Possessing the Sacred:
Monarchy and Identity in Philip II's Relic Collection at the Escorial*
Guy Lazure
University of Windsor
Abstract

Traditionally, Philip II's massive relic collection preserved in the palace-monastery of the Escorial has been interpreted as a testimony to the Spanish king's devotion to the cult of saints, and a proof of his support for the principles of the Tridentine Church. This essay explores some of Philip II's more political and symbolic uses of relics, and studies their role in the construction of a monarchical, spiritual, and national identity in sixteenth-century Spain.

1. Introduction

The most famous anecdote about King Philip II (1527–98) and his passion for relics is the one told by the Hieronymite friar José de Sigüenza (1544–1606) in his famous history of the foundation of the Escorial, included in his monumental Historia de la Orden de San Jerónimo (1605).1 Sitting up day and night at her father's bedside during his never-ending agony, the Infanta Isabela Clara Eugenia had devised a trick to keep him awake and lucid so he could fight off the forces of evil and welcome death with open eyes and a cleansed soul. Knowing his love for [End Page 58] relics, whenever she sensed that pain was overtaking him and saw that he was losing consciousness, she would take a severe tone and shout: "Don't touch the relics!", as if someone had entered the room and approached the collection kept on his bedside table. Immediately the dying monarch would open his eyes and look around to see if anyone threatened his cherished treasures.2

As the official chronicler and theoretician of the Escorial, Sigüenza is the person who perhaps best captures the essence of Philip II's political and religious project. He conveys the building's profound symbolic nature in a powerful and evocative narrative which gradually established itself as the canonical interpretation of the Escorial. According to Sigüenza, the king knew his relic collection so well that, when the keeper of the relics (Sigüenza himself) came to present him with small reliquary altars during his final illness, Philip knew when the monk had omitted to have him kiss every single relic and immediately called him to task. According to Sigüenza's testimony, when the king went to the Escorial in his healthier years he would frequently inspect his relics and jealously watch over them, harassing the keeper with questions and taking pleasure in constantly reordering them.3 The sovereign's love for this collection went so far that, in an effort to imitate the holy martyrs and transfer their thaumaturgic power to his own person, he asked, during his final days, to have relics corresponding to his aching limbs directly applied to his open wounds. He claimed that the presence as well as the contact with a part of Saint Sebastian's knee, one of Saint Alban's ribs, or the arm of Saint Vincent Ferrer, soothed his pains and helped him prepare for the sufferings to come.4 Thus it could be said that, while mapping a geography of royal suffering, the relics of the Escorial were thought to contribute to the regeneration of the king's body.

The obvious apologetic and hagiographic intentions that lay behind these stories should not stop us from believing that Philip II's passion for relics reflected his genuine belief in their efficacy. He did, after all, credit the relics of the monk San Diego de Alcalá with saving his heir don Carlos from a nearly fatal head injury, and he did resort to what we would call today "clinically tested and proven" relics to cure his bouts of gout.5 But this does not necessarily mean that Philip II was uncritical when it came to [End Page 59] relics. He knew full well that a good number of the relics that were sent to him were probably fake. When one day his secretary Cristóbal de Moura suggested manufacturing relics in order to bribe a courtier, the king answered: "there shouldn't be any shortage of relics and head bones there [in the Escorial] or anywhere else, so that it won't be necessary to forge some, something I found quite amusing even if I do believe that those that are brought from Germany, or at least a good number of them, are indeed counterfeit."6 Furthermore, as Philip II himself contended, it was not so much the authenticity of the relic that mattered as it was the devotion that one had for the saint represented by it: "They won't fool us; we don't lose our merit before God by revering his saints in bones, even if they are not theirs."7 Such circumspection forces us to search beyond the simplistic portrayal of Philip as an obsessively pious and devout Catholic king. In view of the considerable amount of time, energy, and money invested over the course of his life in building up his collection, we cannot help but [End Page 60] question the role played by relics and the place given to them in the conceptual architecture of his monarchy's most emblematic monument.

The image of Philip II dying in the Escorial in 1598 while surrounded by an army of relics has powerfully shaped our perception of the monarch as a zealous defender of Catholicism and as a champion of the Counter-Reformation.8 Claimed by his advocates as well as by his detractors — either to illustrate his devotion to the saints or to prove his idolatry and his superstition — this aspect of the Spanish king's already complex and mysterious personality has persistently puzzled historians for the past four centuries. So far, the few studies dedicated to the king's impressive collection of nearly 7,500 relics, gathered (starting in the 1570s) from the four corners of Europe, have only served to demonstrate and reaffirm his profound respect for the Catholic Church and the cult of saints, as well as his wholehearted support for the principles of the Council of Trent.9 Even by those who have pondered the signification of the immense ex voto that is the Escorial, and who have tried to understand the motivations underlying its construction, the theme of relics has been treated in a rather conventional way: as the epitome of the Counter-Reformist or Tridentine nature of the monument and its builder.10

