THE SOUL OF VENICE
Mark the Evangelist is indelibly associated with pride in place: No historical figure is more clearly linked with Venice than her patron saint. His square is the heart of Venice, his basilica the center of its ancient faith. Mark's symbol—the winged lion, its paw upon the open Gospel—is as ubiquitous in Venice as the gondola. For the Venetians of the ninth century and after, "Viva San Marco!" was the battle cry, and legends of St. Mark are entwined with the earliest roots of the Venetian Republic. And yet, tradition tells us, Mark died a martyr in Alexandria, Egypt. How did he gain such importance in a Western city-state?
In the delicate balance of political one-upmanship in ninth-century Italy, a young power bound for greatness required theistic no less than military legitimacy. As its patron, the city needed not the third-string dragon slayer it had, St. Theodore, but a titan among saints. And so was born a masterstroke of shadow politics unrivaled in medieval history: In 828, presumably on the orders of the doge, two Venetian merchants named Bono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello stole the remains of St. Mark from his tomb in Alexandria or, some say, conned it from the possession of local priests. Returning to their ship, the conspirators put the saint's remains in a basket, covering them with pork to discourage official entanglements. When Muslim port authorities stopped the thieves and peered into the basket, they recoiled in disgust, crying "Kanzir! Kanzir!"—"pig" in Arabic—and commanded the Venetians to hurry along. On the voyage home, legend tells us, a tempest blew up off the Greek coast. St. Mark, his remains lashed to the mast, quieted the storm, saving the vessel. However embroidered by legend, this brazen theft of the Evangelist's relics gave the fledgling republic a spiritual cachet matched in all of Latin Christendom only by that of St. Peter's Rome. This extraordinary coup set in motion brilliant successes that brought forth a Venetian superpower.
From the earliest days of the Republic, "St. Mark was the flag of Venice," Gherardo Ortalli, a medievalist at the University of Venice and a leading expert on St. Mark, told me. "I don't think there are other examples of saints who were so important politically. Wherever Venice left her imprint, you find Mark's lion—in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Alexandria. On the old Venetian gold coin, the ducato, St. Mark offers the flag of Venice to the doge."
And what of the saint's relics? Are the remains entombed in the sarcophagus in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice really his? What of the skull in Alexandria that the Coptic Church claims belongs to the saint? What of the relic, possibly a bone fragment, said to be Mark's, given to Egypt by the Vatican in 1968, in effect as an apology for the ninth-century theft? Are any of these relics, including that tiny piece of bone in the church in Kerala attributed to Thomas, genuine?
"It's not important if they have the real bones or not," Ortalli said, "because in the Middle Ages they had a very different mentality. You could have 50 fingers of a saint. It wasn't a problem."
For scientists, nonbelievers, many believers, and perhaps for the forensic Thomas, 50 fingers of the same saint is a problem. Even the Catholic Church calls in pathologists to examine, date, and preserve relics in the church's possession. Based in Genoa, Ezio Fulcheri is a devout Catholic and trained pathologist who has worked on church relics for decades. He has studied and preserved the remains of many saints, including John of the Cross and Clare of Assisi, a friend of St. Francis's. "Whenever we can find a relic that is clearly not authentic," Fulcheri said, "we acknowledge that. The church does not want false relics to be venerated." But what of those relics, like St. Mark's, that have yet to be tested? Scholars, scientists, and even clerics within the Catholic Church have called, without success, for scientific testing of the remains in Mark's sarcophagus. Clearly the church has little to gain, and quite a bit to lose, by testing bones of such critical importance. In the case of St. Mark, perhaps it's safer not to know—at least for now.
