Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Holy Blood Relic of Reichenau: lost glory also?

 Relics, kind of strange to many of us, but they have important place in medieval history. And history of art too, as reliquaries have elaborate and artistic forms. Just a visit to the treasury of Constance cathedral, also located at the Lake of Constance, where is a collection of relics, not far from Reichenau, show abundance of gold, silver, glass and jewels and human creativity. A very good lesson about medieval mind.

 In Germany there are three holy blood relics, believed to be blood of Christ himself. The most famous one is in Weingarten, one in Rothenburg-ob-der Tauber, one in Reichenau. There are others also, but connected with host. On my art historical journey I visited those places,but  the relics were not my main purpose of visit, but history of art. Specially Rothenburg  and Reichenau are very special and feast for the eyes, not that Weingarten isn't impressive and beautiful. I write this because I know there are blood relic fans, and Reichenau isn't even mentioned on wikipedia. (Bruges, Mantua,Wiengarten are, but not all places).

 The Reichenau relic was very known and revered in the past. No legend is associated with it. It is the oldest surviving holy blood relic, recorded in history, without legends, rediscovery and claims. The name of the previous owner who belonged  to Byzantine nobility is included on reverse of the little golden cross holding the relic itself, it is part of inscription in Greek.We know his name and his family records. Seems like rather clear provenance. Claim is that the blood was collected by Joseph of Arimathea. Other blood relics claim that the blood was collected by Longinus (Wiengarten relic, brought from Mantua) and Mary Magdalene (Weissenau relic, brought from France).

The blood  relic is hosted in St Mary and Marcus church, on picture bellow. The church was important for keeping the relic of St Mark the Evangelist, still kept in the treasury of the church.

St Mary and Marcus church, Reichenau, Lake of Constance, Germany

The relic of Reichenau was presented by Schwanhilde, November 7th 925. Before she had the relic, it belonged to the emperor Charlemagne, this precious object was a gift  to the emperor by Arab Hassan. The story of the relic  was recorded by an  anonymous monk in Reichenau.  The relic contains soil said to be drenched with the blood of Christ, also part of fabric with blood and part of the cross.The relic parts are contained in a small golden cross with Greek writing on reverse. Interesting, for those of you who like blood relics, that the other place which  has blood relic, Weingarten- not too far from Reichenau, received it from Judith of Flanders, on May 31 1090. She was a relative, the step daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders whose descendant, (grand grand-son) Thierry of Alsace, according to the legend, brought another blood relic to Bruges from the Second Crusade to the  Holly Land during XII c. Bruges relic is blood-stained piece of fabric.

Bruges is a popular tourist destination for a reason, and the procession during the day on which the relic is presented is an  impressive pagentry. Reichenau is just more mysterious, more off the beaten path. It is not as popular tourist destination, as the other places, specially for the sake of the relics. Streets of Bruges and Rotherburg are filled with joyful tourists, specially  during the Summer, as there is so much too see on every corner. In Reichenau, where walls and art is older than in Rotheburg and Bruges (the abbey was founded in VIII c.) were some tourists when I visited, and I am happy about it, but I also has time for peaceful contemplation, alone. And strolls on the island of vineyards, orchards and gardens, shore overgrown with reeds is an additional bonus.

 But going back to Bruges: recent historical research shows that most likely the Bruges relic was brought from the Fourth Crusade by Baldwin IX, Count of Flanders,  in which he and his army devotely  participated. It was most likely the loot taken when Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade, 1204, not earlier, from the the Second Crusade as the legend claims. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) was unusual in this sense that was directed toward Christians, not against Muslems as in previous crusades,  or pagans as in Northern Crusades.  Only five years later, 1209,  another  crusade against Christians in Europe-in today's Southern Franc followed. This was the second Albigenesian Crusade against the Cathars. The crusaders had lots to do: Constantinople, Southern France, for the sake of forgiveness of sins and for the sake of loot.

 Constantinople, than was the richest, most learned and most beautiful city of Europe from which culture flew and influenced others, where the tradition of Antiquity, philosophy and scholarship didn't dim was sacked by fellow Christians. Without Byzantium and its capital  Italian Renaissance wouldn't be complete. This splendid city influenced Ottonian renaissance, (and other medieval Renaissances), under which Reichenau flourished, St. Gallen, Chartres, Reims, and Glastonbury, from which Theophanu, the Byzantine princess, wife of the emperor Otto came. During three days of killing, looting, desacrating churches and burning the famous Library of Constantinople was burned. This library, similar to the Library ff Alexandria, was enormous, and continued traditions of Antiquity, preserving wisdom of ancient Greeks and Romans for almost one millenium. More about the famous library here. The Bruges relic was most likely stolen during those three horror filled days.

Interior of St Mary and Marcus church , Island Reichenau, on the Lake of Constance, Germany

And gift of relic of Reichenau is more more historically documented, not as legendary. I have to admit for my own comfort I prefer the story of a woman donor, learned and peaceful, than some crude crusader, most likely robbing some church of a very culturally advanced city. Was killing, destroying and  robing Constantinople erased from collective memory in Belgium? The legend mentions crusade to Jerusalem, as the counts of Flanders were participants. Sometimes is amazing how easy the collective memory erases important facts. Like How easy was for Belgium to erase the memory of atrocities committed in their colony in Africa, which is not too ancient history after all.(Will spare you the gory details). Those things need to be said, as Europe had not only burning the heretics and witches but also had crusades. I come from one of the countries, which like Occitania during the Albigenesian Crusade suffered the presence of crusading armies. I mentioned this in another post.

 The memory of crusades are often white washed  and idealized, all good and mysterious Templars, etc. Keep in mind the the surge in Templars popularity came also during XIX c. when many families were proud to have crusaders among their grand grand grands, and bragging about it was a fashion. We still probably feel the shadow of this fashion still.

 Behind the iron gate at the chapel in Gothic style, there is reddish Baroque altar, you see the cross on the top, visible above the gate. This is altar of holy blood relic.  Usually the places which held blood relics were famous on its own right, by the fact of keeping the relic. How telling that wikipedia doesn't even list it among the sites, even though the fact who gave the relics is better documented than in the case of Bruges, famous place with a legend of crusaders. If UNESCO wouldn't list Reichenau among world heritage sites, Reichenau would be even more obscure, the memory of its vibrant culture and its previous fame would be preserved only among some scholars and serious history and art history buffs.

 St Mary's and Marcus church pictures by Heidi Fuchs.