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Holy Fabrications: The Catacomb Saints and the Counter-Reformation in Bavaria

  • Trevor Johnson


True to its catholicity, the Counter-Reformation was in spirit a universal movement. The new universalism of the post-Tridentine Church produced greater centralisation, enhancing the authority of the papacy, and was reflected in the attempted imposition throughout the Catholic world of institutional uniformity and liturgical, cultic and devotional standardisation. In practice, however, the Counter-Reformation must also be seen as a local phenomenon, not only in the obvious sense that it was within their immediate locality that early modern Catholics were exposed to the new impulses originating at Rome, but also in the sense that such impulses were filtered through a prism of localism. Throughout the Catholic world, individual communities sought to preserve their traditional, home-grown institutions and customs, often by imaginatively adapting the new norms to suit local requirements. The existence of a complex relationship between centre and periphery, resting on a process of often tense negotiation and cultural exchange (since it could be a dynamic and not simply a one-way affair) has provided recent historians of Catholic reform with a fresh conceptual polarity, that of local versus universal, to set alongside the more standard dichotomies of popular and elite, official and unofficial or learned and lay religion.



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I am grateful to the German Historical Institute and the Humanities Faculty of the University of the West of England, Bristol for supporting the research which provides the basis for this article. I would also like to thank Bob Scribner and Glyn Stone for their helpful criticism of the text.

1 See, especially, Christian, William A., Local religion in sixteenth-century Spain, Princeton, NJ 1981 . This approach is discussed, along with a variety of conceptualisations of popular religion, in Scribner, R. W., ‘Interpreting religion in early modern Europe’, European Studies Review xiii (1983), 89105 . See also Scribner’s introduction to Bob Scribner and Trevor Johnson (eds), Popular religion in Germany and central Europe, 1400–1800, Houndmills 1996, and Craig Harline’s ‘Official religion – popular religion in recent historiography of the Catholic Reformation’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte lxxxi (1990), 239–62. Negotiation between centre and periphery in the context of canonisation trials is discussed by Peter Burke, ‘How to be a Counter-Reformation saint’ in his The historical anthropology of early modern Italy: essays on perception and communication, Cambridge 1987. For a recent outstanding study of early modern Catholicism in a local context see Gentilcore, David, From bishop to witch: the system of the sacred in early modern Terra d’Otranto, Manchester 1992 .

2 For a survey of the recent literature on confessionalisation in Germany see Po-Chia Hsia, R., Social discipline in the Reformation: central Europe, 1550–1750, London-New York 1989 .

3 Forster, Marc, The Counter-Reformation in the villages: religion and reform in the bishopric of Speyer, 1569–1720, Ithaca-London 1992 , and ‘The elite and popular foundations of German Catholicism in the age of confessionalism: the Reichskirche’, Central European History xxvi (1993), 311–25.

4 On Benno see Hufnagel, M.J., ‘Der heilige Benno, Bischof von Meissen’, in Schwaiger, G. (ed.), Bavaria Sancta. Zeugen christlichen Glaubens in Bayern, Regensburg 1973, iii. 20412 . The satirical procession in Buchholz is described in Scribner, R. W., Popular culture and popular movements in Reformation Germany, London 1987, 745 . On the Benno cult in Munich see Steiner, P. B., ‘Der gottselige Fürst und die Konfessionalisierung Altbayerns’, in Glaser, H. (ed.), Wittelsbach und Bayern, Munich 1980, II/i. 258 , Berg, K., ‘Der ehemalige “Bennobogen” der Münchener Frauenkirche’, ibid. 31217 , and Soergel, Philip M., Wondrous in his saints: Counter-Reformation propaganda in Bavaria, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 1993, 18191 .

5 ‘Nulla etiam admittenda esse nova miracula, nec novas reliquias recipiendas, nisi eodem recognoscente et approbante episcopo’: Sacrosancti et oecumenici Concilii Tridentini… canones et decreta, Paris 1666, 244. For a discussion of the new Tridentine norms in relation to the authentication of relics see Ditchfield, Simon, ‘Martyrs on the move: relics as vindicators of local diversity in the Tridentine Church’, in Wood, Diana (ed.), Martyrs and martyrologies (Studies in Church History xxx, 1993), 28394 .

