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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Recommended Reading: The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley

The Relic Master is a witty adventure story set in northern Europe in 1517. At that time, the buying and selling of relics - the remains of a saint, such as a piece of bone, or items that had been in contact with Jesus, a saint, or other venerated person - was booming in the Holy Roman Empire. The story's protagonist, Dismas, is a dealer in holy relics.

We first meet Dismas at the Basel Relic Fair where he is on a buying trip for his two most important clients, Frederick of Saxony and Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. Although the two clients collected relics for different reasons, for both men the relics produced a stream of revenue. As Dismas says, "Bones bring pilgrims. Pilgrims bring money."

When shopping for his clients, Dismas strives to purchase only true relics - no flim-flam, no fraud. He is ethical.

In all his years of relic hunting, Dismas had never wittingly purchased or sold a relic he knew to be fraudulent. To be sure, with relics it was impossible to be entirely confident of the provenance. You never really knew that it was the thumb bone of St Contumacious of Tyre, or a bar of the iron grille on which St. Lawrence was broiled alive. All you could do was honor our profession and ask the relevant questions: Did the relic emit fragrance? Had there been verification by ordeal? Had it caused a miraculous healing? Finally, had the saint permitted it to be stolen from its prior shrine? The correct term was "translation." There was logic to it: Saints were living beings, even dead No saint, or member of the Holy Family, would permit his or her relic to be translated from one owner to another unless they favored relocation.

His ethics get put to the test, however, when Dismas learns that all of his savings have been stolen. He gets the news from his close friend, the artist Albrecht Dürer. "Thank God Agnes didn't follow your advice and give our money to that bounder Master Bernhardt. Sounds like you got your money out before the calamity befell. . . . Dismas - you did get your money out??" He had not.

To replenish Dismas' empty bank accounts, the friends come up with a plan to create and then sell to the Archbishop what Dismas will represent as being a highly coveted relic, the burial shroud of Jesus, which is a length of linen bearing the image of a man. After this complicated plan goes awry, the two pals are forced to hit the road to steal - or, rather, translate - another shroud, one which is said to be the authentic item.

Many more adventures and details make this a very engaging book. And because the novel also takes place during the start of the Protestant Reformation, there is plenty of politics driving the actions of various characters. The plot of The Relic Master is woven with historical facts presented in an entertaining manner. One tiny example: the name Dismas is associated with one of the two thieves crucified to the right and left of Jesus. Dismas, according to the gospel of Luke, was the good thief who asked Jesus to remember him in paradise.

The Relic Master is a very enjoyable book; check it out!

1 comment:

  1. While reading The Relic Master, you may want to check out the exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, "Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation." For info, go to