Friday, June 10, 2011

Relics and Reliquaries in Baltimore, Part II

In honor of the feast day of St. Columba (which was actually yesterday)--the founder of an entire family of Irish monasteries and, along with Patrick and Brigid, one of Ireland's three main saints--I'd like to report on the lecture that capped off the "Relics and Reliquaries" exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore about a month ago.

The lecture was given by Dr. Ben Tilghman, a member of the Art History faculty at George Washington University, and focused on the way in which illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells functioned as relics in early medieval Ireland. Dr. Tilghman argued that the legendary association of the Book of Kells with St. Columba is a clue to the unique perspective on relics found in the early Irish church.

For starters, the Irish seem to have regarded the Book itself as a relic. Many early Irish sacred books were encased in "book shrines," a type of relic that is unique to Ireland. Only eight have been found--the shrines are elaborately tooled silver boxes, which made them prime loot for the Viking raiders--and the manufacture of the shrines suggests that the books were not meant to be accessed once encased (this might explain why so many illuminated volumes are missing their outside covers and leaves--they were damaged when removed from the shrine), but were instead treated as sacred objects. Furthermore, the Book of Kells was found at the monastery from whence it derives its name, but according to the Annals of Ulster, it was found in the sacristy, rather than in the library. All the evidence suggests that the Irish treated these texts as more than collections of words on a page.

The Irish, however, didn't regard these manuscripts as relics for the reason we might suppose. The early Irish church appears to have enshrined books not because they recorded the word of God, but because they had come into contact with a saint and thus conveyed some of the saint's holiness. Dr. Tilghman noted that there is a distinct lack of "corporeal" relics--parts of saints' bodies, like the finger of St. Catherine that is on display in the cathedral in Sienna, Italy--in the medieval Irish church. Instead, the Irish seem to have preferred "associative" relics, like items of clothing worn by holy men and women (witness the number of "belt shrines" that have been found), books, and bells associated with esteemed abbots. There's even a tradition that links a kind of "flyswatter" used during Mass to keep flies from alighting on the host (called a flabellum) to Columbanus, and images of flabella can be seen throughout the Book of Kells. So far, no one has explained this preference for associative relics over corporeal relics, but it may have something to do with the lack of martyrs in early Christian Ireland. All this to say that the association of the Book of Kells with Saint Columba (however legendary) may have caused the Irish to regard it as a relic more than as a copy of the Gospels.

The lecture was fascinating. Dr. Tilghman showed several close-up slides that enabled the audience to see the manuscript in extremely fine detail and make his case, and it's always instructive as a historian to hear a lecture on something in my field given by a scholar in a different discipline. As surprising as it may seem, historians, archaeologists, art historians, and even church historians rarely interact with each other. But in a field like early Irish studies in which so little material or textual evidence exists, scholars need to cast a wide net, and the interdisciplinary approach can be quite helpful.

The trip itself was decent, too: the parking garage "chip coin" machine that I mentioned in part I worked on the first attempt, and I narrowly escaped the shut down of the north side of the beltway (the accident had just occurred, and emergency personnel hadn't arrived yet, so we were able to squeeze past). The only thing lacking was a cheese and wine reception afterwards (fairly standard at scholarly events), but I don't suppose many museums bring out refreshments for a free public lecture.

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