Español / English 02:19 ; Tuesday 26 October 2021

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AUDIOVISUAL. Object and memory. Transcription. 2004

Many a reader has found a dried flower between the pages of a book. We all keep mementos…

Many a reader has found a dried flower between the pages of a book. We all keep mementos, small objects that lend matter to moments we have lived and that evoke people we have loved. This habit witnesses a universal feature in humankind—that of keeping material keepsakes from our loved ones. Material objects which power our memory up. They may either remind us of our grandparents, as these old pictures do, or the hairs of someone we loved. Memories from kings, as this perfume case that once belonged to Queen Marie Antoinette. (0:42) Or memories from saints, such as these bones from martyrs that the nuns of the Monastery of Canyes have kept and decorated; or memories related to characters from our history, such as this medal that used to belong to General Prim. The memories from artists also power our memory up, just like this fan from the great singer Adelina Pati, autographed by musicians and poets, Sarasate, Puccini... (1:06)

Or like Pau Casals’ pipe. Material keepsakes that strongly turn our memory back to distant events: when on November 7th 1893 the Anarchist Jaume Salvador threw two bombs into the opera theatre, one of them went off killing 20; the other one did not, and you can see it at the exhibition. Material objects can evoke recent events as well, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989. Fragments from the wall have since become souvenirs, almost relics which, like this postcard, can be mailed. (1:56) The cult to the memory of our elders is for many societies their major religious feature. In Sub-Saharan Africa, numberless ancestor-representing sculptures share a distinctly solemn quality (2:15) Death has promoted the ancestors to a new life from which they perform the essential role of nourishing vital strength to the tribe. These two figures —the last from the Fun culture— were mounted on top of cases containing relics from the elders. Among the Mediterranean cultures the cult to ancestors was also present: the Romans, for instance, zealously preserved the memory of the elders they worshipped at a small altar they had consecrated to them in every household. (2:48) In early Christianity the memory of martyrs was as exceptionally important as that of the elders in other cultures. The founders of the Church claimed that “he who touches a martyr’s bones becomes graced by his saintliness.” This devotion to martyr’s relics did not stop growing all along the Middle Ages —“God sitting on the throne, in Heaven, was very far away”— whereas martyrs, ever present through their relics, actively intersected between Christians and divinity, their bones being an object better capable of bringing their torment to memory. (3:28) We are hard-pressed today to understand Medieval spirituality, since it was not based on prayer but in relic veneration an pilgrimage to wherever relics were located. This tiny bottle brought from Egypt by a pilgrim contained water droplets that had slipped on Saint Menes’ tomb. Early Christianism spawned the tradition of celebrating mass on the tomb of a martyr; several Popes and Councils from the fourth and fifth made this custom mandatory, as it is still practiced today. This Visigothic altar pedestal shows the small receptacle destined to host a martyr’s relics (4:06), a memento to his torment. Relics were kept in a special case called lipsanoteque, a term originating from the Greek word for relics: lipsana. There are lipsanoteques made out of wood, leather, ivory or alabaster, such as the ones at the exhibition. The cross-shaped encolpia reliquaries, meant to be worn as a pendant, are precedent to the pectoral cross worn today by bishops. Jerusalem, scenario of the birth and the Passion of Christ, had a major importance in people’s mindset. It was considered an unquestionable fact that the pilgrimage to the Holy Land cleansed the pilgrim’s soul from its sins. (4:52)