This article will demonstrate how the acquisition, display, and use of these sacred objects expressed not just religious and devotional, but also specifically royal, needs. Its aim is to sketch some of the functions Philip II attributed to relics, and to study their role in the construction of a monarchical, spiritual, and national identity in sixteenth-century Spain: first as a foundation for the legitimacy of the Spanish monarchy, and second, as a tool for the formation of a collective identity through the Christian past. Through each of these representations, or incarnations, the King of Spain manifested his desire to sacralize the three pillars upon which his temporal power rested: dynasty, faith, and knowledge. Such a concentration of sanctity in a single space leads us to envision the Escorial as the ultimate [End Page 61] synthesis and grandiose embodiment of Philip's combined religious and political aims, in keeping with traditional historiography — though for altogether different reasons. Thus, if we consider the relic no longer as a mere object or vessel to express one's devotion, but rather as an active instrument of a broader rhetoric of power, as a tool for shaping the king's image and that of the (relatively new) Habsburg dynasty, the incredible thirst for the sacred that animated the Catholic monarch throughout his life and pushed him to erect such a gigantic dynastic reliquary suddenly takes on an entirely different meaning. Indeed, Philip II's collection of relics — a term that did not exclusively refer to bones of saints, but which could also apply to a variety of sacralized objects — served to establish his authority as a Christian ruler, and helped him project a coherent image of himself and his monarchy to contemporaries and to posterity.

2.Monarchy and Relics: The Foundations of a New Power

When he came to power in 1556, Philip II inherited an empire exhausted by incessant wars. Although no one challenged his succession to the crown, it seemed natural that after as decisive a reign as that of his father, the new sovereign would have to establish a certain credibility, inside as well as outside of Spain. His victory in 1557 over the French at Saint Quentin gave him the military legitimacy necessary to build his own reputation. This was essential for the son of an emperor who, in good medieval fashion, had earned his glory on the battlefields of Europe. Yet Philip II never became a great warrior himself. The young king quickly adopted a governing style different from that of his father, looking for new weapons with which to establish his authority. Print was one such tool available to Renaissance princes for their rhetorical arsenals. Relics were another. Brought up in a textual and visual culture filled with emblems and allegories, Philip II quickly showed himself extremely receptive to the impact of symbols and images. The collecting of relics thus fit perfectly within such an elaborate system of propaganda.11 [End Page 62]

Relics first served as a foundation for the symbolic legitimacy of the new ruler. The palace-monastery of the Escorial, created to commemorate the Saint Quentin victory and the resulting peace of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), was quite naturally founded under the patronage of Saint Lawrence, whose feast day was celebrated on the day of the battle. Another reason for such a dedication, which is noted by Sigüenza but appears to have escaped the attention of historians, is that the Escorial was first and foremost meant to be a "temple of peace," with Philip II as its prince. Indeed, we learn from Sigüenza that Saint Lawrence has been considered the patron of peace between Christians ever since the Emperor Constantine sealed the union of Rome with Christianity by constructing a temple dedicated to him.12 Thus, if the king strove to gather every relic of the Spanish-born saint in an effort to piece together Saint Lawrence's entire body, it was not only to show gratitude for his military victory, but also to appropriate the saint's pacifying and unifying virtues.

Sigüenza notes yet another reason for the construction of the Escorial: Philip II's desire to erect a mausoleum where his body and those of the other Spanish Habsburgs could rest for all eternity.13 In Spain as in many other European countries, a dynasty often derived its legitimacy from sacralization through the physical juxtaposition of royal and holy bodies in a genuine communion of saints. As royal secretary Antonio Gracián writes in the case of the Escorial, "Saints and kings rest in this church or, to put it best, both saints and kings. Because the saint reigns with God and the king, who serves him in his office, is himself a saint."14 Thus, by treating the bodies of his father and family as holy relics to be transferred to the pantheon of the Escorial and placed directly under the basilica's main altar — a space usually reserved for saints — Philip II wished to appropriate the entire spiritual legacy of the Habsburgs as a cornerstone for his [End Page 63] still somewhat precarious authority.15 According to Stephanie Schrader, "Philip's treatment of Charles as a relic further enables him to co-opt Charles's life for his own glory. With Charles's sacred remains under his dominion, Philip capitalized on Charles's religious sanctity to strengthen his reign as the King of Spain."16

As one of Spain's first sedentary kings since the beginning of the Reconquista and the heir to a recently established dynasty, the young monarch sought to materialize his authority by carving it in stone. Moreover, after all the upheaval and discontent caused by the arrival of a foreign prince — Charles of Ghent (later Charles V: 1500–58) — and his repeated absences from Iberian soil, his son badly needed to be recognized, not so much as King of Spain, but as a Spanish king. By crafting a new Spanish dynastic ideal, Philip sought to bring his subjects to embrace his [End Page 64] rule, to cultivate reverence for his father, and, most important of all, to increase acceptance of his dynasty by inscribing it within a local monarchical tradition. For all these reasons, and in order to express the particular symbiosis between politics and a religion associated with a theocentric notion of monarchy upon which Spanish kings had grounded their power for centuries, Philip II favored continuity and, like many of his predecessors on the throne, chose to build a palace-monastery in which relics, royal household, and dynastic pantheon came together.17

