As the author, Susan Signe Morrison, notes, while stories about the baby Jesus’s swaddling clothes may seem “obscene or blasphemous,” they were, in fact, “produced within the confines of the sacred.”[12]  Miracles associated with Jesus’ swaddling clothes were described in the First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ — a work condemned as heretical in the fifth century — and in stories describing the return of the Wise Men to their home countries.

Returning to the Christmas story as told in Luke 2:12, Morrison explains that Jesus’s swaddling clothes were provided “not just to keep him warm or to bind him in an imitation of the closeness of the womb.”[13]  Rather, “[t]he clothes clearly perform a key function:  to collect the filth the human baby ejects.”[14]  Morrison further explains that the “enfleshing of Christ is both most sacred (he became man to save us) and most profane (he took on the flesh that emits filth for us).”  Morrison concludes, “To be human is to eat; to be fully human, God must digest just as a human does.  As Tertullian argued, by taking on the filthy human body, Christ signals his profound humility and compassion.  God has divested himself of his omnipotence; what more overt way to do this than to become a helpless, wriggling, filthy infant, utterly dependent upon others for nourishment, shelter, and personal hygiene?”[15]

Madonna and Child

Bernardino Luini, The Madonna of the Carnation, oil on panel (c. 1515), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


[1]  See, e.g., Ante Dračevac, La Cathedrale de Dubrovnik 50 (Françoise Kveder trans., 1988). Dating to the 16th century, the reliquary is the work of local Dubrovnik metalsmiths.  Id.

[2]  For example, an older guide to the cathedral, translated into French and no longer in print, describes the relic as “des langes de Jésus.”  Id.

[3]  Joan Carroll Cruz, Relics 23 (1984).

[4]  Id.

[5]  Sophie Oosterwijk, The Swaddling-Clothes of Christ:  A Medieval Relic on Display, 13 Medieval Life 25-30 (2000).

[6]  See id. at 25.

[7]  Incidentally, Saint Joseph’s hose is also purportedly stored in the Marienshrein, along with Jesus’ swaddling clothes, the robe of Saint Mary, and the beheading cloth of Saint John the Baptist.  Photographs of all four relics, which comprise the four great relics of the Marienschrein, can be found here.

[8]  Gail McMurray Gibson, “St. Margery:  The Book of Margery Kempe,” in Equally in God’s Image:  Women in the Middle Ages 152 (Julia Bolton Holloway et al., eds., 1990).

[9]  The painting is the Nativity panel of a polyptych by an unknown artist, possibly Jean Malouel, painted c. 1400.

[10]  See, e.g., Oosterwijk, supra note 5, at 28.

[11]  Id.

[12]  Susan Signe Morrison, Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics 92 (2009).

[13]  Id. at 93.

[14]  Id.

[15]  Id. (internal citations omitted).

The Head-Carriers: Headless Saints from Saint Denis to Saint Nicasius

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Saint Denis - Notre Dame Cathedral

Saint Denis, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France

Saints Without Heads

As we’ve noted before, saints portrayed in Christian art often carry objects that help identify them in art.  While some saints carry relatively benign, pedestrian objects — Saint Anthony often carries a white lily, Saint Notburga an ear of corn — others tote more lethal implements including an assortment of knives, swords, arrows, and wooden stakes.  Martyrs in particular are frequently shown with deadly devices, generally the instruments of their martyrdom.  A curious subset of martyrs, however, are commonly shown carrying their own heads.  Known as cephalophores, literally “head-carriers” in Greek, these headless saints all suffered martyrdom by decapitation.  Although depicting cephalophores may at first seem straightforward, artists have struggled for centuries with an unusual problem presented by their portrayal:  Where does one place the halo on a headless saint?

Things Come to a Head:  Secular Examples of Animate, Headless Corpses

John Quidor, The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, oil on canvas (1858), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

John Quidor, The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, oil on canvas (1858), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Stories of headless men and their improbable feats are not confined to the Roman Martyrology.  Secular examples include Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the 14th-century Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which features a remarkable contest known as a “beheading game.”  In the story of Gawain, a giant stranger known as the Green Knight appears before King Arthur’s court on New Year’s Day.  The Green Knight challenges the members of the court to strike him with his ax on the condition that he will return the blow in one year and a day.  Gawain accepts the challenge, and the Green Knight prepares to receive Gawain’s strike by brushing aside his long locks and laying bare his neck.  Gawain then grips the ax, raises it into the air, and lets it fall.

The author of the legend tells us, “The sharp edge of the blade sundered the bones, smote through the neck, and clave it in two, so that the edge of the steel bit on the ground, and the fair head fell to the earth . . . .”[1]  The Green Knight, however, “neither faltered nor fell,” but instead, with his hand out-stretched, caught the head, lifted it up, and mounted his steed “as if naught ailed him, and he were not headless.”[2]  Then the “grim corpse,” bleeding freely, held up the severed head and turned its face toward the gathered knights.  Its eyelids lifted open, and the head spoke, warning Sir Gawain to keep his promise.[3]

Head Cases:  Headless Saints and Their Post-Mortem Wanderings

Like the Green Knight and the Headless Horseman, whose severed head rested on the horseman’s saddle before he hurled it, dodgeball-like, at the hapless Ichabod Crane, the bodies of cephalophores remained animated even after the detachment of their heads.  They even performed with a remarkable degree of agency, often selecting the sites of their own burials.

Saint Denis, Patron Saint of Paris

Saint Denis, Basilique Sacré-Coeur, Paris, France.  The Basilique Sacré-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart), located in Montmartre, is traditionally associated with Saint Denis's beheading.

Saint Denis, Basilique Sacré-Coeur, Paris, France. The Basilique Sacré-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart), located in Montmartre, is traditionally associated with Saint Denis’s beheading.

In The Golden Legend’s account of the death of Saint Denis, the saint collected his severed head and walked an appreciable distance with it after his beheading.  According to the story, after Saint Denis, also known as Saint Dionysius, had been beheaded by a sword, his body “[i]nstantly . . . stood up, took his head in its arms, and, with an angel and a heavenly light leading the way, marched two miles, from the place called Montmartre, the hill of martyrs, to the place where, by his own choice and by God’s providence, he rests in peace.”[4]  The abbey church of Saint-Denis was later erected on the spot where Saint Denis was buried.[5]  One of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, Saint Denis is often invoked for relief from headaches.

Saint Aphrodisius of Béziers

Another cephalophore, Saint Aphrodisius (or Saint Aphrodise) of Béziers, similarly retrieved and traveled with his severed head before settling on a final resting place.  Saint Aphrodisius, the first Bishop of Béziers, was decapitated on the site of the Roman circus at Béziers, and his head was unceremoniously tossed into a well.  Miraculously, the saint’s head was ejected from the well and rolled back to saint’s body.  The headless corpse then picked up the head and walked with it through the city to the site of the hermit cave where the saint had lived during his lifetime.[6]  The Basilica of Saint Aphrodisius of Béziers (Basilique Saint-Aphrodise de Béziers) was later erected on the spot where Saint Aphrodisius was buried.

Saint Nicasius of Rheims

Joos van Cleve, Saints George and Nicasius with donors (detail of Saint Nicasius), oil on panel (c. 1515), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.  Here, Saint Nicasius is depicted with just the top of his head missing.

Joos van Cleve, Saints George and Nicasius with donors (detail of Saint Nicasius), oil on panel (c. 1515), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Here, Saint Nicasius is depicted with just the top of his head missing.

Saint Nicasius of Rheims, is commonly portrayed with either his entire head or just a portion of head missing.  According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Saint Nicasius was a 5th-century Bishop of Rheims who was killed by a marauding army of Gauls.  Standing in the doorway of his church, Saint Nicasius was massacred with his deacon, Saint Florentius, and his lector, Saint Jucundus, by his side.  The Gauls apparently cut his head off, although, as noted, he is often shown missing just the top of his head.

Other Cephalophores

Other cephalophores frequently represented with their severed heads include Saint Just, Saint Ginés de la Jara, Saint Firmin, Saint Minias, the siblings Saints Felix and Regula, Saint Exuperantius, Saint Valerie, Saints Maxien, Lucien, and Julian, Saint Chéron, and Saint Osyth.  Although Saint Paul of Tarsus was martyred by beheading, he is more frequently depicted with a book of letters, signifying the letters he wrote to the earliest Christian communities, or a sword, the instrument of his martyrdom.  The Golden Legend notes that at his execution, “[a]s soon as his head bounded from his body, it intoned, in Hebrew and in a clear voice, ‘Jesus Christ.’”[7]  Meanwhile, although not a cephalophore, Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne can easily be mistaken for one.  Saint Cuthbert commonly carries a severed head, although it is not his own.  It belongs to Saint Oswald, whose head was buried with Saint Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral.

Saint Firmin Holding His Head, limestone and paint (c. 1225-75), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Saint Firmin Holding His Head, limestone and paint (c. 1225-75), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Secret to Getting A Head

In his essay in Disembodied Heads in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, Scott Montgomery argues that stories describing the “post-mortem ambulation” of cephalophoric saints may have served a pragmatic purpose in certain communities.  He observes, “Cephalophores do not merely respond to their decapitation, but more actively direct the location of their resting place and subsequent veneration, establishing the locus sanctus of their cult.  Not surprisingly, it seems that the trope is commonly inserted into the saint’s tale by those claiming to possess [the saint’s] relics.”[8]  Montgomery observes that texts and images of cephalophory were frequently produced where the relics were kept, suggesting that such tales were effective at “establishing relic claims at the very location where the tale was inserted into the saint’s vita.”[9]

Double Halo!

Whatever the origin of the trope, artists entrusted to render the personalities of cephalophoric saints faced an uncommon challenge.  Saints in art were generally depicted with a halo or nimbus behind their heads, indicating their great dignity and sanctity.[10]  While many artists continued to follow this convention for cephalophores, the unusual placement of a cephalophore’s head, which artists often deposited in the headless saint’s hands, could visually diminish the effect of the golden, glowing halo.  Consequently, artists sometimes sought other ways to communicate the sanctity of cephalophores.

Saint Nicasius, Rouen Cathedral, Rouen, France

Saint Nicasius, Rouen Cathedral, Rouen, France. Saint Nicasius is holding his bishop’s mitre and is missing the top of his head.

One approach involved placing the cephalophore’s halo around the saint’s neck, where the head had been.  Saint Denis is depicted this way on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, as is Saint Nicasius above the north portal of Rheims Cathedral.  Another approach involved rendering a cephalophore with two halos:  one above the saint’s decollated head and one around the saint’s neck, which was sometimes shown spurting blood.  Saint Denis is depicted this way in a manuscript illuminated by the Master of Sir John Fastolf and on the coat of arms of the city of Krefeld, Germany.

Léon Bonnat’s famous Le martyre de Saint-Denis at the Pantheon in Paris depicts a variation of the double halo concept.  In Bonnat’s painting, the headless bodies of Saint Denis’s companions, Saints Eleutherius and Rusticus, are strewn to Saint Denis’s left and right while a bloody ax rests on steps in the foreground.  To the upper right of the painting, an angel swoops from the sky bearing a palm frond and crown of martyrdom.  Meanwhile, at the center of the painting, Saint Denis’s headless body is shown scooping up its head like a fumbled football.  The disembodied head is surrounded by a distinct halo, but the space above Saint Denis’s neck, where his head would have been, is also aglow.  Not quite a halo, nimbus, aureole, or other traditional marker of saintliness, the glow appears as a riot of sparks reminiscent of a holiday sparkler.

The Martrydrom of Saint Nicasius, stained glass (early 13th century), Basilique Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais de Soissons, Soisson, France.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Martrydrom of Saint Nicasius, stained glass (early 13th century), Basilique Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais de Soissons, Soisson, France. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Heady Times:  Cephalophores Unbound

Cephalophory is, perhaps, one of the most dramatic examples of a saint’s triumph over death.  As Montgomery explains, “much of the potency of the trope is fed by the phenomenon . . . that the martyr is only dispatched by beheading after enduring a series of horrific tortures.”[11]  Saint Denis, for example, was stretched on an iron grill over a blazing fire; thrown to hungry, wild beasts; stuffed into an oven; and nailed to a cross before he was finally beheaded.  Decapitation, then, was frequently resorted to as a means of “martyr-dispatching” because it was so effective and so definitive.[12]  Accordingly, “the act of post-decapatory ambulation (and occasionally locution) is underscored as all-the-more miraculous.  Cephalophores dramatically enact their imitatio Christi and imitatio sancti in ‘surviving’ bodily death, essentially following the model of St. Paul in professing faith after decollation.”[13]


[1]  1 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:  A Middle-English Arthurian Romance Retold in Modern Prose 15-16 (Jessie Laidlay Weston trans., 1900).

[2]  Id. at 16.

[3]  Id.

[4]  Jacobus de Voragine, 2 The Golden Legend:  Readings on the Saints 240 (William Granger Ryan trans., 1993).

[5]  4 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 67-68 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).  Butler’s Lives of the Saints explains that the cultus of Saint Dionysius or Saint Denis was very strong in the Middle Ages and that by the 6th century he was already recognized as “the saint of Paris par excellence.”  Id. at 68.

[6]  See, e.g., Scott B. Montgomery, Securing the Sacred Head:  Cephalophory and Relic Claims, in Disembodied Heads in Medieval and Early Modern Culture 92-93 (Catrien Santing et. al, eds., 2013).

[7]  Jacobus de Voragine, 1 The Golden Legend:  Readings on the Saints 353-54 (William Granger Ryan trans., 1993).

[8]  Montgomery, supra note 6, at 85.

[9]  Id. at 85-86.

[10]  George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art 149 (1954).

[11]  Montgomery, supra note 6, at 86.

[12]  Id.

[13]  Id.

Saint Anthony of Padua: Patron Saint of Lost Things

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Reliquary of Saint Anthony, the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA.

Reliquary of Saint Anthony, the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA

Discovering Saint Anthony

We stopped in Rottweil, Germany, on a whim, drawn by its distinctive name and apparent connection to the Rottweiler, a famous breed of dog.  We spent the morning in leisurely exploration before we eventually found our way to the Church of the Holy Cross (Heilig Kreuz Münster) near the commercial center of Rottweil.  Built in 1230-1534, the church features a triple nave, intricate network vaults, and very fine examples of late Gothic wood carving, including an altar of Saint Bartholomew by Michael Wolgemut and a crucifix attributed to Veit Stoss.  In the south transept of the church, an altar steeped in late morning light drew our attention.  Stoical saints bearing burnished objects — a golden chalice here, a large knife there — beckoned us to peer closer, to gaze, to contemplate.

Altar with Saints, Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany

Altar with Saints, Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany

Meanwhile, several yards away, tucked in a dim corner by an exit, stood a modest sculpture: the humble figure of a friar in Franciscan robes.  We initially overlooked the statue amidst the many carvings and altars of the church, but once we noticed it, something about the image’s unassuming bearing invited us to linger.

“What did you lose?”  An older gentleman suddenly asked as he edged by us and dropped a few coins in a collection box near the statue.

“Nothing,” we answered hesitatingly.  “Why do you ask?”

“You were staring at Saint Anthony, so I thought you must have lost something.” he replied.  “I lost my glasses this morning, and I looked everywhere for them, but I couldn’t  find them.  So I prayed to Saint Anthony, and I found them!”  At this, he raised a pair of spectacles as if in a triumphant toast.  “I came here to thank the saint with an offering.  If you’ve lost something, you should pray to Saint Anthony!”

Altar of Saint Bartolomen, Michael Wolgemut, Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany

Altar of Saint Nicolaus, Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany

Patron Saint of Lost Things

It is unclear how Saint Anthony became a patron saint of lost items or lost things.  The Lives of the Saints suggests his patronage may be traced to a miracle recounted in the Chronica XXIV Generalium (No. 21).[1]  The Lives of the Saints sums up the story as follows:  “A novice ran away and carried off a valuable psalter St Antony was using.  He prayed for its recovery and the novice was compelled by an alarming apparition to come back and return it.”[2]

As the gentleman we encountered in Rottweil demonstrated, the saint’s reputation as a finder of lost or stolen things has only grown since the incident of the lost psalter.  Writing in Saint Anthony of Padua:  His Life, Legends, and Devotions, Norman Perry explains, “Nearly everywhere, Anthony is asked to intercede with God for the return of things lost or stolen.”[3]  Perry notes that “[t]hose who feel very familiar with him might pray, ‘Tony, Tony, turn around.  Something’s lost and must be found.’”[4]  A number of other prayers for the recovery of lost objects are also popular — for those on less familiar terms with the saint.

Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany.  A carved crucifix attributed to Veit Stoss is visible at the center of the photograph, behind the main altar.

Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany. A carved crucifix attributed to Veit Stoss is visible at the center of the photograph, behind the main altar.

The Sermon to the Fishes

During his lifetime, Saint Anthony was famous for his preaching.  As The Lives of the Saints explains, he had all the requisite qualifications of a great preacher:  “learning, eloquence, great power of persuasion, a burning zeal for souls and a sonorous voice which carried far.”[5]  His talent for preaching, however, was discovered by accident.  According to legend, he was called to deliver a sermon at the last minute during a ceremony attended by a number of Dominican and Franciscan friars.  “Through some misunderstanding none of the Dominicans had come prepared to deliver the customary address at the ceremony, and as no one among the Franciscans seemed capable of filling the breach St Antony, who was present, was told to come forward and speak whatever the Holy Ghost should put into his mouth.”[6]  Saint Anthony dazzled the crowd with his knowledge and eloquence, and he was subsequently assigned to preach throughout Lombardy and northern Italy.

As talented an orator as he was, however, Saint Anthony did not always immediately succeed in his mission.  In the ancient city of Rimini on the Adriatic, for example, Saint Anthony struggled to convert the city’s recalcitrant, unsympathetic population.  “He preached unto them for many days and disputed with them of the faith of Christ and of the Holy Scriptures; but they as men hard of heart and obstinate, would not even listen to him.”[7]  Undeterred, Saint Anthony chose to deliver a sermon nearby, to a different, though somewhat untraditional, audience.  Standing on the bank of a river near the sea, Saint Anthony began to “speak unto the fishes, as a preacher sent unto them of God.”[8]

Miraculous Draught of Fishes (detail), Jacopo Bassano, oil on canvas (1545), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Although this painting does not depict Saint Anthony's Sermon to the Fishes, I imagine the fish peeking their heads out of the water as in this painting of the miraculous catch of fish.

Miraculous Draught of Fishes (detail), Jacopo Bassano, oil on canvas (1545), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Although this painting does not depict Saint Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes, I imagine the fish peeking their heads out of the water as in this painting of the miraculous catch of fish.

