God, Gold Corruption And Poverty

God, Gold Corruption And Poverty

Dominic Janes

Dominic James describes how the early Church reconciled its teaching of holy poverty with the accumulation and display of spectacular wealth

In March 687, on a barren islet off the Northumbrian coast, a lone man was dying, his feet ulcerated and his body badly wasted by malnutrition. It was bitterly cold and for five days the seas had been so rough that no one had been able to get to the islet. When they finally reached him, the man had not been able to rise for five days and his only food had been a few onions. His death shortly afterwards can hardly have been unexpected. Bede, the greatest historian of Anglo-Saxon England, commemorated that man, Cuthbert, as a saint. His self-sacrifice and lack of concern for his own material needs were such as to place him as a worthy disciple of Jesus. Cuthbert’s bodily remains, however, were to be the focus of intense attention and adorned in the richest way possible. He was re-interred several times, the most recent exhumation revealing a remarkably well-preserved Anglo-Saxon silver altar and golden pectoral cross, together with a variety of later medieval silks.

Early and medieval Christianity lavished splendour in the context of death, something which can be difficult fully to understand today. Many people no longer appreciate grand celebrations of death, but assume that funerals should be austere occasions. Such differences in attitudes are partly a result of cultural aesthetics. For example, George Bernard Shaw, an inveterate trouble maker, wrote against the tastes of his times when he talked of `earth burial, a hideous practice, [which] will some day be prohibited by law’. It was only in 1884, after much opposition from clergy who thought it might interfere with resurrection, that cremation was legalised in Britain. Since then, a rising horror of the corpse has ensured the spread of crematoria.

This has been less the case in America, perhaps because of greater faith there in the powers of technology to hide the terrifying reality of decay and so to make the corpse presentable for viewing at the funeral. Elaborate embalming, park-like cemeteries, grand monuments and rampant consumer marketing were held up to scholarly analysis tinged with amused distaste in Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963).

Modern society is divided in its attitude to display in the context of burials. Not everyone, evidently, would share the feelings of fascination and disgust with which I recently examined the cabinet of relics in a church in Aries. Greyish lumps of bone rested in semi-darkness on dull velvet. Gold-covered caskets shimmered in the candlelight. If the monks of Lindisfarne had felt similar disgust they would hardly have been keen to re, open Cuthbert’s tomb, as they did a few years after his death.

It is easy to find the medieval attitude peculiar and our own natural. Our fear comes from a skull’s power to remind us of our mortality, against which we feel powerless. But for the medieval Christian, human bones displayed the contrast between corporal weakness and the immortality of the soul which represented true life. Yet the corporal remains of saints were treasured. What makes the medieval relic cult hard to understand is not simply the valuing of bodily remains, but their encasing in gold and jewelled reliquaries. The effect is to deliver an aesthetic shock. Gold has a strong range of positive associations in modern society, of power, beauty and success. Corpses, by contrast, are now largely emblematic of powerlessness, ugliness and defeat. How was it that these two elements came together in the Christian tradition?

The use of splendour was related to the belief that the remains of holy men and women had a special power; this was, above all, their ability to generate miracles. There was a denial, in the words of P.R.L. Brown, that `the death of the Very Special Dead had anything to do with the observed effects of the death of the average Christian’. One of the proofs of Cuthbert’s saintliness was that his corpse remained uncorrupted, as was discovered by the monks of Lindisfarne when they exhumed the body in 698 to move it to a position of greater honour. Crucial was the popular belief in the continuance of spiritual power after the death of the saint.

This did not mean that holy men and women themselves were keen to be so commemorated. Ephraem the Syrian, who died in 372, so his Vita tells us, requested on his deathbed that he not be buried in a rich cloth. One of those waiting nearby, himself richly dressed, decided therefore `to give to the poor the rich clothing which he had brought for the purpose of dressing the holy man’ in death. However, the desire to pay respect to remains which were associated with miracles usually over-rode the respect shown to the modesty of the saint in his or her lifetime.

