GUGGENHEIM, NEH PROJECT
Hunter College Historian Communes with the Saints
College Professor of History Thomas Head reports on his current
research, which he has conducted while enjoying the tenure
of consecutive fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation
and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His leave has
also been funded by PSC-CUNY and Hunter College. Lately, I
have been enjoying communing with the dead. That statement
is one of mundane fact, not an indication of a taste for the
occult. My daily companions have been remarkable inhabitants
not only of tombs but also of heavenly courts.
In some sense, almost all historians study the dead. I have
become interested, however, in how Christians of the late
Roman empire and of medieval Europe dealt with their deadin
particular those dead whom they considered to be holy. That
isto use their proper titletheir saints. I am
writing a book about the development of what is commonly called
by historians the cult of the saints in Europe
from roughly 150 to 1500 CE. My goal is to describe and analyze
how the living of that distant era formed relationships of
friendship, service, and patronage with their chosen saints.
The veneration, or cult, of saints allowed ordinary
Christians to seek powerful spiritual allies. The saints had
power because, after their deaths, they had been raised to
life in the kingdom of heaven. Veneration was focused on objects,
that is, the physical remains or images of saints. These holy
figures thus provided links both human and tangible between
the kingdom of heaven and the various kingdoms of the world.
The entombed bones of the saints had meaning because they
were the remains of people whom God had already admitted into
the heavenly court. Though passed from the physical world,
they were very much alive from the perspective of eternity.
Their entombed bones would constitute part of their resurrected
bodies on the day of divine judgment at the end of time. Meanwhile,
these relics served as the continuing presence in the material
world of these inhabitants of the divine court.
The physical remains of apostles and martyrs, virgins and
bishops were treasured by Christian communities from an early
date, but it was not until the conversion of Constantine to
Christianity in the early 4th century that veneration of relics
came into clear public view. Shrines erected over the bones
of saints have been found in the suburban cemeteries outside
important cities throughout the Roman provinces.
One of the most famous is that of the apostle Peter on the
Vatican hill outside Romes city walls. It is easy for
the modern tourist visiting St. Peters to forget that
the magnificent basilica wrought by Michelangelo and others
in the 16th century is much closer to us in time than the
tomb these original builders enclosed in the huge church.
Archaeological excavations have demonstrated that beneath
the main altar of St. Peters lies a tomb venerated by
Roman Christians as that of Peter in the early 2nd century.
The ideas that underlay the cult of saints can be shown by
examining two ancient images now preserved in New York collections.
The first, seen below, is a ring made of garnet; it is one
of the smallest objects possessed by the Metropolitan Museum
of Art. Most probably produced in Rome during the 3rd or 4th
century, the ring has been incised with the scene of a martyrs
death; he is kneeling with hands clasped in prayer. A monogram
bearing the Greek letters chi and rho (the first two letters
of the word Christ) hovers over his head, while
a menacing figure stands behind him, ready with a sword for
This ring also bears an inscription which may be rendered
in English as Best of luck in the new year, Faustus.
Clearly, a Christian presented this grisly scene as a New
Years token of friendship. Faustus and his well-wisher
used this image of a saint awaiting execution to celebrate
Such fragile and personal relationships between the living
and dead came to be institutionalized over the following centuries.
By the 9th century, well into what we call the European middle
ages, relations between the living and the holy dead were
largely controlled by communities of monks or nuns. Such monasteries
housed the tombs or relics of saints, and members of the community
fashioned themselves to be the very family of the saint whom
Consider, for example, the 12th-century manuscript from the
Morgan Library seen at right. It was created at the monastery
of Bury Saint-Edmunds (that is, the place where Edmund
is buried) in southeastern England. King Edmund was
a particularly unlucky monarch of East Anglia in the early
9th century who was murdered by marauding Vikings. As he had
valued the protection of his subjects more than his own life,
however, he came to be considered a saint and his tomb was
The monastery of Bury was established there, and its monks
produced the elaborate illuminated manuscript displaying stories
of Edmunds miracles. He is seen being crowned by angels
as both king and martyr, with Burys monks prostrate
at his feet, praying at his tomb as they did daily. Edmund
provided his monastic familyand, through them, their
friends among the living who contributed to the monasterywith
patronage in the court of heaven. Thus did the community of
the saints embrace the living.
here are the jasper intaglio from a 4th-century Roman ring (81.6.311,
reproduced courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the 14th-century
illuminated manuscript showing St. Edmund crowned a martyr (ms 736,
reproduced courtesy of the Morgan Library) discussed by Prof. Head.
Bowers: The Man Who Saved
Kabuki After VJ Day
Samuel Leiter, head of the graduate Theatre program at Brooklyn
College, continues his long devotion to Japanese stage history with
a just-published translation and adaptation, The Man Who Saved Kabuki:
Faubion Bowers and Theatre Censorship in Occupied Japan (University
of Hawaii Press).
This work, by Shiro Okamoto, tells the story of the remarkable American
scholar of kabuki and man-about-the-world Faubion Bowers, whose
efforts in the 1940s were crucial to the salvation of the kabuki
tradition during the post-World War II Allied occupation of Japan.
The photograph featured on the books cover shows Bowers with
General Douglas MacArthur circa 1946. In his introduction, Leiter
writes that, but for Bowers, The tombstone over its grave
might have read, Here lies kabuki, 1603-1946, able like a
willow to adapt to three-and-a-half centuries of native oppression,
killed in a year by democracy. Bowers went on to publish
the pioneering English-language study Japanese Theatre in 1952.
Leiter became very close to Bowers, who lived on the Upper East
Side in his last years. Leiter adds that Bowers generously assisted
him in his project, which was completed just three days before his
death at 92 in 1999.