6 Zehnder, Frank Günter, Sankt Ursula: Legende, Verehrung, Bilderwelt, Cologne 1985 .

7 On the ‘veritable invasion’ of Spain in the sixteenth century by relics of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, a result of the collecting mania of Charles v and Philip II and the Spanish interests of the Jesuits see Alemparte, Jaime Ferreiro, La leyenda de las once mil vírgenes: sus reliquias, culto e iconografía, Murcia 1991 . For recent discussion of relic collections in Habsburg Spain, particularly those of the court see García, Palma Martínez-Burgos, Idolos et imágenes: la controversia del arte religioso en el siglo XVI español, Valladolid 1990, 11945 , and Varela, Javier, La muerte del rey: el ceremonial funerario de la monarquía española (1500–1885), Madrid 1990, 6673 .

8 Embassy to Constantinople: the travels of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Christopher Pick, London 1988, 45–6. A cooler impression of the Cologne relics had been expressed by Gilbert Burnet during a visit in 1686: ‘those that are disposed to believe legends, have enough here to overset even a good degree of credulity, both in the story of the Three Kings, whose chapel is visited with great devotion… and in that more copious fable of the eleven thousand Ursulins, whose church is all over full of rough tombs, and of a vast number of bones, that are piled up in rows about the walls of the church. These fables are so firmly believed by the papists there, that the least sign which one giveth of doubting of their truth, passeth for an infallible mark of an heretick…one grows extreme weary of walking over this great town, and doth not find enough of entertainment in it’: Some letters, containing an account of what seem’d most remarkable in travelling thro’ Switzerland, Italy, some parts of Germany, etc. in the years 1685 and 1686, London 1724, 312–13.

9 The fullest account of the translations beyond Rome of the catacomb saints in the early modern period is Hansjakob Achermann’s Die Katakombenheiligen und ihre Translationen in der schweizerischen Quart des Bistums Konstanz, Stans 1979. I am grateful to Bob Scribner for referring me to this invaluable study.

10 On the nineteenth-century scholar’s appreciation of his early modern predecessor see the review of de Rossi’s main work (La Roma sotteranea Christiana, Rome 1864), by Henry Hart Milman, Savonarola, Erasmus and other essays, London 1870, 446–500.

11 Allegedly among them were no fewer than forty-six popes: Paolo Aringhi, Roma subterranea novissima, Rome 1651, i. 458. On the apparently inexorable medieval inflation of the estimated numbers of Rome’s martyred dead, producing figures which were then supposedly confirmed by the sixteenth-century catacomb rediscoveries see Achermann, , Katakombenheiligen, 78 .

12 Aringhi, Roma subterranea novissima, i. 141. A German edition of Aringhi’s work, translated by Christoff Baumann, was published in Arnheim in 1668 as Abgebildetes unterirdisches Rom. On Aringhi see Achermann, Katakombenheiligen, II.

To you, reader, we entrust this enlarged book… with not only (if one can say this)

13 See, for example, Aringhi, Roma subterranea novissima, i. 463, where Neri is described in gladiatorial terms as Christ’s ‘energetic athlete’ and ‘invincible champion’ (‘strenuus Christi athleta, ac pugil invictus contra tartareas hostium legiones’), whose sojourn in the catacombs took him away from the world but closer to heaven (‘dum sacra inter martyrum sepulchra, mundo ignotus, cáelo propior innotesceret’). See also Antonio Gallonio, De vita et rebus gestis Beati P. Philippi Nerii Florentini, Mainz 1606, 17ff. Neri had moreover attempted to popularise the catacomb experience by including the Callistus Cemetery in the itinerary of processions staged between Rome’s leading churches. Detailed descriptions of these devotions appear in Aringhi, Roma subterranea novissima, ii. 534ff., and Gallonio, De vita Philippi Nerii, 41–4. For further references see Ditchfield, ‘Martyrs on the move’.

14 Ibid.

15 ‘En tibi, lector, librum auctum tradimus, quem hoc tempore latino sermone conscripsimus, non solum innumeris fere (si loqui sic licet) antiquorum martyrum tormentis, sed etiam nostrae aetatis catholicorum, qui pro fide catholica mortem constanti animo oppetivere’: Antonio Gallonio, De sanctorum martyrum cruciatibus, Cologne 1602, preface. The work had been first published in Italian as the Trattato degli instrumenti di martirio e delle varie maniere di martirizare, Rome 1591.

16 Officially the practice seems to have ended in the 1860s, but a decree of Leo XIII in 1878 and a circular from the cardinal vicar in 1881 revealed the existence of a flourishing black-market relic trade, involving martyrs’ bones taken not directly from the catacombs but acquired as a result of the liquidation of Italian church property, together with ‘faked’ relics and forged authentications, a trade in which officials of the Roman Vicariate itself were implicated: Louis Duchesne, ‘Les corps saints des catacombes romaines’, Bulletin critique de littérature d’histoire et de théologie ii (1881), 198–202. See also, on the role played by the contested status of catacomb relics in ultramontane and liberal Catholic debate in Victorian England, Wendel W. Meyer, ‘The phial of blood controversy and the decline of the liberal Catholic movement’, this JOURNAL xlvi (1995), 75–94.