Not all scientists are eager to press too hard on holy relics. Giorgio Filippi, an archaeologist employed by the Vatican, told me he had opposed the recent analysis and dating of Paul's relics in Rome, announced by the pope in 2009. "Curiosity does not justify the research. If the sarcophagus was empty or if you found two men or a woman, what would you hypothesize? Why do you want to open St. Paul's tomb? I didn't want to be present in this operation." The subsequent investigation, through a finger-size hole drilled in the sarcophagus, produced a bone fragment the size of a lentil, grains of red incense, a piece of purple linen with gold sequins, and threads of blue fabric. Independent laboratory analysis, the church claimed, revealed that they dated to the first or second century. Not conclusive, but better news for the faithful than if they had hailed from the fourth century. The first-century date would mean the bones could be those of St. Paul. Until science advances to the point that testing can reveal fine details such as that the person was short, bald, and from Tarsus—Paul's presumed birthplace on the Turkish coast—we're not likely to get much closer to the truth.
Mark's bones aside, I asked Ortalli if the pious of Venice pray to their patron saint.
"It's better to pray to the Virgin or to Christ," he said. "St. Mark is more complicated. Apart from the basilica, it is difficult to find a place to light a candle to St. Mark. He is many things, but you don't go to St. Mark with a candle." In Catholic and Orthodox churches believers often light candles to accompany prayers to the saints, mounting them before favored icons or statues. "St. Mark is part of [a Venetian's] identity," Ortalli continued. "It's something in your bones—you have two feet, and you have St. Mark. When older people are drunk on the street late at night, they often sing, 'Viva Venezia, viva San Marco, viva le glorie del nostro leon.' Venice was constructed with a soul in which St. Mark is the center."
When the Venetian Republic was finally dissolved under Napoleon, the cry of mourning and defiance on the streets was not "Viva la libertà" or "Viva la repubblica" but "Viva San Marco."
THE PASSIONATE MYSTIC
East of Aix-en-Provence, in the face of a broad, forested massif overlooking a high plain, lies the cave of Sainte-Baume. Here, according to Roman Catholic tradition, Mary Magdalene spent the last 30 years of her life. From the parking lot, a steep hike through the forest brings you to the cave and a small, adjoining monastery. On a clear June morning the cave's interior was noticeably colder than the air outside. In the candlelight a stone altar glowed in the center of the grotto, and statues of Mary Magdalene were visible in the cave's irregular corners. Two relics of the saint—a lock of hair and the presumed end of a tibia, dark with age, lay in a gilded reliquary.
I later spoke with Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Christian origins at the University of Notre Dame. Moss has a particular interest in early martyrs; I asked if work had been done on the psychology of relics. "People have looked at relics as part of a grieving process," she said. "When my mother died, they offered each of us a piece of her hair to keep, and we all did. So I think anyone who has ever mourned would understand why you would fixate on things associated with someone you loved. Even more so in small Christian communities. The appeal was of a person in your midst, with whom you could have direct contact after his or her death."
In the cave of Sainte-Baume I sat in a rear pew during Mass, joined by a handful of pilgrims and a large group of cheerful French middle schoolers, arms crossed against the cold. Later, Fathers Thomas Michelet and François Le Hégaret led vespers. Sitting near me was Angela Rinaldi, a former pilgrim and a resident of the area since 2001. Rinaldi first came to the site with her companion at that time, a modern shaman drawn to Sainte-Baume not for its Catholic significance but for its reputation among shamans and New Age practitioners. Local tradition holds that the cave long ago served as a shrine for pagan fertility rites and endures as a pilgrimage site for those seeking feminine spirituality. The Catholic faith of Rinaldi's childhood eventually reasserted itself, and she began to help out at the small bookshop.
I asked how her perception of Mary had shifted while she'd been at Sainte-Baume. "In the beginning," she said, "I compared myself a lot to her … My life before was a constant seeking for something different, for something else. For a great love—not just love coming from another person but a love which can only come, I believe, from a spiritual dimension.
"There is some sort of force everywhere in this forest—not just in the cave. It has nothing to do with the representation of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel. It's an energy which makes you stand up afterward." She paused. "I don't know how to explain it," she said, laughing. "There is a silence in the cave which is full of life."
The cave has been cared for by the Dominican Order since 1295. Earlier in the day I visited with Michelet and Le Hégaret over lunch in the monastery's simple, beautifully antique dining room. Through its open leaded windows, from the monastery's great height upon the cliff face, the forest and the plain below could be seen for miles during breaks in the fog.
