Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Hidden Power of Reliquaries

For this post I would actually like to discuss why I love studying Insular reliquaries. I’m currently preparing for my first year review so I’ve had a bit of ‘time’ to reflect on what has drawn me to study this topic in particular. Let us begin by examining at Insular crosiers.

The Kells crosier, currently held by the British Museum, measures 133 cm in length and shows signs of two periods of ornamentation [Figure 1].[1] The crosier was purchased in 1850 by Cardinal Wiseman from a solicitor’s auction, having been left behind by its previous owner for reasons unknown.[2] The crosier bears an inscription on the interior arch of its crook reading, ‘OR DO CONDUILIG OCUS DO MELFINNEN’.[3] George Pertrie identified the names as belonging to ecclesiastical figures from Kells whereas Márie Mac Dermott and Perette Michelli have suggested the royal heir of Cashel, Cú Duilig.[4] The crosier is composed of a wooden core of yew wood which has been encased in copper-alloy sheets. These have been secured by nailing the sheets onto the wooden core and which are further secured through a series of three metalwork knops. The decoration of these knops features a series of zoomorphic interlace and knot-work, dating to the ninth or tenth-century.[5] At one point, the crook of the crosier was broken or cut off, though the wooden was reincorporated into the new crosier head.
Figure 1


The crook follows the same principles of construction as the staff, albeit with the use of silver sheets instead of copper-alloy. A silver collar knop, also contemporary to the crook, was fashioned to secure the crook to the staff. A copper-alloy decorative ridge follows the outward curve of the crosier ending in a small drop-box. The metalwork of the crosier was extended past the wooden core and was slopped downward, thus creating a cavity at the terminal of the crook. The copper-alloy frame of this drop-box features a head at its apex while its copper-alloy panel shows signs of a previous lost gem or glass insert. This panel was slid into the frame and then riveted. These drop-boxes appear on other Insular crosier, perhaps indicating that these crosier are not enshrined relics but actually mobile reliquaries.
Whether the practice of enshrined Insular crosiers was initially designed to house relics, to enshrine the staff as a relic, or both is largely undetermined.[6] In describing the wooden core of the Inishmurry crosier [Figure 2] Cormac Bourke has noted its diameter, measuring only 23mm, indicates that it likely did not function outside of providing a support structure.[7] Nevertheless, as Karen Overbey has noted in her recent publication, Sacral Geographies, enshrined crosiers performed as relics through incorporating the motifs of Insular enshrinement.[8] Regardless of whether the inner wooden core was a relic or not, it appeared as such through the application of sumptuous metalwork. The importance of crosiers to Insular art can further be attested through famous crosiers like the Crosier of St Patrick. The Baschal-Isu of St Patrick, supposedly the staff of Christ given to Patrick by a hermit, appears in the Annals of Ireland and is mentioned eighteen times between 784 and 1166.[9] In A. T. Lucas’ essay on the social role of relics in medieval Ireland he suggested that the propensity of bells, croziers, staffs, and their depiction in Insular art was indicative of an interest in the ‘insignia of the ecclesiastic’ within Insular reliquaries.[10] Indeed, the powers of such relics ranged from sources of healing to battle talismans, even acting as badges of office and proof of apostolic succession.[11] In early medieval Ireland, lacking the saints and martyrs of Rome, the ‘early heroes of Irish Christianity were ecclesiastical leaders, in particular abbots and church founders’.[12]

Figure 2
 
Within Sacral Geographies Overbey describes a scene from the Life of St Mac Creiche. A dragon-like monster is terrorising the local population and despite townspeople’s efforts to stop the beast it takes all of their relics and prayers to simple keep the monster at bay. Finally, St Mac Creiche arrives on the scene with his trusty bell and ‘the dragon-like monster breathed fire at the saint, who then struck his bell once, twice—and ‘at the third stroke, a ball of fire shot from the bell into the monster’s maw, and its maw caught fire.’’[13] Not only could relics and their reliquaries be used in power plays and act as performative pieces for the presence of the divine, but within the lives of saints and miracle stories they could also work wonders. This is the key to my interest. While I focus on constructional elements of such reliquaries in my research, the true life blood of my study is the attempt to understand how humanity attempted to understand the invisible, the otherworldly, and the divine. When I look at reliquaries I don’t see the Church, superstition, oppression, or the like. I see a belief, a worldview, a snapshot in time crystallised. This is what keeps me coming back to reliquaries, their expression of the awesome and wondrous. 

