Collect your own bones
The luxurious image in their middle ages and ours
This text was written to accompany Illuminations, a group exhibition at Steve Turner in Los Angeles.
The death of St Romuald
Romuald of Ravenna was a severe and holy man; he had the desert in him. He preferred to live alone, in the hills and the forests, wandering from place to place. He was twenty years old in 971 when his aristocratic father killed another man in a duel. Suddenly the secular world, with all its pleasures and violence, felt like an insect crawling over his skin. He had to shrug it off. ‘Against you, unclean world, I protest!’ So Romuald became a hermit. He ate roots and herbs. He shat in ditches. Sometimes he lived in monasteries, where he would build an oratory in his cell and then wall himself in so he wouldn’t be seen. The people who tried to follow this strange, half-starved creature were subjected to terrible austerities. A man whose ambition it was, his hagiographer wrote, to make the world into one vast hermitage. Cold stone walls: chastity, mortification, and the Rule. Everyone in their own minuscule cell, all of us in our millions, in stark contemplation of God.
One day, a gang of peasants tried to kill him. Not because they hated Romuald; they might have even loved him. They knew that the mumbling hermit in their hills was the holiest man alive, and that after he died he would undoubtedly be made a saint. So they decided to speed the process along. Ambush him in the forest and bash in his skull. Chop the body into bits. Boil the flesh off the bones. Turn them into relics: bony images of a bony, unforgiving life. Any relic of the martyred St Romuald would be incredibly valuable. This wealth of metaphors inside his body, like a seam of gold waiting to be unearthed.
Romuald escaped. Five years after his eventual death in 1027, the monks decided to build a new altar over his body. When they opened his tomb, they found that the body had been miraculously preserved, unchanged since his death, except for a thin sheen of liquid over the holy man’s skin.
The death of St Elizabeth
Elizabeth of Hungary was fanatical in her charity. Every day, she gathered the bread from her table at Wartburg Castle and took it down into the village to feed the poor. She invited a leper to lie in her marital bed. She ranged over the country with armfuls of silk and ermine robes, laying them over the shoulders of mud-caked vagrants. Once, on a black cold day in the middle of winter, her husband caught her on one of her journeys, coming down the hill with her mantle stuffed with food. He knew she was taking his gold and jewellery to give away to the poor, so with one rough hand he tore open her cloak. God or his angels must have intervened, because the bread and diamonds vanished. Instead, a miraculous shower of red and white roses fell in cascades from her naked chest.
Elizabeth died in 1231, at the age of twenty-four. As she was lying in state, a crowd of worshippers came to touch her body and take her relics. They cut away strips from the linen bandages covering her face. They cut clipping from her fingernails. Holy objects, small pieces of her kindheartedness: she who had given everything. One by one, they cut off locks of her hair, until the corpse was ragged and bald. Eventually, someone produced a knife and cut off both her nipples.