One of the most important lasting traditions in Catholicism, and a feature of this religion which defines the profession of catechism is known as the act of communion. Communion happens to be a weekly ritual in which the prophet acting as saviour miraculously transforms bread and wine into his own blood and body that will be consumed in ritual by his disciples and following. This idea of elevating the composition of the human body to a magical nourishing and holy substance may seem strange and scary, but it is the sacrifice of the body to which we pay attention in this case of creating a relic.
This miraculous transformation of a thing’s composition is regarded as Christ’s purest act of benevolence that eventually leads him towards martyrdom. He extends the limits of his human body by creating physical proxies, and to multiply the possibilities of inviting his audience to ingest his holy humanity. “This eucharistic imagery of salvation is characteristic (…) of the meaning of Christ’s incarnation and offers to his followers the possibility of redemption through the Communion.” (Frazer, 10) Thus the eucharist, in his memory, initiates the endless search for a deeper reverence towards the holy act of communion that naturally evolves into secular collecting, perhaps in a way to express the natural desire to care, and demonstrate artistic appreciation for all objects of interest inspired into creation by the sublime. To secure possession of an object fashioned from a body part or trace coming from an elevated human integrally drives the cultural practice of worshipping relics and their reliquaries.
Reverence towards ephemeral substance (whether it is collected or conjured), seems to be expressed by sculptural design of ritual artefact. Decorative and beautiful, crafted from exotic and precious materials, a reliquary secured a continuing tradition of reverence and worship towards the remains of a saint or other holy being. This is how, when observing in this regard the surviving collections of medieval Christianity and resulting history, we can appreciate the pilgrimage into the evolution of communal enjoyment of art collecting. This effort eventually became a highly sophisticated secular European interest in the collection of artwork and the show of these relics in concert began to be curated for special taste and purpose.
We can easily assume the transcendental features of a saint by the treatment of her remains as they move independently through her continuing culture. Relics usually were encased in various accoutrement for the sake of securing the safe transport of the holy body. “The display of relics typically assumed a nested structure: reliquaries were kept inside larger housings, and these were placed in structures that functioned both as buildings and as macro-reliquaries.” (Nagel, 220) The nesting of these reliquaries further emphasises the autonomous qualities of each substantial sample, and their movement independent from the regular sacramental business, which may lead the reliquary to be transported to a site of religious need.
A strange preoccupation with the preservation of bodies, bodily products, by-products, and factual mementos along with their regular worship would drive Christians to organise missions and pilgrimages to sites rich in materials that did not exist within the bounds of their kingdoms, and would, upon return, carve, sculpt and set together these findings to showcase images that represent stories of concern relative to their mission. Art was important in this case, given that to most accurately represent the degree of importance of the substance encased within the formed object, a high degree of skill, craftsmanship, and conceptual weaving is necessary, meaning that the help of experts only would have sufficed to create these artefacts whose design would also need to be of ritual service. In a balancing act, a tradition of pilgrimage to relics in their reliquaries became the most popular form of religious tourism that today appeals to interfaith and secular populations as well as Christians.
We learn from the reading also that the tradition of reliquaries and their craft slowed down to a stop greatly enforced by the Protestant Reformation, where the restrain towards the worship of bodily memorabilia and collection took form. In fear of the creation of new idols that could potentially overcome Christianity itself Martin Luther cursed the followers of the fine art of this type of mummification. This denial of artistic objectification consequently drove the later rise of secularism into transforming the European interest in collecting the sacred and secular relics as Fine Art.
Frazer, Margaret E. “Medieval Church Treasuries.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. New Series, Vol. 43, No. 3, Medieval Church Treasuries (Winter, 1985–1986) , pp. 1+8–56.The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Nagel, Alexander. “The Afterlife of the Reliquary.” Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe. pp. 211–222. New Haven: Yale UP, n.d. N.