-Samuel

Images:
[1] Kells Crosier, British Museum, M&ME 1859.2-21.1
[2] St. Molaise’s bell and Inishmurray Crosier, held at Alnwick Castle in England (photo: http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/bring-home-the-inishmurray-relics/)


Bibliography:
[1] Overbey, Karen Eileen. Sacral Geographies: Saints, Shrines and Territory in Medieval Ireland. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012: 154-60.
[2] Mac Dermott, Máire. "The Kells Crozier." Archaeologia 96 (1955): 59.
[3] ‘A prayer for Cú Duilig and for Máel Finnén’, translation by Mac Dermott, Máire. "The Kells Crozier." Archaeologia 96 (1955): 104.
[4] Bourke has further noted that the inscription is too worn and incomplete to be used to ascribe a date to the crosier, Bourke, Cormac. "A Crozier and Bell from Inishmurray and Their Place in Ninth-Century Irish Archaeology." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 85C (1985): 160-1; Petrie, George, and Margaret Stokes. Christian Inscriptions in the Irish Language. Vol. 2. Dublin: Royal Historical and Archaeological Association, 1872: 116-7
[5] Bourke, Cormac. "A Crozier and Bell from Inishmurray and Their Place in Ninth-Century Irish Archaeology." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 85C (1985): 161
[6] Bourke, Cormac. "A Crozier and Bell from Inishmurray and Their Place in Ninth-Century Irish Archaeology." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 85C (1985): 150; Murray, Griffin. "Insular-type Crosiers: Their Construction and Characteristics." Making and Meaning in Insular Art: Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Insular Art Held at Trinity College Dublin, 25-28 August 2005. Ed. Rachel Moss. Dublin: Four Courts, 2007: 91-2; Overbey, Karen Eileen. Sacral Geographies: Saints, Shrines and Territory in Medieval Ireland. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012: 154-66.
[7] Bourke, Cormac. "A Crozier and Bell from Inishmurray and Their Place in Ninth-Century Irish Archaeology." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 85C (1985): 150.
[8] Overbey, Karen Eileen. Sacral Geographies: Saints, Shrines and Territory in Medieval Ireland. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012: 163-6.
[9] Crawford, Henry. "A Descriptive List of Irish Shrines and Reliquaries. Part II’." The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 13 (1923): 164.
[10] Lucas, A. T. "The Social Role of Relics and Reliquaries in Ancient Ireland." The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 116 (1986): 8;
[11] Clarke, D. V., Alice E. Blackwell, and Martin Goldberg. Early Medieval Scotland: Individuals, Communities and Ideas. Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2012: 30-49;; Overbey, Karen Eileen. Sacral Geographies: Saints, Shrines and Territory in Medieval Ireland. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012: 172-82; Hahn, Cynthia J. Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400-circa 1204. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2012; Lucas, A. T. "The Social Role of Relics and Reliquaries in Ancient Ireland." The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 116 (1986): 13-4.
[12] Overbey, Karen Eileen. Sacral Geographies: Saints, Shrines and Territory in Medieval Ireland. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012: 1.
13] Overbey, Karen Eileen. Sacral Geographies: Saints, Shrines and Territory in Medieval Ireland. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012: 115; Plummer, Charles. Miscellanea Hagiographica Hibernica; Vitae Adhuc Ineditae Sanctorum MacCreiche, Naile, Cranat,. Bruxelles: Société Des Bollandistes, 1925: 76-81.


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