17 In 1672, for example, of 428 bodies extracted from the cemeteries of Calepodius and Priscilla, all but thirty-four had to be given names. Although in 1643 the Congregation of Rites decreed the ‘baptism’ of anonymous bones to be an abuse and misgivings were also expressed by Urban vin, a formal ban was successfully resisted by the papal sacristan and the practice continued. After 1668 approbation of new relics was the responsibility of the Congregation of Indulgences and Relics, which in 1691 decreed that martyrs whose names did not appear in the Roman Martyrology should enjoy neither an office nor a mass. In Switzerland at least this decree seems in practice to have been ignored: Achermann, Katakombenheiligen, 21–2.

18 Ibid. 47.

19 For a recent brief, but extremely useful, discussion of translations to Bavaria, a study which includes a comprehensive bibliography, see Pötzl, Walter, ‘Volksfrömmigkeit’, in Brandmüller, Walter (ed.), Handbuch der bayerischen Kirchengeschichte, St Ottilien 1993, ii. 871961 , esp. pp. 918–29. See also Krausen, Edgar, ‘Die Verehrung romischer Katakombenheiliger in Altbayern im Zeitalter des Barock’, Bayerisches Jahrbuch fiir Volkskunde (1966/7), 3747 . In contrast to Achermann’s depiction of the Swiss situation, Pötzl speculates that the apparently low incidence of catacomb martyr translations to Franconia might have been due to local Catholic apprehension of ridicule from neighbouring Protestants: Pötzl, ‘Volksfrömmigkeit’, 924 n. 208.

20 One study cited by Pötzl gives, for example, the figure of 143 martyr translations to the Upper Bavarian diocese of Freising: ibid. 920.

21 Ibid. 921.

22 The relics had been sent to the chamberlain by Cardinal Eitel Friedrich von Zollern, who had been granted permission to collect them in Rome by Gregory xv in 1623: Pfarrarchiv St Peter in München Urkunden, ed. Max Joseph Hufnagel and Fritz Freiherr von Rehlingen, Neustadt-an-der-Aisch 1972, 125–6.

23 In the case of St Honoratus, the archives of the Peterskirche allow the chain of transmission to be reconstructed. The relics had been extracted from the Catacombs of Callistus by order of Innocent x. In October 1646 the vicar-general, Cardinal Marzio Ginetti, and his assistant, Bishop Alfonso Sacrati of Comacchio, confirmed that, as a reward for his contribution to the excavations, one Thomas Candidus of Venice was to be granted the free use of the relics of the martyrs Fortunatus, Modestus, Victorinus, Januarius, Quirinius, Artemius, Candidus, Coelestinus, Justus, Justinus, Placidus and Valentia and the bones and blood-ampules of Dionysius, Vitalis, Honoratus and Paulina. The relic of Honoratus was then acquired by an official in the Bavarian treasury, Stephan Hock. In 1650 the bones were presented in Rome to Hock’s son, the Capuchin lay-brother Wilhelm of Wasserburg, and taken by him to Munich, where Hock donated them to the Peterskirche. In 1675 the same church received the head of St Erasmus from the Catacombs of Callistus, and from the Catacombs of Cyriacus the complete skeleton, accompanied by the blood-ampule and gravestone, of the martyr Munditia, both relics having been obtained by the Munich councillor, Franz Benedict Höger: Pfarrarchiv St Peter, 134, 136–40, 149–50.

24 On the general contribution of the Jesuit order to the Bavarian Counter-Reformation see Hubensteiner, Benno, Vom Geist des Barock: Kultur und Frommigkeit im alten Bayern, Munich 1978, 6580.

25 Pötzl, ‘Volksfrömmigkeit’, 921.

26 Ibid. 922. A parallel between the exploration of the Roman catacombs and Kircherian studies is drawn by Anthony Wright in his The Counter Reformation, London 1982, 184.

27 On Maximilian see the recent biography by Andreas Kraus, Maximilian I: Bayerns grosser Kurfürst, Graz-Vienna-Cologne-Regensburg 1990.