But the use of relics as a tool of government was neither new nor specific to Spain. Political strife between medieval rulers often took the form of struggles for relics, and European princes, whether lay or ecclesiastical, constantly sought to secure the assistance of the holy by concentrating relics in often-new centers of political and religious power. This practice not only represented an effective way of increasing personal prestige and asserting one's authority and legitimacy: with time it came to constitute for kings a perfectly natural, and absolutely essential, means of exercising power. The geographic transfer of relics, therefore, came to represent the symbolic transfer of sovereignty, which allowed for the consolidation and sacralization of dynasties, especially new or recent ones.18 Great medieval relic-holders, such as King Louis IX of France or Emperor Charles IV of Bohemia, fused royalty with religion in a single architectural space to create their monarchy's locus sanctus, the most important spiritual and political location in the kingdom.19 In both cases, the collection of relics and the construction of a chapel directly inside the royal palace to house them — respectively, the Palais de la Cité's Sainte-Chapelle (itself in the shape of a giant reliquary) and Karlstejn Castle — played a central role in sanctifying recently established capitals such as Paris and Prague, and in affirming, consolidating, and reinforcing royal authority.20 Along with Saint-Denis Abbey and Saint-Vitus Cathedral, these palatial chapels also [End Page 65] functioned as sanctuaries for monarchical glorification and dynastic devotion, as relics — bones as well as personal belongings, or regalia — of previous rulers were displayed as part of the crown's inalienable treasure.21 Relics therefore acted as a tangible sign of the divine approbation of these monarchs' rule, justifying their claims to sacral kingship and providing them with both political continuity and legitimacy. By choosing to house his collection of holy bodies in the Escorial, near the newly created capital of Madrid, Philip II fit perfectly into this age-old tradition.22 It is tempting to believe that by reactivating this medieval symbolism the Catholic king meant to present himself as the true heir to the imperial idea, as the defender of the faith and the promoter of a renovatio imperii, a legacy which had escaped him when the title of emperor officially passed from his father to his uncle in 1556.

Philip II, sensing that a solely temporal power remained all too terrestrial — and therefore incomplete — aspired to capture the sacred energy emanating from his relics to consolidate his own personal power.23 Within the Escorial itself, relics were placed right at the symbolic junction of the [End Page 66] religious and the monarchal, the devotional and the ceremonial, the private and the public. Indeed, a great number of them were embedded in a giant two-sided reliquary altarpiece that faced both a passageway leading to the royal apartments and the basilica choir.24 Even in the discursive architecture of José de Sigüenza's history of the Escorial, the description of relics marks the high point of a spiritual itinerary within the walls of the palace-monastery, a physical and spiritual journey that encouraged the visitor-reader to purify his soul as he was progressively lead towards more and more private, sanctified, and inaccessible places.25 Philip II's personal collection of relics was never meant to be seen by his subjects, except on Saint Lawrence's feast day, during which they were on display for the public. The rest of the year, only members of the extended Habsburg family, as well as princes, grandees, courtiers, bishops, ambassadors, and other foreign dignitaries, were allowed to see them.26 The primary value of such a collection is therefore to be sought on a more symbolic level, not unlike the function Philip II and his successors ascribed to works of art. In this regard, relics served as an effective instrument of a no-less-powerful rhetoric of majesty and royal authority that found its most accomplished expression in the Escorial. Also, by once again playing upon properties attributed to relics for centuries, Philip II seized another unique opportunity they offered him: the chance to grant new unity to his realms.

3. History, Books, and Relics: Community and Collection in a Catholic Context

Scholars such as Peter Brown and Patrick Geary have convincingly demonstrated how relics could take on different meanings in different communities, and how they reflected the values that a given society invested in them. Through their presence, relics strengthened the bonds uniting communities, watched over the interests of their owners, guaranteed law and order, and, above all, provided identity and cohesion. When dispossessed of their relics, local populations literally felt powerless and [End Page 67] abandoned.27 In Spain, where the recent political union of the crowns of Castile and Aragon in 1474 had not ended deep-rooted regional allegiances, relics would serve as a powerful instrument of Philip II's ultimately frustrated attempt to fashion a collective identity through a common Christian past. Just as they could help heal the king's material body, they could also contribute to the formation of the monarchy's spiritual body. Already in the 1520s, the identity-giving function of relics had been at play in the conflict that most seriously challenged the authority of the recently-crowned Charles V, the revolt of Castile's comuneros.28 In an isolated episode of this brief but harrowing power struggle between imperial state and municipal government, the custody of a set of relics turned into a significant political issue between the cities of Zamora and Oviedo (which possessed the relics) and the Archbishop of Toledo (who wanted them). Through the control and display of holy bodies, this incident highlights the resistance of cities and local authorities to a centralization of the sacred, in this case to the benefit of Toledo, the crown's largest and most powerful Episcopal see.29

Aware of his father's difficulties when it came to dealing with such tensions between center and periphery, Philip II strove to redefine loyalties and to reconfigure the often conflicting relations between town and crown by fostering a new sense of belonging, organized around two interrelated poles: religion and history. Grasping very early on the binding role that relics could play in the construction of his monarchy, the king strove to achieve the spiritual unification of Spain through the systematic repatriation of every saint that shaped the country's religious history.30 Combined with this relocation of Spanish saints, Philip II also used history to attempt to create a feeling of national unity and to stimulate the sense of divine election already present in sixteenth-century Spanish society.31 For this, he singled out the two elements of Spain's past — faith and the struggle against heresy, the language and discourse of which could be shared by all [End Page 68] Spaniards — most amenable to fashioning a common and unifying identity. And so, after a long period of so-called darkness that had only recently come to a close with the 1492 expulsion of the Muslim invader, history was ripe for rewriting. The reinvention of the Spanish past began with a return to the glorious origins of the country's first evangelization, the Visigothic Hispania Christiana, and to the heroic actions of the saints that had preserved this faith across the centuries.32 Combining religion and history, Christianity and the Spanish character, the antiquities of Spain were, in the latter part of the sixteenth century, chiefly those of its saints. As a tangible link with the past, relics therefore provided an evocative, compelling means of reshaping the Spanish monarchy's relationship to its history and of reweaving a coherent social fabric. As one chronicler puts it, relics had become all the more important since the written memory of Spain's Christian antiquity had all but been lost with the "destruction" wrought by the Moors.33 In such a context, it is easy to see how the recovery of these precious remnants of Spain's unshakable faith could become a priority for Philip II.

