Sunday, 9 August 2015

Ancient Skulls and Medieval Skullduggery - The Mysterious Afterlives of Saint Helena

The characters in "Jerusalem," the 16th Century story in my novel, Omphalos, begin their pilgrimage to the Holy Land in Venice. Some of them visit the Monastery of Sant'Elena, on an island in the Venice Lagoon, where they are shown the preserved body of Saint Helena (the mother of the Emperor Constantine, and supposed discoverer of the True Cross and the tomb of Christ), who appears to assist one of them in the performance of a miracle. Appearances, however, can be very deceptive.

The Church of San't Elena, Venice. Photo: Didier Descouens (licensed under CCA).

That someone visiting Sant'Elena in 1517 would have been shown this body is beyond doubt. The Italian priest, Pietro Casola, saw it in 1494, on his way to Jerusalem. In 1517, the English priest, Richard Torkington, making the same journey, describes what he saw in some detail: "She lith in a ffayr place of religion, of white monks, ye may see her face perfythly, her body ys covered with a cloth of whith sylke ... Also there lyes upon her breast a lytell crosse made of the holy crosse ... Also the Tumbe of Constantini Magni ... and a bone of Seynt Mary Mawdleyn." As far as I am aware, Torkington's is the last recorded account of this "relic." She seems, somehow, to have been spirited away some time shortly afterwards. I have little doubt of the reason for this: the church authorities realised that the relic was fraudulent, and did not want to stoke the fire of the Reformation with such a blatant piece of tinder.

The body of Saint Helena was supposedly "translated" (the Medieval euphemism for the theft of relics) from Constantinople to Venice, by a monk named Aicardo in 1211. The problem, however, is that the body of Saint Helena was never in Constantinople in the first place. She was buried in a mausoleum on the outskirts of Rome. No Roman church today claims to hold any part of her remains, although the mausoleum can be visited, and her sarcophagus is in the Vatican Museum.

The Mausoleum of Saint Helena, Rome. Photo: Mario1952 (licensed under GNU).

The Sarcophagus of Saint Helena. Photo: Joshua Sherurcij (reproduced with permission).

The Monastery of Sant'Elena was closed by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1810 and, when the Church of Sant'Elena was rededicated in 1928, the "urn of Saint Helena" was returned. Clearly, however, no urn could contain what Torkington or Casola saw, a body with a preserved face, and a wooden cross lying on her breast.

If no part of Saint Helena's mortal remains was ever to be found in Constantinople or Venice, and if no part of them remains in Rome, where might they have ended up? An alternative story is that they were translated from Rome to the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers, in the Champagne region, by a priest named Theutgise in 840 AD. This is intrinsically more believable, since he would, at least, have been looking in the right place.

The Reliquary of Saint Helena at Hautvillers. Photo: G. Garitan (licensed under CCA).

Following the Revolution, the remains were moved to Paris by the Ordre des Chevaliers du Saint Sepulcre, and installed in the Church of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles, on the Rue Saint Denis (in 1827, by mutual agreement, some of these remains were returned to Hautvillers).

The Reliquary of Saint Helena at Paris. Photo: Testus (licensed under CCA).

There are, however, other claims. Prior to the French Revolution, the Chateau de Genech, in the Pas de Calais, claimed to be in possession of Saint Helena's head. The Cathedral of Trier, in Germany, however, has a closer personal association with her (it is built on what may have been her palace, and also holds what is claimed to be the tunic of Christ, brought back by her from her journey to the Holy Land), and has a reliquary supposedly containing her skull, which it has held since the Middle Ages.

The Reliquary of Saint Helena at Trier. Photo: Turelio (CCA license CC-BY-SA-3.0-de).

Which, then, are the genuine relics? We can probably discount Genech, as well as Venice, but it is possible that the relics at Hautvillers, Paris and Trier are all genuine. It is equally possible that none of them are. This is just one example of a more general problem. By the 12th Century, Europe was awash with shrines and relics. That some of these were genuine we need not doubt, but that some were fraudulent was not a new discovery by the 16th Century advocates of the Reformation: it was recognised by Geoffrey Chaucer in his characterisation of the "Pardoner."

The Pardoner, from the Ellesmere Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales (image is in the Public Domain). "He had a croys of latoun ful of stones. And in a glas he hadde pigges bones. But with thise relikes, whan that he fond a povre persoun dwellyng upon lond, upon a day he gat him moore moneye than that the person gat in monthes tweye ... "

Clearly some relics have more reliable "biographies" than others but, by the time the monks of Venice shuffled their false relic into an unmarked grave, the cult of relics was rapidly falling into disrepute.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. For this week only, the e-book versions are available at the reduced price of 99 pence/ 99 cents.

1 comment:

  1. I can't recall who it was who said, centuries ago, that if you gathered all the bits claimed to be the True Cross you could re-forest the world? There was a market for these things and people only too happy to take advantage of it. And then there were the supposed graves of Arthur and Guinevere in Glastonbury, can't recall whether it was to shut people up about Arthur returning(you'd know more about this than I do)but it sure got the monks money from the tourists! :-)