28 For the quotation and a discussion of Rader see Schwaiger, G., Bavaria sancta, Regensburg 1970, i. 1722 . Maximilian’s sponsorship of Bavarian religious history was paralleled by a similar interest in the promotion of research, suitably favourable to the Wittelsbach dynasty, on the duchy’s secular history, exemplified by the Annales boicae gentis of Maximilian’s Jesuit confessor Johannes Vervaux (published in 1662/3) and tne struggle between Maximilian and Abraham Bzovius, Baronio’s successor on the Annales ecclesiastici project, over the latter’s unfavourable portrayal of Maximilian’s fourteenth-century ancestor, Ludwig the Bavarian. The political and confessional character of contemporary historiographical developments is explored in Andreas Kraus, Bayerische Geschichtswissenschaft in drei Jahrhunderten, Munich 1979, 34–105. For a fascinating study of the promotion of territorial sacralisation through the medium of printed propaganda for Bavarian pilgrimage centres in the sixteenth century see Soergel, Wondrous in his saints.

29 The devotional style of the Wittelsbach house is splendidly evoked in Gerhard P. Woeckel, Pietas bavarica: Wallfahrt, Prozession und Ex voto-Gabe im Haus Wittelsbach in Ettal, Wessobrunn, Altolting und der Landeshauptstadt Munchen von der Gegenreformation bis zur Säkularisation und der ‘renovado ecclesiae’ Weissenhorn 1992.

30 For a short survey of the Protestant period in the Upper Palatinate see Volker Press, ‘Das evangelische Amberg zwischen Reformation und Gegenreformation’, in K.-O. Ambronn, A. Fuchs and H. Wanderwitz (eds), Amberg 1034–1984: aus tausend Jahren Stadtgeschichte, Amberg 1984, 119–36. On the period of recatholicisation and Counter- Reformation in the territory see Ziegler, W., ‘Die Rekatholisierung der Oberpfalz’, in Wittelsbach und Bayern, II/i. 43647 , and, for further references, Johnson, Trevor R., ‘The recatholicisation of the Upper Palatinate, 1621-c. 1700’, unpubl. PhD diss. Cambridge 1992.

31 The Nabburg case indeed provides the only mention of extant relics in the entire 1656 visitation report: Bischöfliches Zentralarchiv Regensburg (cited hereinafter as BZAR), Standort. Rep. F47, Visitation 1656, Dekanat Tirschenreuth, fos 7, 13.

32 The widespread use of these altars was recorded in the visitation six years later. The 1650 synod itself closed with a procession which included the reliquaries of SS. Wolfgang, Emmeram, Dionysius, Justinus and Florinus: G. Schwaiger, Kardinal Franz Wilhelm von Wartenberg als Bischof von Regensburg (1649–1661), Munich 1954, 103–4.

33 Literature on Klosterarbeit is cited in Pötzl, ‘Volksfrommigkeit’, 926 n. 211.

34 This operation is described in F. Lippert, Geschichte der Gegenreformation in Staat, Kirche und Sitte der Oberpfalz-Kurpfalz zur Zjit des dreiszigjährigen Krieges, Freiburg 1901, 160. For accounts of similar procedures with Ignatian relics on the lower Rhine see Schreiber, G., ‘Heilige Wasser in Segnungen und Volksbrauch’, Zeitschrift für Volkskunde xliv (1934), 198209 .

35 The confraternity promptly dispatched the relic to Cardinal Johann Theodor of Regensburg for formal episcopal ‘approbation and recognition’: BZAR, Amberg-St Martin, Bruderschaften und kirchliche Vereine, Johann-Nepomuk-Bruderschaft, letter of 24 Oct. 1753.

36 Staatsarchiv Amberg (cited hereinafter as STAA), Geistliche Sachen, 713.

37 Swiss examples, very similar in form to those of Bavaria or the Upper Palatinate, are described and illustrated in Achermann, Katakombenheiligen, esp. pp. 79–99.

38 STAA, Geistliche Sachen, 713.

39 Alternatively, the answer may simply lie in the supply side; the sheer quantity and quality of the relics emanating from the catacombs may have rendered the breaking up of individual bodies unnecessary.

40 In the reports of that year the towns of Eschenbach, Neumarkt and Tirschenreuth were described as having a ‘strong appetite’ for relics of this type, whilst the abbot of Speinshart had approached Rome two years previously for a couple of bodies, thus far without result: STAA, Geistliche Sachen, 713.

41 O. Schmidt, Pfarrkirche St Martin in Amberg, Munich 1977, 23.

42 Krausen, ‘Die Verehrung romischer Katakombenheiliger’, 44–5; Bärbel Harnacher, Waldsassen, Passau 1992, 31.

43 STAA, Geistliche Sachen, 3395. 289

44 For descriptions of Holy Week processions in the nearby Upper Palatinate district of Waldsassen see Knedlik, Manfred, ‘Karfreitagsprozessionen in Waldsassen im 18. Jahrhundert’, Oberpfälzer Heimat xxxviii (1994), 11222 .

