Some things matter more than others. As any teenager in love knows, a scarf, mug or even a sock can acquire almost magical properties if He (or She…) owned, or even just touched, it. It’s not just something that afflicts those in the throes of puppy love. Babies’ first shoes, teddy bears, love letters, engagement rings – we imbue certain items with a charge of our devotion.
This also happens at a remove. Auctioneers know that provenance adds value. If the right people owned an object or an artwork, some aspect of them seems to be added to the allure of the item. This possibly makes some sense with art works, where judgments are so subjective. Surely if a respected collector bought the piece, we can add their own valuation to our sense of it? That's the argument anyway, brought to its height in 2007, when Sotheby's auctioned a Mark Rothko painting, White Center, on behalf of David Rockefeller. They set its estimate at $40 million, almost twice the previous auction record. As the New York Times reported, it "is clearly a gamble that the Rockefeller name will make the painting more valuable".
The gamble paid off. The painting, dubbed the “Rockefeller Rothko”, sold for $72.84 million, to the Royal family of Qatar. It’s clear they were paying for something more than what is admittedly a very beautiful artwork when they acquired it for their collections. Maybe the Rockefeller name really is magic when it comes to making money.
Magic thinking plays an enormous part in adding a sense of value beyond the physical value of an item. We all know that if we own The Edge’s guitar, we won’t actually play it like The Edge, but nevertheless, there’s an aura to the object, as if genius may actually transfer, through sweat, to the strings.
And if not magic thinking, what about faith? Monday sees the start of a nationwide tour of the relics of St Anthony. When they were last brought to Ireland, in 2013, 30,000 people saw them in Galway Cathedral alone. That was a small piece of St Anthony's skin, which Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the time said, "reminds us of Anthony as a human person". This year, one of his ribs is coming.
Saints’ relics are an interesting example of belief, suspension of disbelief, ideas of the Divine, and that very human desire to connect with something greater than ourselves, through something on a scale that we can easily comprehend. It’s also a good time for St Anthony to come to Ireland, as his particular area of intercession is lost things. According to the Catholic News, “St Anthony intercedes with those trying to find a job, a home, faith, love, hope and mercy,” all of which we could do with right now, in large doses. Those who want more than a rib, need to pay a trip to Padua in Italy, where you can see his jaw, tongue and vocal chords.
This becomes stranger the more you think about it. One of the criteria for evidence of sainthood is that the body doesn't decay, or "corrupt" after death. So the practice of dismemberment seems counterintuitive. There's also, despite what Archbishop Martin said, an imaginative leap I find it hard to make when confronted, say, with the head of St Oliver Plunkett at St Peter's in Drogheda. It is difficult to realise the idea of this leathered face having once been animated, thinking, heroically faithful, and attached to a living body.
One of the reasons this is so difficult is because of the epic quantities of polished brass, gold and jewels that encase saints’ relics. The pomp of the materials create an even greater distance between object and idea. One could argue that part of the point is demonstrating how all the gold in the world isn’t equal to the potency of a holy woman’s tooth, but if you have a trip to Venice coming up , head for the Treasury at St Mark’s Cathedral. There, you’ll find a small, quiet space, where dimly, behind dusty glass and weathered gold, are an array of teeth, fragments of bones and skin samples. Whoever was looking after things gave up trying to catalogue them. “Relics of sundry other saints,” says the label – or something like that.
No wonder they lost count. The mania for relics both reached its height and spilled over into superstition in the Middle Ages, when even the patron of zealous reformer Martin Luther, Frederic the Wise, had in his collection 18,470 relics.
All religions have their talismans, items and places of faith; and the need for objects that we can fill with, and so find reflected back, our urge for love, comfort and support is deeply human. For believers, the relics of St Anthony will provide just that over the coming weeks. Others may continue shopping.
St Anthony’s relics will tour Ireland from June 9th, beginning at St Mary’s Parish, Cahir, Co Tipperary, reaching St Mary’s Pro Cathedral in Dublin on June 13th, and concluding at St Patrick’s Cathedral Armagh on June 17th.