The year is 1517. Dismas is a relic hunter who procures “authentic” religious relics for wealthy and influential clients. His two most important patrons are Frederick the Wise and soon-to-be Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz. While Frederick is drawn to the recent writing of Martin Luther, Albrecht pursues the financial and political benefits of religion and seeks to buy a cardinalship through the selling of indulgences. When Albrecht’s demands for grander relics increase, Dismas and his artist friend Dürer fabricate a shroud to sell to the unsuspecting noble. Unfortunately Dürer’s reckless pride exposes the trickery, so Albrecht puts Dismas and Dürer in the custody of four mercenaries and sends them all to steal Christ’s burial cloth (the Shroud of Chambéry), Europe’s most celebrated artifact. On their journey to Savoy where the Shroud will be displayed, they battle a lustful count and are joined by a beautiful female apothecary. It is only when they reach their destination they realize they are not alone in their intentions to acquire a relic of dubious legitimacy.
“A rollicking good time, Christopher Buckley has transported his signature wit and irreverence from the Beltway to sixteenth-century Europe in The Relic Master” (GQ). This epic quest, “as rascally and convivial as any that Mr. Buckley has written” (The Wall Street Journal), is filled with fascinating details about art, religion, politics, and science; Vatican intrigue; and Buckley’s signature wit “holds the reader till the very last page” (The New York Times Book Review).
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The Relic Master
Dismas might have purchased the finger bone of the Apostle Thomas, but there was something not quite right about the man offering it for sale.
For one, his asking price was far too low. A relic of the finger that had probed the spear wound in Christ’s side after his resurrection would fetch as much as forty or fifty gulden. And he was asking only fifteen. More troubling was the absence of fragrant odor when Dismas held it to his nostrils. A genuine relic was always pleasant to the nose. Finally, there was the variety of items the fellow had for sale: the tongue (entire) of St. Anthony of Padua; an ampulla of the Virgin’s breast milk; a stone from the scala santa, the steps of Pilate’s palace; a few pieces of straw from the sacra incunabulum, the holy manger in Bethlehem; and shavings from the chains of St. Peter. A suspiciously vast array of goods.
Experience inclined Dismas to trust more in dealers who concentrated in specific fields. Say, relics of the Diocletian persecution. Or brandea, items that had been in physical contact with the Holy Family. Relics of St. Anne, mother of the Virgin, a category at the moment in huge demand.
Most revealing of all: when Dismas thanked the man and turned to leave, he immediately lowered the price to five gulden. One saw more and more of this disgraceful behavior these days at the Basel Relic Fair.
• • •
Dismas stood in the market square in front of the new town hall with its marvelous polychrome arcades. His glance swept over the expanse, humming with commerce. There must be over three hundred exhibitors.
He noted with amusement two adjoining booths, each advertising thorns from the Crown of Thorns. Unfortunate placement. But there were so many exhibitors these days. Space was tight. Placards and banners flapped in the late afternoon breeze. One advertised a Mandylion, another a sudarium, another a foot (whole) of the Magdalene. There was always a surcharge for an entire appendage.
On the north side of the square, by the fish market, appropriately enough, was this year’s most-talked-about piece: an entire boat avouched to have belonged to St. Peter in his pre-apostolic Galilean fishing days.
Owing to his status in the relic community, Dismas had been given a preview. The asking price, three thousand gulden, was preposterous, even if it were authentic, which Dismas highly doubted. To the consternation of its seller, Dismas crawled underneath with a magnifying glass. There he found wormholes of the type made by saltwater worms.
Dusting himself off, he gave the fellow a look of rebuke. Odd, wasn’t it—saltwater worm damage, in a freshwater fishing vessel?
The dealer cleared his throat and said, well, see, the boat had been briefly anchored in the Mediterranean, at Joppa, before, er, being taken aboard ship for Marseille.
“Um. Well, thanks for letting me have a look.”