At the Council of Clermont (AD 1095) the Pope Urban II called for a military expedition to conquer Jerusalem, which resulted in a number of French, German and Flemish princes joining armies for the First Crusade. For two hundred years, eight Crusades tried to retrieve that great relic, the holy city of Jerusalem. (5:23) When they returned from the Holy Land and Constantinople, the Crusaders scattered around scores of souvenirs —relics— which triggered a fierce contest to amass as many relics as possible between kings, lords and monastery abbots. In AD 1239, Saint Louis, King of France, bought Jesus Christ’s Crown of Thorns and other relics for a staggering 135,000 pounds from the Emperor of Byzantium. To store these relics he built the Saint Chapelle, a wonder of Gothic architecture, within the walls of the royal palace in Paris. When Saint Chapelle was consecrated in AD 1246, hundreds of relics had been added to the Crown of Thorns, and Saint Louis had them distributed across all the churches in Paris. (6:18) However, 500 years later the French Revolution appropriated in AD 1793 the gold, silver and gems from these reliquaries, and the relics were burnt at the Town Square of the French capital. Only a silver and golden reliquary was saved, along with the reliquary of Saint Maximilian, Lucien and Julian exhibited here. It was made by the best jeweler to be found in AD 1261 on a commission by the king Saint Louis. Relics were an expression for the power and the glory of kings, who used them as a symbol to flaunt their wealth and their booty of war. The relics of the Kings of the Crown of Aragon were kept at the chapel of the Palau Major in Barcelona, currently the chapel of Santa Àgueda, until Alfons V took them to Valencia in AD 1437 as a security for the loans received for the conquest of Naples. The monastery of Poblet held another great relic stock, its inventory running over 1,500 items in the sixteenth century (7:20) In this exhibition you can see other medieval reliquaries such as fourteenth-century Santa Córdola’s, at the cathedral of Tortosa, fourteenth-century Sant Joan Baptista’s, at the cathedral of Tarragona, and fifteenth-century Santa Espina’s, at the cathedral of Barcelona. (7:48) With the Renaissance new spiritual winds blew through Europe. Humanists like Erasmus of Rotterdam studied the Greek and Latin classics, abandoned Scholasticism and attacked every form of superstition. Reformist leaders Luther, Swingle and Calvin were very critical of the fact that the worshipping of relics would buy indulgences, a ticket of sorts to eternal life. After several attempts at pacification the emperor Charles V sent a military attack against Protestants, but he was not able to smash the Reform in spite of his victory at Mühlberg in AD 1547. The Council of Trent was called in AD 1545 to reaffirm the Catholic orthodoxy and to postulate the ideals of Counter-Reform, which essentially came down to the promotion of a emotive religiosity (8:41), a bright liturgy that has lasted until the Second Vatican Council, and a spectacular art opposed to the austerity of Protestant churches. For this reason, the last session of the Council of Trent fully restored in AD 1563 the cult to relics the Protestants had criticised so much. An unexpected development quickly followed: the discovery of the Roman Catacombs in AD 1578, which only intensified the religious zeal against the Reform because catacombs refreshed the memory of the early Christians’ martyrdom. At the same time, they provided an endless reserve of relics: tens of thousands of healthy remains of martyrs were disseminated throughout Europe in a second wave of relics. The king Philip II of Spain, principal monarch of the Counter-Reform, became a genuine (9:31) advocate of relics. He built the complex of El Escorial since 1563 until 1584, which he conceived as a combination of monastery, royal mausoleum an giant reliquary that would be far superior to the Saint Chapelle of Paris and the monastery of Poblet. Its church stocked over 500 reliquaries, the most valuable among which were stolen in 1808 during the French invasion. (10:00) Very few of them were spared from the looting, among them reliquary of agate and chalcedony, that was offered to Philip II by the viceroy and governor of Milan, Fernández de Velasco. The contrasting obverse and reverse show how a fascination from the past for the amalgamation of forms from nature and the arts. At the Council of Trent (10:27) the Society of Jesus stood as the most powerful instrument of the orthodoxy originated and, consequently, of the cult to martyrs and relics. The canonizing of Saint Ignatius and Saint Francis Xavier, founders of the Jesuitic order, AD 1622 only helped expanding further the cult to martyrs and relics. Even after Perseus beheaded the Gorgon Medusa, its head kept petrifying whoever dared look at her. The bible abounds in stories of decapitation: (11:00) David seizing Goliath’s head, Judith carrying his foe’s head, the general Olophernes, Salome demanding the head of Saint John the Baptist as a present... Among martyrs’ lives it is not infrequent to learn about someone transporting his own decapitated head: Saint Dionysos carried his own head in his hands to Paris. We have seen before the images of Saint Maximilian, Saint Lucien and Saint Julian, a kind of martyr that is ever so frequent in the Church of Eastern Europe that it receives the special name of cephalophore: head-carrier. It is not uncommon to find Christian reliquaries with martyr’s skulls like this from Saint Sebastian or this from Saint Torquato. The story of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 virgins disseminated thousands of venerated skulls all over Europe. The abbey of Canyas, in La Rioja, still keeps these two, which are almost entirely covered by precious fabrics dating between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries (12:00) to make them more present and absent at the same time. At the other side of the world, there are several societies Down Under in Australia and Papua New Guinea in which the living decorate the skulls of the dead so that their powers live on. The head-hunting tribe of the Asmat has ornated this skull from an enemy killed during a war campaign which now makes a spectacular trophy, even if it lacks the sacred character of a relic. (12:30) In contrast, this painted skull from the land of Arnam is a relic from an ancestor; there is also a distinct relic quality in this restored skull from the Sepic valley, entirely covered with symbolic paste and pigments—the very fact of being concealed makes its power live on. It is not a realistic portrait of an elder or the visible skull of a war trophy: it is a relic whose power originates somewhere between presence and absence. (13:00) (15’) File # 28 Museu Marès, 2004