Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Take heart!

We've grappled with disembodied hands at great length; kicked about the mystery of Canada's floating feet; taken a look at the removal of eyes; milked the story of amputated breasts and chewed on the puzzle of  mysterious teeth found in a house's walls.  We've dicked about with symbolic castrations until our energy petered out.  We've picked our brains about the Egyptian practice of removing them through the nose.  We've talked the subject of corpses into the ground and raised hell about relics and saints.  Small wonder then that when Gid and I both came across this tale, independently, he signaled it to me and I'd linked to it on Facebook.

During the night this weekend, a relic of St. Laurence O'Toole (1128-1180), a heart housed in a heart-shaped box, was stolen from an iron cage affixed to the wall.

A stolen heart, a literal stolen heart, the relic of a saint no less, cannot but be mentioned here on LoS.

Says the article:  "His heart has [had] been preserved in Christ Church Cathedral since the 13th century and was a major pilgrimage site during the medieval period."

Rev. Dermot Dunne, cathedral dean said:  "It has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father, St. Laurence O'Toole."

He added: "We have a peace candle, and we invite people to light candles during the day ... when staff were on their rounds, they found that it was lit already.  And then in our Trinity chapel - our prayer chapel on the north transept - all the candles were lit there. It's quite confusing."

Well, Dunne don't have much faith in his own relics.  A true believer might pay a small fortune for the miracle-producing church organ.  The lit candles may indicate the thief/thieves were religious men or women, praying for forgiveness as they defaced the church and stole away in the night.

The cathedral has a venerable history and dates from some time after 1028, about the time a Dane named Sitric Silkenbeard (!) made a pilgrimage to Rome.  A lot of other stuff happened after that.

Our man O'Toole, patron saint of actors (not), was honored with a chapel erected in the 13th-century.  All light-heartedness aside, the cathedral has a colorful history worth looking into, but I'll focus bit on the saint.
(Though I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the church also displays the mummified remains of a cat and rat found behind an organ, known by locals as "Tom and Jerry" and mentioned by Joyce in Finnegan's Wake....)

O'Toole was born Lorcán Ua Tuathail into a noble family down in the county Kildare.  O'Toole was the kind of man you don't meet everyday.  In his professional career he played important roles as a diplomat, church reformer and cleric.  Indeed, during a pause in an important series of negotiations, O'Toole was off saying Mass at the Shrine of Thomas Becket in Caterbury when an allegedly deranged fellow with the idea of creating another martyr struck him on the head.  Not one to let history repeat itself with a wooden blow to the top of his head, Ua Tuathail got knocked down, got back up again and finished Mass.

He died of an unrelated illness four year later while on yet another diplomatic mission, in Normandy.

Actor Peter Seamus Lorcan O'Toole, btw, played in 1964's Becket opposite Ricard Burton as Henry II, the man behind Becket's death....

O'Toole was a vegetarian ascetic, fasting every Friday and taking a retreat every Lent for the full 40 days.  Like another man with a famous head wound--John the Baptist--O'Toole wore a hairshirt.  (And here we are nearing Lent, which we've recently discussed, also recently citing a sculpture of JB that pales in comparison to an obscure Black Madonna).  O'Toole was canonized 45 years after his death due to a rapid succession of miracles at his tomb.  His bones were interred separately from his skull, the former disappearing some time duting the Reformation; his heart was brought to Christ Church, where it had stayed until this weekend.

(Biografickal info Wiki sourced)

Does the post-mortem fate of O'Toole's heart reflect the growth of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus?  His execution actually predates the most popular period of this devotion; in O'Toole's time it was a more latent than widespred and its diffusion belongs more properly to the centuries after O'Toole's martyrdom.  Yet it was present in some form in the 10th and 11th centuries.  It's possible that St. Laurence was a devotee of sorts, but I haven't found anyhing linking him to it directly.

Whereas the head is the expressive faculty of the interior life and the windows on the world and into the soul, it is obvious choice for special veneration and unsurprisingly widespread from the earliest days of Christianity.  The martyrdom of John the Baptist was represented by the prophet's head on a plate.  We have already mentioned the cephalaphores in a few other posts.  These are saints whose heads continued to speak after their death and who are especially numerous in France.  We have also seen them connected with the Virgin Martyr genre in Portuguese exemplars as well as Saint Saturnina in northern France.  St. Denis, patron of Paris and arguably the most important saint of early Chrisian France, was a cephalaphore.

