Despite the artifice inherent in their construction and the absence of traditional consecration, these bodies operated, both spiritually and culturally, in the role of the relics they replaced, and rituals of public display and celebration were integral to this. To this day, in the town of Roggenburg in rural Bavaria, the bones of Saints Severina, Valeria, Laurentia and Venantius are each year removed from their richly decorated crypts in the former Norbertine monastery church, placed on litters, decorated with flowers, and carried down the nave and around the church upon the shoulders of local teenagers. The ritual, known as a Lieberfest, has been enacted by the townspeople for over 200 years, functioning as a gesture of thanks to these beloved icons for their centuries of service to the congregation, as well as for their imagined martyrly sacrifice. Roggenburg’s saints are among the more extraordinary of their kind. By the 19th century, after the initial excitement about their arrival had waned, the inescapable corporeality of their forms proved too confronting for some members of the local congregation. To assuage discomfort around such manifest reminders of mortality, the skulls were fitted with papier-mâché masks painted in imagined likenesses of the living saints, an effect which, to a 21st century spectator, only compounds the eeriness of the spectacle.
Inherent within the relic tradition is the notion that these artefacts are, in a sense, active; that their spiritual agency extends beyond the realm of inspiration, and into that of the tangible. Accordingly, the catacomb saints gained much of their status through accounts of their associated miracles. At the Capuchin convent in Stans, Germany, the newly arrived bones of Saint Prosper were immediately credited with the miraculous healing of the mother superior, who had, according to accounts, been suffering from a fever that broke on the day that the skeleton was received. Such events endowed the relics, and their associated religious houses, with significant status, and led to the designation of the bones as those of a ‘healing saint’ to whom the local populace might subsequently appeal for cures of their own. Tales of miracles attributed to a martyr’s bones were kept in ‘miracle books’, which faithfully recorded the alleviation of ailments, from foot pain to incontinence to nosebleeds. The saints were also widely perceived to have powers of divine intersession in natural events: Saint Donatus of Detzem, Germany, was regularly called upon to protect the local populace from lightning strikes, having earlier been credited with saving the life of a priest who was, somewhat ironically, struck during preparations for the saint’s procession into the city.
Inherent within the relic tradition is the notion that these artefacts are, in a sense, active; that their spiritual agency extends beyond the realm of inspiration, and into that of the tangible.
Their great popularity among congregations meant that many churches and monasteries acquired large collections of saints, functioning not only as a source of spiritual succour to local people, but also as a means of income generated by visiting pilgrims. Regular donations made to the church in the saints’ honour designated their worldly value in addition to their more spiritually elevated role. Worshippers could also make more personal donations in the form of jewellery or other valuable ornaments, which would be added to the saint’s body or shrine. Rings were a particularly popular choice, and many saints’ hands grew crowded with these material manifestations of their devotees’ spiritual fervour.
Yet such devotions have never been without controversy. The relic tradition has always been a fraught one, coloured by anxiety about idolatry and framed, in Protestant terms, within the regrettable Catholic propensity for materialism and false worship. Even within the Catholic Church itself, the relationship with relics has been ambivalent. Relics could be used as devotional aids, but should never, it was decreed, be perceived as having their own power distinct from that of the deity. The distinction between veneration and worship was not always clearly defined or agreed upon, however. Anxieties surrounding the superstitious nature of some acts of devotion were ultimately attached to the catacomb saints, as they had been to the original relics destroyed in the Reformation spirit of pious austerity. Criticism was amplified by suggestions that the creation of the saints was, in effect, an act of calculated and perhaps mercenary fraud. The 18th century protestant bishop Gilbert Burnet declared that ‘the Bones of Roman Slaves … are now set in silver and gold with a great deal of other costly Garniture, and entertain the superstition of those who are willing to be deceived.’2