The human head as such
The theme of this presentation [at Hunter College in November 2006] is the special power of the human head even when unconnected to or detached from the body. The subtext of this talk is the current Metropolitan Museum exhibition and the related symposium. However, the ideas presented are ones that I have been meditating on for some time.
A. ALEXANDER RELIQUARY [and STAVELOT TRIPTYCH]
Both these superb examples of Mosan art come from the Imperial Abbey of Stavelot in Belgium during the time of Abbot Wibald (r. 1130-1158). A close confidant of three Ottonian Emperors, he traveled to Italy. Later he twice went to Constantinople. On the first trip he presumably acquired the Alexander relic, and probably others, while the two tiny Byzantine cross relics, enshrined in the triptych must come from the East. Alexander, the fifth pope after St. Peter, died in the early second century CE.
Together with the lost retable of St. Remacle, the two pieces are thought to come from the same workshop.
The Alexander head is in silver repoussé. That is, the artist first carved the likeness of a human head from wood, a material that is both malleable and robust, allowing for precise rendering of the hollows and protuberances of the head. Then a silver plate was hammered onto the matrix. Chasing was employed to remove joints and minor imperfections.
Before the head was attached to the base, a cavity was carved within. When it was acquired by the Musées Royaux d’art et d’histoire in Brussels in 1860, the interior was opened. Therein was found a papyrus indicating that the relics were placed within it at the time of dedication, on Good Friday of 1145. In addition the papyrus gives a remarkable inventory of the relics housed by the head: a fragment of the skull of St. Alexander, a blood-stained piece of the garment he was wearing at the time of his death; a bit of the stone on which Jesus stood at the time of his baptism, some hairs from the beard of St. Peter, portions of the body of SS. Agapitus and Crispin (both martyrs), a fragment of the table that figured in the Last Supper, a bit of the sponge used at the Crucifixion, a fragment of the Holy Sepulcher, a fragment of the rock on which Jesus stood before his Ascension, and bits of the skeletons of the martyrs of the Theban Legion and of some of the eleven thousand Virgins who accompanied St. Ursula.
This list is almost beyond belief. It covers all bases, animal, vegetable, and mineral. One has to ask how could a mere life-style head contain so much material. The account doesn’t say so, but presumably some items were lodged in the coffin-shaped base.
As is usually the case, the worshipper could not see the items lodged within. There is no room for a doubting Thomas here. These items were not souvenirs. Instead, each one had a particular potency—it was radioactive, as it were.
This belief rests upon two stages of the cult of relics. First, it was thought that the martyrs, especially those that had perished in the city of Rome, were so charismatic that special effulgences proceded from their remains. It was not always possible to gain access to the body. For Jesus and Mary, there was no body. In such instances it was thought that something that had come into intimate contact with these holy persons would have the same effect. Hence the interest in acquiring the crown of thorns (kept in the St. Chapelle), the Holy Cross (fragments kept all over), and the Virgin’s tunic (the proud possession of the Cathedral of Chartres).
By the sixth century it was recognized that the city of Rome had almost a monopoly on these remains, at least in the West. In transalpine Europe a clamor arose for the papacy to share the wealth. Naturally, they were reluctant to part with whole bodies, seeking to satisfy the petitioners with a brandeum, a strip of cloth that had touched the martyrs’ remains and therefore acquired its beneficent radioactivity. Such gifts were not enough to supply the demand, and an illicit trade in stolen bodies (the Furta Sacra) developed.
Eventually the authorities hit upon an ingenious solution. Since the charisma of the martyred saint inhered in the entire body, why not offer a fragment—a finger, a hand, or in exceptional cases a cranium, or some portion thereof. This is how Wibald acquired his bit of St. Alexander’s skull, together with the fragments of the bodies of other martyrs. The other items were presumably acquired in the Greek East during the Abbot’s two visits there.
Very odd, or is it? Yet there are many contemporary parallels, as seen in the incident a half-century ago when Bobby Soxers tore off the tee-shirt of singer Fabian, almost injuring him in the process. From time to time we hear of sales of celebrity memorabilia. Sometimes these are acquired as investments. In other instances the purchaser may caress or wear the object in the belief that somehow contact is being made with the departed.
Returning to the Middle Ages, let us draw the inevitable conclusion. After death the physical head of St. Alexander, separated from its body by the executioner’s sword, would have had great potency. How much greater potency then the artificial head, since it joined to the two Alexander elements, various other potent items, four of them bearing the special residues of being touched by Christ himself. This reliquary was not an atomic bomb, but a hydrogen bomb—in a good way, of course.
The Alexander head was made ex novo. As we indicated, body cannibalism had become prevalent as early as Merovingian times. In many cases, though, the head was obligingly severed by the execution. The case of John the Baptist, of whom there were three separate head-findings: Jerusalem, Emesa, and Cumana. After 1204 the Cumana head was transferred to Amiens. The present Cathedral, whose construction (after the fire of 1211) was spurred by the precious head, is a kind of gigantic reliquary. (Slide).
