Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

March 14, 2001 - Reliquary

Practically every village in France has or had some holy object in a reliquary in its church. Reliquaries are display cases that house holy relics for the faithful. The relics themselves range from the macabre to merely odd. There are bones, eyeballs, fingernails, hairs, veils and shrouds everywhere in France. When we visited Illiers-Combray on Valentine's day, we found a small piece of the veil of the Virgin Mary in the church. When we went to Vezelay last October we touched the reliquary holding the knuckle bone of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is much revered in France and parts of her body can be found in churches everywhere. Her chin bone was at one time in the church of the Madeleine in Vendome. Madeleine is the French name for Magdalene. Regardless of your religious denomination getting up close and personal with Mary Magdalene's knuckle bone makes an impression.

When I moved to France I knew very little about relics and reliquaries. I don't think they exist in the Protestant religions. Even my American Catholic friends don't seem to know a lot about these things. But the stories behind these relics are fantastic tales of magic, mysticism and superstition. Of course if you were a peasant cured of blindness or the plague from touching the breastbone of St. Rimay, the stories weren't fairy tales but proof of the power and goodness of God.

In the middle ages a relic could bring economic and religious benefits to an otherwise poor region. A famous relic could attract thousands of pilgrims to a remote village. About 900 years ago, the neighboring village of Montoire sur Loir was a booming metropolis because of a wooden statue of Saint Greluchon in the little church of Saint Oustrille. Women would come from near and far to scratch off pieces of the wooden base of the statue with their fingernails. It was believed that a tea made from the wood shavings would make the women fertile. Children born after this pilgrimage were said to have fine, curly hair like the wood shavings that made their birth possible. A local apothecary sold a miracle potion called "greluchine" that was guaranteed to prevent sterility. Commerce thrived in the village from the feeding and housing the pilgrims. When the court of Louis XIVth learned of the celebrated Saint, the pilgrimage came to an end. Louis' mistress was scandalized by the nude statute so Louis had the poor Saint dressed up in the robes of a bishop. It destroyed the mystique of the statute and the pilgrims stopped coming. Thus ended the most popular pilgrimage in the Vendomois.

Louis XIV seems to have been particularly hard on relics. While on a pilgrimage to Cotignac in the Var, he heard about the celebrated miracle of Sainte Roseline. Sainte Roseline was a thirteenth century Sainte whose body was exhumed five years after her burial. The body was found to be still intact by some miracle or natural momification. Her still living eyeballs were placed in a reliquary in a church in the Var. Louis wanted to know the eyeballs were really alive so he sent his doctor to examine these relics. The doctor punctured the left eyeball and destroyed it. He reported to Louis that the right eyeball appeared to still be living. This must have been a blow to the faithful of Sainte Roseline who already believed in the miracle and didn't need to destroy the relic to prove its authenticity.

Pilgrims believed that touching a reliquary would put them in communication with a saint or the Virgin Mary who would intercede and communicate their prayer to heaven. There was also a belief that touching the reliquary would heal certain maladies. In Vendome, the Abbey of the Trinity contained a relic particularly venerated by pilgrims. It was a tear of Jesus Christ contained in a crystal vial. Some very gullible Crusaders bought that tear for a pretty penny from a fast-talking merchant in Jerusalem. Only the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch was more prized. Actually the tear was a gift from the Emperor of Constantinople to Geoffry Martel, founder of the Abbey, for his help in chasing the Sarrasins from the Holy Land. The vial holding the tear of Jesus Christ was destroyed during the Revolution but it remained in the Abbey from 1042 until it was lost. It made Vendome a very desirable destination for over 600 years. Devotion to relics gradually declined in large part because of well-known cases of fakes. But belief in relics has not disappeared all together. The Shroud of Turin is still revered by thousands despite the controversy surrounding its authenticity. Relics are fascinating and they give life to biblical tales of Christ's Passion and the martyrdom of the saints. After seeing a relic of St Rimay, St. John or whoever, one can't help but.... wonder. I suppose that was the point of having relics in the first place.

The reliquaries are works of art in themselves. Many are elaborate miniature architectural structures but others are swords, crosses, vials, crystals and traditional sculptures. When my wife, Aprille, was offered a chance to show her sculptures at the Karpeles Museum in Jacksonville, she decided to use the idea of the reliquary in a different manner for her show. After all, she explained to me, "All works of art are just a form of a reliquary that encases and materializes the immaterial visual ideas or experiences of an artist. When an artwork really touches the viewer emotionally, there is a form of communion with that original idea."

Even before she got interested in relics, she was placing something inside her works that represented the genesis of each piece. In her large bronze angel installed at the Roswell Arts Center in Roswell, Georgia, she asked children to write words on leaves that were placed inside the piece before it was installed.

In her current show, she made seven reliquaries. Five are traditional architectural structures like mini-temples hanging on the wall. Each reliquary opens both in back with arched windows and in front with a door. Behind each door are found objects that represent the reliquaries' artistic theme. Each reliquary has between ten and thirty different components that can be taken out and held. One of the things I noticed at her opening was how much people enjoyed opening the doors and handling the various art that goes inside each reliquary. It is hard for me to write about Aprille's work because I'm too close to the dust flying as she works. Still I think, like a saint's knuckle bone, her work will make an impression.

In addition to pictures of Aprille's artwork, her website(www.aprille.net) has links to more sites about relics in general if you are still curious to learn more.

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March 7, 2001 - The Source of the Loir
February 28, 2001 - La Marseillaise
February 21, 2001 - Still on Wheels
February 14, 2001 - Marcel Proust
February 7, 2001 - La Chandeleur
January 31, 2001 - Winter Comfort Food
January 24, 2001 - Festival of Saint Vincent
January 17, 2001 - Guest Columnist Aprille Glover
January 10, 2001 - Muscadet
January 3, 2001 - Ode to Protein
December 27, 2000 - Summer Dreaming: Escargot
December 20, 2000 - Let Them Eat Cake
December, 13 2000 - Back to France
November 29, 2000 -Beignets Aux Fleurs d'Acacia
November 15, - Thanksgiving
November 8, - Pousse D'Epine
November 1, 2000 - Col de Vence: A day on the Moon
October 25, 2000 - Cult of the Black Virgin
October 18, 2000 - Harvesting Grapes by Hand
October 4, 2000 - Provence: All Good Things

 

       

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