Morbid Anatomy: Saint Victoria and Saint Wittoria in Rome, or The Difficulties of Researching Catholic Artifacts

I am dying to know: Are those bones embedded in the waxworks?

Images: Relics (?) of Saint Vittoria, or Victoria in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, by Morbid Anatomy.

A few weeks ago I heard this story on NPR about the St. Cuthbert Gospel, Europe’s oldest intact book, which the British Library recently paid $14 million to acquire.
The book is thought to date from seventh-century England and is in astonishingly good condition. This may be due to the fact that for four of its many centuries the book was not in anyone’s hands, but rather tucked away inside the coffin of Saint Cuthbert. From Wikipedia:

The book takes its name from Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, North East England, in whose tomb it was placed, probably a few years after his death in 687. Although it was long regarded as Cuthbert’s personal copy of the Gospel, to which there are early references, and so a relic of the saint, the book is now thought to date from shortly after Cuthbert’s death. It was probably a gift from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, where it was written, intended to be placed in St Cuthbert’s coffin when his remains were placed behind the altar at Lindisfarne in 698. It presumably remained in the coffin through its long travels after 875, forced by Viking invasions, ending at Durham Cathedral. The book was found inside the coffin and removed in 1104 when the burial was once again moved within the cathedral. It was kept there with other relics, and important visitors were able to wear the book in a leather bag around their necks. 

Image: Miniature from Bede’s Prose Life of St Cuthbert (late 12th century), depicting the discovery of St. Cuthbert’s incorrupt corpse, via Wikipedia.

A few weeks ago I heard this story on NPR about the St. Cuthbert Gospel, Europe’s oldest intact book, which the British Library recently paid $14 million to acquire.

The book is thought to date from seventh-century England and is in astonishingly good condition. This may be due to the fact that for four of its many centuries the book was not in anyone’s hands, but rather tucked away inside the coffin of Saint Cuthbert. From Wikipedia:

The book takes its name from Saint Cuthbert of LindisfarneNorth East England, in whose tomb it was placed, probably a few years after his death in 687. Although it was long regarded as Cuthbert’s personal copy of the Gospel, to which there are early references, and so a relic of the saint, the book is now thought to date from shortly after Cuthbert’s death. It was probably a gift from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, where it was written, intended to be placed in St Cuthbert’s coffin when his remains were placed behind the altar at Lindisfarne in 698. It presumably remained in the coffin through its long travels after 875, forced by Viking invasions, ending at Durham Cathedral. The book was found inside the coffin and removed in 1104 when the burial was once again moved within the cathedral. It was kept there with other relics, and important visitors were able to wear the book in a leather bag around their necks. 

Image: Miniature from Bede’s Prose Life of St Cuthbert (late 12th century), depicting the discovery of St. Cuthbert’s incorrupt corpse, via Wikipedia.

Reliquary from Spain, 1624. From the V&A Museum:

This reliquary once held a fragment of St Scholastica’s right arm, visible through the crystal window. A Latin inscription asks the saint to pray for us. Another inscription, as well as the dove perched on her fingers, alludes to Scholastica’s death. The holy legend states that her brother St Benedict saw her soul ascending to heaven in the form of a dove.

Reliquary from Spain, 1624. From the V&A Museum:

This reliquary once held a fragment of St Scholastica’s right arm, visible through the crystal window. A Latin inscription asks the saint to pray for us. Another inscription, as well as the dove perched on her fingers, alludes to Scholastica’s death. The holy legend states that her brother St Benedict saw her soul ascending to heaven in the form of a dove.

Love this article over at TIME—Top 10 Famous Stolen Body Parts—featuring Anne Boleyn’s heart, Geronimo’s skull, Napoleon’s penis, and more, including this tidbit:

the 16th century, St. Francis Xavier spent a lot of time on his feet, spreading the gospel throughout Spain, France, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, Sri Lanka and India, dying at sea en route to China. When a group of Christians disinterred his body a few months later, they were surprised to see it in a perfect state of preservation. But just as in life, his “incorrupt body” didn’t stay at rest for long. In its first public exhibition of corpse in Goa, India, in fit of reverence, a Portuguese woman bit off his big toe. Allegedly, the toe gushed blood, and she was caught when people followed the grisly trail to her home.

