Like many French-Canadian Americans, I was raised Roman Catholic. Sunday Mass and meatless Fridays were mandatory, and the ever-present threat of confession made my pre-teen self think twice about committing petty sins. By junior high, though, I was polishing my Bible-as-literature-and-myth argument during weekly catechism class. The last Mass I ever attended was many years ago, right before my high-school graduation.
Yet if I’m completely honest, the spectacle of the Church secretly thrilled me all those years I railed against its dogma. I took great pleasure in studying the altar’s giant crucifix with its almost-naked suffering Jesus, or the stained glass windows that beamed colorful mosaics of light on the floor when the sun shone. St. Christopher’s Church in Rocky River might be where my interest in art took root, though my adolescent self would deny it. Even in our image-saturated culture, Roman Catholicism’s visual program is still brilliantly seductive. Everything in a Catholic church is designed to heighten the senses and then - BAM! - deliver information. If writing evokes images, as historian Martin Jay writes, then the reverse must be true: images evoke language, i.e. information.
These are the ambivalent eyes - mesmerized yet skeptical - through which I saw Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, now in its last week at the Cleveland Museum of Art. While it would seem that art historians have exhaustively investigated much of Christianity’s visual program, including frescoes, paintings, sculpture and liturgical items, there is a surprisingly fascinating nook left to explore: the vital role of relics and reliquaries in the development of Christianity and the visual arts.
Treasures boldly takes on 1,200 years of complicated history, from the rise and spread of Christianity during the Roman Empire to the Protestant Reformation, and treks across thousands of miles. At its height, the Empire stretched from present-day Ireland to Syria, but was divided into Eastern and Western empires by the emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century to make it easier to rule. It also helps to remember that in 1054, the East-West Schism divided medieval Christianity into eastern (Eastern Orthodox) and western branches (Roman Catholicism).
Organized by CMA, the Walters Art Museum and the British Museum, the exhibition brings together 130 reliquaries, many of which have never been seen outside their home countries. For me, a writer steeped in Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, the exhibition was an opportunity to reflect on a belief system into which I’d been involuntarily inculcated and later rejected, and to examine the persuasive and admittedly delightful strategies Christianity has deployed to disseminate ideas and advertise power.