If the (re)discovery in the second half of the sixteenth century of relics from the Iberian peninsula's early Christian era tied into a European-wide interest in history and archaeology, it also formed part of the broader context of Catholic responses to the Protestant appropriation of the Christian past.34 This Paleochristian revival was perhaps best illustrated by Cesare Baronio's ambitious Annales ecclesiastici (1588–1607), whose avowed goal was to establish a direct filiation between the primitive and the Tridentine Church, in which the bodies of saints held pride of place as mirrors of the first Christians' sincerity, purity, and perfection.35 According to Trevor Johnson, relics, the "silent symbols of post-Tridentine universalism," then became "invested with multiple meanings as new identities and functions were grafted on to them, representing a process of fabrication of sanctity which satisfied the needs of both Tridentine universalism and [End Page 69] local popular religion."36 As Johnson cogently argues for the case of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Bavaria, relics were primarily used as powerful propaganda tools, essentially to two ends: the refutation of heretics and the construction of a local and national identity. In this spirit, Bavarian princes commissioned an encyclopedia of regional saints that restored what they considered to be historical truth, and created a specific pietas bavarica by tying the cult of saints to their own dynastic pantheon.37

Beyond its obvious religious and militant motivations, Philip II's relic collecting can also be related to the formation of early modern princely cabinets of curiosities.38 Indeed, the Catholic king's collections at the Escorial were formed around the same time as those of some of his Habsburg relatives — such as Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, Archduke Ferdinand II in Innsbruck, and Duke Albert V in Munich — who possessed some of Europe's most impressive Wunderkammern.39 Apart from all [End Page 70] having been gathered between the 1560s and 1580s, these collections shared a similar universalizing, encyclopedic spirit that aimed to encompass the whole of nature's manifestations, covering all areas of human knowledge in order to better understand, master, and order the universe. As art historian Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann persuasively argues, power and collection were intimately linked in early modern Europe, as the latter embodied or materialized the former. And despite that a collection was only meant to be seen by a chosen few — or perhaps for this very reason — it was precisely from such a display that its owner derived his greatness, reputation, and renown.40 According to Peter Parshall, it is clear that aspirations of power lay behind the acquisitive drive of the great Renaissance collections: "To bring the world symbolically under control by accumulating art, artifacts, and naturalia can be understood as a consistent extension of imperial ambition. This motive is implicit in the idea that founding a great collection enhances the magnificence of the collector, expands the realm of his persona, indeed extends his power over the world by drawing it to him."41 In many ways, Philip II's tireless quest for relics of every Spanish saint paralleled the quest for an exhaustive inventory of the world.42 As an encyclopedia of the sacred and a cartography of the early Spanish Church, the king's relic collection at the Escorial resembled various other projects housed in the palace-monastery, most notably its library.43 [End Page 71]

Located at the heart of Philip II's empire, the Escorial, with its relics and its books, was considered by some to be a true "museum of Christendom."44 Clearly the king wanted to unite these two meaningful symbols of power — knowledge and religion — within the walls of his palace and the confines of his monarchy. Just as it appeared vitally important to amass relics to protect them from desecration by the heretics (this was the rationale originally used to bring them into Spain from France, Germany, and Flanders), it seemed equally urgent to accumulate as many books and manuscripts as possible to save them from the Protestants. Actually, Philip II's agents responsible for the purchase and acquisition of relics in Spain and throughout the continent were often the same people who simultaneously hunted down manuscripts and bought rare books for the king's library.45 Already, in the words of secretary Antonio Gracián, a kind of "Noah's Ark" for relics, the Escorial became for court historian Luis Cabrera de Córdoba a "refuge for these books that have fled the countries where Faith and Knowledge are threatened."46 In an implicit parallel with the role attributed to relics, humanist Alonso Chacón told the Catholic king that manuscripts entering the Escorial came to "swell the arsenal of arms and instruments in his struggle for the defense of the Faith."47 The analogy between books and relics would be pushed even further when Philip II conducted a countrywide survey of the holdings of Spain's churches and monasteries to form the treasure of the Escorial, in which he asked his bishops for information about books as well as relics. Even the way books intended for the royal library were referred to was reminiscent of the vocabulary used to describe relics. For instance, in his daybook secretary Antonio Gracián, in charge of overseeing the formation of the [End Page 72] Escorial collections, often discussed both topics jointly, speaking once of "the relics of Saint Isidore's books."48

