I am, I have to admit, a bit of an ecclesiophiliac, especially where Italy is concerned. Given a day to wander around any city, you’re much more likely to find me admiring the peace and quiet of a beautiful sanctuary, monastery or cathedral than any art gallery, museum or castle. In Italy especially, I find that churches have their own historical importance. The stories behind them, why they were built, to whom they were dedicated, the artists brought in to decorate them, are often as fascinating as the works themselves. In fact, on a recent trip to Puglia, my friend and travel companion was starting to seriously worry how he’d break the news to my mum that I was in all likelihood going to convert to Catholicism one day. I’m not though, and here’s why:
I love churches for the same reason other people love art galleries and libraries. I love the tranquillity, and the desire to astonish you, the visitor. I feel like nothing in Italian churches is random. Every person in a crowd in a painting has a significance – the painter, subtly inserting a self-portrait, or those of his family or patrons, to ensure a place in history, or important historical figures such as those in Raphael’s famous School of Athens painting in the Vatican rooms which bear his name. The stories of the saints, their symbols (Saint Lucy, symbolised by a pair of eyes on a plate or in a chalice, is a personal favourite for sheer weirdness in a sculpture), it’s an endlessly fascinating look back at 2,000 years of religious history. As a proselytising religion, Christianity has always had to amaze people with incredible art and architecture, in a way that Judaism never has. Synagogues are practical and functional (if very rarely comfortable), and don’t astound in quite the same way.
My problem with Christianity is not only the usual list. There is undoubtedly also the fact that I find the Church to be stuck in the 15th century on many questions of modern life, question their sincerity in combatting the seemingly endless stream of paedophilia allegations made against clergymen, find their proselytising off-putting, and generally find it to be a regressive organisation.
Still, none of those are my principal problem. My problem is that I’m a bit squeamish, and that is a problem, as Christianity has always had a bit of an obsession with collecting bits of people and putting them on display. If a long-lost tribe in the heart of the Amazon were to do the same, we’d ridicule or, more likely, patronise them as being backwards. For me there were two “eureka” moments, both of which took place here in Padua. The first was at the astonishing Basilica of Saint Anthony, one of the most impressive churches anywhere in Italy. Ant himself was known as a great scholar and preacher, as noted in one oft-painted episode in which, when going to preach at a seaside village but finding the villagers to not be receptive, he chose to preach to the fishes instead, who listened to him attentively. Normal behaviour for a saint, I suppose, although I’m not sure I could get away with it. Anthony went to his eternal rest in 1231, presumably supposing himself to be safe. Thirty years later, his tomb was opened. According to the legend, he had turned to dust, apart from his tongue, which was perfectly preserved. This was taken as a sign of his ability as a preacher, and so the tongue was later put on display in a reliquary in the Basilica, where it is still to be found today. No word on what happened to the bastard who thought to dig him up in the first place. Out of morbid curiousity, I stood in line (yep, an actual queue to see bits of a dead saint), and watched in utter horror as the lady in front of me in the queue leaned in to kiss the glass containing the severed tongue. “What are you doing?!” I wanted to shout at her, “that’s the tongue of a 700 year-dead man, and you’re trying to french-kiss it! EW EW EW EW EWWWWWWWWWW”. Also, having seen it, I can confirm that it is not miraculously perfectly-preserved, unless the average tongue is black and shrivelled, and I’m the weirdo. Could be.
The other episode was at the Abbey of Santa Giustina, on the edge of the beautiful Prato della Valle Park in the city. Wandering through the Abbey, another monumental structure which is deeply impressive, I came to one of the side-chapels, fully equipped with tomb of famous person. Unlike the reliquary of ole’ Anthony, there was nobody queueing up to see this one. Which surprised me, considering the person allegedly buried here, in a side-chapel of an abbey dedicated to someone who is (no offense to Giustina) a fairly minor saint, is one of the key figures in Christianity. His skull is on display in Prague, but the rest of Saint Luke the Evangelist (Matthew, Mark, LUKE, and John… that Luke) is interred here in Padua. Again, the idea that someone thought that the respectful way to treat one of the key followers of Christ was to separate head from body and post it to Prague, is horrific, but at least we know it happened some centuries ago. Surely it would no longer be acceptable today, I reasoned.
The problem with the story of Luke, is that he is thought to have died and been buried in Thebes, so it’s not entirely clear how, post-mortem, he found his way to Padua. This is where the story gets gruesome. The leader of the Greek Orthodox Church of Thebes once petitioned for “a significant relic” of St Luke to be transferred to the place where he is venerated. After “much prayer and meditation”, it was decided to obey the request, and poor Luke was disturbed from his eternal sleep for a second time (remember the skull in Prague?), and one of his ribs was removed and sent off to Thebes. With no sense of irony, the chosen rib was apparently “very close to Saint Luke’s heart”. And when did this trafficking of human remains take place? Less than two decades ago. 1998.
I find it highly unlikely that I will ever be venerated by a major world religion in the way that Saint Anthony and Saint Luke are. Just in case though, I’d like to make one thing perfectly clear, with all of you reading this blog post as my witnesses. When I die, nobody is to start handing out bits of my remains like a particularly gruesome, satanic Secret Santa, to put on display to gawping tourists. I’m afraid you’ll just have to find another way to honour me.
Liked this post? Share it with your friends! Didn’t like it? Share it anyway, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
-The Wandering Jew-