Kind of surprised that Juan Perón’s hands didn’t make the list.
Image: Painting of St. Francis Xavier in the Kobe City Museum, via Wikipedia.

Love this article over at TIME—Top 10 Famous Stolen Body Parts—featuring Anne Boleyn’s heart, Geronimo’s skull, Napoleon’s penis, and more, including this tidbit:

the 16th century, St. Francis Xavier spent a lot of time on his feet, spreading the gospel throughout Spain, France, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, Sri Lanka and India, dying at sea en route to China. When a group of Christians disinterred his body a few months later, they were surprised to see it in a perfect state of preservation. But just as in life, his “incorrupt body” didn’t stay at rest for long. In its first public exhibition of corpse in Goa, India, in fit of reverence, a Portuguese woman bit off his big toe. Allegedly, the toe gushed blood, and she was caught when people followed the grisly trail to her home.

Kind of surprised that Juan Perón’s hands didn’t make the list.

Image: Painting of St. Francis Xavier in the Kobe City Museum, via Wikipedia.

Reliquary from Spain, ca. 1525. V&A Museum, London:

This empty reliquary portrays a young girl in a brocaded dress with a fashionable square-cut bodice. Her identity is unknown, but she probably represents a virgin martyr, perhaps St Ursula who, according to legend, was martyred with 11,000 virgins. The reliquary may originally have held a relic of her head.

Find another Ursula virgin reliquary here.

Reliquary from Spain, ca. 1525. V&A Museum, London:

This empty reliquary portrays a young girl in a brocaded dress with a fashionable square-cut bodice. Her identity is unknown, but she probably represents a virgin martyr, perhaps St Ursula who, according to legend, was martyred with 11,000 virgins. The reliquary may originally have held a relic of her head.

Find another Ursula virgin reliquary here.

"The Becket Casket." V&A Museum, London. From Limoges, France, ca. 1180-1190.
From the V&A:

The murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December, 1170 by four knights in the service of King Henry II, is one of the few episodes of British medieval history that is still widely familiar. It provoked outrage throughout Europe, and Becket’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage within days of his death. He was canonised in 1173 and his shrine was one of the most famous in the Christian world, until its total destruction in 1538 on the orders of king Henry VIII.
Relics of Becket were much in demand and were often housed in elaborate caskets. Numbers of these survive today, scattered worldwide, most made of Limoges enamel, like this example. The V&A chasse is the most elaborate, the largest, and possibly the earliest in date. It is a magnificent example of Romanesque art, probably made for an important religious house.
The casket, or ‘chasse’, shows the murder of Becket, his burial, and the raising of his soul to heaven. […] Scenes of Becket’s martyrdom were made familiar in Canterbury by their depiction in the stained glass windows of the Trinity Chapel, near the shrine itself. The shrine was made in 1220, when Becket’s relics, newly enclosed in a shrine of gold and silver encrusted with gems, were placed behind the Archbishop’s throne.

"The Becket Casket." V&A Museum, London. From Limoges, France, ca. 1180-1190.

From the V&A:

The murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December, 1170 by four knights in the service of King Henry II, is one of the few episodes of British medieval history that is still widely familiar. It provoked outrage throughout Europe, and Becket’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage within days of his death. He was canonised in 1173 and his shrine was one of the most famous in the Christian world, until its total destruction in 1538 on the orders of king Henry VIII.

Relics of Becket were much in demand and were often housed in elaborate caskets. Numbers of these survive today, scattered worldwide, most made of Limoges enamel, like this example. The V&A chasse is the most elaborate, the largest, and possibly the earliest in date. It is a magnificent example of Romanesque art, probably made for an important religious house.

