Touched by a Saint: Adorned body-part reliquary shrines in 12th-century Ireland and Europe

Laura Fitzachary

The Wavering Papal Authority in Rome

The 12th century phenomenon of re-enshrining body-parts of saints is one tied up with political instability in Europe and mass movement across the continent. Of course, in so far as arguably the centre of 12th century Europe was Rome and its church. Centuries of developing outposts thanks to pilgrimage to and from Christianity’s Western centre left a church striving to retain power to the far-flung corners of its influence, where Christianity had assimilated with the locals. The result? A need for uniformity, to keep in line any threat to a central papal authority. It isn’t too surprising then to note certain reforms such as, the status of the bishop elevated, pilgrimage being advocated for and the very proof of faith - the tangible relics of saints being re-enshrined into more elaborate casings. An effective reminder to the lay congregation and clergymen alike as to where the orders came from. On a local level, it isn’t surprising that native rulers took advantage of this reminder of power and aligned their own motives to legitimise their political standing. With that reminder stemming from the papal authority in Rome, even outposts on the very edge of the continent were targeted, which according to Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales c.1146 - c.1223 CE) in 1185 was, Ireland. It is important to note the circumstances that Rome was operating within in the 12th century. As noted by Diane Webb, several anti-popes, notably at the instigation of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa between 1159 and 1178, and their efforts of skewing papal authority, were more symbolic than effective. Some of them commanded little support apart from Roman nobility and German emperors. It was their mere existence that was symptomatic of division and instability. In the 1140’s citizens of Rome sought to emancipate themselves from the tutelage of the popes and proclaimed a commune, recalling the glories of their ancestors, as outlined by the more ‘pre-Christian-centric’ Mirabilia Urbis Romae (written c. 1140s.) The popes, as both rulers of the city of Rome and the church, laid claim to imperial insignia and attributes, which included the succession of saints through their venerated shrines. A great example of this in Ireland is bishop Diarmait Mac Denisc inscribing his name on the base of a bronze and silver arm-shaped reliquary shrine as the successor of the saint within, St Lachtin. We know nothing else of the presumed bishop, MacDenisc, but the shrine dates from c. 1120 and once (now lost) contained an arm bone of St Lachtin (a 6th century saint) from Donoughmore Co. Cork (Fig.1). The inscription notes the figures involved in its commission, stating that it is for Cormac son of Mac Carthaig, the heir to the kingship of Munster, a prayer for Tadhg son of Mac Carthaig, another prayer for Diarmait, son of Mac Denisc successor of Lachtin and a prayer for the high-king Maelsechnaill Ua Cellachain. The reliquary shrine, if indeed driven by papal authority, is the ultimate form of propaganda. It portrays authority originating from Rome, but in reality, the church was a centre of absentee popes sharing the benefits of pilgrimage culture with Santiago di Compostela and Jerusalem. By 1123, Calixtus II singled out those on pilgrimage to Rome, romipetae (or ‘rome-seekers’) as deserving of special protection. For much of the 12th century, conflict with the Roman commune had meant that many of the popes were unable to maintain their positions in the city. Reliquary shrines thus became reminiscent and vital historic links between Rome and Christian outposts as they reflected the important lineage and links to various saints. To maintain a European-wide Roman saint cult, Rome had to provide tangible secondary relics for European churches to retain and subsequently legitimise their own ecclesiastical outpost of the Roman church. It is not inconceivable then to suggest that this element of re-producing tangibility filtered into more vernacular socio-political climates. As noted by Alan Thacker, ‘The papacy secured secondary relics to trade out by dropping pieces of clothing down to the tomb of a saint – like that of St. Peter – until it felt more weighted, this implied it had been bestowed by the saint’. The relic could then be distributed, or the process was imitated by a native apostolic see and was enshrined in a highly decorative casing. In a supposed edge of the continent, Ireland, the native churches did just that. All whilst undergoing major church reform and seeing the status of bishops, the representatives of such papal authority, elevated.
Touched by a Saint: Adorned body-part reliquary shrines in 12th-century Ireland and Europe
Fig 1 © National Museum of Ireland

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Touched by a Saint: Adorned body-part reliquary shrines in 12th-century Ireland and Europe
Fig 2 © National Museum of Ireland