“Hear the word of God, ye fishes of the sea and of the river, since the infidel heretics refuse to hear it,” he declared.  Soon thereafter, “there came to him to the bank so vast a multitude of fishes, big, little and of middling size, that never in that sea or in that river had there been so great a multitude.”[9]  All of them “held their heads out of the water” and all “gazed attentively on the face of St. Antony, abiding there in very great peace and gentleness and order.”[10]  As Saint Anthony spoke, the fish opened their mouthes, bowed their heads, and made other signs of reverence.  As Saint Anthony continued to preach, even more fish began to arrive.[11]

This unusual sermon did not go unnoticed.  “To see this miracle the people of the city began to run thither, and among them came also the heretics aforesaid; who, beholding so marvelous and clear a miracle, were pricked in the hearts, and all cast themselves at the feet of St. Antony to hear his words.”[12]  While Saint Francis is often remembered for preaching to the birds, Saint Anthony is frequently remembered for this miracle, his incredible Sermon to the Fishes. Perhaps he had a burning zeal for sole as well as souls!

The Shrine of Saint Anthony

The Shrine of Saint Anthony rests atop a modest hill, surrounded by bucolic farms and woodland, in rural Howard County, Maryland, USA.  Modeled after the Sacro Convento in Assisi, Italy, the shrine at first seems out of place in the American countryside.  Something about the shrine’s monasterial silhouette, however, can feel familiar in the heat of a midsummer afternoon, against an azure sky.

Courtyard of the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA.

Courtyard of the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA

Construction of the Shrine of Saint Anthony began in 1930 and was completed a year later, in 1931.  Built on land once owned by Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the American Declaration of Independence, the shrine features over 200 acres of grounds and walking trails.  The shrine also houses a first class relic of Saint Anthony:  a small piece of skin donated to the shrine by the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua in 1995.[13]

Chapel of the Relic of Saint Anthony

The chapel containing the relic of Saint Anthony is located at the rear of the shrine, near a side parking lot.  The relic itself is stored in a small reliquary that has, in turn, been incorporated into a golden statue of Saint Anthony.  The statue depicts the saint from the waist up against a background of leaping flames.  His right hand is raised in blessing, and his left hand grasps a book, a common attribute of the saint, which he  holds horizontally.  More flames spring from the book, and at the center of the fire rests a modest reliquary containing a small sample of Saint Anthony’s skin.

Reliquary of Saint Anthony, close-up of relic, the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA.

Reliquary of Saint Anthony, close-up of relic, the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA

The reliquary appears to be identical to another reliquary containing the saint’s skin that I once examined in Krakow, Poland.  Located at the Archdiocesan Museum in Krakow, that reliquary was not incorporated into a larger display but was, rather, exhibited along with other reliquaries in a simple, museum-style glass case.  Presumably, that relic was also a gift of the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, which probably uses identical casings to house relics given as devotional gifts to other institutions.

Relic of Saint Antoni Padewski (Saint Anthony of Padua), silver and gold plate, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Relic of Saint Antoni Padewski (Saint Anthony of Padua), silver and gold plate, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Saint Anthony in Art

In art, Saint Anthony is most commonly portrayed as a Franciscan friar carrying either a book, a white lily, the baby Jesus, fire, or a burning heart.[14]  He may also be shown with a flowered cross, a book pierced by a sword, a fish (evoking his Sermon to the Fishes), or a kneeling donkey or mule.[15]  The symbol of the donkey derives from a story concerning a heretic from Toulouse (sometimes the city is Rimini) who refused to acknowledge Christ’s presence in the Eucharist unless he witnessed his donkey kneel before the Sacrament.[16]  In one version of the story, as Saint Anthony was delivering the Eucharist to a dying man elsewhere in the city, he encountered the man’s donkey on the street.  The donkey dutifully bowed its head and knelt before the Eucharist for everyone to see.[17]

Miracle of the Mule, Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA.  This statue group is located on the grounds of the Shrine of Saint Anthony.  A mule or donkey kneels before the Eucharist, held aloft by Saint Anthony in a monstrance.

Miracle of the Mule, Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA. This statue group is located on the grounds of the Shrine of Saint Anthony. A mule or donkey kneels before the Eucharist, held aloft by Saint Anthony in a monstrance.

White lilies signify Saint Anthony’s purity, and in many parts of the world, lilies are blessed on the Feast of Saint Anthony, the 13th of June.  Meanwhile, the image of Saint Anthony with the Christ child has apparently evolved over time.  In earlier depictions of Saint Anthony with the Christ child, Jesus may be shown on the pages of a book, rising out of a book, or standing directly on a book in Saint Anthony’s hands.  During the 17th century, artists began to portray the Christ child as fully emerged from the book and often placed him physically in the saint’s arms.[18]  The image of the Christ child in or on a book (usually the Bible) likely represents the incarnation of the word of God, and Saint Anthony’s association with the visual metaphor is not surprising.  Saint Anthony often preached about the Incarnation and helped spread the Incarnate Word of God in his celebrated sermons.[19]

Today, Saint Anthony continues to be remembered for his great learning and his prodigious talent as a preacher.  In 1946, Pope Pius XII declared the saint a doctor of the church — officially, a “Doctor of the Gospel.”[20]  Meanwhile, his incorrupt tongue is kept in a crystal urn in the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua (Basilica Pontificia di Sant’Antonio di Padova) in Padua, Italy.

Saint Anthony of Padua, Vincenzo Foppa, oil (?) on panel (1495/1500).  Here, Saint Anthony carries two of his common attributes:  a white lily and a book.

Saint Anthony of Padua, Vincenzo Foppa, oil (?) on panel (1495/1500), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Here, Saint Anthony carries two of his common attributes: a white lily and a book.

 


[1] 3 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 536 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[2]  Id.

[3]  Saint Anthony of Padua:  His Life, Legends, and Devotions 64 (Jack Wintz ed., 2012).

[4]  Id.

[5]  Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 1, at 535.

[6]  Id.

[7]  The Little Flowers of St. Francis 101 (W. Heywood trans., 1906).

[8]  Id.

[9]  Id.

[10]  Id.

[11]  Id. at 102.

[12]  Id. at 103.

[13] The Shrine of St. Anthony:  A Ministry of the Conventual Franciscan Friars (n.d.).

[14]  Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 38 (Stefano Zuffi ed. & Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., 2002).

[15]  George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art 105 (1954).

[16]  Id.

[17]  Id.

[18]  Jack Wintz, “Why St. Anthony Holds the Child Jesus,” in Saint Anthony of Padua:  His Life, Legends, and Devotions 36 (2012).

[19]  Id. at 38-39.

[20]  Wintz, supra note 18, at 38.

The Marienschrein at Aachen Cathedral: Reliquary of the Cloak of the Virgin Mary

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The Alba Madonna, Rafael, oil on panel transferred to canvas (1510), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Alba Madonna, Rafael, oil on panel transferred to canvas (1510), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Virgin in a Blue Dress

In his superb book on Christian symbolism, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, George Ferguson writes, “No other figure, except that of Christ Himself, was so often portrayed in Renaissance art as the Virgin Mary.”[1]  Ferguson further notes that Saint Mary was traditionally painted wearing blue, the color of truth and a symbol of the sky, heaven, and heavenly love.[2]  But did the historical Saint Mary actually wear blue?  Evidence preserved in various shrines suggests the Virgin’s blue wardrobe may have been an invention of Medieval and Renaissance artists.  These artists expressed their devotion to the Virgin by using a very scarce and very expensive pigment to paint her garments.  The pigment, known as ultramarine, was a deep, celestial blue.

Madonna and Child with Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist, Cima da Conegliano, oil on panel (1492-1495), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Madonna and Child with Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist, Cima da Conegliano, oil on panel (1492-1495), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Marienschrein and the Four Great Relics of Aachen

The Marienschrein, or Shrine of Saint Mary, at Aachen Cathedral in Aachen (Aix-La-Chapelle), Germany houses four great relics:  the cloak of Saint Mary, the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus, the beheading cloth of Saint John the Baptist, and the loincloth worn by Jesus at his crucifixion.  The relics were rarely displayed publicly before the 14th century; however, since about the mid-14th century, the relics have been removed from the shrine approximately every seven years for public veneration.[3]

Marienschrein (Shrine of Saint Mary), gold (1230-1239), Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany

Marienschrein (Shrine of Saint Mary), gold (1230-1239), Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany

I am unsure exactly what color the relic of Saint Mary’s cloak is, or appears to be, today.  Judging by a picture of the garment taken when it was last displayed in 2007, the cloak appears to be flaxen in color, or yellowish gray, with possible hints of light blue along its hem.  It is certainly not the deep blue favored by Renaissance artists, though perhaps it has faded significantly over time.  Or perhaps it was never blue to begin with.  [NOTE:  See update below for additional information.]

