Friday, January 9, 2009


René Descartes, after Franz Hals.
I am reading Russell Shorto’s fascinating book , Descartes Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, in which the fate and travels and travails of the actual skull of Descartes become emblematic for the dialectic between Faith and Reason that informs much of western thought over the past 400 years. I am not giving the story away to say that Descartes – who died in 1640 and was originally buried in Sweden – did not have an a especially peaceful journey to his final (so far) resting place in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris (the skull that is, the body resides at Saint- Germain-des-Prés.).
It is of course interesting that the relics of the Father of Rationalism should have followed a path similar to that of so many early saints (as well as Abelard and Heloise who were moved and re-buried no less than 8 times, but neither of them were saints).
Saint Gudula, for instance. The high point of her life seems to have been a certain walk she took one evening with a lantern that went out and then miraculously re-lit itself when she prayed. Hence she is often portrayed with a lantern and a fiendish devil trying to blow it out.

By Bernard van Orley (1487-1541) or one of his followers. Saint Gudula is the one on the right, holding the lantern; the devil lurks behind her skirts.
Gudula was buried in 712 in Hamme, which is near Brussels. About a hundred years later, at Charlemagne’s behest - he was devoted to her - her body was moved to the Church of Saint Sauveur in Mozelle; sometime later the church’s name was changed to Saint Gudula. Next thing we know, around 978 the Normans (rough fellows) destroyed the church BUT the Duke of Lorraine managed to rescue Saint Gudula’s weary bones and translated them to the church of Saint Géry in Brussels. Not much later, in 1047, the relics were translated, again, to the church of Saint Michael and the name of the church was changed to Saint Gudule.
The church of Saint Michael and Gudula is still in Brussels. You can attend Mass there on a Sunday morning and there will be about 4 other people – of the elderly inclination – scattered about the vast nave.
I have no idea why or how Gudula’s skull got to Germany, but that’s where it is, in the church of Saint Hildegard in Elbingen.

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