Heads, shoulders, arms and teeth…the body parts of saints

From the 8th century onwards relics directly from Rome or the Holy Lands held a status that allowed them to breed further ‘relics.’ These relics validated faith, were proof of divinity and even mirrored the actions of the saints these body parts belonged to. But by the 12th century, the display and brandishing of body-part reliquary shrines became more common, suggesting that the demands of the pilgrims and lay congregation had changed. It seems that they wanted tangible evidence of saintly figures before them that they were able to view and touch themselves, not just, as Diane Webb puts it, locked away in a baptistery. Not only did such shrines indicate that the figure contained existed, but as noted by Cynthia Hahn, they also magnified the gestures of the saint and provided contemporary legitimation for the wielder of the shrine. The processional nature of the St Lachtin’s arm shrine, for example, allowed the contemporary bishop of Donoughmore in Co. Cork to instil any political ulterior motive unto the public, with the approval of St Lachtin himself (fig, 2). Therefore, ecclesiastical influence played an important role in legitimising political acts, especially if a secular power could associate themselves with a bishop, and especially if the actions of that bishop are validated by a saint. In terms of common shrines appearing in 12th century Europe, it is usually arms, heads and teeth and it is important to consider the role of arms for touching and blessing and teeth inside the mouths to reflect speech. The saint in a new casing is ‘re-humanised,’ as Hahn puts it, becomes tangible and could be why people also swore oaths upon them. Interestingly, there is a strong connection with arm-shaped reliquaries and bishops, as a bishop’s hand was sacralised through the liturgical rituals he performed - especially the Mass. The Arm Reliquary of the Apostles in St. Blaise Cathedral in Braunschweig, Germany is among the arm-shaped reliquaries that are depicted wearing episcopal gloves and rings, dressed in gorgeous, jewelled garments reminiscent of the finest liturgical vestments. It is representative of the adorned bishop and can provide the gesture of healing or giving Mass with its open-handed form. With St. Lachtin’s literature even noting him as a bishop, an arm-shaped reliquary would aid in cementing the newly bolstered status of bishops. This was part of church reform in 12th century Ireland administered via a series of synods. Alongside the shrine, a life or vita of the saint was composed, a church in the Romanesque style was built and at least one high cross erected, to ensure that it was established as a monastery in line with Roman ideals. The trend among romipetae to see these body-parts seems to continue into the 13th & 14th centuries, a time when the church in Ireland is grappling to establish St. Patrick at particular locations around the country. The veneration of the Shrine of the Tooth of St Patrick dates to the 12th century (but then was adorned and added to in the 14th century) consisted of a tooth that fell out of St. Patrick’s mouth at the steps of Killaspugbrone Church in Carbury Co. Sligo. The shrine could have been carried around almost like a satchel, meaning that travelling from one ecclesiastical centre to another could take place to either promote a certain apostolic see or even link a dynasty to a certain saint. What better way to legitimise your political standing and family heritage than associating yourself with the patron saint of Ireland. It was the ultimate proof, the ultimate piece of tangible evidence and in a country facing both internal and external political struggles it is unsurprising that several corporeal relics survive from the 12th century. The historian Diane Webb outlines that the regions on the geographical periphery of Latin Christendom– Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, southern Spain and southern Italy – had generated their own domestic pilgrimage networks and even supplied relics to more popular shrines elsewhere. But how much of this was noticed by Rome? With Ireland resting on the edge of Roman Christendom (and in Giraldus Cambrensis’ opinion on the edge of civilisation), would it matter how arranged the shrines were or how much ‘Romanesque-based’ architectural styles were administered. If indeed Ireland was viewed as the edge of Western Christianity, then it is a testimony to the extent and power of pilgrimage and subsequent communication. But ultimately, this seems to be to the benefit of secular rulers. With local chiefs contributing vast amounts of gold and silver for elaborate shrines, for the disinterment of a saints’ body and creating a new position of honour along with sacred objects like a book, bell or crozier - of which were also enshrined.
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Liturgical prop or secular political agenda?

