So, I just started watching Dexter with Alex. For those of you who don’t know what Dexter is, it is a show about a serial killer who kills by a code of ethics, mostly killing other serial killers, rapists, etc., that “deserve to be killed.” It is an intriguing and well written show, and I’ve definitely gotten sucked in. Don’t spoil any thing, though, because I am only at the beginning on Season Two!
Because the show is centered around serial killers, it often includes fragmented bodies, that are usually cut up into pieces for easy disposal. As a nerdy art historian who can’t get art history out of my brain, what was the first thing I thought of? Relics. Yup. Fragmented body parts of any variety, even the ones on a show about a serial killer, remind me of relics.
When I unintentionally set up the parallel between the fragmented murdered bodies in Dexter to the fragmented bodies of relics, I couldn’t help but notice one large difference: one concept is really, really creepy, and the other is actually rather normal, respectively. The murder bodies that have been cut up in the tv show are disturbing, creepy, and make the viewer feel unsettled and uncomfortable. The alleged body parts of saints, scattered around most of Western Europe and the America, however, is a commonplace, but now outdated, Catholic religious practice.
It fascinates me how a fragmented body can be thought of in such drastically different ways depending on the alleged holiness or power of the specific body. Reliquaries were incredibly popular during the early medieval period up to the Reformation. Lavish boxes made of precious stones and metals were cast to hold a piece of a body part that was thought to have belonged to a saint, which are called reliquaries. Some of the creepier reliquaries mimic the shape of the body part that is inside, and some are shaped like mini statues or Roman portrait busts. Relics gave the churches they belonged to bragging rights, and churches would boast of their relic’s power.
These relics lead to the creation of the pilgrimage church, which was a church or cathedral that contained an incredibly powerful relic that many practitioners of the Catholic faith wanted to visit; to pray to the fragment of the saint in person. A series of pilgrimage churches began to sprout up, all boasting their own powerful relic, which created a pilgrimage trail from Spain to France, beginning at Santiago de Compostela. Hardcore Catholics and art historians alike still walk this trail; I won’t lie, it’s on my bucket list.
I am still left to wonder why the fragmented body part, say, the arm of St. Andrew, is not disturbing and shocking, but is, instead something powerful and worthy of worship. For this is can only assume that the fact that the alleged Saint lived in a much earlier time period, so he is not remembered in his human form by any one who is still living, but instead, his body has become a symbol of what he stood for, and for his religious power.
Murder victims, however, whose bodies have been fragmented by their killer, are much more disturbing, as the bodies belong to sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, etc., of people who are still alive and well. The temporality of the situation is what makes it creepy or not creepy, then. Though I do have to point out that the grave diggers who stole the bones of saints to use as relics were not only doing some shady, creepy business, but also had some questionable motives. Stealing in the name of Catholicism for more PR/buzz around your cathedral? Put in modern terms, the concept of relics really doesn’t seem much better.
also, check out this website for all you could ever want to know about sacred destinations.