The Church grew rich from the time of its legalisation and endowment by Constantine in the fourth century, and churches became repositories of great wealth. Churches were lavishly embellished with valuable `treasures’ such as gold and silver fittings, furniture, vessels and decorations. Luxurious grave goods and reliquaries were prominent elements in this abundance. Immensely expensive buildings and their associated works of art were one of the most remarkable artistic achievements of the age. That tradition endures today in many Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches despite the strongly hostile attitude of many Christians, especially at the time of the Reformation, to the use of such display.

Considerable modern study has been directed towards the theological debates on personal wealth found in the writings of the Fathers of the early Church. Orthodox opinion held that private riches were not harmful if harnessed for the good cause of giving to the Church. However, the inconsistencies inherent in the corporate splendour of the Church were little examined. Most people simply accepted the blatant use of wealth. Debate centred not on whether the Church should be rich, but on how it should spend its money. Splendour in decoration signalled respect for the building or object in question. Few individuals were sufficiently radical to challenge this assumption.

But how could this happen? Ascetic lives like that of Cuthbert were surely testimony to the world-denying, anti-materialistic values of the Church: how could the use of gold, gems and silks be justified? Christ had said that his listeners should `consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’ (Matthew 6, 28-9). Potentially, the world-denying ethos would appear to have been strikingly subversive. The incident in the fourth century, where St Martin of Tours cut his cloak in two and gave half to a beggar was an example of enormous symbolic daring, since Martin was a soldier, and his cloak was a part of the state uniform and a symbol of military rank and allegiance to the Empire (Sulpicius Severus, Life of Martin). Similarly, the fifth-century ex-soldier, St Germanus of Auxerre, used his military cloak with sacking as sheets on a bed made of compacted ashes (Constantius, Life of Germanus).

Yet such acts were not generally read as a call to universal renunciation of worldly values, because perfection was understood to be available only to a spiritual elite of priests and monks. Personal renunciation of splendour only had power in a society that valued glamorous appearance. Gold was generally understood to refer to success. Gold, as a metaphor, could be used to describe and depict spiritual excellence in contrast to the copper or lead of the ordinary soul. Holy men were understood as those enjoying heavenly riches. And the more they had dressed shabbily in life, the more they were imagined as subsequently clad in the pomp of the otherworld; which is why the wretched cadaver of Cuthbert was interred with the greatest splendour that could be managed by the monks of Lindisfarne where he had been bishop.

If holy men and women were expected to be indifferent to their mode of apparel in life, worshippers were expected to be attentive to dressing up their remains, since to do otherwise would imply a lack of respect. The same thing applied to the way in which Christian heroes — both human and divine — were depicted in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The early sixth-century bishop, Severus of Antioch, `often attempted to persuade the multitude in the very church of the most holy Michael that [plain] white vestments and not [expensive] purple ones were appropriate to angels’. Yet, in Ravenna, in the late antique church of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, the archangel Michael is shown in splendid dress similar to that worn by Roman emperors on ceremonial occasions.

Moreover, it rapidly became clear that a bishop of aristocratic birth would not have felt uncomfortable wearing expensive garments as befitting his social status and showing due respect for his sacred office. Thus the early fifth-century mosaic of St Ambrose at the chapel of San Vittore in Milan shows Ambrose in aristocratic dress. Grand liturgical vestments were soon developed, primarily the chasuble dyed with a very expensive purple colorant extracted from murex seashells. The role of Constantine in engendering vastly enhanced splendour in the Church context extended to the question of garments. He apparently sent a gold-threaded robe to Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem. We know this because Acacius of Caesarea disparaged the sale of it, together with other items, even though it was done to relieve a famine.

The compromise worked out by the Church between Christ’s teaching on riches, and the traditional expectations of imperial society, was to make a sharp distinction between personal finance and corporate endowment. Thus monks and priests could enjoy their wealth without the taint of sin by giving the money over to an institution which would then supply their needs. By the early Middle Ages carefully organised monasteries and other religious institutions offered the chance to combine the advantages of a comfortable community with the personal perfection of ascetic life. Robert Markus has written of the `blurring of frontiers’ between the `desert’ (a metaphorical image for the turning away from worldly concerns) and the day-to-day engagements of the `city’. Personal abstinence was combined with corporate richness, and at death, a holy person’s remains became the property of his or her community and thus were as deserving a target for expenditure as the fabric of church buildings. Those who treasured simplicity and failed to receive commemoration for one reason or another did not leave monuments behind them. What we see is the legacy of a tradition of display.

