Dogs, Missions, and Holy Relics

Monastery’s Famed Rescue Dogs Rescued

Many animals have been associated with theology—the lamb, the lion, the fish, the pelican (believed to feed its young with its own blood)—but one of the most prominent pets with roots in church history is the Saint Bernard. Reportedly bred first around 1660 as guard dogs for the monastery and hospice founded six centuries earlier by Bernard of Menthon (Monthen/ Montjou/ Aotha/ Montjoux), they gained a reputation as rescuers, credited with more than 2,000 saves over the past two centuries. One dog saved more than 40 people between 1800 and 1812.

Recently, however, the dogs (now 18 adults and 16 pups) themselves needed rescue: “We no longer have the money to breed and care for these marvelous dogs,” the monastery’s Father Ilario told The Times of London last year. The animals eat more than four pounds of meat a day, and helicopters and other technology have put them out of the rescue business since 1975. So in January, Swiss philanthropists announced that they would grant the monks more than $4 million to care for the animals and to build a museum honoring them and the monastery’s longtime hospitality.

Such tourism with a spiritual twist is consistent with Bernard’s history: after his appointment as Archdeacon of Aosta, Italy, Bernard was largely focused on converting Alpine people. He soon became concerned about reports of French and German pilgrims trapped by avalanches as they traveled to Rome. The four monks who remain at the monastery he founded for their safety say their pleas for help were largely driven by a desire to spend more time ministering to modern-day pilgrims and less to the canines.

Attack on the Missions

A suit from Americans United for Separation of Church and State challenges a $10 million federal matching grant to rehabilitate the deteriorating buildings of California’s 21 Spanish missions, 19 of which still have active congregations. In unrelated news, Los Angeles County redesigned its seal to remove a cross from the mission depicted on it. But church and state have been intertwined with the missions since their founding.

Spread along 600 miles of what was then El Camino Real, the missions from Mission San Diego de Alcalá (founded by Junípero Serra in 1769) to Sonoma’s Mission San Francisco Solano (1823) are set about 30 miles apart, “a stiff day’s march,” for the benefit of Spain’s colonizers, not the native Americans. There’s no doubt, though, that Serra’s foremost concerns were for conversion not colonization. “It seemed to me that [the native residents] would fall shortly into the apostolic and evangelic net,” he wrote. After 65 years, when the missions were ordered to secularize, 31,000 converts were living among the missions, along with fewer than 60 padres and 300 soldiers.

Bernardino, Naturally

That painting you've seen of Augustine or Patrick may be beautiful, but it’s probably not very accurate: imagination and devotion, not historical fidelity, were foremost in artists’ minds. Many saints weren’t depicted until centuries after their deaths. But one anonymous engraving from the 1400s took a decidedly different turn. An unknown German engraver shows Bernardino of Siena (1380–1444), the Franciscan “Apostle of Italy,” as he appeared in life-and Bernardino’s death mask proves it. The engraving is the first known Western artwork to take such care in portraying its subject as he appeared, Andrew Robison told the Associated Press. Robison is senior curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the print is on display through May. Another item in the “Six Centuries of Prints and Drawings” exhibit has a similar place in history: a 1486 book from Mainz, Germany, has the first—known realistic print of an identifiable building. A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land’s image of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher looks much as it did in the 15th century.

John and Gregory Go Home

Just months after returning a revered icon to the Russian Orthodox Church (see issue 84, p. 9), Pope John Paul II has made a return on a much larger scale, handing over the relics of John Chrysostom (347–407) and Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389) to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, leader of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Both saints, predecessors to Bartholomew as leader of the church in Constantinople, are considered among the best preachers and theologians of the early church (See Issue 44: John Chrysostom).

As with the return of the Kazan Madonna icon to Moscow, what was intended to repair relations between East and West became instead a point of contention. The Eastern Orthodox say that both relics were stolen during the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople in 1204. The Vatican acknowledges that “in the time of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204–1258), the venerated relics were brought to Rome,” but papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro—Valls says that Gregory’s remains were taken to Rome by Byzantine nuns “in the 8th century, at the time of the Iconoclastic persecution, so that they could be kept safe.” While the Pope apologized for the sack of Constantinople in 2001, Navarro-Valls says the relic handover should be seen as a “return, not restitution.”

Britain, Bibleland?

Travel to the Holy Land is slowly picking up again, but those still skittish about going there have a backup opportunity: London. Specifically, the British Museum, with two 2004 books highlighting special Bible-related artifacts among its massive holdings. The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence, by the museum’s former keeper of western Asiatic antiquities, T. C. Mitchell, is for scholars and those with a serious interest in the museum’s literary holdings. The book, recently published in a new, illustrated edition by Paulist Press, includes translations of 72 documents, from the Patriarchs to the early church. More casual visitors will be well served by Day One’s Through the British Museum with the Bible (dayone.co.uk/travel-guides.htm, 1-866-732-6657). The illustrated volume serves as guide and souvenir akin to DK’s Eyewitness Travel Guides. And if you’re heading across the Atlantic, note that Day One has seven other excellent “in the footsteps” travel guides/biographies that steer visitors through the locations and lives of William Carey, John Knox, John Bunyan, C.H. Spurgeon, William Booth, William Grimshaw, and even Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

New Roman Font

Gary Lee and Jim Wilkinson were metal detecting in a farmer’s field in Lincolnshire, England, when they picked up the weak signal of what turned out to be a Christian baptismal font from the Constantinian period. Only 18 such fonts have been discovered in Britain, and this one, probably made in the East Midlands between 300 and 350, is among the oldest. Little is known for certain about the prevalence of Christianity in Britain at the time, but there was enough of a presence for at least three British bishops to attend the Council of Arles in 314.

The real significance of the font find, however, lies not in how it was made, but in how it was destroyed. The lead font is cut in two, suggesting that it was destroyed in a pagan revival during the reign of Emperor Julian the Apostate (361–363).

"It is likely the fonts were destroyed by the barbarians to mask the memory, power, and symbolism of Christianity,” Adam Daubney, Finds Liaison Officer for the Lincolnshire County Council, told The Lincolnshire Echo. “However, the pagans would not have wanted to annihilate the artifacts. It would be much better to cut them up and re-melt them.” Daubney postulates that the pagans hid it but never got a chance to reclaim it once the Barbarian Conspiracy (367—379) was quelled and Christianity grew.

Marsden, Pelikan Honored

Two of the most prominent historians of Christianity received top honors in December 2004. Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville awarded University of Notre Dame professor George Marsden its $200,000 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his 2003 biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press). “Marsden draws one into a fascinating and conflict-ridden world that seems, at once, both distant and not so very different from our own,” award coordinator Susan R. Garrett said in a press release.

Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan was awarded an even larger prize: the Library of Congress’s second John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences. He shares the $1 million award, which honors academic disciplines not covered by the Nobel Prizes, with French philosopher Paul Ricoeur.

"Pelikan single-handedly brought the Eastern or Orthodox tradition into the hitherto largely Western story of Christian tradition,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said. He also quoted one of Pelikan’s colleagues saying he “provides a supremely effective antidote to the temptation to murder our own past.”

By Compiled by Ted Olsen

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #85 in 2005]

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