Saturday, March 04, 2023

New “Speaking” Reliquaries for Covington Cathedral

Thanks to our good friend Fr Jordan Hainsey of the diocese of Covington, Kentucky, for sharing with us this item about two beautiful new reliquaries recently made for the relics collection of Covington Cathedral.

Thanks to the generosity of several benefactors, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky, recently commissioned two new reliquaries to house significant relics from the church’s collection: a piece of the carpal bones of St Paul the Apostle, and the ulna and radius bones of St. Arnold of Arnoldsweiler. These relics were obtained by Covington’s third bishop, Camillus Paul Maes, who held the see from 1884 until his death in 1915.
The new reliquaries were commissioned from the renowned sacred art atelier Byzantine Art (Βυζαντινή Tεχνη), located in Athens, Greece, which has furnished sacred artworks for nearly every continent since 1926. Each reliquary is fashioned from bronze repoussé and features both sterling silver and gold plating. They are further accentuated with freshwater pearls and colorful zircon stones. They are of the type known as “speaking” reliquaries, because their form is “speaking,” communicating what relic is contained inside. Speaking reliquaries became popular throughout the Medieval period as churches on major pilgrimage routes vied for the pilgrims’ attention. For master artisans, these reliquaries became a new medium for expression in their skill and craft.
Speaking reliquaries took various forms, from heads to arms and feet. Egbert, the bishop of Trier (977-93), commissioned the first known surviving body-part reliquary: a portable altar of St. Andrew made to house the Saint’s sandal. Some of the most prolific head reliquaries come from the tradition of St. Ursula Martyr and her 11,000 Companions. At Cologne’s Golden Chamber, dozens of medieval reliquaries contain the skulls of these 4th century martyrs. Reliquaries in the form of arms were much more common however, with hundreds of examples surviving in museums and church treasuries today.
Speaking reliquaries in Cologne, Germany
Arm reliquaries were popular because of they could easily be set standing upright on or near an altar, but perhaps more so because of their sacred gesture. By showing a saint’s hand in the form of blessing, clergy could carry or display the reliquary, thereby animating a Saint’s body during liturgical celebrations or processions. In this way, the saint could literally bless, touch, and heal the faithful with his or her own hand.
The first new reliquary houses a carpal bone of St. Paul the Apostle. The hand forms the traditional gesture of blessing visible in many traditional icons, and shapes the letters IC XC, an abbreviation for the Greek words Jesus (IHCOYC) Christ (XPICTOC) made of the first and last letter of each word. The hand, then, communicates the Name of Jesus, the “Name above every name” (Philippians 2,9). Bishop Maes received this relic of St. Paul on March 20, 1900, along with 24 other large relics from Bishop Gustave Joseph Waffelaert of the Diocese of Bruges, Belgium.
Bishop Waffelaert
The second reliquary houses the left arm bones (ulna and radius) of St. Arnold of Arnoldsweiler, a harpist and singer from the court of Charlemagne. St. Arnold is hailed as a patron saint of musicians, organists, and makers of musical instruments. Shown reaching upward, the reliquary’s hand takes on the gesture of strumming, communicating that the saint was a musician in this life and that, through the relic’s compelling display, he now sings God’s praise forever as a saint.
St. Arnold would have been widely known to German Catholic immigrants of the 19th century, particularly at Covington’s church of the Mother of God. In 1879, Fr. William Tappert became the pastor of this parish, with his brother, Fr. Henry, as parochial vicar. Coming from the town of Düren in Germany’s Rhineland, the two brothers transplanted European classicism to Northern Kentucky. Fr. Henry brought with him a classical music education and set to work right away as choir director, and the musical programs at Mother of God Church became famous on both sides of the Ohio and Licking Rivers for their Cecilian reform music, which promoted and emphasized chant and polyphonic works. Other notable German composers of the day would call Mother of God home, adding to the growing choir. It is clear by historical accounts that Mother of God had become synonymous with truly fine sacred music. And, with such a program, it is evident that the Tappert brothers, and indeed the faithful, looked for a patron from their homeland to aid them in their noble endeavors: St. Arnold.
Mother of God Church in Covington
In 1886, Pope Leo XIII formally recognized the Saint’s cultus for the Archdiocese of Cologne and canonized him, prompting the Tappert brothers to request that Bishop Maes write to obtain relics of St. Arnold for not only Mother of God Church, but other churches in the diocese. On November 23, 1886, Bishop Maes wrote Philipp Cardinal Krementz, Archbishop of Cologne, requesting relics of St. Arnold. Providence appeared to be at work as revived interest in St. Arnold initiated renovations at the shrine and the apparent opening of the Saint’s tomb for authentication, restoration, and the procurement of relics.
The tomb of St Arnold
The shrine where the tomb is located.
On December 15, 1886, Cardinal Krementz wrote to Bishop Maes that it gave him “great joy to grant the wish.” The Archbishop forwarded Bishop Maes’ request to a Fr. Schulte at the shrine in Arnoldsweiler so that relics could be procured, and on January 5, 1887, the relics of St. Arnold arrived in Covington. In the accompanying letter, Fr. Schulte noted the “considerable” size of the relic and that, after examination by a Dr. Rollen of Düren, it was found to be “part of the shank of the left arm.” Fr. Schulte closed his letter wishing that “Your Excellency foster the veneration of St. Arnold and... that St. Arnold may, through his intercession, assist you and all who honor him fervently.”
Cardinal Philip Kremenz, archbishop of Cologne,1885-1899
The new “speaking” reliquaries can be seen in the St. Paul Relics Chapel located, beneath the baldachin of St Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption. The altar contains over 350 relics, including some of the Church’s newest Saints and Blesseds: among the Saints, José Sánchez del Río, Oscar Romero, Maximilian Kolbe, Pope John Paul II, Damien of Molokai, Conrad of Parzham, and Teresa of Calcutta; among the Blesseds, Miguel Pro, Franz Jägerstätter, Stanley Rother, Karl of Austria, Solanus Casey, and Carlo Acutis.
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