This "head worship" seems to have leaked into other domains as well.  The Templars, crushed in the 14th century, were accused of worshipping an idol representing a human head.  The guilloutine has always seemed to me to be something much more than an efficient killing machine.  It exerted a gruesome fascination upon the Parisian crowds and I'm tempted to see in it a reflection of a particular Gaulish psychological preoccupation with the head as an object of veneration.  There are tales from the Revolution of decapitated heads looking with terror at the crowds, mouths moving as if to speak, last vestiges of life.... Secular cephalaphores, a new kind or martyr.

In any event, the Middle Ages are rife with tales wherein relics are bought and sold, fabricated out of thin air, stolen, traded and raided.  An important relic could bring immense wealth and glory to a ctity, stir immense civic pride.  I'm currently reading an anthology entitled Death, Dismemberment, and Memory: Body Politics in Latin America.  Various authors evokes the cult of the saints as a precedent for the struggle over bodies and body parts of national heroes in Latin American politics.  This fascinating series of essays demonstrates the power of relics in our own times.  In a religious sense, that power remains wholly undiminished:  Jesus is found on a Cheeto, the Virgin on a piece of toast.  We've even reported on a dog piss-stain revered as a portrait of Jesus.  Even when the Church is reluctant to name new saints, the people force them upon the church.  Such is the case that unofficial saints have developed wholly outside Church authority:  Santa Hélèna of Toulouse, Gauchito Gil in Argentina, Jesus Malverde in Mexico, Saint Wilgifortis in Flanders.  A relic is powerful magic, a body part even more so.  But whereas reliquaries in the south of France might hold a meager chip of bone, Dublin had an entire organ....a human heart!  Which is actually small potatoes.  Churches in Italy are wont to have entire cadavers on display.  I've seen one Roman chapel where the altars and decorative niches were made entirely of human bones and full skeletons used for a series of decorative memento mori. 

The economic and even genuine spiritual value of relics is obvious to me and I'm not surprised by this theft at all.  Sadly though, the result will be that churches will become locked when not in use, making access more restricted.  A loss of innocence and convenience both for the faithful, the curious and writers such as I. (Fuck the faithful masses of Dublin, this is my blog we're talking about!)  But seriously, I've missed out on a lot of opportunties due to a locked church door.  That these last bastions of trust (the buildings, not the institution) are endangered by thievery is not a shock in our thoroughly debased world, but it is, erm, disheartening. 

Some time soon, we'll do up a bit on heart removal; from a Mexican devotee of the Emperor Iturbide to the Temple of Doom, heart removal has a fun and colorful history....


  1. A reward is to be offered.

  2. Nice job with this article, D.

    I was looking into St. O'Toole and learned that he used to spend 40 days every year in St. Kevin's cave.

    Now St. Kevin, as I learned, did some amazing things.

    When he was only 7 years old, for example, he stretched his arm out in prayer and a blackbird landed on his hand. He was too nice to disturb the bird, so he held still and the blackbird commenced to build a nest in his hand and lay a couple eggs. 7-year old Kevin (he wasn't a St., yet) held still until the eggs hatched and the little birds learned how to fly away.

    Now that is incredible! I don't think that I could extend my arm for 5 minutes, much less for whatever the gestation period of a blackbird happens to be.

    Another time, St. Kevin turned water into beer. That sounds like a cool frat trick--but you have to bear in mind the historical context. Back then, you see, water could kill you. That's because they didn't know that you should boil it before drinking it straight of the river (beaver fever, etc.). Beer, however, was safe to drink. Why? Because when you make beer, you boil the water in order to stew the grains--and a handy (but, at the time, unknown) benefit was that boiling the water killed all the nasty buggers that could kill you with diarrhea! In other words, St. Kevin was making the water potable. But it does sound cooler to say he turned it into beer.

    To top it all off, he was fed by an otter, and he also lived to be 120.

    Anyhow, you covered St. O'Toole so well, D., that I had nothin' more to offer--other than these tangentially related tales of a first century Irish super-heroic saint.

  3. Wow, that is one cool saint. Like St. Francis with the bird and Jesus with the wine, in this case, beer. I'd never considered the fact that beer was a way to drink safely. Interesting too how it's associated with monks. Lots of monasteries in France still make it, capitalizing on the especially Trappist tradition. This story must reflect that? Apparently folks drank gallons of the stuff back in the day. Like lists found of the Mayflower provisions show that each persons was allotted copious amounts per day, belying the idea of completely abstinent Puritans!

    Cool stuff Gid, thanks.


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