The casket, or ‘chasse’, shows the murder of Becket, his burial, and the raising of his soul to heaven. […] Scenes of Becket’s martyrdom were made familiar in Canterbury by their depiction in the stained glass windows of the Trinity Chapel, near the shrine itself. The shrine was made in 1220, when Becket’s relics, newly enclosed in a shrine of gold and silver encrusted with gems, were placed behind the Archbishop’s throne.

mediumaevum:

The most popular shrine in England was the tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. When Becket was murdered local people managed to obtain pieces of cloth soaked in his blood. Rumours soon spread that, when touched by this cloth, people were cured of blindness/epilepsy and leprosy. It was not long before the monks at Canterbury Cathedral were selling small glass bottles of Becket’s blood to visiting pilgrims.
image: Altar marking the spot of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral.

mediumaevum:

The most popular shrine in England was the tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. When Becket was murdered local people managed to obtain pieces of cloth soaked in his blood. Rumours soon spread that, when touched by this cloth, people were cured of blindness/epilepsy and leprosy. It was not long before the monks at Canterbury Cathedral were selling small glass bottles of Becket’s blood to visiting pilgrims.

image: Altar marking the spot of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral.

Morbid Anatomy: The Body of San Giovanni Leonardi, Patron Saint of Pharmacists, Rome, Italy

Saint Hubert

Saint Hubert (ca. 656 - 727), the first Bishop of Liège (in present-day Belgium), is the patron saint of hunters, archers, dogs, forest workers, trappers, mathematicians, opticians, metalworkers, and smelters. He was venerated widely during the Middle Ages. 

The National Gallery in London recounts the legend of his exhumation:

The body of Saint Hubert … was exhumed in 825 from St Peter’s in Liège, a church he founded, and moved to the Abbey of Andagium, St-Hubert-des-Ardennes. Though long dead, his body was undecayed, proving his sainthood to the figures gathered to watch. 

The Abbey of Andagium became a popular pilgrimage site, but the saint’s remains disappeared during the Reformation.

Sidenote One: Saint Hubert—like another patron saint of hunters, Saint Eustace—has traditionally been associated with the image of a deer with a cross between its antlers. His conversion legend has it that after his wife died in childbirth, Hubert retreated to the Ardennes and devoted himself entirely to hunting. From Wikipedia

On Good Friday morning, when the faithful were crowding the churches, Hubert sallied forth to the chase. As he was pursuing a magnificent stag or hart, the animal turned and, as the pious legend narrates, he was astounded at perceiving a crucifix standing between its antlers, while he heard a voice saying: “Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell.” 

The Saint Hubert deer might look familiar. It appears here:

Sidenote Two: Up until the early twentieth century, folks invoked Saint Hubert to cure rabies, using a metal tool known as a “Saint Hubert’s Key”:

From the Science Museum in London (where this specimen resides):  

[Saint Hubert’s Keys] took the form of a bar, nail or cross that was either carried or attached to a wall of a home for added protection. A priest would prick the forehead of a person with rabies and a black bandage would be applied for nine days while the heated key was placed on the body where the bite had occurred. This could actually help because if the heated key was applied immediately it could cauterise and sterilize the wound, effectively killing the rabies virus.

Images, top to bottom:

  • "The Exhumation of Saint Hubert" by Rogier Van der Weyden and workshop, late 1430s, via Wikipedia.
  • Jägermeister bottle, via Wikipedia
  • Saint Hubert’s Key, Belgium, ca. 1880-1920, from the Science Museum (London).
Dublin patron saint's heart stolen from Christ Church Cathedral

From the BBC:

The dean of Christ Church Cathedral and the diocese of Dublin and Glendalough, the Rev Dermot Dunne, said he was “devastated” by the theft of the 12th Century relic.

"It has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father, St Laurence O’Toole," he added.

Reliquary Box with Scenes from the Life of John the Baptist. Byzantine, 14th century.
Source: The Cleveland Museum of Art, via Treasures of Heaven:

The Christian cult of John the Baptist emerged early as a result of his prominence in the account of the Gospels, which credit him as the first to recognize Christ as the promised Savior. After his execution at the fortress of Machaerus, his remains were allegedly moved to Sebaste. Despite reports that John’s coffin “was opened, his bones burned, and his ashes scattered” during the reign of Julian the Apostate (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 3.3), Christian pilgrims such as Egeria in the 380s continued to visit his tomb. His head, however, was taken to the capital, where it was solemnly deposited on 18 February 391 in a church, richly endowed by Emperor Theodosius I. Over the centuries, at least thirty-six churches were dedicated to St. John the Baptist in Constantinople alone, attesting to his exceptional status among the saints and martyrs venerated in the Byzantine Empire.
The painted wood box likely served as a container for one of the saint’s relics. Several such relics—two fragments of his skull, his right arm, and locks of his blood-clotted hair—were kept and venerated in churches and monasteries at Constantinople into the late Byzantine period.

