In Your Midst

IMAGE OF THE DIVINE:  A Meditation on Cathedral Art

July 2005

    One of the newest additions to the Cathedral’s collection of artistic treasures is also one of the oldest: a 16th-century reliquary bust of our patron, the apostle James, the gift of a generous benefactor.

A generous parishioner donated this 16th-century reliquary bust of St. James the Greater last year.  A relic of St. James will be exposed for veneration on the Feast of St. James, July 24.

    The bust shows us a young man, with curls framing a beardless, thoughtful face. We can identify him as James from his broad-brimmed pilgrim hat, adorned with a prominent scallop shell. The image has an opening in the chest through which the faithful would have been able to see the relic itself.

    Reliquary busts are something of a lost art these days, but they were by no means uncommon in past centuries. Infinite ingenuity (and great wealth) was poured into the creation of these cases for holy remains—remains ranging from the genuine to the thoroughly fanciful. (At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, a richly-bejeweled silver and gold casket in the form of a sandaled foot once held bones supposed to have belonged to one of the Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod!)

    But veneration of relics is by no means a thing of the past. The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed the place relics hold in our tradition: “The saints have been traditionally honored in the Church and their authentic relics and images held in veneration. For the feasts of the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ in His servants, and display to the faithful fitting examples for their imitation” (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

    At Notre Dame in Paris, the Crown of Thorns has attracted (and continues to attract) countless faithful for nearly a millennium. And at St. James Cathedral, the relics of four saints are sealed beneath a stone marked with a cross under the central altar.

    In January 2000, the visit of the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, drew one of the largest crowds in the history of St. James Cathedral (estimates ranged from 6,000 to 10,000).

    On July 24, when we observe the feast of our patron James, we’ll have the opportunity to venerate a relic of St. James the Greater. The relic will be placed inside the reliquary bust, and carried in procession at each of the Masses. It’s a good moment to pause and pray in union with St. James the Greater and with all whose faith, through the centuries, have made these beautiful things holy.


Other articles in the July 2005 issue:

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