by Tine Van Osselaer
I watch with eager anticipation as my guide is carefully opening a series of small doors. We are not unwrapping one layer after another, but sections of a single, bigger, display case. The impact of the procedure is best compared to one of those visual puzzles. Every new piece gives you an idea of what the overall image might look like, but you need to take a step back to take it all in and get a clearer view. That is what I am doing at this moment. From a distance, it is easier to ignore the cabinet doors and sections, and imagine the impression that St. Leo’s wax statue used to make on the visitors. The gold colored frame of the glass coffin is barely visible, but I have seen a lithograph and some pictures, and my mind is puzzling the rest together.
Once the pride and glory of the clergy of the Seminary, the martyr’s statue is now hidden from view and visible only to those – like curious me – who ask to see it. I am standing here after a great day delving through documents on this statue in the diocesan archives of Bruges. It is hard not to compare the statue’s hidden existence with the pride that radiated from the files on the translation and veneration of the relics (1844-45), or with the care – captured in a photograph – with which the clergy transported the statue to a safer location in 1917.
I have found statues like St. Leo’s in even more puzzle-like circumstances. The wonderful Parcum, the museum for religious heritage (Louvain) has a box on display that holds the head, torso and limbs of a similar statue, St. Clara. A saint in a box. I imagine that I am not the only historian working on Catholic devotional culture that would love to get a miniature kit of this.
St. Leo and St. Clara were import saints in Belgium. They were examples of the renewed enthusiasm for the early Christian martyrs of the Roman catacombs in the nineteenth century. As scholars like Vincent Viaene and Caroline Ford have shown, the massive distribution of the relics of these martyrs helped to reconstruct Europe’s devotional landscape after the plundering of the revolutionary years. Philippe Boutry, pioneer in the study of these relics, has estimated that the Vatican distributed circa 2400-2500 relics in the first half of the nineteenth century (Boutry, 2016, p.236, p.887). Not all of these relics were embedded in wax body-like statues like those of St. Leo and St. Clara, but the display fashion was also introduced (with different effects) in countries like Belgium.
Enthusiasm for these relics and statues dwindled due to the professionalization of Christian archaeology (and the rekindled debate about the authenticity of these martyrs’ relics) and the closure of the catacombs for relic extraction in 1881 (Ghilardi, 2020). The suppression on March 29, 1961 of the devotion to St Philomena – one of the most popular early Christian martyrs – had a detrimental effect on the popularity of the devotions and the martyrs’ statues. This first wave of iconoclasm was also triggered by a change in religious taste, reducing the sculptures to ‘kitsch’ (e.g. France: Durand, 2007, pp.68-69).
The many sculptures that survived currently face new risks to their conservation. With the present-day closure and secularization of many churches, the statues face abandon and destruction. Information about the devotions to these martyrs is at risk of disappearing together with an older generation of Catholics. A telling example hereof is the statue of the child martyr St. Pius in the now secularized Passionist church (soon to be a gym) in Ere. The caretakers of the school were incredibly helpful in helping me trace the devotion to the saint in the previous decades, but – at the risk of overusing the image – I am still missing some pieces of the puzzle.
This dwindling enthusiasm stands in sharp contrast to those locations where the devotion to the local martyr is still vibrant. As Religious Bodies team we have been exploring the field a little via Instagram. We hope you will share the link and “Send us your martyr” (https://www.instagram.com/sendusyourmartyr/) – in the form of some photographs and information (or a miniature kit).
- Boutry, P., ‘Les corps saints des catacombes’, in: Baciocchi, S. and Duhamelle, C. (eds.), Reliques romaines. Invention et circulation des corps saints des catacombes à l’époque moderne, Rome, 2016, pp.225-259.
- Durand, M., ‘Inventions de reliques, création de saints et naissance d’une controverse : les ‘corps saints’ extraits des catacombes romaines (XVIIe-XIXe siècles)’, Actes du deuxième colloque de pathographie, Paris, 2007, pp.49-72.
- Ford, C., Divided Houses. Religion and Gender in Modern France, Ithaca/London, 2005.
- Ghilardi, M., ‘The Roman catacombs in the nineteenth century’, in: Nineteenth-century European pilgrimages. A new golden age, Pazos, A.M. (ed.), London, 2020, pp.46-61.
- Viaene, V., Belgium and the Holy See from Gregory XVI to Pius IX (1831-1859). Catholic Revival, Society and Politics in 19th-century Europe, Leuven, 2001.
 The 1963 guide by Janssens-deBisthoven, De Abdij van de Duinen te Brugge, pp.14-15, indicates that the statue was already inside the wooden altar. I thank Stefaan Franco for this reference.
 Relic sculpture of Saint Clara, wax and gypsum, Leuven, PARCUM, collectie Grauwzusters van Antwerpen, CRKC.0004.000; This is not a collection. Persdossier, 2019, p.9; https://www.mapmyvisit.com/object/viewobject/62441/nl/039C78234D1BC0CD819F388671D23B29