The saints were imagined and depicted not as abstractions, nor yet as in their humble earthly state, but as residing in heavenly splendour. Although we lack comprehensive schemes of church decoration from Cuthbert’s England, we do find such survivals around the Mediterranean. Along one of the ancient roads leading out of Rome there lies the church of Agnes, saint and martyr. Agnes was supposedly executed during the persecutions of Diocletian at the turn of the third and fourth centuries. An early medieval list of biographies of Roman popes, the Liber Pontificalis (chapter 34), tells us that Constantine, at the request of his daughter Constantina, built a chapel at the burial place of the saint. There he placed a gold paten (shallow dish used for bread at the Eucharist), chalice and chandelier together with two silver patens, five silver chalices, thirty silver chandeliers, forty brass chandeliers and forty brass candlesticks, together with donations of land to provide future revenues.

The chapel was rebuilt by Pope Symmachus (498-514) and then by Pope Honorius (625-38), and his is the building that survives today. The Liber Pontificalis further informs us that Honorius decorated the church:

… to perfection all round, and put there many gifts. He plated her tomb

with silver weighing 252 lbs, placing over it a gilt-bronze canopy of

remarkable size. And gave three gold bowls each weighing 2 lbs. He also had

made there a mosaic in the apse.

The silver-work has not survived, although an inscription describing the offering of such an item by Honorius has been recorded. But the mosaic in the apse, together with its dedication inscription, has been preserved in situ. Three figures stand virtually alone amid a huge sheet of gold-leaf. The earth is represented by a narrow strip of green at their feet. Similarly vestigial is a tiny zone of silver and gold stars against a background of blue, out of which God hands down a crown emblematic of victory. At the centre, between Symmachus and Honorius, stands Agnes herself, draped in gems. The pictorial imperative was that the saint be shown as brilliantly present, directly over her earthly remains, observing the prayers of supplicants. The mosaic shows not her suffering and death but her glorious resurrected appearance, just as we are told in her hagiography she was seen by her parents eight days after her death dressed in splendid garments. The late Roman poet Prudentius tells us that, as her spirit rose into heaven, Agnes trampled gold, silver, garments, dwellings, pomp, anger, fear, paganism and all the other failings and vanities of the world (Crowns of Victory). Yet having so transcended she attained the splendour of heaven, there to dwell amid gold and silver. It was as though heaven was not so much set in opposition to the earth, but was in the form of a perfection of the material world and a place where wealth was untainted by sin. She left behind her the bodily remains which were the treasured yet inferior representatives of her soul on earth after her death. Such relics were kept amid gold which was the lesser equivalent of the wealth and splendour of paradise.

At the end of antiquity, when the Church was in the first flush of its success, the saints were imagined, shown and buried in splendour. Christ and the saints were victorious, and thus noble ornaments such as jewelled crowns and garments were more than simply appropriate for them; they were necessary out of simple respect, let alone in the context of worship. The use of gold reliquaries singled out the bones of the saints from those of lesser mortals by reminding the faithful of the transcendent ability of Christianity to triumph over death itself. These cultural traditions were long to outlive the collapse of the Roman Empire in western Europe, filtering to Anglo-Saxon England, ultimately even through to the present day. In considering the early medieval Church and its treatment of cadavers, it could be said that corruption, both physical and moral, is in the eye of the beholder. The material and the spiritual were inextricably bound up in Christianity, just as they had been miraculously combined in the body of Christ.


G. Bonner, D. Rollason & C. Stancliffe (eds), St. Cuthbert: His Cult and Community to A.D. 1200 (Woodbridge, 1989); P.R.L. Brown, Relics and Social Status in the Age of Gregory of Tours (Reading, 1977); R. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (CUP, 1990); W.J. Sheils & D. Wood (eds), The Church and Wealth, Studies in Church History 24 (OUR 1987); Cyril Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire (Toronto, 1986).

Dominic Janes is a research fellow in midieval history at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and the author of God and Gold in Late Antiquity (CUP, 1998).

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