Medieval enchantment techniques: St Christopher and the Siren
World Cultural Psychiatry Research Review, June, 2011: 84-92
Transcultural psychiatry has performed an in-depth study into the suggestive practices and different forms of transcendence techniques used among traditional peoples as healing practices or as a privileged means of achieving religious and ecstasy experiences. Despite the fact that also prevailing Western cultures savvily used and still use a plurality of psychological influencing and conditioning techniques based on figurative means and architectural techniques, there is a lack of documentation on the use made of enchantment techniques by these civilizations. This paper illustrates an example of a consolidated medieval religious influencing technique through the empirical use of perceptive detachment dynamics and the achievement of transcendence. Two frescoes portraying St Christopher, located in the Upper Valley of the Nera River in the Italian region of Umbria, are herein interpreted as an example of the savvily conceived instruments to induce special states of suspended consciousness which configure the natural groundwork for subsequent canonical devotion.
St Christopher stands out among the most “carnal” and least ascetic saints described in the hagiography of Mediterranean cultures. We find him portrayed in the frescoes painted in modest mountain parish churches, often next to St Sebastian pierced with arrows. The peasant and the traveller can readily identify with both, feeling mirrored in Sebastian’s suffering and in the hope of being able to one day encounter, just like Christopher, the child Jesus, who is always portrayed candidly perched on the shoulder of the Herculean saint.
Christopher is an emblem of ailing distress, the perfect go-between to connect the believer to a pious and fatiguing existence. Indeed, St Christopher is not invoked to perform outstanding miracles and to achieve extra-mundane salvation. The Saint is not called upon to give immortality but only to prevent a bad death, a sudden and apparently unmotivated death: in practice, devotion to the saint promised a life cleansed of disease, help to “get on with life”, day after day. This makes Christopher a domestic Saint, which is his most venerated image, to be greeted like a companion. Moreover, as we will soon see, the origin of the figure is pervaded by profane aspects, thus facilitating a hostel-type camaraderie more than liturgical devotion.