A shame, Dismas thought, for what a splendid centerpiece it would make in the courtyard of the castle church in Wittenberg. Or the cathedral cloister at Mainz. Someone would buy it, perhaps a recently ennobled Bohemian, who’d paint it in garish colors and put it in his moat. In time he’d grow bored of it and allow his children to reenact famous sea battles in it. And finally it would rot and sink, and the nobleman would say that he’d always had his doubts about it.
More and more, these days, there was an emphasis on size. Last year, the English dealer Arnulfus of Tewksbury had brought to Basel three whole mummified camels. These, he averred, were the very ones that had carried the magi to Bethlehem, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Dismas friskily asked Arnulfus why he had not also brought with him the star in the east? Really, it was all getting a bit out of hand.
How many years now had he been coming to the relic fair? His first time was in 1508, so—nearly ten, now. Realizing this made him feel old, for embedded in the math was the alas undeniable fact that he was now past thirty years of age.
He thought back to the time he’d first stood here in the square, almost in this very spot. There’d been a quarter the number of booths and tents. Who’d have imagined such growth as this? The annus mirabilis was 1513. These last four years had been almost indecently profitable for Dismas, owing to the passion—lust, really—for relics on the part of his two principal clients.
He bought a grilled sausage and a mug of lager from a vendor and, finding shade, consulted his purchase lists.
Frederick’s wish list had four dozen items. Albrecht’s was, as usual, more extensive: nearly three hundred. Though he would never admit it—even to Dismas, his chief supplier—Albrecht was determined to catch up to Frederick, whose collection now stood at more than fifteen thousand holy relics. Dismas sighed. He was tempted to blow Albrecht’s entire budget on the St. Peter’s fishing boat and be done with it. Frederick’s list was, no surprise, far more discerning than Albrecht’s. Frederick wanted quality; Albrecht, quantity.
“Saint Bartholomew—jaw particles, teeth, skull fragments (frontal).”
Frederick was mad for St. Bartholomew. Insatiable. He owned more than forty relics of the apostle, including his entire facial skin. Bartholomew had been flayed alive by the King of Armenia for introducing Christianity. The apostolic epidermis was mounted in Wittenberg in a splendid jeweled monstrance.
There were theories about Frederick’s Bartholomew obsession. One was that it was due to Bartholomew being the patron saint of bookbinders. Frederick was a great bibliophile. A more mischievous theory was that it was snobbery, Bartholomew being the only apostle born of noble blood, though Dismas could find no scriptural authority for this. Sometimes, when Frederick was in the right mood, Dismas teased him about it.
St. Afra was also on Frederick’s list. Always a challenge, Afra. She reflected Frederick’s current taste for German saints. She’d been a prostitute of the Roman Temple of Venus in what was now Augsburg. She converted. When she refused to renounce her new god, she was taken to an island in the river Lech, tied to a stake, and suffocated with smoke. Frederick wanted her relics because she was a martyr of the Diocletian persecution and Diocletiana had long been a theme with him.
Dismas rarely proposed a specific relic unless it was something truly unusual or spectacular. Frederick’s knowledge of the field was vast and scholarly. He’d been collecting relics since 1493, when he made his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He knew exactly what he wanted and, happily for Dismas, he wanted a lot. His collection was now second only to the Vatican’s, which numbered some seventy-six thousand. But there was really no competing with Rome for relics.
And yet—Dismas suspected that Frederick was competing with Rome. Certainly, Albrecht was competing with Frederick. Unlike Frederick, Albrecht was suggestible, especially where vogue entered in. When fourth-century Slavic martyrs became the rage, Albrecht dispatched Dismas to comb the Adriatic coast and corner the market. Frederick was above these vicissitudes. He set the chic.
Dismas returned to his list.
St. Agatha, patroness of wet nurses. A young and beautiful Sicilian girl, virgin, lusted for by the Roman consul. (How lucky, the homely, unlusted after female Christian converts.) Agatha refused the consul’s attentions and was handed over to the torturers. They sliced off her breasts, which miraculously grew back. The now livid consul ordered her to be roasted to death over coals. Frederick wanted a nipple, but any other part would do.
