In recent months, I have been featuring not only my own work (which tends to be medical humanities based) but also that of my history and history of medicine colleagues. Today I am happy to have Colin Dickey on board. His fascinating work on grave robbing and the skulls of famous writers piqued my rather morbid curiosity–and today, he has joined us to discuss his latest: Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. Welcome Colin!
Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. His work has also appeared in Cabinet, TriQuarterly, LA Review of Books, and he is a regular contributor to Lapham’s Quarterly. He is the co-editor (with Nicole Antebi & Robby Herbst) of Failure! Experiments in Social and Aesthetic Practices. He lives in California.
Colin Dickey on Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith
I had never thought I’d be writing a book on religion. My first book, Cranioklepty, deals with the fates of several famous writers’ and artists’ skulls, which were stolen in various ways in the early nineteenth century by phrenologists and other treasure hunters, and how attitudes towards those human artifacts changed in the last two centuries. In that book, I was chiefly concerned with our evolving relationship to the corpse, and how a thing like a skull can evolve from being a treasured memento of a lost friend, to a tribute to a genius, to a thing of horror and disgust that must be buried away. I was also interested in the history of science, how a pseudoscience like phrenology might have impacted and altered the trajectory of more reputable branches of science in ways we’re not always prepared to admit nowadays.
At first blush it would seem that Catholic saints—often depicted as abstract figures of virtue, ethereal and disembodied, and certainly divorced from the world of science—have nothing in common with these pursuits. But the history of the saints, I found out as I began writing this book, is all about death, all about the body, all about decay and our strange relationship to the corpse and to mourning and to ritual.
For one, as Peter Brown explains in his excellent book The Cult of the Saints, in the earliest days of Christianity, the body of the saint became a central way station between the earthly and the divine. And so the history of the saint, it would follow, is also one of the dead and decaying body, and how we treat the corpse. As one Roman detractor complained, Christians “collected the bones and skulls of criminals…made them out to be gods, and thought that they became better by defiling themselves at their graves.” The human bodies of the saints were powerful economic prizes, since a shrine with an important saint’s relics could bring in pilgrims and drive tourist revenue.—it’s not an exaggeration to say that a good deal of the medieval economy was dependent on the corpse of the saint.
At the same time there are striking ways in which the iconology and imagery of the saints—particularly the martyrs and their specific mutilations—began to infect the history of medical illustration. Take the figure who appears regularly in Renaissance anatomical textbooks: the ecorché, the figure who has been flayed and holds his own skin out for display. Ostensibly, these images show the body’s musculature and skeletal structure, but they are also bear a striking resemblance to the martyr Saint Bartholomew, who was flayed alive and is often depicted holding his skin out before him (as he does in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, and in Marco d’Agrate’s stunning sculpture in Milan’s cathedral. While anatomists like Vesalius were working hard to employ empirical methods and scientific observations to escape from the backwards superstitions of religion, they nonetheless were borrowing certain aesthetic cues from the Church’s rich iconography.