Tertullian famously said in de carne Christi “It is certain because it is impossible,” and as we know that intellectuals like himself are inclined to perversity, we will take him at his word, but most can scarcely conceive the blank abstractness of impossibility, dazzling though it must have been to the great Montanist. Therefore we seek a more concrete figuration. The devotees of sideshows and of fantasy fiction share the recreation of seeing the impossible, and their taste is consecrated by ancient usage. Beowulf, after all, was bound with several prose texts in Latin one of which describes the career of a dog-headed St. Christopher who was not merely freakish, but an eighteen foot tall giant to boot, while another codex in the same binding entitled Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle features a great battle between men and water monsters, and The Wonders of the East offers many further marvels. So the text of our great Old English epic was preserved neither by hard-drinking heroes nor by poetry-loving aesthetes, but by lovers of horror fiction. It may be that a greater part of the love of poetry than has been recognized arises from a fondness for the extraordinary, the raising of hairs on the back of the neck may be inspired indifferently by impossible conjunctions (such as metaphors, each of which trades in the monstrous and the bizarre), as well as by honeyed words, truth, or the sublime, whatever may be found by experiment to tweak the imagination in a most stimulating way.
Even in overcast October Prague’s Old Town Square is full of tourists sitting at the feet of Jan Hus, waiting for the astronomical clock, that marvel of the Newtonian cosmos for which we now can only feel nostalgia, to strike, and warding off the classical music touts whose handbills, promoting concerts in every hall and church of the city, would litter the ground were everyone not so tidy. One lone leafleter pushed not Vivaldi and Dvorak but the Museum of Torture Implements.
No admission at all was required at the door of the Church of sv. Jakub where the curious visitor might see in the shadows of a high ceiling a five hundred year old withered arm hanging high, its dark irregular undeniably real meat nature contrasting with the gold and jeweled splendor of the ecclesiastical decoration. A thief, it seems, had tried to steal from the Virgin’s offerings, and her image seized his arm and would not let go, so there it hangs making an unceasing prima facie case to all, decently far enough off but allowing the imagination to stitch a custom tailored nightmare, a cautionary tale for each soul’s vice.
In the Loreta, itself Counter Reformation propaganda in stone, a model of a building said to have been miraculously transported to Italy from the Near East, the elaborately rococo altar of the kostel Narozeni is flanked by two saints. Not by paintings or sculptural representations of the saints, not by measly relics whose bejeweled case conceals the juju within, but the sanctified ladies themselves: full-body skeletons of Saints Felicissima and Marcia, dressed in finery, their faces the more horrific for waxen masks. Surely, during a tiresome homily, the viewer’s gaze often drifted to their frozen forms, as, more eloquently than the priest’s words, their silence mocked all vanity.
A nearby chapel honors the lady whose glorious destiny was to become St. Starosta through her wish not to marry. Her spotless virginity was threatened by a marriage of state, a fine match with the king of Sicily, urged by her worldly father. Desperate, she prayed that the dreaded match might somehow be averted, and she woke on her wedding day to find herself with a fine thick full beard, proof then against even the most ardent fiancé. Spooked by this portent, the suitor deserted, imagining already the lampoons that might be composed against him, and her furious father had her crucified. Her image hangs suspended yet in a chapel in a high place in the middle of Europe.
The glory of hegemonic European Christianity was its ability to stretch and make faces. The same mythology that could support the tremendum of the resurrection could produce a comic blustering Herod or stumbling Noah in mystery plays or a satisfyingly sensational seven deadly sins for Marlowe’s Faustus. There were as well sweet and sentimental devotional options, fearless and militant ones, a choice of easygoing life-embracing affirmations or of asceticism, whatever might answer to the believer’s nature and needs, a whole vocabulary of response now shrunk to Sunday morning piety. Thus we see the star of Prague with myriad diamonds, breathtaking weightless Tiepolo-like spirits, gold, gems, elegant craftwork beyond Cellini, but we see also sideshows.
And an American skeptic might see at the base of a side chapel in St. Gall’s the loveliest fluttering cherubs and lushest pink blossoms framing the gory pierced and disembodied hands and feet of the Savior who was said to suffer like the Gypsy woman sitting with her baby outside begging. And having seen beautiful babes in his own home and fine roses by the front doorway, and having just then angry blisters on several toes, at that moment he thought he understood.