After months and months of inquiry, Dismas reported to Frederick that no Agathan nipples were to be had. However, he had succeeded in locating a partly melted gold ring said to have been on her finger when she met her terrible but sanctifying end on a brazier in Catania, Anno Domini 250.
As for St. Afra, another martyr requiring assiduous searching, he’d finally located a fragment of her patella. Given the time and effort that had gone into these two commissions, Dismas could have charged more than his usual commission. But he didn’t. If the search had been for Albrecht, he’d have surcharged triple.
He consulted Albrecht’s list. Weaponry. Albrecht had a penchant for knives, daggers, axes—anything that had been used on a saint. One of his most treasured pieces was the hammer used to drive the nails into Christ’s hands and feet.
Item: “Maurice—sword.” The one used to decapitate St. Maurice, Roman legionary of Thebes. During a campaign to punish the insurrectionary Helvetii, the Roman commander had ordered his men to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Maurice and other Christian converts in the ranks demurred. The commander ordered decimation, every tenth soldier killed. (Hardly morale boosting, in the middle of a campaign.) When the converts still refused, a second decimation was carried out. When they refused again, the commander ordered the entire troop slaughtered.
No easy commission, this, but Dismas had a good relationship with a dealer in St. Gallen who’d sent word that he thought he could lay his hands on at least a portion of the sword hilt.
Dismas worked his way down Albrecht’s list. Not another? Yes, another St. Sebastian arrow.
Albrecht had a particular taste for apostate Roman soldiery, and in that category, St. Sebastian reigned as the beau ideal. Into the bargain, Sebastian was a member of the Emperor Diocletian’s own Praetorian Guard. The irony with Sebastiana was that he survived the firing squad of archers. Perhaps they’d taken pity on him and fired into nonessential parts. When Diocletian learned that his former bodyguard was still alive (if presumably heavily bandaged) and still ministering to Christians, he furiously ordered him to be hacked into pieces until well and truly dead, then tossed into the Cloaca Maxima, the Roman sewer. Sebastian arrows were always in demand, and not just by Albrecht. Over the course of his relic-hunting career, Dismas had come across enough of them to supply the entire Roman army.
Next on Albrecht’s list was another item wielded by a Roman soldier. The Holy Lance. He sighed.
Again and again—and again—Dismas had explained to the Archbishop, ever so patiently, that the “one and true” Holy Lance was simply not available. Yes, the relic marts teemed with “one and true” Holy Lances—dozens, scores. But as Dismas had pointed out, the spear tip most likely to have pierced Christ’s side was in a vault in St. Peter’s. In Rome. Since 1492, when Sultan Bayazid of Constantinople had gifted it to Pope Innocent VIII, by way of lessening the pontiff’s inclination to crusade. Dismas had told Albrecht that it was beyond all likelihood that the present Pope Leo X would part with such a prize piece. Though Leo, being Leo, might be induced to sell. His asking price would be exorbitant. All this Dismas had explained, only to be told by Albrecht that he was not convinced that the one true Holy Lance really was in the Vatican. By which he meant: Just bring me a lance. Any lance.
Since arriving in Basel a week ago, Dismas had been offered no fewer than ten “one and true” Holy Lances, one for as little as twenty-five gulden. Absurd. His integrity would not allow it, even if it meant being able to scratch “Holy Lance” off Albrecht’s wish list once and for all.
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 your profession and 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.
Another test was: Had the saint exacted punishment if his relic had been disrespected? St. Appianus had famously paralyzed a young woman when she squatted to urinate beside his tomb. She remained frozen in this mortifying posture until the entire town, including the bishop, interceded with prayers for her forgiveness.
So at the end of the day, a reputable relic hunter had only his judgment—and honesty—on which to rely. Alas, of late there had been a marked increase in counterfeit and charlatanry, of hunters and dealers of the most dubious kind. Like all too many of the characters here in Basel.