B. The beheading of Saint Denis in Montmartre had a memorable sequel. The saint, dissatisfied with his place of execution, picked up his own severed head and carried it some miles to the West, where in due course the present basilica was erected. In fact there are scores of these cephalophoric (head-bearing) saints.
C. Other beheadings include the case of the column statues in the West front of the Abbey of St. Denis. Six heads have survived, the bodies not. Did this occur (as is often assumed) at the mob attack in 1789? It has recently been suggested that the dismemberment occurred during a “benign” restoration of 1771.
D. The Egyptian substitute heads of the Old Kingdom offer an interesting parallel. Many show signs of mutilation in the form of small holes, perhaps to prevent them from doing harm. It is interesting that the ancient Egyptians invented both the theme of the separate head and the bust (the Ankh-haf in Boston being the earliest suviving example of the latter).
E. My interest in this overall question began a number of years ago when I investigated the iconography of Orpheus. As far as we can tell, Orpheus’ original role seems to be as an inspired singer with magical powers. He could calm the beasts and even, on occasion, cause trees to move. He could enrapture men, causing them to do things they might not otherwise have been. In later antiquity this magical charisma was transformed, making him the founder of a religion known as Orphism. The myth enjoyed a notable revival in the Renaissance, at which time the tragic story of Eurydice becomes central. Note the appropriation by Politian and early opera. In ancient times the Euridice story was part of a diptych. The second phase occurred after he moved to Thrace and began his “Mark Foley” career, seeking to seduce young men, some of whom were married. Hence the murderous anger of the Thracian maenads.
After his lynching and dismemberment, the head floated away, still singing. It was found by the people of Lesbos, who erected a shrine. In antiquity visitors could still hear it faintly singing. Seemingly, these postmortem utterances, transcribed, are the basis for the Orphic hymns..
F. Other speaking heads include the one in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” an English poem of the fourteenth century. After Gawain severs the head, the knight promptly picks it up, and the head speaks, reminding Gawain of his promise. The Green Man images may be connected with this. An allegory of nature’s renewal (the Green Man appears at Arthur’s New Year’s festivities).
G. Pope Sylvester II (d. 1003) was supposed to have created a magical head, la Meridiana, which could answer questions—“yes” and “no” only.
H. There is a magical head towards the end of Part II of Cervantes' Don Quijote. Don Antonio Moreno, a wealthy citizen of Barcelona, befriends the knight. He conducts him to a room in his house displaying a bronze bust, in the style of a Roman Emperor, which will answer questions. It never does so on Friday, so they must return the next day. This hoax is carried out through a speaking tube leading to a chamber immediately below. (The motif has been traced to an earlier French romance, Valentin et Orson.)
The head of Medusa was efficacious in a different way—generally a negative one, for seeing her head would turn the unfortunate viewer to stone. Some classical references describe her as one of three Gorgon sisters. Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale were monsters with brass hands, sharp fangs and hair of living, venomous snakes. The Gorgons and their other sisters the Graiae (and possibly the Hesperides), and their brother Ladon were children of Phorcys and Ceto, or sometimes, Typhon and Echidna.
In a late version of the Medusa tale (related by the Roman poet Ovid) Medusa was originally a beautiful woman. She had sex with — or was raped by — Poseidon in Athena's temple. Upon discovery of the desecration of her temple, Athena changed Medusa's form to match that of her sister Gorgons as punishment. Medusa's hair turned into snakes and her glance would turn all living creatures to stone. More ancient Greek writers imagined Medusa and her sisters as beings born of monstrous form.
While Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon, she was beheaded in her sleep by the hero Perseus who was sent to fetch her head by King Polydectes of Seriphus. With help from Athena and Hermes, who supplied him with winged sandals, Hades' cap of invisibility, a sickle, and a mirrored shield, he accomplished his quest. The hero slew Medusa by looking at her reflection in the mirror instead of directly at her to prevent being turned into stone. When the hero severed Medusa's head, from her neck two offspring sprang forth: the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor. Perseus used Medusa's head to rescue Andromeda, kill Polydectes, and, in some versions, petrify the Titan Atlas. When he flew over the Sahara desert, the drops of her blood that fell turned into venomous snakes, and when he placed her head on a riverbank, coral was first made from the seaweed or reeds her head had touched. Then he gave it to Athena, who placed it on her shield Aegis. Some say the goddess gave Medusa's magical blood to the physician Asclepius, some of which was a deadly poison and the other had the power to raise the dead. (there is a monograph by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1936!). Folklore and fairy tale elements are salient in all this material.
Early Greek art offers interesting evidence, such as a Protoattic amphora from Eleusis with blinding of Polyphemus above, and beheading of Medusa below (two spheres attacked). The skeleton of a 10-year old child was found within. The Corfu pediment shows two offspring, but Perseus rendering has not been found. This sculptural monument may stem from from a pro-Medusa faction that believed that she had the offspring without being beheaded.
Later art shows notable examples by Cellini, Caravaggio, and Rubens.
I. The apogee of the head as such occurred in the work of the Symbolist artists, especially Redon and Moreau. Redon’s fascination with spherical forms is well known. (For further information see the material provided in other contributions at this site.)
Late offshoots of this tradition appear in the work of Brancusi.