Religious relics and devotional merchandise can be macabre, thought-provoking, whimsical and, in some cases, downright entertaining. In Italy, one can visit reliquaries housing the mummified head of St Catherine of Siena or the uncorrupted tongue of St Anthony of Padua before buying blue plastic keyrings of the pierced St Sebastian – what my cheeky godson Dante calls “Catholic tat” – in the gift shops afterwards.
Relics are of course a means of entrenching belief, but also of recruiting new believers. Tat, or merchandise, makes the stories and their key players accessible to all. Like many faiths, Catholicism seeks to increase its followers, but perhaps we are more dedicated in our employment of merchandise to spread and bolster the Word.
My mother once came back from Lourdes with a statuette of Pope John Paul II in dark glasses, which still sits on her desk; in Santiago de Compostela a few years ago, I found a blue and gold Virgin Mary loo roll holder with tiny flashing fairy lights. Decalcomania is a ubiquitous line of merchandise involving stickers which depict religious themes and scenes – according to one website, “they are easy to stick and remove and leave no marks… ideal to decorate windows and glasses”. Perfect also if you decide to throw in the towel and dance with the devil instead.
Azur Loppiano is another line of sanctity-ware, where signs decorated with religious aphorisms, such as a “Hail Mary Diptych with a green angel in pink wood”, sell for £17.84. Visit the Knock website, and one can buy “Our Lady of Knock Crystal Block” for €13.95: commissioned by Knock Shrine, “this beautiful item… features Our Lady of Knock in a delicate white form in the centre of the transparent rectangular 3D block”. Talk about leading the way.
Saints are celebrated each day of the year, but more importantly they possess particular specialisations, providing further opportunities for spreading the faith and selling merchandise. I may have a birthday (Saint Christina the Astonishing, since you ask), but I also have a saint’s day (and a lot of Saint Anthonies to choose from at that). If you feel no particular attachment to a saint, personal deficiencies or hopes might prompt a purchase: in writing this article I should perhaps have turned to St Bede, patron saint of writers. But a desire to sell your house might direct you towards a St Joseph keyring, patron saint of the home; a yearning to start a family – a bottle opener with a picture of St Gerard, patron saint of pregnancy.
According to Pilgrim Gifts of Little Walsingham in Norfolk, many customers buy statuettes of saints that share friends’ and relations’ names – trinkets relating to St George have flown off the shelves since the christening of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s son prompted the UK to adopt George as the nation’s name of choice. Alas there is no St Lilibet (yet).
One wonders whether a run on certain saints’ merchandise might indicate the current zeitgeist. In periods of abundance and success, does a nation turn to St Cecelia to celebrate, or in dark times, such as this last year, to St Jude (patron saint of lost causes) or St Gemma (patron saint of hope)? If there had been a St Gareth, would his paraphernalia have shot off the shelves in the lead-up to the Euro 2020 final? Speculation aside, Covid has had material – and somewhat un-Christian – effects on what customers of faith merchandise can buy: pilgrims can no longer buy large bottles of Lourdes water, only small ones, in order to deter pilgrims from sharing their water. It is only a matter of time before some wily manufacturer creates hand sanitiser endorsed by St Zita, the patron saint of cleanliness.
Relics are of course a much more serious matter. Inspiring devotion across the Christian world, they also create a huge industry known as faith tourism. Many pilgrims are Muslims fulfilling the Haj, but it has been estimated that (pre-Covid) about 168 million Christians are “on the move as pilgrims” every year. The majority of these are Catholics, many of whom travel to venerate, for example, St Thomas’s finger, located in Rome in the Basilica of the Holy Cross, or St John the Baptist’s head in the same city’s San Silvestro, or St Agatha’s breasts, which, incidentally, were reportedly stolen back from conquering Byzantines on her own posthumous orders and returned to Sicily in 1126. And, of course, the famous Shroud of Turin. This linen sheet is thought to be the burial shroud of Jesus Christ, but like many relics, its authenticity has been disputed. My ever-cynical godson – despite being a devoted Catholic – jokes that linen merchants gained their riches through production of thousands of shrouds, just as he claims that swathes of Rhineland forest were felled to create relics of the True Cross.
Not only do relics engender a global pilgrimage industry, they sometimes go on their own peregrinations. My friend Valentine was involved in sending Saint John Melchior Bosco’s miraculously unputrified forearm to West Africa. In mid-19th century Piedmont, Don Bosco pioneered a way of teaching under-privileged children, favouring methods of love rather than punishment. The institutions he founded – Don Bosco Salesian schools, which specialised in technical and vocational training – now span the developing world, particularly in India and Africa, and the Don was sanctified. The Salesian order responsible for the saint’s relic’s tour had been let down by one aviation company and urgently needed a substitute. Fortunately, Valentine had just fledged another, in Nairobi, and volunteered to transport the relic.
Normally residing by turns in a form of sanctified warehouse in Brescia or in the Basilica in Turin, Don Bosco’s forearm, after a valedictory ceremonial service, began a tour of Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana using my friend’s planes. A vast travelling crate duly arrived in Kenya, the relic within installed in an aluminium box tied with red ribbon and secured with two padlocks. When on parade, the box was inserted into a small but secure cavity in the chest of a manikin dressed in clerical robes and the whole encased in glass. I questioned my friend as to the ethical integrity of exacting funds from parading relics such as this from the poor. His answer: the funds raised went to the Don Bosco schools, and whether you agreed with the practice of touring relics or not, the good of funding vocational colleges was incontrovertible. He has a point – and was well paid for engineering the tour.
The ethics of ex-votives are less controversial. Mexico and South America are especially keen on the practice, which involves affixing various charms to altars, shrines or places of worship. The practice is a mark of gratitude for an affliction cured in prayer and is more often than not a plastic limb or body part. I remember one vestibule of a Brazilian church being so covered in tiny plastic body parts with various imploring or grateful notes that the walls were invisible. Exiting, I saw at the bottom of the hill, in a lychgate, several women selling the charms along with pencils and paper for petitioners to write their prayers.
Research led me to Ain’t Saint Co, which specialises in celebrity saint merchandise “to light up your life”. It sells prayer candles, air fresheners and cards featuring every possible modern pin-up, including a candle emblazoned with a picture of David Bowie with the inscription “There’s a star man waiting in the sky” and one of David Attenborough saying, “Cherish the natural world because you are a part of it”.
Selling saints seems to be a curious business: a mixture of the devout, the morbid or sometimes the transgressive, and some of these last punctuated by flashes of near blasphemic whimsy – but all spreading the traditions of saints alike. Perhaps, now that he has returned from his jaunt towards the heavenly realm, we will soon see Jeff Bezos entering this more traditional realm of religious entrepreneurship.
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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