One other clue to what color Saint Mary may have worn during her lifetime is preserved 300 miles southwest of Aachen, at Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France.  One of the cathedral’s most famous stained-glass windows, a 12th-century window known as Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière (Our Lady of the Beautiful Glass), depicts the Virgin and Child in a sedes sapientiae (seat of wisdom) arrangement with the Christ Child seated on the lap of the Holy Mother.  Victoria Finlay, in her engaging study of color and pigments, Color:  A Natural History of the Palette, suggests the window shows the Virgin Mary in a blue veil.[4]  “The veil,” she writes, “is a pale color, light enough to allow the sun to flood through and depict the young woman’s purity.”[5]  However, “it is unmistakably light blue, and worn over a blue tunic.”[6]  She further notes that the glass-makers who created the window in 1150 “would have had the ‘real’ veil to model their design on, which is curious, because when you see the precious relic in its gold nineteenth-century box . . . it is not blue at all.  More of an off-white:  the faded clothing of the melancholy mother of a martyr.”[7]

The Madonna of the Stars, Jacopo Tintoretto, oil on canvas (second half of the 16th century), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Madonna of the Stars, Jacopo Tintoretto, oil on canvas (second half of the 16th century), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

A Blue More Precious Than Gold

If the Virgin Mary did not wear blue, why did artists regularly paint her in blue garments?  Victoria Finlay offers several insights.  First, she explains that Saint Mary did not always wear blue in artistic representations.  In Russian icons, for example, the Virgin Mary more commonly wore red, and in Byzantine art, she often wore purple.[8]  On other occasions, she was portrayed in white to represent her innocence, or black to express her grief.[9]  Finlay also observes that artists commonly dressed her in a manner to honor her, and their choice of color was frequently decided by cost and rarity.[10]  She writes, “In fifteenth-century Holland, Mary often wore scarlet because that was the most expensive cloth; the earlier Byzantine choice of purple was similarly because this was a valuable dye, and only a few people were important enough to carry it off.  So when, in around the thirteenth century, ultramarine arrived in Italy as the most expensive color on the market, it was logical to use it to dress the most precious symbol of the faith.”[11]

Ultramarine pigment, Albrecht-Dürer-Haus, Nuremberg, Germany

Example of ultramarine pigment, Albrecht-Dürer-Haus, Nuremberg, Germany.

The deep, rich ultramarine prized by the artists of the Renaissance derived from lapis lazuli, an intensely blue, semi-precious stone found in only a few places on Earth.  For artists such as Michelangelo, Titian, and Dürer, the only source of ultramarine was Afghanistan, a “mythical land so far away that no European . . . had actually been there.”[12]  Finlay notes that ultramarine was once “the most valuable paint material in the world,” and artists such as Michelangelo would have had to wait for their patrons to procure it for them because they could not afford it on their own.[13]  Given its tremendous cost and unquestionable rarity, then, it is not surprising that so many artists chose to clothe the Virgin Mary in ultramarine.  Fortuitously, ultramarine also happens to be a serene and majestic color, one truly appropriate for the Queen of Heaven.

***

[UPDATE, 27 JUNE 2014.] The following description is from the Aachen Pilgrimage 2014 (Heiligtumsfahrt 2014) website: “St. Mary’s robe is an ancient work of domestic embroidery. . . .  It is made of naturally coloured linen and is embroidered with vertical and horizontal lines in a grid pattern.  In Israel flax and cotton were only to be found on the coast and in the lowlands of Jordan . . . .”  The website further notes that the dress is 153 cm long; the seam circumference is 246 cm; and the span of the sleeves is 132 cm.  The Aachen Pilgrimage 2014 homepage can be found here.  More information about the cloak of Saint Mary can be found here.  A picture of the robe can be viewed here.

***

Madonna and Child, Vittore Carapaccio, oil on panel (1505-1510), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Madonna and Child, Vittore Carapaccio, oil on panel (1505-1510), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Madonna and Child, Jan Gossaert, oil on panel (c. 1532), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Madonna and Child, Jan Gossaert, oil on panel (c. 1532), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Virgin and Child, sandstone with traces of polychrome (c. 1325-1350).

Virgin and Child, sandstone with traces of polychrome (c. 1325-1350), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Madonna and Child, stained-glass window, Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France.

Madonna and Child, stained-glass window, Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France.

Aachen Cathedral with High Altar and Pala d'Oro in foreground and Marienschrein (Shrine of Saint Mary) behind.

Aachen Cathedral with High Altar and Pala d’Oro in foreground and Marienschrein (Shrine of Saint Mary) behind.  Hanging from the vault above the choir is a wooden medallion of the Madonna and Child carved by Jan van Steffesweert of Maastricht in 1524.


[1] George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art 71 (1954).

[2] Id. at 151.

[3] John Carroll Cruz, Relics 23 (1984).

[4] Victoria Finlay, Color: A Natural History of the Palette 317 (2002).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 292-93.

[9] Id. at 293.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 282.

[13] Id. at 287.

Saint Blaise: Protector of Dubrovnik and Patron Saint of Throat Illnesses

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Saint Blaise Group, Dom Sankt Blasien (Cathedral of Saint Blaise), Sankt Blasien, Germany.  This statute group, which depicts Saint Blaise's most famous miracle, dates to circa 1740.  It originally stood in an Ursuline monastery in Vienna.

Saint Blaise Group, Dom St. Blasien (Cathedral of Saint Blaise), St. Blasien, Germany. This statute group, which depicts Saint Blaise performing his most famous miracle, dates to circa 1740. It originally stood in an Ursuline monastery in Vienna.

Saint Blaise and the City of Dubrovnik

For over a thousand years, the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia has celebrated the feast day of Saint Blaise by staging one of the grandest and most impressive annual festivals in the world: the Festivity of Saint Blaise (Festa svetoga Vlaha).[1] The festival commemorates Saint Blaise’s salvation of the city on the eve of a surprise attack in 971. According to tradition, Saint Blaise’s miraculous intervention thwarted a planned invasion of the city, and in gratitude, the people of Dubrovnik enthusiastically embraced the saint’s cult, proclaiming him their patron and protector. Over the centuries, the relationship between city and saint flourished, and the identities of both became virtually inextricable. The annual Festivity of Saint Blaise, which has been celebrated in some form since at least 1190, only reinforced this association.[2] Meanwhile, succeeding generations have adapted the festival to their own needs, which has kept it vibrant and relevant in changing times.[3] Today, Saint Blaise’s likeness can be found virtually everywhere in Dubrovnik, and his spirit continues to imbue the city with a touch of mystery and a sense of the sublime.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia.  View of the rooftops with the Church of Saint Blaise in the foreground.

Acknowledging its great historical and cultural significance not only to the people of Dubrovnik, but also to the people of the world, UNESCO formally recognized the Festivity of Saint Blaise as an example of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.[4] Who, though, was Saint Blaise? And how did he come to save Dubrovnik from disaster?

The Origin of the Festivity of Saint Blaise

The night of February 2, 971, began quietly enough in city of Dubrovnik. It was Candelmas, the feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. A fleet of Venetian ships lay at anchor beyond the city walls, taking on provisions before continuing east. And the city’s pastor, a man named Stojko, was out for a walk.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia

As Stojko approached the church of Saint Stephen that night, he noticed something odd: the doors to the church had been left wide open. Stojko entered the darkened church and discovered an old, gray-haired man who introduced himself as Saint Blaise, the 4th-century bishop and martyr of Sebaste.[5] Saint Blaise gravely explained the reason for his visit. “I come to warn you of great danger for the city,” he said. The Venetians anchored outside the city walls had arrived under pretext, and they intended to take the unsuspecting city, a flourishing commercial power and potential rival to Venice, by surprise.[6] Alarmed by Saint Blaise’s message, Stojko rushed to the city council and warned them of the impending attack. The gates to the city were quickly secured, and the mighty walls of the town were manned for the city’s defense.[7] Seeing these preparations, the Venetians abandoned their plans and departed, leaving Dubrovnik – then known as Ragusa – in peace.[8] Significantly, the next day, February 3rd, was the feast day of Saint Blaise.

The Festivity of Saint Blaise in Modern Times

Today, the Festivity of Saint Blaise is celebrated over the course of several days, although preparations for the festival begin many weeks in advance.[9] The Festivity officially opens with much fanfare on Candlemas, February 2nd, when the banner of Saint Blaise is raised atop Orlando’s Column in front of the Church of Saint Blaise. (Orlando’s Column, also known as Roland’s Column, commemorates the knight and hero of the famous medieval poem The Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland), who died in the service of the emperor Charlemagne at the Battle of Roncevaux in 778.) The raising of the banner – a white standard embroidered with an image of Saint Blaise as a gray-haired bishop – is accompanied by the ringing of church bells, the discharging of historic firearms, and the release of white doves.[10] Joyous shouts of “Long live Saint Blaise!” follow from the cheering crowd.[11] In the evening, Vespers to honor Saint Blaise are sung in the cathedral.

