Monday, August 1, 2011

sixty-fifth visit: July 29th 2011 Roman Catholicism (relics)

1:00pm friday
St. Anthony's Chapel

(houses over 4200 relics
1704 Harpster St, Pittsburgh PA 15212

troy hill

Over 5000 relics here. Saints' bones, skulls, teeth, hair, threads from garments, vials of blood. Said to be the largest collection outside the Vatican. The photo above fails to tell the story—apologies: photography of the interior is forbidden. This you must see for yourself.

Having returned from seven weeks in Germany (including a few days in Prague) I have decided to ease myself back into life here by intentionally seeking out, in these next few visits, certain elements that carry-over from my travels in Germany. To make life here feel like an extension of German travels, because I'm already nostalgic.

When I travel, I skip a lot of things listed in the guide books. I'm more interested in learning about what it's like to live in places other than my home. I love fumbling through language at the grocery, becoming addicted to müsli-yoghurt breakfasts and taking trains into neighborhoods that are labelled as industrial or recovering. But in the end, I am no doubt, a tourist. And so for this first visit back, a tourist I will be.

Though the website said otherwise, St. Anthony's secretary, Becky, was not sure there would be a tour-guide available at the time of my visit. If not, there was always the CD tour. I decide to take my chances. I arrive and look for head-docent Carole. I look for the the tour-CD. I find no one around to ask. I end up just staring at the huge victorian wooden and glass cases containing 5000+ relics. That's when Betty finds me. "Would you like a tour? Would you like me to point out some of the relics and talk about them?"
I learn that technically, she has retired from this, her former duty as tour guide and now-a-days normally serves as chapel attendant, simply watching-over the space during visiting hours. But I guess she notices my interest and can not help herself. Luck is with me again.

BTW, from St. Anthony's website:

Relic Classifications
• 1st Class - Are typically remains from the Passion of our Lord, Jesus Christ or a bodily remain of a Saint

• 2nd Class - Any item or possession of a Saint (i.e. Prayer Book, Rosary Beads, Vestments...)

• 3rd Class - Typically a piece of cloth that comes in contact with a 1st or 2nd class relic

Betty is pretty amazing. She implies that she remembers WWII. Long ago, she and one other woman catalogued the relics at St. Anthony's—all of them. Before this, it was thought that the church owned five pieces of the True Cross. When she was done, the number was corrected to fourteen. A piece of the table from the Last Supper. A thread from Mary's veil. A lock of her hair. The larger relics are wrapped in translucent silk or linen and displayed in a reliquary (such as a box with a glass window); the smaller ones are reliquaried in tiny, gorgeous ornately-guilded frames. (art: an object—or an act or event—that holds value beyond the elements of it's physical existence.) The front surface of many frames are round with watch-glass, some tied at the top with guilded bows. Many of the relics themselves are the size of the head of a pin, or the tooth of a zipper. In these cases, the item's label—the tiny strip of yellowed paper with a one-line typewritten description—dwarfs the object itself. But you will also find encased skulls and the complete skeleton of St Demetrius (disassembled, the compact bundle gingerly wrapped in silk, encased in a box).

At the bottom of several of the cabinets are sculptures of life-size figures of Saints carved from wood, in reclining poses. Look closely and you will see death-wounds on their necks and elsewhere. "Because many of these saints died by the sword," Betty explains. "You know, back in the times when people were killed for being Christians." Rather large vials of the Saints' blood accompany the figures.

"Now let me ask you," Betty says, "When you walked in here, did you get chills? Well, after all the afternoons I've spent here, I still do. Chills every time."
I mean this in the most positive and respectful manner (it's the dark side of religion that I always find most interesting): This tour gives me new understanding of the relationship between Christianity and all things Gothic.

An aside—
Speaking of the intersection of Art, Religion and
the Gothic, I was able to see this in Berlin. In person, it is absolutely breathtaking.

Back to relics... FAQs

• Relic authenticity? Known because each item was wrapped and/or encased by a bishop, witnessed by two other bishops, and sealed with wax imprinted with the bishop's signet ring.

• How did they end up here? Canon law forbids the sale of holy relics. This collection is credited to the founder of the church, Father Suitbert G. Mollinger. He came from a wealthy Belgian family and gained a reputation for offering monetary support to Catholic churches in need—building maintenance and such. In return, he might accept a thank-you in the form of a relic or two. Or at least that's how Betty explains it.

• Why relics? "The veneration of relics strongly influenced piety in general from the 4th and 5th centuries onward, and it also helped greatly to promote pilgrimages. Relics attracted large bodies of pilgrims in the middle ages. ...They made an impact too, on art (reliquaries from the days of Charlemagne, Romanesque and Gothic shrines, relic tablets, relic ostensories from the 13th cent)." ~The encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 4, Erwin Fahlbusch, Geoffrey William Bromiley.

A few more unexpected, German-travel connections by consequence:
Some of the relics are boxed with wood from the Black Forest. (I overnighted there last month.) St. Anthony's also houses wooden life-size figurative sculptures comprising narrative scenes from the fourteen Stations of the Cross. These carvings were created in Munich, where my feet last touched German soil. Sigh. Am I easing myself into my normal life, or enabling denial? Does the fact that I haven't fully unpacked affect your answer?

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