Moreover, something in the treatment of the Escorial books indicates that their very nature approximated that of relics. Indeed, for many years Philip II kept four precious manuscripts directly within the Escorial's great reliquary, venerating them not only for their great antiquity, but also as family heirlooms, since they had been handed down to him from his aunt, Mary of Hungary, sister of Charles V.49 He did the same with the autograph manuscripts Teresa of Avila bequeathed him upon her death, preserving them in a private relic cabinet (camarín) alongside his father's portable altar and a Roman amphora that was said to have come from the Wedding at Cana.50 In this same camarín the king also kept a lead box with a copy of the texts and a fragment of the relics found at the Sacromonte in Granada, as well as a reliquary in the shape of a book, the ultimate conflation of books and relics.51 It is therefore no coincidence that Philip II's two final undertakings at the Escorial were to visit, one last time, his relics and then his books.52 But to associate the power and authorityof the written (or printed) word with relics was not a novelty. Already in Anglo-Saxon England, as David Rollason points out, royal documents were preserved in the same place as relics and the person in charge of writing these texts, the cancellarius (chancellor), was also often the keeper of the relics.53 In this as in other matters, Philip II did not invent new meanings [End Page 73] and new functions for relics: he relied on those already existing and available to him. Books and relics in sixteenth-century Spain both spoke to the same glorious past; both could only be seen on very rare occasions and exclusively by distinguished figures. They both touched upon the sacred — that is to say, that which is forbidden to men, to use one of the meanings of the Latin term sacer.54

Books, especially those written by saints, could therefore qualify as relics and perform the same functions. The writings of Isidore of Seville, glory of the Spanish Visigothic Church, represent perhaps the most eloquent example of this. The projected edition of the saint's complete works, undertaken in the 1570s in conjunction with the Escorial collections, represents one of the three great typographical endeavors sponsored by Philip II, along with the Antwerp Polyglot Bible (1569–72) edited by the great humanist, and later chief organizer of the Escorial library, Benito Arias Montano (ca. 1525–98), and the printed reconstruction of the Temple of Solomon modeled on the Escorial by Jesuits Jerónimo Prado and Juan Bautista Villalpando (1596–1605).55 In different respects and to varying degrees, these colossal projects were all conceived as Catholic responses to the Protestant efforts to reclaim sacred and ecclesiastical history, in the same manner that collecting relics raised a protective barrier of sanctity against heresy. Rediscovering the relics of the Christian past in the Peninsula, whether as ancient manuscripts or printed texts, thus helped establish a direct link with Spain's past and with the primitive faith of its first Christians, in a way that served similar rhetorical and symbolic ends as did holy bodies.

4. Rescuing Relics: Toward a New Identity?

Initially, the Escorial's relic collection was intended as a way to safeguard the remains of various saints from an assured desecration at the hands of Protestants, who, according to José de Sigüenza, waged a "bloody war" [End Page 74] against them. Talking about the monarch's "saintly zeal" and "pious covetousness" which allowed for the entry of relics at the Escorial, Sigüenza recounts in martial language the miraculous events surrounding the first transfer of holy remains, during which the active participation of relics and the true presence of saints greatly contributed to the sacred shipment's safe arrival.56 But the confessional tension truly comes to the fore in Sigüenza's vivid account of the epic odyssey of four relic chests traveling across snowy mountains and enemy valleys. After a series of incredible adventures and miraculous ploys, the holy convoy finally managed to leave Protestant territory, escaping "a thousand dangerous encounters with heretics" over the course of its journey and the circling of a "squadron of Calvinist heretics," to triumphally reach the Escorial a few months later.57 By then, relics had transformed into actual spoils of war, tokens of the Catholic victory over heretics.58

The same can be said about one of the first relics to enter the Escorial, the thigh of Saint Lawrence, which Sigüenza called the "foundation upon which rests this house."59 The relic had been bought at great cost by the Spanish ambassador in Paris, Francés de Álava. Indeed, the chapter of the Church of Saint Peter in Montpellier, where it was jealously kept, had twice denied the ambassador the trophy, the sole survivor of the church's pillage by the Huguenots. However much the diplomat warned them that the heretics could come back any time to destroy whatever was left, and however much he tried to convince them that the relic would be safer at the Escorial, the church's canons would not part with their treasure. After waging a protracted battle in a city reputed for its rebellious nature (both political and religious), it was only thanks to Álava's influential friends at court, the aid of an archdeacon of the parish (whom he suspected of Protestant sympathies), and a considerable sum of money, that he finally managed to lay his hands on the coveted bone.

Undoubtedly, avenging and rescuing this "hostage" of the French Wars of Religion in such "heroic" fashion represented a great victory for the King [End Page 75] of Spain.60 A few years later, more relics came in from France, this time from the city of Tours, where Huguenot insurgents were allegedly burning the bones of saints. In a narrative steeped in the climate of struggle for the defense of the Catholic faith, Francés de Álava draws eloquent parallels between the Arab occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, Reformed iconoclasm, and the Ottoman threat. According to him, there existed a centuries-old kinship between the churches of Toledo and Tours, since the canons of the former had sought refuge in the latter after the Muslim invasion of Spain. In memory of this ancient solidarity, it seemed only natural for Toledo to support its historical ally in the face of the Protestant scourge. In return for this (presumably financial) assistance, the canons of Tours agreed to send to Toledo the recently discovered relics of a disciple of Saint Rémi, said to have brought about several conversions in the course of his ministry in pagan Spain. The ambassador had hopes that this present, received in the midst of the great Morisco uprising in Granada (1568–70), would help Philip II tame the Alpujarras rebels and defeat the Turks.61