Church of Saint Blaise, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Church of Saint Blaise, Dubrovnik, Croatia

The festival resumes early the next morning, the official feast day of Saint Blaise, with the ringing of church bells, the clamor of brass bands, and more volleys from thecity’s historic musketeers, the trombunjeri.[12] About mid-morning, a public mass is held outside Dubrovnik Cathedral (Cathedral of the Assumption). At its conclusion, a grand procession of celebrants – including trombunjeri, banner-bearers, priests, nuns, musicians, First Communicants, pilgrims, residents in national costumes, and specially appointed festanjuls (celebrators) – wends its way from the cathedral down the Stradun, the city’s main thoroughfare, and through the heart of the Old City.[13] The procession is one of the most colorful and most striking elements of the festival. In the words of one book on Saint Blaise, “the Stadun becomes a magnificent cathedral under the open skies” during the procession.[14]

Stradun, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Stradun, Dubrovnik, Croatia

One of the highlights of the parade includes the procession and display of Dubrovnik’s most prized relics, including the head, right hand, foot, and throat of Saint Blaise.[15] Housed in glittering reliquaries of gold and silver, the relics have been described as the “greatest cultural and artistic treasure” of Dubrovnik Cathedral[16]. The Reliquary of the Head of Saint Blaise is shaped like a Byzantine crown and likely dates to the 11th century.[17] The Reliquary of the Right Hand of Saint Blaise is slightly more modern. Crafted in the 12th century by Dubrovnik goldsmiths, the reliquary is shaped like a hand and features a large blue stone surrounded by filigree, pearls, and precious stones embedded on the back of the hand. The Reliquary of the Foot of Saint Blaise, like the hand reliquary, is a “speaking reliquary.” Crafted by Byzantine goldsmiths in the 11th century, the reliquary is shaped like a leg and foot and is covered in intricate gold filigree.[18] The Reliquary of the Throat of Saint Blaise contains the saint’s larynx, which is visible through a crystal window. Shaped like a monstrance, the reliquary is made of embossed silver decorated with enamel and dates to the 15th century.[19] Lastly, the Diapers or Swaddling Clothes of Jesus, housed in an ornate silver chest, are given a place of honor in the parade.[20]

Who Was Saint Blaise?

According to tradition, Saint Blaise was a 4th-century bishop of Sebaste in Armenia who was martyred in approximately 316.[21] He was born to a wealthy Greek or Armenian family in about 280, and he studied medicine, which he practiced with great skill and gentleness.[22] After treating his patients, he often added a sign of the cross.[23]

During a persecution of Christians in the region, Saint Blaise withdrew to a cave on Mount Argeus.[24] The cave was frequented by wild beasts, which Saint Blaise healed when they were sick or wounded. Hunters sent to the mountain to obtain wild animals for the amphitheater eventually discovered Saint Blaise, surrounded by the animals, and “though greatly amazed, they seized him and took him to Agricola,” the Roman governor of Cappadocia and Lesser Armenia.[25] En route, Saint Blaise performed a number of miracles in the presence of the hunters.

Fountain Statute of Saint Blaise, Domplatz (Cathedral Square), Dom St. Blasien, St. Blasien, Germany.  The statue was carved by Josef Schupp in 1714.  The fountain was designed by Walter Schelenz in 1966.

Fountain Statute of Saint Blaise, Domplatz (Cathedral Square), Dom St. Blasien, St. Blasien, Germany. The statue was carved by Josef Schupp in 1714. The fountain was designed by Walter Schelenz in 1966.

First, the group encountered a poor woman whose pig had been seized by a wolf. Saint Blaise commanded the wolf to return the pig, and the wolf immediately complied, returning the unfortunate animal unhurt. For this act, Saint Blaise gained a reputation as a protector of pigs and of animals more generally.[26]

Second, Saint Blaise healed a sick boy who was choking on a fishbone. The boy was at the point of death when his mother brought him to Saint Blaise. Saint Blaise placed his hands on the boy’s throat, prayed to God, and healed him. On account of this miracle, Saint Blaise has since been invoked as a protector against throat illnesses, including sore throats, and other associated maladies, such as tonsillitis (also known in Spain as the curse of Saint Blaise) and respiratory problems.[27]

The Martyrdom of Saint Blaise

When Saint Blaise was finally presented before Agricola, Saint Blaise refused to deny his faith. Consequently, he was imprisoned without food and was scourged. During his imprisonment, the woman whose pig Saint Blaise had saved brought him food and gave him candles to lighten his gloomy cell. Candles would later become a common attribute of Saint Blaise.[28] Crossed in an X either against the throat or over the head of an applicant, two candles are used to deliver the traditional Blessing of the Throat and are said to recall the tapers brought to the saint by the grateful woman.[29] The prayer that accompanies the Blessing of the Throat is Per intercessionem Sancti Blasii liberet te Deus a malo gutturis et a quovis alio malo (“Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, may God deliver you from illness of the throat and every other illness”).[30]

Relic of Saint Blaise, Dom Sankt Blasien, Sankt Blasien, Germany

Relic of Saint Blaise, Dom St. Blasien, St. Blasien, Germany

Eventually, Agricola had Blaise tortured and scourged with iron carding combs, which scraped and tore his flesh. Because carding combs are also used to card wool, Saint Blaise’s association with these instruments of torture oddly led to his adoption as the patron saint of wool combers. Additionally, because the iron combs viciously shredded his skin, Saint Blaise also became a protector against skin ailments, such as blisters, pimples, and leprosy, which was much feared during the Middle Ages.[31]

St Blaise on Gate

Saint Blaise depicted above a city gate, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

After these tortures, Saint Blaise was beheaded and was buried near the walls of Sebaste.[32] He is commonly portrayed as a bishop with a gray or white beard, and he is often shown holding a crosier, an iron comb, or candles. In Dubrovnik, he frequently holds a miniature version of the city in his hands.

Fourteen Holy Helpers

Saint Blaise is also a member of the Fourteen Holy Helpers or Vierzehn Nothelfer (“fourteen helpers in need”), which has been described as “a potent group of saints invoked collectively in times of near death or dire calamity.”[33] Veneration of the Fourteen Holy Helpers originated in Germany in approximately the 13th century, though the cult did not gain a wide following until the 15th century, when a shepherd declared seeing the Christ Child accompanied by fourteen older children near the Benedictine Abbey at Banz.[34] According to the shepherd, the Christ Child described his companions as the Nothelfer and stated that they wished to work miracles from the site.[35] A small chapel was built on the spot, though it was later replaced by a much grander pilgrimage church, the Wallfahrkirche Vierzehnheilgen, designed by Balthasar Neuman.

Cathedral of Saint Blaise in the Black Forest (Sankt Blasien), Germany

Dom St. Blasien (Cathedral of Saint Blaise), St. Blasien, Germany

Meanwhile, Saint Blaise (Sankt Blasien) continues to be revered throughout Germany, both individually and as an auxiliary saint of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Many of the traditions associated with the saint’s feast day, however, have begun to fade or have disappeared entirely in Germany. For example, notched breadsticks (Blasiusbrot) and trachea-shaped loaves of bread (Bubenschenkel) used to be common offerings during the saint’s feast day but have become increasingly difficult to find.[36] Meanwhile, in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Blasiustag used to involve the blessing of horses.[37] Blessed horses were given bronze combs of Saint Blaise, which were attached to their ears.[38] In more modern times, a few farmers even had their tractors blessed before the custom died out completely.[39]  Germany still has a number of churches dedicated to Saint Blaise, including the imposing Dom St. Blasien, or Cathedral of Saint Blaise, located in the Black Forest town of St. Blasien.  (Dom St. Blasien is pictured above.)

Živio sveti Vlaho! Long live Saint Blaise!

In his last poem, The Bells of San Blas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes of a past when religion and faith still held power and when church bells served as the “voice of the church.”[40] The Bells of San Blas, Mexico, “[h]ave a strange, wild melody, / and are something more than a name,” he writes.[41] They have “tones that touch and search / The hearts of young and old,” yet they are “a voice of the Past, / Of an age that is fading fast.”[42] The chapel that “once looked down / On the little seaport town” has “crumbled into the dust” and the oaken beams that support the bells have become “green with mould and rust.”[43] “Is, then, the old faith dead?” he asks.[44] And the saints: “Ah, have they grown / Forgetful of their own? Are they asleep, or dead . . . ?”[45]

In Dubrovnik, at least, tradition and faith endure. The Festivity of Saint Blaise is proof that Saint Blaise has not been forgotten and remains integral to the life and culture of the city.  Živio sveti Vlaho!

Interior Dome of the Cathedral of St. Blasien in the Black Forest, St. Blasien, Germany.  The   ceiling frescoes are by Walter Georgi.

Interior Dome of the Dom St. Blasien, St. Blasien, Germany. The ceiling frescoes are by Walter Georgi.

[1] See, e.g., Nomination for Inscription on the Representative List 2009: The Festivity of Saint Blaise, the Patron of Dubrovnik, Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2 Oct. 2009; Thousand Year Old Celebration of the Dubrovnik Patron, St Blaise, Dubrovnik Tourist Board Website, Feb. 3, 2012, http://visitdubrovnik.hr/en-GB/Events/Event/Town/Dubrovnik/Thousand-Year-Old-Celebration-of-the-Dubrovnik-Patron-St-Blaise?ZXZcNjUz; Saint Blasius Church–Dubrovnik, DubrovnikCity.com, http://www.dubrovnikcity.com/dubrovnik/attractions/st_blaise_church.htm.

[2] See The Festivity of Saint Blaise, the Patron of Dubrovnik, UNESCO.org, http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?RL=00232. Other sources claim the festival is much older.

[3] See id.

[4] Id.

[5] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries 105 (Adriana Kremenjaš-Daničić ed., Biserka Simatović trans., 2012).

[6] Id.

[7] Saint Blasius Church–Dubrovnik, supra note 1. Fans of the television show “Game of Thrones” may recognize the stout defensive walls of Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik has doubled as King’s Landing and Qarth in various episodes of the popular show. See Natasha Geiling, On the Ultimate “Game of Thones” Tour, Apr. 10, 2014, Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/iceland-croatia-go-ultimate-game-thrones-tour-180950450/?no-ist.

[8] The Venetians would eventually conquer Dubrovnik, also known as Ragusa, centuries later.

