If you’ve ever wanted to see Moses’ burning bush or pieces of Jesus’ manger, there’s a long history of collections at cathedrals that have allowed patrons to do just that. On Thursday, the McMullen Museum of Art hosted a fascinating lecture on the role of medieval cathedrals as museums, which was presented by the knowledgeable Dr. Mary Malloy. In it, the role of relics, usually the bones or other remains of saints, was explored as they were revered by medieval cultures across Europe and served as an important component to the preservation and creation of contemporary art.
Malloy highlighted the aspects of a museum that make it important to the societies in which they reside. Ranging from serving as inspirational and informational entities, as well as existing as community status symbols and businesses that help support the local economy, these qualities embody the value of museums. All of these features are evident in the robust and at times bizarre history of medieval cathedral artworks. This tradition commenced with a cathedral that was built in Venice to house a collection of relics that were largely stolen. The cathedral aimed to house the bones of the four apostles, and to get the appropriate relics, elaborate measures were taken.
Stealing the body of one saint, the relic hunters stole the corpse of St. Mark and replaced it with the lesser-known saint. Then, they covered the stolen corpse of St. Mark in pork so authorities wouldn’t find it on the ship while it was being transported to the cathedral. This showcases the lengths people were willing to undertake to present these relics, which while amusing, also imparts a significance to these relics that goes beyond mere bragging rights over being able to house flashy items. The creators of these cathedrals also took an interest in secular art, which strengthens the history of the cultural appreciation for artwork in its own right. For example, a cathedral moved to steal four bronze horses from Constantinople, which demonstrates recognition of the power of these artworks to attract traffic to the cathedral and capture the minds and spirits of those who viewed them.
Malloy was quick to point out the multifarious import such relics represented for museums and other institutions. The economic value that these relics brought to cathedrals was significant as well. Though the idea of financial livelihood seems trivial in the presence of priceless works of art, the role of churches or museums as entities in need of revenue is noteworthy in their history and continues to the present day. In the past, visitors could pay a fee to touch or kiss various relics, for a variety of purposes.
Malloy went on to discuss pilgrimages like those described by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. These were in fact taken, and people would visit these cathedrals for reasons such as buying indulgences, seeking cures to illness, or even having time taken off of their sentences in purgatory or civilian jail. The Vatican still houses relics today, and other exhibits relating to human remains, such as Body World or mummy exhibits, continue to be some of the most visited types of museum attractions around.
In a great number of instances, the relics that the cathedrals claimed to have were not in fact legitimate. Several supposed heads of John the Baptist were exhibited in cathedrals around Europe, and an absurd number of hands, arms, and teeth of his and other saints have been claimed as legitimate remains even when, logistically, that cannot be the case. Additionally, an obnoxious number of cathedrals claimed to have pieces of the crucifix, as well as every odd item down to bits of the clay out of which Adam was created.
Many of these relics, however, are enclosed in ornamented, jeweled containers or vessels that serve as artwork in their own right. Thus, the value of these pieces does not come from their objective legitimacy, but their symbolic presentation of religious and cultural meaning, and their ability to remind visitors of that tradition is priceless.
If the attendee believes that the relic or artwork is real, the power of the object becomes evident in the tangible and intangible reactions of the witness. Offering anything from spiritual fulfillment to concrete artwork to be viewed or touched, these relics are important components in the presentation of religious and cultural history. The link between churches and the formation of museums is strong, and this interaction has created cathedrals and museums that millions of people still visit and enjoy to this day.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor