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October 2001

Campuses Mobilize After Terrorist Attack

CUNY's "Success Express" Highlights Grads
Freshman Enrollment Rises at CUNY
First Festival Presented by Gotham Center
CUNY TV enhances recruiting outreach
U.S. Cheers Poet Laureate: Prof. Billy Collins
A Dream of Food On Washington Mall
Navy League Award to Hunter Physicist
Nine Leading Scholars Named Distinguished Professors
Haitian First Lady, CCNY Alumna, Feted
Baruch College Opens Vertical Campus
Historic Matters
Baruch Center Confronts Quality of Urban Life
Hunter College Historian Communes with the Saints
A Displaced Person Discovers His Place on Campus
CUNY Students Vault into Poll Work
Double Play for CUNY Broadcasters
 
A GUGGENHEIM, NEH PROJECT
Hunter College Historian Communes with the Saints

midieval saintHunter 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 dead—in particular those dead whom they considered to be holy. That is—to use their proper title—their 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.roman ring showing a martyr
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 Rome’s city walls. It is easy for the modern tourist visiting St. Peter’s 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. Peter’s 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 martyr’s 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 the death-blow.
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 Year’s token of friendship. Faustus and his well-wisher used this image of a saint awaiting execution to celebrate their relationship.
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 they guarded.
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 venerated.
The monastery of Bury was established there, and its monks produced the elaborate illuminated manuscript displaying stories of Edmund’s miracles. He is seen being crowned by angels as both king and martyr, with Bury’s monks prostrate at his feet, praying at his tomb as they did daily. Edmund provided his monastic family—and, through them, their friends among the living who contributed to the monastery—with patronage in the court of heaven. Thus did the community of the saints embrace the living.

Seen 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.

 

Faubion Bowers: The Man Who Saved Kabuki After VJ Day

a bookProfessor 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 Hawai’i 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 book’s 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
.