[9] A lectures series called “In Expectation of Saint Blaise” held in January marks the beginning of the preparations for the festival. Europski Dom Dubrovnik, Saint Blaise:  Veneration Without Boundaries 107 (2012).

[10] Musketeers known as trombunjeri are responsible for firing the volleys that accompany the raising of Saint Blaise’s banner. See, e.g., id.; Nomination for Inscription on the Representative List 2009, supra note 1.

[11] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 107.

[12] See, e.g., Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 107; Nomination for Inscription on the Representative List 2009, supra note 1.

[13] See Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 108.

[14] Id.

[15] See, e.g., Nomination for Inscription on the Representative List 2009, supra note 1 (“Priests in the procession carry many saintly powers in reliquaries, an exceptional cultural and historical treasure, which mostly contains the relics of Blaise and the holy martyrs from the first centuries of Christianity.”).

[16] The Dubrovnik Cathedral (Don Stanko Lasić ed., n.d.) (pamphlet describing Dubrovnik Cathedral).

[17] Id.

[18] Id. Additional decoration was added to the reliquary in subsequent centuries. For example, an enamel medallion featuring the coat of arms of the Republic of Ragusa was apparently added to the reliquary in the 17th century. An inscription around the medallion reads “SANCTUS 1684 BLASIUS.”

[19] Id.

[20] See, e.g., Tom Kelly, A Party for the Patron Saint of Sore Throats, Telegraph (UK), Jan. 27, 2007, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/croatia/739995/A-party-for-the-patron-saint-of-sore-throats.html. The author mistakenly identifies the relic as “a fragment of Jesus’s loincloth.” In fact, the silver reliquary is said to contain the diapers or swaddling cloths of the baby Jesus.

[21] See, e.g., 1 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 239 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956); Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 10–16.

[22] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 13.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 21, at 239.

[26] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 13; see also Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 21, at 239.

[27] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 14, 17.

[28] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 21, at 239.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 17.

[32] Id. at 15.

[33] Id. at 19.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id. at 54.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Henry Wadworth Longfellow, Complete Poetical Works (1893).

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] Id.

[44] Id.

[45] Id.

Saint Bernward of Hildesheim: Medieval Patron of the Arts

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Baptismal Font Hildesheim Cathedral

Baptismal Font (detail), copper alloy (c. 1226), Hildesheim Cathedral, Hildesheim, Germany

Saint Bernward of Hildesheim

During the Middle Ages, few individuals did more to support and develop the arts than Saint Bernward of Hildesheim. Considered one the era’s greatest patrons of the arts,1 Saint Bernward’s legacy included the commissioning of Hildesheim Cathedral’s monumental bronze doors2 and the construction of the abbey church of Saint Michael in Hildesheim.3 At a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a number of objects commissioned by Saint Bernward, as well as other important objects from the treasury of Hildesheim Cathedral, were on display. The exhibition included several reliquaries, including a skillfully fashioned reliquary containing the skull of Saint Oswald and an arm reliquary that once held relics of Saint Bernward himself.

Saint Bernward was born to a noble Saxon family and served as the tutor of the future emperor Otto III before his appointment as Bishop of Hildesheim in 993. Hildesheim is one of the oldest cities in northern Germany, and the bishopric of Hildesheim was established by Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s heir and successor, in 815.4 During the Middle Ages, Hildesheim was renowned for its metalworking, and many of Saint Bernward’s commissions would not have been possible if not for the extraordinary skill of the region’s metalsmiths. As noted in Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim, the proximity of nearby mines, which provided easy access to raw materials, “gave rise to a tradition of metalworking expertise that reached its peak during Bernward’s era.”5

The Golden Madonna (Virgin and Child Enthroned)

Golden Madonna

Golden Madonna, gold over linden wood, (c. 1022), Hildesheim Cathedral, Hildesheim, Germany

Neither Bernward’s Doors from Hildesheim Cathedral nor Bernward’s Column, an imposing bronze column circa 1015 representing “the first triumphal column since antiquity,” were on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the exhibition did include other impressive examples of the metalworkers’ art. The Golden Madonna, which dates to before 1022, has been attributed to Saint Bernward’s patronage.6 Sheathed in gold over a linden wood core, the depiction of the Virgin and Child enthroned is one of the oldest sculptures in the round from the Latin West.7

Reliquary of the Holy Cross

Cross Reliquary

Cross Reliquary, gilded silver, rock crystal, and semiprecious stones, Hildesheim, Germany (c. 1180-1190), Hildesheim Cathedral, Hildesheim, Germany.

A reliquary cross containing relics of the Holy Cross was also on display. According to legend, Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria obtained the relics from the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his safe return to Saxony in 1173, Henry allegedly donated the relics to the Church of the Holy Cross in Hildesheim, although no records supporting this story appear to exist.8 Nevertheless, the reliquary cross’s opulent gilding and intricately hammered ornamentation, as well as its impressive array of colored gems and rock crystal, attest to the significance of the darkened slivers of wood nestled at the center of the cross.

The Ringelheim Crucifix and Hidden Relics of Saints Cosmas and Damian

Ringelheim Crucifix

Ringelheim Crucifix, linden wood and oak (c. 1000)

In addition to the Golden Madonna, Saint Bernward commissioned other large sculptures during his reign as bishop, including a striking wooden crucifix known as the Ringelheim Crucifix. Carved from linden wood and oak, the crucifix stands at over five feet tall and represents one of the most significant monumental wooden sculptures from the Ottonian period in existence today.9 Though carved as an object of devotion, conservation work conducted in the mid-20th century revealed that the crucifix also served as an inconspicuous reliquary. Concealed in a small cavity in Christ’s head, conservators discovered several relics, including two stones from the Holy Sepulcher and two bone fragments, wrapped in silk, of the twin saints Cosmas and Damian.10

Reliquary of Saint Oswald and the Story of His Skull

Reliquary of Saint Oswald

Reliquary of Saint Oswald, gold, silver, pearls, and gemstones over wood core (c. 1185-1189), Hildesheim Cathedral, Hildesheim, Germany

A more traditional reliquary, the Reliquary of Saint Oswald, was also on display at the exhibition. Richly crafted from gold and silver and embellished with niello, cloisonné, pearls, gemstones, and recycled Roman cameos and intaglios, the reliquary is regarded as a masterpiece of medieval goldsmithing.11 The reliquary’s most obvious and most striking feature is undoubtedly the gold bust of Saint Oswald placed atop the reliquary’s octagonal base. The saint’s eyes, finished in niello, were eerie and arresting, their blackened pupils eternally transfixed on the middle distance. Meanwhile, the saint’s crown seemed remarkable for its odd fit. I later learned that the crown and its decoration were cobbled together from earlier components, including a Roman cameo prominently displayed at the crown’s center.12 Apparently, sovereigns occasionally donated their own crowns to churches for reuse on bust reliquaries, although whether this happened to be the case with the Reliquary of Saint Oswald is unclear.13

Reliquary of Saint Oswald 2The Reliquary of Saint Oswald was designed to carry the skull of Saint Oswald, and the relic is evidently still enclosed within the reliquary, wrapped in silk. Saint Oswald was a King of Northumbria who lived in the early 7th century.14 According to the Venerable Bede, Saint Oswald was killed in battle by the pagan king of the Mercians at a place called Maserfield in 642.15 The Venerable Bede observes that the extent of Saint Oswald’s faith and devotion were made evident by the miracles that occurred at the spot where he died in battle.16 “[I]nfirm men and cattle are healed to this day,” he reports, and as a consequence, “many took up the very dust of the place where his body fell, and putting it into water, did much good with it to their friends who were sick.”17 In their enthusiasm for this holy dust, the people eventually carried away so much dirt that “there remained a hole as deep as the height of a man.”18

The Venerable Bede further explains that Saint Oswald’s head was originally buried in Lindisfarne. The Venerable Bede writes that after the Battle of Maserfield, the king of the Mercians commanded that Saint Oswald’s head, hands, and arms “be cut off from the body, and set upon stakes.”19 Returning with an army the next year, Saint Oswald’s successor, Oswy, removed the slain king’s body parts from their stakes and eventually buried Saint Oswald’s head at Lindisfarne Abbey. A century later, Saint Oswald’s head was translated to Durham Cathedral, where it was reburied with the body of Saint Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede himself.20 In 1538, however, under the authority of King Henry VIII, the relics of Saint Cuthbert and Saint Oswald were removed from their shrine and were deposited in an unmarked grave behind the high altar of Durham Cathedral.21 According to some sources, the relics of Saint Oswald were eventually destroyed during the Reformation—though perhaps his skull survived, cosseted away in an opulent reliquary.22

Arm Reliquary of Saint Bernward

Arm Reliquary of Saint Bernward

Army Reliquary of Saint Bernward, silver, gold, and semiprecious stones over wood core (c. 1194), Hildesheim Cathedral, Hildesheim, Germany

The exhibition also included an arm reliquary that once held the relics of Saint Bernward. Reliquaries in the shape of body parts, also called “speaking reliquaries” (redende Reliquiare), first gained popularity in the 11th century and were intended to evoke the character of the relics they contained.23 So, for example, leg reliquaries held leg bones, and foot reliquaries held foot bones. In the Permanent Exhibition of Religious Art in Zadar, Croatia I even encountered a shoulder blade reliquary, shaped somewhat like a baby grand piano, that allegedly contained the shoulder blade of Saint Mark.24

Church of Saint Donatus, Zadar, Croatia

Church of Saint Donatus, Zadar, Croatia. The church of Saint Donatus is located across the street from the convent of Saint Mary and the Permanent Exhibition of Religious Art.