The 1572 expedition of the humanist Ambrosio de Morales (1513–91) encapsulates the return to origins through history and archaeology that was taking place in the Spain of Philip II. As royal chronicler, Morales contributed to the long-standing project of the Cronica General de España by writing a dozen chapters on antiquity and the early Middle Ages. As an antiquarian fascinated by the remains of the pagan as well as by the Christian past of his country, Morales would publish a book, entitled Las Antigüedades de las Ciudades de Españas (1575), that made an inventory of ancient inscriptions and monuments, mostly found in his native Andalucía. This work would help secure his authority within the learned community while establishing him as a canonical reference in the field.62 In 1572, Philip II called on Morales, both as an official historian and as an experienced scholar, to travel to northern Spain in order to draw up a list and [End Page 76] determine the authenticity of the relics, royal tombs, and manuscript books kept in the region's churches and monasteries.63 With this mission, the king reaffirmed the three symbolic foundations of his monarchy: faith, dynasty, and knowledge. Upon his return to court, Morales submitted a detailed report followed by a series of recommendations regarding the collection of relics in the Escorial, advising the king, among other things, to respect local devotion and not to dispossess communities of their holy bodies. This, he said, was an injustice that could prove to be a source of great distress, even political upheaval.64 As we shall see shortly, Philip II was not always as scrupulous as his councilor would have wished. Despite this, Ambrosio de Morales's journey serves to remind us of the crucial role relics played in the process of (re)shaping local and collective identity in sixteenth-century Spain.

The king's efforts to centralize the sacred, however, met with serious resistance from the local authorities — city councils, archbishops, and monasteries — who owned the relics and who had drawn a considerable amount of prestige and income from them.65 A striking example is the conflict that arose around a relic of the head of Saint Lawrence. Philip II wanted to acquire this relic for obvious reasons, but it was jealously guarded by cloistered nuns in the Santiago de Compostela area, and knowingly concealed by the local archbishop in his account to the king of his diocese's relics. It was only thanks to Ambrosio de Morales's visit to the monastery that the monarch learned of the existence of this literally capital piece for his collection. Determined to purchase it, Philip first had to confront the pious but obstinate refusal of the nuns and their special devotion to the saint and its relic, which had turned the monastery into an important site of regional pilgrimage, with all the economic benefits that this entailed. Swayed by their tears, the prince agreed to leave them a piece or two of the relic so that they might continue their worship, while offering them generous financial compensations for their loss and assuring them that he would always hold the affairs of their house close to his heart. Did the monastery need any repairs, he inquired solicitously? Does it not often ask [End Page 77] for a license to transport wood from the Kingdom of Castile? Surely, this could be granted for several years and for unlimited quantities. Philip II tried everything, but the sisters simply would not budge. It was only through the intervention of the Archbishop of Santiago and after many months of negotiation that the king finally managed to convince the nuns to take the money and give up the relic.66

The discussions that led to the acquisition of the head of Saint Hermenegildo from a female abbey in the province of Huesca (Aragon) proved to be just as laborious and required as much caution, flattery, and gift-giving.67 Spain's first ruler to convert to Christianity, martyred for having refused to return to his former Arian beliefs and for holding strong in his new faith, the Visigothic King Hermenegildo had become over the ages the patron saint of the Spanish monarchy. Furthermore, Philip II's heir, the future Philip III, was born on the Day of Saint Hermenegildo (14 April). Thus, in the king's mind Hermenegildo was the perfect emblem for his projected unification of Spain through history, religion, and dynasty: relics of the saint were essential to the mausoleum of the Escorial. "God has preserved this relic so that it may end up in your hands," claimed the Bishop of Vich, who acted as the crown's go-between in this transaction, "it is yours by right since it belongs to one of your ancestors; it is the testimony of Spain's continuous Christian kingship."68 Beneath the obsequious [End Page 78] language that ran through the correspondence between the king and the abbess surrounding the transfer of the relic, all the weight of obligation showed through. Certain that serving him was the community's dearest wish, Philip II subtly pointed out that this would be the perfect occasion for its members to show their zeal, and assured them that he would show himself most grateful for their sacrifice.69 The nuns repeatedly reminded their sovereign that by taking the head of Hermenegildo he deprived them of their most precious jewel, and that without this relic — a gift from their founder, which had brought them rain in time of drought for centuries — they would be left with nothing. But in the end the sisters had no choice but to yield to the monarch's will, thus granting his request and thereby placing themselves under his protection. Nevertheless, they still managed to guarantee that a fraction of the relic would remain in their possession so they could carry on with their devotion and continue to celebrate the saint's feast.