Dismas had shared his chagrin with Master Schenk, chief registrar of the relic fair. Schenk said, yes, yes, indeed, it was unfortunate. He suggested that Dismas, so respected by his peers, should address the exhibitors himself on the subject. Schenk would arrange it. Dismas could share his misgivings with the other brokers and vendors on the final day of the relic fair, at the farewell wine and cheese reception.
Crafty Schenk. He clapped Dismas on the back and smiled. A splendid idea. He left Dismas to rebuke himself for letting himself be trapped. A speech—on standards—to this bunch? As well preach chastity in a bawdy house. Too late now. Dismas made his way to the town hall in gloom.
“Markus? Is it—you?”
They embraced with the intensity of two men who’ve stood side by side in battle. Their last battle together had been the disaster at Cerignola, when they’d fought on the French side. The Spaniards had inferior numbers but had brought to the field something new, terrible, and loud called gunpowder.
When it was over, Dismas and Markus were among sixteen of their unit of ninety still alive on a field sponge-soft with blood and air rank with smoke, staring at the bodies of their comrades. Their armor was strangely pocked with holes that seeped. Dismas saw it as a portent of the End of Days, gave up his career as a mercenary, and put on a monk’s habit at the nearest monastery.
“What on Earth are you doing here?” Dismas said. “Not bone dealing, sure?”
Markus made a face. “God help me. I haven’t sunk that low. Helping some fat-assed banker guard his gold. After this I’m finished. Going home. To the cantons. I’ve got money saved. I’ll find myself a girl with red cheeks, big tits, and a creamy-white bottom.”
Dismas laughed. “You’re too old for that.”
“Old? I’ve got a cock of iron. So what are you doing here?” Markus looked his old friend up and down. He said suspiciously, “You look prosperous. What crimes have you committed? God in Heaven, don’t tell me you’re”—he gestured over his shoulder at the mass of relic dealers—“one of these lowlifes?”
“I am. And I’ll thank you not to call me a lowlife. I’m an honest man.”
“Honest? Hawking pieces of the True Cross? Breast milk of the Virgin? How much did you get for your soul, then?”
“Listen to you. A gold sentry. I’m a respectable man.”
“I thought you were going to be a monk.”
“Did. Couldn’t get used to the hours.”
“All right,” Markus said, “I’ll listen to your lies, but you’re buying the drinks.”
“I have to give a speech. Let’s meet later. And yes, I’ll buy the drinks. As usual. If I’m going to listen to your lies, I’ll need to be good and proper sloshed.”
“Giving a speech? To this scum? What are you speeching about? How to rob tombs?”
“As it happens, about reform. Which they won’t want to hear. Maybe you should come along. I might need guarding.”
“I’ve got better things to do than listen to you give the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll see you later. The Red Boar. Near the Saint Alban tower.”
• • •
Dismas’s mood was much brightened, but the cheer dissipated when he entered the great hall, noisy and sweaty and loud with hundreds of relicmongers. The event was open only to the trade. The wine and lager were flowing.
Schenk saw him and came over. His face was apple-florid from wine. He was in an excellent frame. Sales had been brisk, topping even last year’s record. He banged his gavel to quiet the crowd. Told them how wonderful they were, what a success it had all been, how good it was to be among so many old friends and among new friends.
Dismas thought, It’s these new friends who are the problem.
Schenk went on about the great responsibility of their business. Then with a snort said, “And here to tell us a bit about that is a person—no, more than a person. He is a personage!” Schenk chortled at his cleverness. “A personage known to us all, esteemed everywhere. Especially”—he crooked a thumb over his shoulder to the north—“up there!”
Dismas stepped forward in an effort to cut him off, but Schenk’s bonhomie, fueled by the wine, was implacable. He went on about Dismas, the Personage. Dismas, the Legend. Relic Master by Appointment to His Grace Albrecht, Archbishop of Brandenburg and Mainz. Relic Master by Appointment to the Elector Frederick of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. And before that, he’d been Dismas the Soldier, the Reiselaufer. “So don’t make him angry or he’ll cut off your balls!”