In his superb study on relics, Holy Bones, Holy Dust, Charles Freeman argues that arm reliquaries sometimes served an additional purpose beyond that of mere identification. Freeman notes that after Mass, celebrants traditionally blessed their congregations before they departed.25 Freeman writes that a blessing given by a bishop “was of a much higher status [than] that by a mere priest, and congregations often felt they had been badly done by. Yet if a priest held up an arm reliquary and blessed the congregation with that, it was believed to have the same effect as if the bishop himself had been there.”26 The posture of the Arm Reliquary of Saint Bernward—its right index finger and middle finger extended to heaven, its thumb curled slightly inward—suggests that it may occasionally have been used for this purpose, to deliver the final blessing. Another arm reliquary in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Arm Reliquary of Saint Valentine, likely served a similar function.

Army Reliquary of Saint Valentine

Army Reliquary of Saint Valentine, silver, gilded silver, and blue cabochon, Basel, Switzerland (c. 1380-1400), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Because of his patronage of the arts and his own reputed skill as an architect and artist, Saint Bernward is recognized today as a patron saint of architects, goldsmiths, painters, and sculptors. While the church he helped build, the abbey church of Saint Michael, may be his most conspicuous achievement, he accomplished so much more as a bishop and patron of the arts.27 As Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim states, “While many of Hildesheim’s bishops endowed its institutions with extraordinary works of art, no donor was more prolific or had a more significant impact on Hildesheim’s production than Bernward, the thirteenth bishop of Hildesheim.”28

Cross Reliquary

Cross Reliquary (detail), gilded silver, rock crystal, and semiprecious stones, Hildesheim, Germany (c. 1180-1190), Hildesheim Cathedral, Hildesheim, Germany.

Arm Reliquary of Saint Bernward

Arm Reliquary of Saint Bernward (detail), silver, gold, and semiprecious stones over wood core (c. 1194), Hildesheim Cathedral, Hildesheim, Germany

Small Bernward Cross

Small Bernward Cross, copper alloy, gilding, and semiprecious stones, Hildesheim, Germany (c. 1170-1180), Hildesheim Cathedral, Hildesheim, Germany.

Italian Reliquary Cross

Reliquary Cross (detail), silver, gilded silver, enamel, coral, and rock crystal, Italy (the Marches), c. 1375-1400, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This reliquary cross from the late 14th century is part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Slivers of wood can still be seen encased at the center of the cross.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

1 Metropolitan Museum of Art, Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim 6 (Peter Barnet et al. eds., 2013).

2 Id. at 11. According to Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim, the casting of Bernward’s enormous and highly decorated bronze doors, now known as Bernward’s Doors, was “a technological breakthrough for the Middle Ages and a milestone in the history of art.” Id.

3 Id. at 7.

4 Id. at 3.

5 Id. at 14, 16.

6 Id. 42.

7 Id.

8 Id. at 86.

9 Id. at 44.

10 Id. Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim further notes that other monumental crucifixes similarly served as reliquaries.

11 Id. at 88.

12 Id.

13 Id. Examples of this reuse can be found at Prague Cathedral and Saint-Denis in Paris.

14 Charles Freeman, Holy Bones, Holy Dust 63 (2011).

15 Saint Bede, The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England 123 (J. A. Giles ed., 1847).

16 Id. at 123–24.

17 Id. at 124.

18 Id.

19 Id. at 129.

20 Saint Bede, 1 The Complete Works of Venerable Bede: Life, Poems, Letters, Etc. at xcviii, xciii (J. A. Giles trans., 1843); Thomas J. Craughwell, Saints Preserved 228–29 (2011).

21 Craughwell, supra note 20, at 229.

22 Id.

23 Freeman, supra note 14, at 82.

24 The Permanent Exhibition of Religious Art is also more informally known as the “Gold and Silver of Zadar.” Located in the Benedictine convent next to the church of Saint Mary, the exhibition includes an overwhelming and truly extraordinary collection of relics and other sacred objects, the oldest of which—a small pectoral cross—dates from the 8th century. See Ivo Petricioli, The Permanent Exhibition of Religious Art in Zadar at VIII (2004). According to Michelin, the museum itself is “[o]ne of the best museums in Croatia.” Sacred Art Museum, Michelin Travel, http://travel.michelin.com/web/destination/Croatia-Zadar/tourist_site-Sacred_Art_Museum-Trg_Opatice_Cike. The Reliquary of the Shoulder Blade of Saint Mark, which is fashioned of embossed gilded copper metal plate, is estimated to date to the 13th century.

25 Id.

26 Id.

27 Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim suggests that the original structure of the church may have been preserved over the centuries “because Bernward’s sainthood and supposed involvement as an architect and artist gave St. Michael’s itself the status of a relic.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, supra note 1, at 7.

28 Id. at 6.

The Shrine of the Three Kings: Grand Reliquary of the Magi

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Adoration of the Magi (detail), Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, oil on panel (1517), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Adoration of the Magi (detail), Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, oil on panel (1517), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The story of the Magi, or the three kings, is a celebrated part of the Christmas story and a popular motif in Western culture. The story can be found in the Gospel of Matthew, though most details of the Magi’s visit derive from a more obscure fourteenth-century source known as the Historia Trium Regum. Matthew’s gospel describes the mysterious star of Bethlehem; the arrival of “wise men from the East”; the Magi’s reception with King Herod; the Magi’s visit to the infant Jesus; their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and the warning the wise men received to return home by another way.1 Other details, however, are omitted from Matthew’s Christmas tale. Exactly how many wise men arrived from the East? Who were they? What were their names? And what happened to them after they returned from Bethlehem? Ultimately, although clearly outside the scope of Matthew’s gospel, how did the bodies of the three kings come to be laid to rest in Cologne, Germany?

The Historia Trium Regum, or History of the Three Kings, by John of Hildesheim elaborates on Saint Matthew’s story and provides an intriguing coda to the narrative, one that explains how the relics of the three kings were brought to the ancient city of Cologne.2 From the Historia we learn that there were three wise men and that the three men were actually kings from the East—from the lands of Ind, Chaldea, and Persia. The three kings, named Melchior, Balthazar, and Jasper,3 did not initially know each other before individually setting out to “seek and worship the Lord and King of the Jews.”

Window of the Adoration of the Magi, Cologne Cathedral

Window of the Adoration of the Magi, stained glass (1846), Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom), Cologne, Germany. The Adoration Window actually combines two events related to the birth of Jesus: the Adoration of the Magi and the Adoration of the Shepherds.

The Star of Bethlehem and the Journey of the Magi

According to the Historia, the star that heralded the birth of Jesus had long been prophesied and watched for by the people of Ind. The Historia states, “Now, in the time when Balaam prophesied of the Star that should betoken the birth of Christ, all the great lords and the people of Ind and in the East desired greatly to see this Star of which he spake.”4 Consequently, the people gave gifts to the keepers of the Hill of Vaws, a tall hill in the Kingdom of Ind that was used as a lookout point, and bade the sentinels, “if they saw by night or by day any star in the air, that had not been seen aforetime,” to send word to the people of Ind.5

Adoration - Tiepolo (detail) 2Eventually, the star appeared. “When Christ was born in Bethlehem, His Star began to rise in the manner of the sun, bright shining. It ascended above the Hill of Vaws, and all that day in the highest air it abode without moving, insomuch that when the sun was hot and most high there was no difference in shining betwixt them.” Following the day of the nativity, “the Star ascended up into the firmament, and it had right many long streaks and beams, more burning and brighter than a brand of fire; and, as an eagle flying and beating the air with his wings, right so the streaks and beams of the Star stirred about.”6

The star guided each of the kings from his native land. We are told that “[w]hen they stood still and rested, the Star stood still; and when they went forward again, the Star always went before them . . . and gave light all the way.” As the three kings and their retinues converged on Jerusalem, they finally met. “[N]otwithstanding that none of them ever before had seen the other, nor knew him, nor had heard of his coming, yet at their meeting each one with great reverence and joy kissed the other.” They continued as a group into Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem, which they entered on “the sixth hour of the day.” Together they rode through the streets until they came to a little house. There, “the Star stood still, and then descended and shone with so great a light that the little house was full of radiance, till anon the Star went upward again into the air, and stood still always above the same place.”7

The Adoration of the Magi and the Feast of the Epiphany

The kings “fell down and worshipped” Jesus at the house and offered him magnificent gifts.8 In addition to silver, jewels, and precious stones, Melchior gave Jesus “a round apple of gold” and thirty gilt pennies; Balthazar gave Christ incense; and Jaspar gave him myrrh, which he offered “with weeping and tears.”9 In art, this event is often referred to as the “Adoration of the Magi,” while their visitation to the infant Jesus is celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany, or “manifestation.”10

Adoration - Munich (detail) 2

Columba Altar (detail), Rogier van der Weyden, oil on panel (c. 1455), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

The Magi remained in Bethlehem for some time before preparing to return home. In a dream, the three kings were told not to return to Herod, so they chose to return to their homes by another route. When they left Bethlehem, “the Star that had gone before appeared no more.” Journeying together for many days, they eventually came to the Hill of Vaws, where they built a chapel “in worship of the Child they had sought.” They agreed to meet at the chapel once a year and “ordained that the Hill of Vaws should be their place of burial.”11

The Death of the Wise Men

Many years later, “a little before the feast of Christmas, there appeared a wonderful Star above the cities where these three kings dwelt, and they knew thereby that their time was come when they should pass from earth.” Together, they agreed to build “a fair and large tomb” at the Hill of Vaws, “and there the three Holy Kings, Melchior, Balthazar, and Jasper died, and were buried in the same tomb by their sorrowing people.”12 As Mark Rose observed in an article for Archeology, “If we were to assume that this actually happened, that all three died at the same place at the same time, it might have been in the mid-first century (since the kings were adults already in Bethlehem).”13

Two centuries later, the Historia explains that Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, journeyed to Ind and recovered the bodies of the three kings from their tomb on the Hill of Vaws. She put them into a single chest ornamented with great riches and brought the relics to Constantinople and the church of Saint Sophia, also known as the Hagia Sophia. In the late sixth century, under the Emperor Mauricius, the relics were translated to Italy, where “they were laid in a fair church in the city of Milan.”

