Fair warning: if you’re a fan and believer in religious relics, you might want to skip this week’s blog post. I’m dedicated to sharing the full gamut of my Italian life and I’d be remiss if I didn’t address this topic since it’s impossible to avoid it while marveling at the majesty and ingenuity of Italian churches. For me, this practice of putting saints’ body parts on display is a bit unsettling.
A visit to the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padova and a viewing of “pieces” of the saint.
Yes, pieces of the saint. The main attraction? St. Anthony’s tongue.
During a recent visit to Padova with my sister and brother-in-law, I was introduced to the relics of St. Anthony. My sister, who has a knack for identifying and steering into bizarre subjects, was reading the Rick Steves overview of the basilica and said saint. After reading the part about St. Anthony’s tongue, she was on a mission to see it. Sure the architecture was magnificent, but that took a backseat to viewing a desiccated tongue proudly on display in an ornate gold shrine.
“St. Anthony died from edema in 1231, and when he was exhumed in 1263 he had totally decomposed, except for, curiously, his tongue.” – Atlasobsucra.com
Some accounts even say that St. Anthony’s tongue was pink and wet even though the rest of his body had succumbed to decay.
Religious relics exist in other religions as well.
In my rush to judgment, I was shaking my head at the macabre ingenuity of Catholics and the magical powers they ascribe to the remains of saints. And then I read this overview on Wikipedia and saw that this was a practice in Hinduism and Buddhism as well.
St. Anthony is the Patron Saint of Lost Things.
I had to chuckle, just a little. I wonder how the Saint of Lost Things would feel about having his body parts scattered. Most of St. Anthony’s “other” remains are in what I consider to be an over-the-top white marble tomb located on the left side of the church and before entering the chapel with his tongue as its centerpiece.
Oh, and St. Anthony is also the Patron Saint of Flight Attendants. Does that seem a bit random and disconnected? Best I can do is thinking that people who lose things are “flighty”. (I know, bad joke.)
Viewing the tongue.
Would it live up to the hype? As we slowly shuffled our way into the chapel containing the relics, my periscope was up trying to see where the tongue might be. The trio in the photo above remained fixed in place for several minutes and genuflected multiple times before making way for the rest of us.
My sister, naughty girl, had her iPhone furtively poised to capture these religious relics. The sign saying “no cameras” wasn’t about to stop her from living on the edge. As I said earlier, she was on a mission.
Finally, we arrived front and center. And, there was St. Anthony’s tongue, one of the most important religious relics in Italy. I was certain it merely would look like a shriveled up slug. But, no, his tongue look rather substantial. It also looked like it had been dipped in chocolate and rolled in crushed nuts and sprinkles (sorry folks, that is the best description I can provide). I guess it had been mounted on some kind of stick and then placed in its gold housing.
And, below was his lower jaw.
While the tongue threw me a bit, the jaw was just a little too real. The light reflecting on the glass, which gave the illusion of two seal-like tusks, added a menacing quality.
It was at this point that my brother-in-law pointed out that St. Anthony’s vocal chords and a finger were supposed to be somewhere close by.
And then there is the legendary case of the divine head of St. Catherine of Siena.
I’d forgotten about this famous story of religious relics. When we kept an apartment in Rome, I’d visited Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, where the body of St. Catherine of Siena is buried––just her body. Her head was secretly removed and transported to the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena, where people today can view it in its mummified state. Read the story and see her head at Strange Remains.
The paradoxes of belief in religious relics.
An important disclaimer first: I was raised a Protestant and religious relics were not part of my religious upbringing. I don’t have an appreciation for the rather substantial doctrine and beliefs of the Catholic church. Still, I can’t quite square fragmenting a saint’s body with a long history of Catholics eschewing cremation and preaching the importance of keeping one’s remains intact for the day of resurrection. Only recently has the Catholic church given the green light for cremations, and only under certain parameters (for example, scattering ashes isn’t endorsed).
But, I guess, when it comes to saints, it’s a different story, and it’s okay to divvy up their remains and send them off to different venues. I suppose saints’ bodies have magical powers that the rest of us just don’t have.
As you probably have surmised, I’m a bit freaked out by what I consider a morbid fascination with saints’ remains. You may be as well when you come to Italy and experience this culture of religious relics. Unless you avoid Italian churches altogether, you’ll most certainly experience saints’ remains proudly on display and with a large flock of believers in their powers in attendance.
I plan to turn my discomfort with saints’ body parts into a quest for a better education and understanding of the Catholic faith as practiced in Italy. I think I have a long journey ahead!