Dismas said to laughter, “I’ll do that to you if you don’t sit down and shut up.”
But Schenk went on, regaling them about Dismas’s early years in the trade—in the Holy Land, how he’d been the first relic hunter to procure an entire skeleton of one of the holy innocents slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers. The audience murmured and nodded. Schenk said, “It’s in the collection of Frederick, in Wittenberg.”
Then he was on to Dismas’s years in the catacombs outside Rome.
“That cough of his? You’ve heard his cough?” Schenk imitated Dismas’s cough. “That’s from the catacombs!” Murmurs, applause.
Dismas couldn’t take any more. He put his arm on Schenk’s shoulder and declared, “I think our dear Schenk is the truest relic here!” Laughter.
Schenk said, “I warn you—he’s going to give us a lecture, so, quick, fill your glasses—and cover your ears with your hands!”
Dismas knew there was no point in talking ethics to a boozed-up crowd with purses bulging with guldens. Better just to tell them, Well, fellows, it’s been a good year, and here’s to us. But let’s at least try as we go forward to keep in mind that ours is a special calling, a sacred calling, really, and as a . . .
He looked out over the sea of glassy eyes.
He had to force the phrase from his lips . . . a confraternity of professionals, we . . . we . . .
They stared back, blearily.
“Well,” Dismas said, “we have to hold ourselves to standards. That’s all.”
Silence. Stares. What in God’s name is he talking about?
Dismas sucked in his breath and said, “I’ve seen some items this week that frankly do not represent the highest standard.”
Someone in the crowd shouted, “If it’s standards you give a shit about, what about your Tetzel?”
A roar of approval.
“He is not my Tetzel,” Dismas said. He loathed Tetzel, but he had to be somewhat careful here. “You can have him.”
Scattered laughter. But now indulgence hawking was on the table.
“He works for your Archbishop Albrecht!”
Dismas held up his hands in surrender.
“My Tetzel? My Albrecht? Friend, if the Archbishop of Mainz hires Friar Tetzel to sell indulgences for him, what would you have me do? I’m just a bone dealer, like yourself. Bones bring pilgrims. Pilgrims bring money. This is the business we have chosen.”
“That’s well and fine,” someone shouted. “But if you’re going to preach about standards, preach to Tetzel.”
“Preach? To a Dominican?”
“Didn’t he claim that his indulgences could free a man from Purgatory even if he had ravished the Virgin?”
Into the silence that fell—the topic of carnal relations with the Mother of God had a sobering effect—Dismas said, “If Tetzel said such a thing, then he should buy an indulgence for himself. As for me, I need a drink, before you bastards finish it all off yourselves.”
Dismas’s inquisitor sought him out. He was a Milanese named Vitranelli. His field was lapidary relics. Pieces of the Via Dolorosa, on which Jesus walked to his death; the stone he stepped on when he ascended to Heaven; rocks used to stone saints to death. His manner was courtly. He said he hadn’t meant to sound flippant. But surely Master Dismas agreed that indulgence sales, especially in Brandenburg and other parts of the Empire, were a scandal.
The Milanese seemed a good fellow. Dismas said to him, as one professional to another, “Look, Tetzel makes me want to puke. But what would you have me do? He works for Albrecht. Albrecht is a client. A big client. Do you lecture your clients about their employees?”
Vitranelli shrugged in a distinctly Milanese way. “I am concerned because Tetzel will destroy it for all of us. Sooner or later, someone will say, Enough! It is time again to drive the money changers from the temple. To clean the stables. And if it should come to that, what will become of us?”
Dismas nodded. He understood all this very well. His other principal client, Frederick of Saxony, was repelled by the outrageous indulgence hawking by Albrecht and Tetzel. Frederick did not permit Tetzel to ply his trade inside the borders of Saxony. So Tetzel set up shop just over the border, infuriating Frederick. But what could he do about it? So long as Tetzel remained on Brandenburg soil, he was under the protection of Albrecht.