Shrine of the Three Kings (detail), Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

Shrine of the Three Kings (detail), Nicholas of Verdun, gold, silver, and semi-precious stones (1190-1220), Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

The relics of the three kings remained in Milan until the twelfth century when the city of Milan rebelled against the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I, also known as Frederick Barbarossa. In need of assistance against the Milanese, the emperor appealed to Rainald von Dassel, Archbishop of Cologne, who recaptured Milan and delivered the city to the emperor. In gratitude, and “at the Archbishop’s great entreaty,” the emperor transferred the relics to the Archbishop in 1164. The Archbishop, “with great solemnity and in procession,” carried the bodies of the three kings from Milan to Cologne, where they were placed in the church of Saint Peter. “And all the people of the country roundabout, with all the reverence they might, received these relics, and there in the city of Cologne they are kept and beholden of all manner of nations unto this day.” The Historia concludes, “Thus endeth the legend of these three blessed kings—Melchior, Balthazar, and Jasper.”14

The Relics of the Magi at Cologne Cathedral

John of Hildesheim may have thought he had had the last word on the three kings, but the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral (pictured above) and the precious relics it purportedly contains has continued to fascinate modern visitors.15 Are the bones sealed in the reliquary really those of Melchior, Balthazar, and Jasper?

One of the earliest and most intriguing depictions of the Magi is a late sixth-century mosaic located at New Basilica of Saint Apollinaris (Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo) in Ravenna, Italy. The Magi appear dressed in Eastern clothing, carrying traditional gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.16 Additionally, the three kings are portrayed as men of different ages: Jasper is depicted as an older man with white hair and beard; Balthazar is shown as a middle-aged man with dark hair and beard; and Melchior is represented as a beardless young man.  (In contrast, the Venerable Bede, writing in the 8th century, identifies Melchior as an “old man, with long beard,” Jasper as “young, beardless, [and] of ruddy hue,” and Balthazar as “with heavy beard” and “middle aged.”)

Mosaic of the Magi, Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.  Courtesy of Nina Aldin Thune, Wikimedia Commons.

Mosaic of the Magi, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. Courtesy of Nina Aldin Thune, Wikimedia Commons.

In 2004, Egyptologist Bob Brier and The Learning Channel examined whether the bones in the Shrine of the Three Kings could possibly be the bones of the Magi, and their investigation revealed something remarkable.17 Scrutinizing the cranial sutures of the three skulls kept in the shrine, Brier’s team concluded that the skulls appeared to be from individuals of different ages: one older (the sutures were completely fused), one middle-aged (the sutures were mostly fused), and one younger (the sutures were incompletely fused). The relative ages of the skulls appeared to corroborate the depiction of the Magi in the Ravenna mosaic.

Coat of Arms of CologneThe three skulls in the shrine were also graced with golden crowns, apparently given to the church by King Otto IV of Brunswick in 1199. Incidentally, in recognition of the importance of the kings’ relics, three golden crowns appear on the coat of arms of the city of Cologne. As Gerald J. Brault explains in Early Blazon: Heraldic Terminology in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries with Special Reference to Arthurian Heraldry, “Three crowns were frequently an allusion to the Three Wise Men whose relics were brought by Frederick I Barbarossa from Milan to Cologne in 1164. Commemorating this event, three crowns are featured in the arms of the City of Cologne dating from the end of the thirteenth century as well as on the seal of the University of Cologne from 1392 onwards.”18

King of Kings

For those who have visited Cologne Cathedral, the impressive and stately Shrine of the Three Kings serves as a visual reminder of events that transpired over two thousand years ago, when three men left the comfort of their homes to worship at the feet of an infant. Pope Saint Leo, writing in the fifth century, helps keep the meaning of their visit in perspective: “When a star had conducted them to worship Jesus, they did not find Him commanding devils or raising the dead or restoring sight to the blind or speech to the dumb, or employed in any divine action; but a silent babe, dependent upon a mother’s care, giving no sign of power but exhibiting a miracle of humility.”19 In the din of our modern world, this message of hope and faith may strike some as something of an epiphany.

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

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To all our readers, we wish you a merry Christmas and a joyous and safe holiday season. We hope to see you back in 2014 and look forward to sharing further posts with you at Reliquarian.com in the new year.

. . .

Three Kings Group - Nuremburg 1

Die Heiligen Drei Könige (The Three Holy Kings), oak (originally polychromed) (1490), Nuremberg, Germany. These figures are rare examples of Dutch medieval sculpture and were originally displayed on the pillars of a church, along with the Virgin Mary. The physiognomy and lively pose of the sculpture on the left identify him as King Balthazar, who is often depicted as a dark complexioned, “exotic” figure from either Africa or Arabia.

Three Kings Group - Nuremburg 2

Die Heiligen Drei Könige (The Three Holy Kings) (detail), oak (originally polychromed) (1490), Nuremberg, Germany

Adoration - Cologne

Adoration of the Magi, oil on canvas, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany

Adoration of the Magi (detail), painted wood (late 15th century), Archdiocesan Musem, Krakow, Poland

Poklon Trzech Króli (Adoration of the Magi) (detail), painted wood (c. 1450-1475), Archdiocesan Musem, Krakow, Poland. This sculpture was originally displayed in Saint Mary’s Church in Krakow and was probably the central scene of a lost triptych. According to the Archdiocesan Museum, it is an example of the “angular” late Gothic style of sculpture in Krakow that preceded the later, more “expressive” work of Wit Stwosz (Veit Stoss). See Andrzej Jozef Nowobilski, Origin Collection Activity 70 (2011).

Adoration of the Magi - Metropolitan Museum

Adoration of the Magi (detail), oak with paint and gilding, South Netherlandish (1520), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany. During the Middle Ages, the shrine was kept in the crossing. Today, it is displayed above the high altar, at the rear of the inner choir.

1 Matthew 2:1–16.

2 See The Early English Text Society, The Three Kings of Cologne: An Early English Translation of the “Historia Trium Regum” by John of Hildesheim (C. Horstmann ed., 1886); Steph Mineart, The Three Kings of Cologne—A Legend of the Middle Ages, CommonPlaceBook.com (Mar. 3, 2004), http://commonplacebook.com/culture/the_three_kings/ (featuring a modernized translation of the story by H.S. Morris). John of Hildesheim was a Carmelite friar who lived in the Prince-Bishopric of Hildesheim in what is not present-day Germany.

3 Balthazar is sometimes spelled Balthasar.  “Jasper” sometimes appears as “Gaspar” or “Caspar.”

4 The Three Kings of Cologne—A Legend of the Middle Ages, supra note 2.

5 Id. The Hill of Vaws is also known as the Hill of Victory.

6 Id.

7 Id.

8 Id.

9 Id.

10 George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art 78 (1961). The Feast of the Epiphany was traditionally celebrated on January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmas.

11 The Three Kings of Cologne—A Legend of the Middle Ages, supra note 2.

12 Id.

13 Mark Rose, “The Three Kings & the Star,” Archeology, Dec. 21, 2004, available at http://archive.archaeology.org/online/reviews/threekings/.

14 The Three Kings of Cologne—A Legend of the Middle Ages, supra note 2.

15 See Der Kölner Dom, http://www.koelner-dom.de/ (last visited Dec. 21, 2013) (official website of Cologne Cathedral).

16 Ferguson, supra note 10, at 78. As George Ferguson points out in Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, the three gifts apparently hold a symbolic meaning: “gold to a King, frankincense to One Divine, myrrh, the emblem of death, to a Sufferer.” These gifts “represent the offering to Christ of wealth and energy, adoration, and self-sacrifice.” Id.

17 Mummy Detective: The Three Kings (The Learning Channel television broadcast Dec. 23, 2004); see also Rose, supra note 13.

18 Gerald J. Brault, Early Blazon: Heraldic Terminology in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries with Special Reference to Arthurian Heraldry 45 (2nd ed. 1997).  The eleven black “tears” on the escutcheon of the coat arms, more formally known as gouttes of tar, have come to represent Saint Ursula (Cologne’s other patron saint) and the eleven thousand virgins with whom she was martyred.  In reality, they are likely representations of the black spots commonly found on ermine fur.  See Cologne Coat of Arms, Cologne Tourist Board, http://www.cologne-tourism.com/attractions-culture/city-history/coat-of-arms.html.

19 See 1 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 40 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).