The exhumation of saints was frequent on the continent in the 12th century and subsequent reliquary shrines were subject to wear, damage and even loss, forcing their keepers to administer frequent repairs, often from different periods. But as opposed to St. Patrick’s Tooth, St. Lachtin’s Arm shrine remains virtually unscathed. It is a snapshot into both ecclesiastical politics and secular politics in 12th century Ireland. By inscribing the outside of such a decorative casing, the MacCarthaig (MacCarthy) family achieved a level of involvement that would allow them to portray a unity between secular and ecclesiastical politics, by listing the important bishop Diarmuit MacDenisc alongside them. This in turn would ensure that the family and their sway over the public would not be threatened by their allies: the newly elevated bishops. Prior to this, the literature of 8th and 10th century Ireland is fuelled by political patronage and subsequent motive. The burial locations of certain ecclesiastical figures seemed to match where an apostolic see stood or met the ancestors of the associated dynasty on a visit to papal (but not imperial) Rome. By reforming the church in the 12th century, a chance arose for other political figures to lay a claim to a seat of power. Much like a pilgrim badge was a souvenir of devotion (A tin badge was found in 1968 on High Street, Dublin of SS Peter & Paul), a high-status relic was a clever and effective by-product of saint and relic culture of the Roman church in Ireland. It would ensure that the cult of the relic was constantly fuelled, granting it the power to be influential in both ecclesiastical and secular politics. Cambrensis weighs in again here noting that the Irish swore oaths on relics, ‘much more than they do in swearing on the gospels.’ It seems that the clenched fist of St. Lachtin could sway the argument of a reliquary mirroring the actions of whoever it contains. Was it a gesture of righteous defiance? Only too in tandem with the prospects of the McCarthy family in the Thomond vs Desmond battle in the province of Munster. There are shrines so encrusted, with the addition of mounts of semi-precious stones and other adornments that the viewer must search for any original ornament and check for detail lost to refurbishment or additions. But with St. Lachtin’s arm, the solidity of the silver panelling and gemstones on the base was just enough to ensure that the laity is in awe of the adornment and there’s no question as to what it represents - ecclesiastical involvement in socio-political matters. Raghnaill Ó Floinn digests this into a single statement; that the enshrining of relics was often as much a political statement as an act of piety. Whether a liturgical prop or a visual manifestation of war propaganda, this fostering of saint and relic cults in Ireland coincided with church reform and political power being concentrated among a small group of dynasties and their overall ambitions of control. By inscribing one’s name along the outside of a corporeal relic the patron, in this case the MacCarthy’s, proclaimed their own political agenda, aligned themselves with the ‘proof’ of a saint and appeased the elevated bishops. The presence of shrines within the judiciary system continued into the 19th century. But, as noted by Webb, there was the fearful presence of brigands, unjust judges, cheating merchants or grasping landlords that all came within the scope of divine justice as mediated through saints and their miracles. The antiquarian George Petrie recounts a case in Sligo in 1835 when a court case was postponed until the shrine known as the Sóiscéal Molaise (6th century saint’s holy book later enshrined) was produced, as one party objected to swear on the Bible. Whilst the skull of St. Valentine (a 3rd century saint), is said to be housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, in Rome, Italy, his shoulder blade in Prague and other body parts in churches in Madrid, Glasgow, France and Malta. In 1835 a one Dr. John Spratt, an Irish Carmelite visited Rome and received a bone from the remains of St. Valentine and a small vessel tinged with his blood from Pope Gregory XVI. On November 10, 1836, the relics arrived in Dublin where they remain ever since (fig. 3). Despite their legacy, the function of 12th century body-part reliquary shrines in Ireland cannot be strictly defined. They are not purely liturgical, ecclesiastical props, nor visual representations of dynastic propaganda but very much a mixture of the two. They were by-products of papal authority, reflections of devotion from extensive pilgrimage and were symbols of legitimacy and status for ecclesiastical and secular powers alike. Make sure you check them out if you are ever visiting the National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology in Dublin!
Touched by a Saint: Adorned body-part reliquary shrines in 12th-century Ireland and Europe
Fig 3. © Laura Fitzachary
Touched by a Saint: Adorned body-part reliquary shrines in 12th-century Ireland and Europe

Laura Fitzachary

Laura Fitzachary is a historian, radio presenter and podcast host based in Dublin, Ireland with a BA in Art History and a MA in Art History. After working in museums across Dublin since 2014, her research projects to educate the public range from 13th century architecture up to and including 18th century life in Georgian Dublin. Her background lies in medieval art in the 12th century which led to working in archaeology and in a castle/palatial structure which curbed both a lifelong interest in medieval ruins and art and allowed for development in her other area of expertise: the history of cosmetics in Ireland from 1740-1970. She has also been published on this subject with a book on the way. She is also fascinated at how the pubic consumes history and has presented papers on public history at conferences both home and internationally following on from an article entitled ‘Working in Public Archaeology’ back in 2015. Though she has produced huge amounts of content on medieval Dublin (and indeed beyond) she has also made TV appearances both home & abroad and co-hosts a podcast called @irishspiritspod where the hosts delve into paranormal Ireland. She is also the presenter of a local history radio show entitled ‘Dublin’s Historic South’. Thanks to its international listeners, the monthly episodes are now available as a podcast!
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