April 8, 2013

Holy Cards

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]


Simple wood-block print holy cards existed as early as the mid-fifteenth century, but it was the introduction of lithography at the end of the eighteenth century along with advances in modern printing that made possible the mass reproduction of holy cards and their wide distribution throughout the Catholic world in the modern era. Holy cards were everywhere in Catholic culture; they were one of the essential media of Catholic piety and social life. From the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, the cards shared a common devotional aesthetic. Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and the saints were depicted in warm colors, rich blues, reds, and browns that heightened the drama and emotional intensity of the imagery. The holy figures looked out from the cards at human affairs with plangent sympathy and concern.

Catholicism is a culture of sacred presence. Relics of saints (pieces of their bodies or objects touched to their bodies); water, soil, or other matter associated with sites of miraculous events; statues, images and crucifixes are all media of presence. (This is not an exhaustive list!) Holy cards belonged to this culture of presence too. This was most obvious in the case of cards that came with a miniscule relic affixed to them and visible in a small transparent window cut into the paper. One of the most popular holy cards of the twentieth century showed the southern Italian stigmatic Padre (now Santo) Pio, saying mass, his bloody hands folded in prayer, and included a tiny piece of stained fabric that had been touched to his wounds. But all holy cards were media of presence. The devout kissed them; they held them while they prayed; the cards were exchanged from hand to hand; they were tucked into the frames of bedroom mirrors and taped to walls. They were used in the making of household shrines. Holy cards were carried into all the spaces of the modern world, onto battlefields in soldiers’ pockets, for example, into industrial and post-industrial workplaces, and especially into hospitals.


February 23, 2013

Prayer Cloths: Remnants of the Holy Ghost and the Texture of Faith

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Prayer cloths collected by the author from three Pentecostal churches in Virginia. Note the use of pinking shears to create the “teethed” ridges on two of the cloths.

Prayer cloths are the most significant devotional objects among small Holiness and Pentecostal church congregations throughout the United States. Techniques of manual imposition and communal prayer transform these textile fragments from mere remnants or pieces of detritus into sacred conduits for the healing and apotropaic power of the Holy Ghost. Once metamorphosed through the performance of communal prayer, these objects are exchanged among members of a congregation and continue to circulate into broader communal networks of belief.

At a basic level, the prayer cloth accrues social and experiential force through the exchange of hands. In terms of the private devotional manipulation of the object, the tactile sensations produced as the cloth is rubbed between the fingers or upon the surface of the body enlivens a haptic mnemonic device for the “playback” of the initial communal prayer. Sensations of divine presence and communal bonding-at-a-distance are thus actuated through this performance of devotional manipulation. At the level of temporal articulation, the physical movement of the prayer cloth as it circulates between different members of the community, and the successive deferrals, delays, and temporal lags produced through this exchange of hands, allow for an appearance of belief. Once again, belief does not have its origin within the interiorities of the religious subject, but becomes tangible, sensible, and compelling through an economy of exchange.

The performance of communal prayer, or “anointing,” cannot be abstracted from the physical process of cutting these textile remnants from a preexisting surface of fabric. Combined with the techniques of communal prayer, this rending of the fabric makes an implicit commentary on the nature and movement of the Holy Ghost. Just as a scrap or remnant of fabric can be cut from its original totality to be patched-in to another textile surface or context, the cutting of the cloth mirrors on a material level the capacity of Pentecostal communal prayer to cut-out, wrest, or excise power from the diffuse totality of Holy Ghost potentiality and to “patch” the object into the threadbare exigencies of everyday life.