Friday, March 15, 2019

Skeletons in the Sanctuary

"Le Squelette." Ligier Richier.
1545. (Saint-Étienne Church,
Bar-le-Duc, France)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return”

It seems but once a year, on Ash Wednesday, that we are told this. Our foreheads – and our noses – get rubbed in this fact. The rest of the year we are more apt to think of ourselves as being made of  “Snaps and snails and puppy-dog tails” or “Sugar and spice and everything nice.”

Facing reality is not man’s forte, and the Church must sometimes oblige, if only once a year. There are, however, places in Christendom where the reminders come more often. Funerals are always a wake up call, but I am referring to yet other reminders. “Momento mori,” or reminders of death, sometimes show up as permanent fixtures in the sanctuary.

The Baroque era used depictions of death with strange relish. In Saint-Étienne church in Bar-le-Duc, France, the 1545 sculpture, “Le Squelette,” is a funerary monument to the heart of René Chalon. The figure holds a depiction of a once-beating heart, and commands a place of prominence normally reserved for canonized saints.
"Death Cutting the Thread of Time."
designed by Egid Quirin Asam and
Cosmas Damian Asam. Mid-18th Century.
(Asamkirche, Munich)

Not to be outdone by the French, a small but grandiose chapel, familiarly known as Asamkirche in Munich, contains a gold-plated sculpture of death cutting the thread of time. In this indulgent facade, it is a sober reminder that life is short – even for the Asam brothers, who designed the chapel and had it built for personal use.

If a marble or alabaster sculpture didn’t quite do it for the parishioner, there were the occasional grotesque relics put on public display. The relic of St. Pancratius was given a suit of gilded armor and set on a lofty perch in the Church of St. Nikolaus in St. Gallen, Switzerland. The peekaboo armor had cutouts to allow a view of the underlying reality. It’s hard to top this sort of macabre reminder of death. It’s also hard, I imagine, to focus on the sermon when old Pancrie is staring you in the face.
Reliquary for St. Pancratius.
(Originally in the Prince Abbey
of St. Gall, Switzerland)

While not exclusively a Roman Catholic thing, the Roman brethren certainly championed the notion of memento mori. This culminated in the Requiem Mass, which is an extension of the funeral. Being a mass, there were vestments to go with the “celebration.” Some, as the black and gold example shows, got a tad carried away. It’s unfortunate that its imagery obsessed over death as a final destination instead of focusing on the Resurrection of our Lord.

Death, however was not dark enough for some; a simple reminder of mortality wasn’t sufficient. Leave it to Rome to erect a church dedicated to this twisted theology. The Church of the Purgatory [you read that correctly] in Matera, Italy, is quite capable of sucking all the Hope and joy out of its hapless visitors. Some of the doors alone will give pause upon entering, being adorned with rows of skulls topped with hats of all professions. There are skulls above the doors, as well. One must assume that doorknobs and light switches and organ pipes are also fair game.
Requiem Mass chasuble.
17th or 18th Century.

Perhaps, upon greater consideration, once a year is indeed sufficient to be reminded that we are dust. Otherwise, we might dwell on death too keenly. The penalty for our sin and the solution to our mortality was answered in the Person of Christ Jesus. Unless Christ’s return beats us to the punch, we will certainly die, and yet we shall live. Thanks be to God, who defeated sin, death, and Satan, and who has defeated our own death, as well.

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