Reliquary Box with Scenes from the Life of John the Baptist. Byzantine, 14th century.

Source: The Cleveland Museum of Art, via Treasures of Heaven:

The Christian cult of John the Baptist emerged early as a result of his prominence in the account of the Gospels, which credit him as the first to recognize Christ as the promised Savior. After his execution at the fortress of Machaerus, his remains were allegedly moved to Sebaste. Despite reports that John’s coffin “was opened, his bones burned, and his ashes scattered” during the reign of Julian the Apostate (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 3.3), Christian pilgrims such as Egeria in the 380s continued to visit his tomb. His head, however, was taken to the capital, where it was solemnly deposited on 18 February 391 in a church, richly endowed by Emperor Theodosius I. Over the centuries, at least thirty-six churches were dedicated to St. John the Baptist in Constantinople alone, attesting to his exceptional status among the saints and martyrs venerated in the Byzantine Empire.

The painted wood box likely served as a container for one of the saint’s relics. Several such relics—two fragments of his skull, his right arm, and locks of his blood-clotted hair—were kept and venerated in churches and monasteries at Constantinople into the late Byzantine period.

The Shrine of St. Amandus; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Flemish, early 13th century with significant later additions. From Kathryn B. Gerry’s article on the Treasures of Heaven exhibit:

Amandus was the bishop of Maastricht and the founder and abbot of the Monastery of Elnon, near Tournai, where he was buried after his death (ca. 679). Before the end of the seventh century, he was considered a saint, and a pilgrimage cult developed at Elnon, eventually requiring that his bones be housed in a reliquary that could be shown to the faithful. In addition to being visited by pilgrims and carried in procession on feast days, the relics of St. Amandus were taken on a tour of the region around Elnon at least twice: once in 1066 to raise funds to rebuild the monastery after it was destroyed by fire, and again in 1107 to remind ambitious nobles of the monastery’s power and privileges. At least one earlier reliquary for St. Amandus must have existed, but it was destroyed or lost prior to the thirteenth century, perhaps in the fire of 1066. The figure at one of the gable-shaped ends is presumably Amandus; the other end, now empty, probably originally contained a figure of Christ. Although many such reliquaries were destroyed or sold to collectors during periods of religious reformation and political revolution, some continued to be used into the modern period: a reliquary similar to that of St. Amandus is still owned by the religious brotherhood of St. Symphorian in Belgium, and carried in public procession on several occasions during the year. Over the centuries, reliquaries such as this were likely to suffer some wear. Extensive scientific testing has shown that this reliquary was made in the early thirteenth century, but that it has been repaired and modified throughout the centuries as it continued to be used in the service of the cult of St. Amandus. The most recent modifications, however, were made by a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century art dealer hoping to “improve” the piece and make it more marketable.

I’m an Amanda, so this appeals to me greatly. However, if I were a saint, I would have preferred the tour of Flanders before dying.

The Shrine of St. Amandus; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Flemish, early 13th century with significant later additions. From Kathryn B. Gerry’s article on the Treasures of Heaven exhibit:

Amandus was the bishop of Maastricht and the founder and abbot of the Monastery of Elnon, near Tournai, where he was buried after his death (ca. 679). Before the end of the seventh century, he was considered a saint, and a pilgrimage cult developed at Elnon, eventually requiring that his bones be housed in a reliquary that could be shown to the faithful. In addition to being visited by pilgrims and carried in procession on feast days, the relics of St. Amandus were taken on a tour of the region around Elnon at least twice: once in 1066 to raise funds to rebuild the monastery after it was destroyed by fire, and again in 1107 to remind ambitious nobles of the monastery’s power and privileges. At least one earlier reliquary for St. Amandus must have existed, but it was destroyed or lost prior to the thirteenth century, perhaps in the fire of 1066. The figure at one of the gable-shaped ends is presumably Amandus; the other end, now empty, probably originally contained a figure of Christ. Although many such reliquaries were destroyed or sold to collectors during periods of religious reformation and political revolution, some continued to be used into the modern period: a reliquary similar to that of St. Amandus is still owned by the religious brotherhood of St. Symphorian in Belgium, and carried in public procession on several occasions during the year. Over the centuries, reliquaries such as this were likely to suffer some wear. Extensive scientific testing has shown that this reliquary was made in the early thirteenth century, but that it has been repaired and modified throughout the centuries as it continued to be used in the service of the cult of St. Amandus. The most recent modifications, however, were made by a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century art dealer hoping to “improve” the piece and make it more marketable.

I’m an Amanda, so this appeals to me greatly. However, if I were a saint, I would have preferred the tour of Flanders before dying.

Reliquary of the Tooth of Mary Magdalene. Tuscan, 14th century (goldsmith’s work: 15th century). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 
Source: Treasures of Heaven online exhibit.

Reliquary of the Tooth of Mary Magdalene. Tuscan, 14th century (goldsmith’s work: 15th century). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Source: Treasures of Heaven online exhibit.

Ostensorium with “Paten of St. Bernward.” German (Lower Saxony [Hildesheim?]), ca. 1180-90 (paten); ca. 1350-1400 (monstrance). The Cleveland Museum of Art.
From the Treasures of Heaven exhibit:

This unusual ostensorium (from the Latin ostendere: to show) was made to facilitate the display and veneration of ten relics, most prominent among them an elaborate liturgical paten—a shallow plate for the elevation of the Eucharist during Mass—associated with St. Bernward of Hildesheim (d. 1022), and a relic of the True Cross.

On the back, eight more relics are visible:

They’re wrapped in silk and are identified—by an inscription on parchment accompanying the piece—as the remains of Saints Godehard, Nicholas, Auctor, Silvester, Servatius, John Chrysostom, Alexis, and Lawrence.

Ostensorium with “Paten of St. Bernward.” German (Lower Saxony [Hildesheim?]), ca. 1180-90 (paten); ca. 1350-1400 (monstrance). The Cleveland Museum of Art.

From the Treasures of Heaven exhibit:

This unusual ostensorium (from the Latin ostendere: to show) was made to facilitate the display and veneration of ten relics, most prominent among them an elaborate liturgical paten—a shallow plate for the elevation of the Eucharist during Mass—associated with St. Bernward of Hildesheim (d. 1022), and a relic of the True Cross.

On the back, eight more relics are visible:

They’re wrapped in silk and are identified—by an inscription on parchment accompanying the piece—as the remains of Saints Godehard, Nicholas, Auctor, Silvester, Servatius, John Chrysostom, Alexis, and Lawrence.

There’s a nice little video about this piece—showing a curator/smart person opening it up and revealing the (sadly, empty) compartments inside—on the website for the exhibit Treasures of Heaven.
The reliquary is believed to have held bits of skull and breastbone purported to belong to one of the 11,000 slaughtered maiden-followers of Saint Ursula.*
Image: Unknown female saint. Source: britishmuseum on Flickr.

Reliquary bust of an unknown female saint, probably a companion of St Ursula.  South Netherlandish, c. 1520 – 1530.  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

*Allegedly.

There’s a nice little video about this piece—showing a curator/smart person opening it up and revealing the (sadly, empty) compartments inside—on the website for the exhibit Treasures of Heaven.

The reliquary is believed to have held bits of skull and breastbone purported to belong to one of the 11,000 slaughtered maiden-followers of Saint Ursula.*

Image: Unknown female saint. Source: britishmuseum on Flickr.

Reliquary bust of an unknown female saint, probably a companion of St Ursula.
South Netherlandish, c. 1520 – 1530.
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

*Allegedly.

Skeletons, mummies, bog bodies, exhumations. The dead, and what happens to them.

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