"After the Virgin Mary," Michelet said, "Mary Magdalene is the most important woman in the New Testament. And yet we speak of her very little. It's too bad, as many could be touched by this woman, who was a sinner and who was chosen by Christ as the first witness of his resurrection. He didn't choose an Apostle or the Virgin Mary. He chose Mary Magdalene. Why? Perhaps because she was the first to ask forgiveness. It was not yet the hour of Peter," he said, referring to Peter's rise to fame as a miracle worker and the founder of the Catholic Church. "It was the hour of Mary Magdalene."
The significance of this moment in the New Testament when she first witnessed the risen Christ has been debated for centuries. In the Gospel of John, three days after Christ's burial Mary Magdalene went first to the sepulchre, "while it was still dark," and found that the stone covering it had been moved. She ran to find the disciples, who returned with her and saw that the tomb was empty. "Then the disciples went away again to their own homes," reads the scripture. "But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping." She stayed, as she had remained at the foot of the cross. When she peered again into the sepulchre, she saw two angels where the body of Christ had rested. "Woman, why are you weeping?" they asked her. "Because they have taken away my Lord," she said, "and I do not know where they have laid him." And then, the Gospel says, the risen Christ appeared to her.
Such tenacity would have served her well if she did indeed spend three decades in the cold and damp of the Provence cave. "This is known as a place of penitence," Le Hégaret said. "In winter it's austere. Very few people come up to the cave. The road is frozen for weeks. There is a great simplicity here." He chuckled. "There is a proverb among the brothers of Provence: At Sainte-Baume either you go crazy, or you become a saint." With Christian Vacquié, the warden responsible for the ancient forest at Sainte-Baume, I visited a much smaller cave in the same massif that had contained the remains of Neanderthals from 150,000 years ago. This cave and others nearby have a distinctly female-reproductive organ shape, leading some to believe that they were fertility-cult sites in prehistoric times. One can imagine barren Neanderthals performing fertility rituals many tens of thousands of years before the arrival of Mary Magdalene.
Protected by the state and cherished for its rich biological diversity, the forest itself has long been held sacred. "There was once a priest at the grotto," Vacquié told me with a grin, "who said that while he was Mary Magdalene's majordomo, I was her gardener." The forest and local caves are still believed to have a strong connection to fecundity, and women have come here for millennia to pray for children. To this day some women even rub their abdomens against the statues of Mary Magdalene as they pray. This physicality is not encouraged by the church, Le Hégaret told me, but it's difficult to prevent. On the walls of the cave are notes and plaques of gratitude in many languages. "Thank you Saint Mary Magdalene for healing my daughter," reads one in French dated October 1860. Another reads simply, "Merci pour Marion."
The Dominicans manage a hostel on the plain at the foot of the massif, the Hôtellerie de la Sainte-Baume, receiving pilgrims, students, scholars, and other travelers. There I spoke with Marie-Ollivier Guillou, a novitiate and former sailor who served four years as a priest on French submarines, including Le Terrible, before being transferred here two years ago. "For me," he said, "Mary Magdalene is the saint of love. She was a very courageous woman. She was one of the few who stayed at the Crucifixion. Most of the others ran for their lives, but Mary Magdalene stayed at the foot of the cross, ready to die for Christ. In this sense she is the model for the religious life."
Near the end of my time at Sainte-Baume I went back into the cave and climbed the short flight of steps to the rise of stone on which legend says Mary Magdalene slept; it's the only spot in the cave that remains dry. The last of the other visitors had left; fog rolled through the open doorway. Standing in the shadows, I reached through the grating and pressed my hand against the stone. The grotto was perfectly silent, save for the faintest occasional drip in the cistern, the same ancient spring that would have supplied the saint with fresh water.
When I had suggested to Thomas Michelet that Mary Magdalene may never have come to Provence, he replied in a matter-of-fact tone, "There was a priest who lived here at the cave for decades. He said that while it's impossible to know if Mary Magdalene truly came here in the first century, that certainty was of less importance. She's here now."