Curiously, when Philip II demanded the foot of Saint Lawrence from the collegiate church of Husillos near Valladolid, he met with absolutely no opposition. On the contrary, the abbot was delighted to be able to grant him this favor, and spoke only of the "natural obligation one owes to his king and lord," hastening to specify that the gift was made without coercion — further proof that this was not the king's customary procedure.70 Thus Philip II turned the "spontaneous and voluntary" handover of relics — which, in certain cases, resembled extortion more than anything else — into a veritable act of allegiance to the royal person. One of his subjects stated this in rather explicit terms, feeling "obliged by the loyalty of the vassal" to inform the king of the existence in Rome of a relic likely to interest him.71 Nonetheless, the communities compelled to relinquish their trophies knew how to command royal gratitude and how to profit from their gift by deftly manipulating the rhetoric of loyalty and favor. As for the monarch, he saw to it that the donors were always decently compensated, since failing to do so would be tantamount to theft and would indicate, as one of his emissaries once opportunely reminded him, a "lack [End Page 79] of respect and devotion" on his part.72 Each of these relics, then, created a bond between the king and his subjects. Thus the collection of the Escorial can also be seen as the product of a network of obligations based on patronage and clientelism. The long list of princes, cardinals, bishops, and convents which offered relics to the King of Spain — whether as diplomatic gifts, signs of gratitude, tools of social promotion, or simply out ofduty — therefore represents nothing less than the threads of the web of favor that Philip II wove throughout Catholic Europe.73

Despite his voracious appetite for holiness and his desire to create a centralized state, whenever Philip II felt that relics were necessary to stimulate a city's devotion, he did not hesitate to share his sacred bones. For instance, he gave the city of Cartagena some relics of local saints that he had purchased on another occasion. In the Andalucian town of Andújar, he enjoined the abbey that held the relics of Saint Eufrasio, first bishop of the city and a disciple of Saint James, to turn over to the city the treasure that was rightfully hers.74 Provided, of course, this process remained under his close supervision and direct control, the king intended relics to play an active part in the formation of civic identities and was encouraged to turn this potent source of symbolic power over to the cities and their bishops, two pillars of the new Tridentine organization whose role he clearly recognized. Indeed, whenever relics tied to a city's history were discovered, or [End Page 80] recovered and brought back to Spain, Philip II demanded a type of tax or duty in the form of samples for his collection at the Escorial.

But the relics belonged first and foremost to the king: it was he who graciously agreed to turn over the holy body to a city or to its prelates, not they who offered their monarch a piece of what was theirs. This becomes quite clear from many ceremonies of relic translations, most notably in Ávila, where the body of Saint Segundo, the town's first bishop, had been found in the course of renovating a small hermitage. Years later, when it was decided to celebrate this fortunate discovery that marked the community's spiritual renewal and move the relics to the cathedral, the king commissioned his corregidor (the city's royal representative) to hand over the holy body to the bishop in his name, to reserve one of the three keys to the relics chest for him, and to put aside one of the saint's "main bones" — arm, leg, or thigh — for the Escorial.75 The same scenario repeated itself on numerous occasions: when Philip II passed through Córdoba, where he took a sample of the recently discovered relics of the martyrs who were to preside over the reconstruction of the local religious identity;76 in Alcalá de Henares, for the canonization of Diego de Alcalá, to which the king contributed politically as well as financially;77 in Alcalá, yet again, during the festivities honoring Saints Justo and Pastor, in which triumphal arches and poetry celebrated the return of their relics by comparing it to that of good government;78 and in Toledo, finally, for the arrival of the body of Saint Leocadia, patron saint of the city, brought back from a Flanders set ablaze and beset by heresy, where the monarch personally took part in the ceremony by acting as one of the pallbearers.79

On another occasion, Philip II personally traveled to Toledo for the triumphal entrance of the body of Saint Eugenio, first archbishop of the [End Page 81] city, second evangelist of the Iberian Peninsula after Saint James, and one of the founders of the Spanish Church. His return was supposed to sanctify and give new life to the entire community. However, the circumstances surrounding this translation were somewhat exceptional, since the Kings of Spain had long demanded that the French monarchs return the saint's remains to his native land. It was only with the signing of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 and the simultaneous wedding of Philip II with Isabelle de Valois, daughter of the King of France, that an agreement became possible. Once again, the operation succeeded thanks to the tireless efforts of the Spanish ambassador, Francés de Álava, despite the firm opposition of the Parlement of Paris and of the powerful abbey of Saint-Denis, where the body was preserved. In the end, the French ruler declared that it was only out of "love for the King of Spain and for the sake of affinity and concord between the two kingdoms" that he fulfilled his promise and agreed to return the saint's body. But this was a binding gift. Not only did the King of France demand the head of Saint Quentin from Spanish Flanders in exchange — should we read into this a fit of pride, since the French defeat that led to the signing of the peace treaty occurred precisely in the city bearing the saint's name? — but he also forced the canons of Toledo to pray publicly for the Kingdom of France in the cathedral, in memory of its liberality.80

Two final examples demonstrate Philip II's success at capturing to his advantage the unifying strength of local identities, as well as his inability to transcend regional idiosyncrasies. More than indicating the limits of Philip's great universal project, these striking symbols shed light on the breadth of his ambitions.