45 Examples include, from Amberg, Der jugendliche Martyrer Celsus (1628), Adiatrix und ihre Sohne (1638), Paulillus mit seinen Söhnen (1639), and from Regensburg, Sanctus Adrianus (1665), Sanctus Phocas (1668), Celsus et Julianus (1691) and Sanctus Sebastianus (1708): William Gegenfurtner, ‘Jesuiten in der Oberpfalz: ihr Wirken und ihr Beitrag zur Rekatholisierung in den oberpfälzischen Landen (1621–1650)’, Beiträge zur Geschichte des Bistums Regensburg xi (1977), 71–220 at p. 159; ‘A collection of summaries of plays, etc. performed at Ratisbon, 1645–1769, chiefly by the Gymnasium Soc. Jesu’, BL, 840.e 4–6.

46 The martyr in question was allegedly a victim of the early fourth-century Maxentian persecution; arrested and tortured by the governor Caprasius, he refused to sacrifice to the pagan idols, was killed and subsequently buried in the Catacombs of Priscilla, being commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on 24 Nov.: STAA, Geistliche Sachen, 713, report of 14 Apr. 1701.

47 Ibid, report of 14 Apr. 1701.

48 Ibid. 681, letter of 1 May 1668. On Archdeacon Gedeon Forster, a leading figure in the Regensburg consistory and author of a large number of catechetical and devotional works see Gruber, Johann, ‘Gedeon Forster (1616–1675)’, in Schwaiger, Georg (ed.), Lebensbilder aus der Geschichte des Bistums Regensburg, Regensburg 1989, i. 294302 .

49 STAA, Geistliche Sachen, 681, letters of 3 May and 8 June 1668.

50 Ibid, report of 19 June 1668.

51 Ibid.

52 Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv München, Jesuitica, 1171, letters of 16 July and 12 Nov. 1668; STAA, Geistliche Sachen, 681, letter of 30 Oct. 1668.

53 STAA, Geistliche Sachen, 681.

54 Die in seinem tausend-jöhrigen Alter feyerlichist erneuerte Herrlichkeit der Eichstattischen Kirch, Ingolstadt 1746.

55 As Bayr reported, Anton Böhm went on to develop, during his studies in Amberg, a vocation to join the Jesuits. Eventually accepted into the order, he was sent on the missions to the New World ‘to convert the heathen’. From Paraguay he wrote letters to his mother, which Bayr heard read out and in which he continued to commend himself to St Crescentianus. Anton was nearly ten years old at the time of the miracle, which clearly left an impression on him. He died, ministering to plague victims, in San Carlos in May 1695. For an outline of his career see Storni, H., Catálogo de los jesuitas de la provincia del Paraguay (Cuenca del Plata) 1585–1768, Rome 1980, 40 . Böhm was among a number of Ambergers who distinguished themselves at different periods on the Jesuit missions: M. Popp, ‘Kirchen- geschichte Ambergs zwischen Rekatholisierung und Säkularisation’, in Amberg 1034–1084, 137–52 at p. 140.

56 STAA, Geistliche Sachen, 713, report of 14 Apr. 1701.

57 Ibid. 681, letter of 18 June 1669.

58 Ibid. The same day the Amberg regional government replied, agreeing to the scheme for a miracle book and asking that the priest bring the witnesses to the court to make their depositions under oath.

59 On the local variants see Johnson, ‘Recatholicisation’ 195–203, 297–306.

60 Krausen, ‘Die Verehrung römischer Katakombenheiliger’, 45.

61 ‘Insignis contra fulgura, tonitura et tempestates patronus’: Pfarrarchiv St Peter in München, 180.

62 In Gars, Felix proved himself, soon after his translation, to be an effective firefighter, credited with saving the town from complete destruction during a blaze in 1675. Subsequently a miracle book was prepared to record his miraculous exploits: Krausen, ‘Die Verehrung römischer Katakombenheiliger’, 40–1.

63 As further evidence of the extent of assimilation, a number of studies of Bavarian baptismal registers have shown that the cults were occasionally reflected in the christening of infants with the name of a newly arrived martyr: Pötzl, ‘Volksfrömmigkeit’, 926–8.

Holy Fabrications: The Catacomb Saints and the Counter-Reformation in Bavaria

  • Trevor Johnson


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