20. Bodies in the Altar

My friend Jason asked me to elaborate further “about graves as the first location markers, the relation with parts of Genesis focusing on burials, the relation to pilgrimage and veneration of saints, and especially if this informs (or is informed by) your medieval travel narrative interests.”

A big ask, a big topic, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and I hope this post serves as a (likely very small step) down the path of answering his request. 

Specifically, I want to write today about the bodies of saints and how they fit into this picture. 

Years ago, when I visited Italy with Linz, I asked a friend who’d studied abroad there for travel advice, and she gave me the invaluable suggestion, “go into every church.”  I’ve since appropriated this piece of advice and pass it on to anyone I know who’s traveling in Catholic Europe, even if they don’t solicit my opinion. 

Entering these churches, something that immediately strikes you is the fact that the altars have dead bodies in them.  It’s rather jarring, particularly I think to American Protestant, sensibilities.  I won’t pretend that I, being prepared for this, didn’t take glee from seeing Lindsay encounter her first (and second and third, etc.) desiccated corpse behind glass. 

This all seems very clearly in line with the contention of Vico-indeed, being an Italian Catholic of the 17th/18th century, he almost certainly had it in mind while elaborating it-that burial, specifically the commemorated dead, is the foundation of religion, and religion, mnemonically expressed in the altar in the frontispiece of The New Science,** is the foundation of civil society for all people.  The corpses physical, revealed presence in the altar is an inescapable encapsulation and demonstration of the Vicoian theme.

The foundational aspect of the hallowed dead is further expressed in the traditions and laws of the Church.  The first churches were often built atop the tombs of martyrs, and it was encoded into canon law during the Middle Ages.*** The dead are further commemorated in the names of churches, St. Mark’s, St. Peter’s, etc., communicating the presence of the dead even if their bodies, unlike at the most famous St. Mark’s and St. Peter’s rest far away. 

Amusingly, not in the sense of being absurd but of being profoundly interesting, the demand for relics, and the notion that bodies or body parts were the best of relics, led to a traffic in the theft of corpses during the Middle Ages (furta sacra). 

But the presence of a saint is more than foundational. They do not merely (with merely here not indicating any sort of triviality, for this purpose is truly momentous) ground the founded place in historicity by preserving the voice of the past through commemoration.  The saints don’t speak from the past, but from eternity.  They beckon to the future, as a sleeper beckons to the morning.  In their repose is the presentiment of their awakening.  Not because they’ve passed the veil of death, but because they’re coming back.

The very bones that lie beneath the altar, it’s these bones that will walk again after the Day of Judgment.  The saint is not gone, not absent, but lying latent in eternity, ready to erupt back into the world as that world reaches its conclusion.  This ineradicable presence of the saint as an actual, living-“He is not the God of the dead, but of the living”-being still there, still connected to his body draws us outside of time itself, beyond memory and into the eternal present which encompasses past and future. 

The relic has power, not because, like the meat of a sacrificial victim, is was present at a moment in which the divine and the worldly were brought into contact, but because in the relic this nexus is still present

But in this, to loosely connect some threads, we find that the saint’s body is not wholly unique.  Rather, like the corpse in the altar, it is an intensification of something present outside the bounds of the church.  Memory too is not merely a matter of past.  Recall the passage from Unamuno that I quoted in a previous post, “We live in memory and by memory.” Our present selves, which includes our anticipation of the future is constituted by our memories.****  The saint’s body is a wonderful instance and symbol of this. 

There’s so much more to be said, but I’ll leave it at that for the moment.  Sorry, Jason, more to come later.  

*That’s a big claim posed as obvious, isn’t it?

**This makes sense if you’ve read the book.  He begins with an elaborate symbolic exposition of the frontispiece that he insisted be included in the work.  His desire to include this is fascinating in its own right and deserves further explication, “Before reading my work, you may use this tableau to form an idea of my New Science.  And after reading it, you will find that this tableau aids your imagination in retaining my work in your memory.”

***Even today, “The ancient tradition of placing relics of martyrs or other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved, according to the norms given in the liturgical books.”

****A quick concrete example to demonstrate how our future is constituted by the past.  The sun will rise tomorrow, how do I know this? Because I remember it happened yesterday and the day before and the day before, and in the communal memory shared by all men, this same sequence follows back to the dawning of human consciousness on the morning of our first halting steps in the Garden. 


One response to “20. Bodies in the Altar”

  1. Holy Mother of God. I actually understood this one!!!! But I also think the dedicated skeletons a tad creepy

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