Vitranelli insinuated that Frederick’s “outrage” was really only jealousy, putting on airs. Pope Leo had issued a bull licensing Albrecht to sell indulgences (splitting the proceeds fifty-fifty with Rome). The bull had also nullified all other indulgence sales sold within the Holy Roman Empire, including Frederick’s. Albrecht had the monopoly. If you wanted to buy yourself, or a loved one, out of Purgatory, you had to get the indulgence from Albrecht. To be sure, others continued to sell them—including Frederick—but they lacked the sanction of Rome. And could thus be considered worthless. A dizzying business, indulgences.
Dismas conceded Signore Vitranelli’s point about Frederick’s indulgence selling. Galling, to concede a point of ethics to a Milanese! He said to him in a just-between-us way, “Here’s the situation, as you yourself know. Albrecht’s family, the Brandenburgs, want power, as much as they can get. They wanted the archbishopric for their little Albrecht. But he was only twenty-three at the time, too young by canon law to be archbishop. So what did they do? Arranged for a papal dispensation.”
He continued. “But a dispensation like that costs a fortune. So they went to Jacob Fugger, the banker of Augsburg. Fugger provided the money. They bought the dispensation.
“Then the Electorate of Mainz came available for purchase. And that’s real power, to be one of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Empire. They who decide who’s going to be emperor. Now the Brandenburgs want that for their young Albrecht as well. So it was back to Fugger for more gold—this time, twenty-one thousand ducats.
“Now Albrecht had to sell indulgences, a lot of indulgences, in order to pay back his loans. And so,” Dismas said, “we have his Friar Tetzel and his circus. Meanwhile, Pope Leo is supposed to be using his fifty percent share of Albrecht’s indulgence sales to rebuild Saint Peter’s in Rome. In marble, with a great dome.”
Dismas smiled. “But as you in Milan, and as we here know very well, Leo has other expenses. His pet albino elephant, Hanno. His hunting lodges. His banquets and revels and associated carnalities, which make the Satyricon of Petronius look like a lenten retreat. And in the end, everyone is working for Fugger.”
“Who is German,” Vitranelli said, with a note of triumph.
“Yes, German,” Dismas said. “I don’t suggest that venality is a uniquely Italian characteristic. But whether all this is what Our Lord had in mind when he said, ‘Go forth and multiply,’ is”—he shrugged—“well, it’s a question for theologians. Not for a grubby bone dealer like myself.”
Signor Vitranelli smiled and conceded that indeed, the workings of divine grace were beyond the comprehension of man.
This settled, they refilled their cups and drank.
Dismas said, “As to the venality of the Germans, sure, there’s Fugger. And yes, Frederick displays his relics, and yes, people pay for the privilege of venerating them. And purchase indulgences. And convince themselves that this will lessen their time in Purgatory. But what money Frederick makes selling indulgences, he spends on building his university and Castle Church. Not on pet elephants and banquets. It’s something to see, his university. And I’ll tell you this, signore. He and the other German princes are less and less happy to be sending guldens and ducats over the Alps to Pope Leo in Rome. To help him to pay for all that marble.”
“How many relics does Frederick have?”
“Fifteen thousand. Perhaps more.”
Vitranelli made a face. “That’s a good client. And you have two.”
“I don’t complain. They’re very different people. For Albrecht, the relics are business. Frederick loves his relics for themselves. When I’m hunting for him, it’s . . . well”—he grinned—“I don’t like to say ‘quest.’ Three years in the Holy Land will cure you of that word, sure. But I feel good when I am searching for him. With Albrecht it feels more like . . . well, I can’t explain. I’m drunk, you see.”
Vitranelli held up his cup. “Holy bones.”
“Holy bones,” Dismas said to the clunk of pewter. He left to find Markus at the Red Boar.