The royal undertaking of building a national history around a renewed sense of local spiritual identity found its most outstanding expression in Granada, emblem of the victorious reconquest over the Moors and site of the longest-lasting Muslim presence on Iberian soil.81 Granada recovered its virginity in 1492 after centuries of infidelity, making this city the ideal [End Page 82] place to erect — or, rather, to restore — the model of a Christian republic. At the root of this (re)foundation lay the discovery of a true goldmine of relics, supposedly buried at the time of the Arab invasion. In early modern times, such quasi-miraculous findings always took place in the symbolically-charged context of a community's spiritual renewal, and almost invariably occurred when a church underwent repair.82 Granada is a case in point, with the invention of the Torre Turpiana relics and the Sacromonte lead books.83

These famous forgeries, alleged to be the bones of the city's first Christian martyrs, appeared between 1588 and 1595 along with texts engraved on lead tablets that proved, among other things, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, the coming of the apostle James to Spain, and the survival of a Christian community in Granada throughout the period of Arab occupation. According to one of the most recent historians of this key moment in Spanish religious history, "Rather than merely falsify the past, the plomos [lead books] recast the history of the city of Granada into a Christian mold, create links to a mythical Christian past, and transform centuries of Muslim rule into a historical parenthesis."84 For Granadans, the revelation of the existence of these relics allowed for the construction of an imagined community united by faith. By giving them their own local saints, relics therefore became the locus of their civic identity, the tangible link that enabled them to rewrite the past by filling in the gaps of a distant time period, for which documents and registers of a Christian presence in the city were seriously lacking. As we can well imagine, an initiative such as this one, designed to confirm the antiquity of the introduction of Christianity on Spanish soil, could only appeal to Philip II. Nevertheless, if the king gladly accepted the municipal council's gift of relics from the Sacromonte, whose sight and worship apparently brought him "great spiritual solace," he categorically refused to keep the entire package sent to him, on the pretense that he did not want to put a curb on the people of Granada's devotion. By doing so, Philip II showed [End Page 83] that he had perfectly understood the mission of relics in the process of identity formation.85

This brings us to the second example. As he himself openly recognized, Philip II's lifelong ambition was to gather in the Escorial a relic of every Spanish saint. And yet a major lacuna in his collection was the absence of a bone of Saint James the Greater, the famous Santiago apostle and patron saint of Spain, whose body is still to this day said to be preserved whole in the Galician town of Compostela. There seemed little chance of acquiring a relic from Santiago, for all of Christendom had been traveling its camino for centuries and its pilgrimage was profoundly ingrained in Europe's history. Yet we know that the king planned the transfer of the corpse to the Escorial. A curious undated document addressed to Cardinal Diego de Espinosa, Philip II's chief minister at the time, informs us of the reasons put forward for such a move.86 The first and foremost advantage to seeing the remains of Saint James go to the Escorial, the anonymous author argues, would be to protect it from French and English — that is to say, Protestant — attacks, considering the Galician coastline's vulnerability to pirate raids. Secondly, in his new resting place the saint would be more fittingly venerated, better cared for, and generally more accessible to the king and to Spanish pilgrims who did not want to travel to such a remote land. What is more, the author continues, it seemed only fitting that the house of Jacob (in Latin James is Jacobus), supposed to be at the head of the twelve tribes of Israel, would be found at the heart of the Spanish monarchy, and not isolated in this "Finisterre" — literally, the ends of the earth, as this region of Galicia is also known. Finally, the transfer would encourage and stimulate the devotion to James, patron saint of Spain, which, according to the author, was flagging.

As for the inconveniences that would be caused by such a major change, they were summarily contradicted and dismissed as insignificant. To those who claimed that such a loss would lead to economic disaster for the Kingdom of Galicia, the author of the memorial replies that, in fact, only a few innkeepers actually profited from the visitors and that, thanks to the ports, the region would always thrive and prosper. In any event, he goes on to say, the pilgrimage would not cease overnight, since there would [End Page 84] always be many relics in the city. The tradition, too deeply rooted to really disappear, would be maintained and the crowds would continue to flock to Santiago. Finally, to the presumably weighty argument that the body had miraculously arrived in Compostela and that it was therefore the saint's will to stay there, the author answers that if the ship that carried the body stopped there, it was only because it could not go any further inland, where the saint would have been safer. In any case, he categorically concludes, at that time the Kings of Spain were Kings of Galicia, whereas today they were monarchs of the entire country. Saint James therefore had to follow them. Even if this outrageous project failed — we can only imagine the fierce opposition that it would have met — its very conception demonstrates Philip II's profound interest in harnessing the universality that relics represented, by moving the greatest and most famous one of them all to the center of his collection. This, he thought, could be a symbol around which to unite the entire country.

In the end, reserving rights to relics from every church in his kingdom for his own private collection was a way for Philip II to assert his personal authority and, to a certain extent, his control over the entire Spanish Church. The king both claimed and shared his sovereignty by only symbolically dispossessing cities of their sacred treasures, by agreeing to leave monasteries pieces of the bones that he took from them, and by making sure that local communities could benefit as well from the protection of holy bodies.87 Thus relics also reflected the division and the balance of power within the Spanish monarchy; they marked a chapter of the long-standing contest between church and state, center and periphery.88 Yet for all the aggressive affirmation of royal prerogatives, these only partial transfers of relics signaled Philip's failure to forge a cohesive national identity based on a common faith and a common history, such as relics offered. That the repatriated relics were often those of a city's first bishop or first martyrs, and that the first histories written focused on local antiquities, confirmed the cities and their spiritual leaders in their strategic position of mediators between the king and his people. Ultimately they, and not the monarchy, would be the center of all allegiances, acting as the main agents in the construction of a Christian identity and in the definition of patria.89 [End Page 85]

Additional Information

ISSN
1935-0236
Print ISSN
0034-4338
Launched on MUSE
2007-04-05
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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