Cinema Paradiso: Re-Picturing the Medieval Cult of Saints

Cinema Paradiso: Re-Picturing the Medieval Cult of Saints

By M.A. Hall

Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Volume 2, Number 1, 2005

Charlton Heston in Ben Hur

Introduction: Transmission, appropriation, and change are fundamental to the notion of cultural continuity; continuity is often achieved through change. It is with some frequency that this presents itself as a self-evident pattern when one studies medieval material culture. Most recently this was the case in an analysis undertaken by the author on the cult of saints in medieval Perthshire. There an observation was made on the continuation of relic cults in our apparently more secular world and out-with – but frequently overlapping with – the orthodoxy of the main religious bodies.

In the wake of the release of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ (US 2003) the media were full of stories of the mass production of holy relics, including nails and crowns of thorns, many of them available via the Internet. The popularity of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (NZ/US 2001-03) created a huge demand for relics relating to the film (and to the author of the book from which the films were adapted, J R R Tolkien) including scams based around faked costumes from the film.

Historically contextualised phenomenon these may be (they are most definitely of our times) but such relics of Tolkien or of the filmed Christ stand for many in the same psychological relationship to parts of our cultural landscape as the relics of saints did for some of our medieval forebears. I wish to examine this contemporary, partcontinuing and part-appropriated notion of the cult of saints by looking at filmed depictions of saints, primarily in European tradition of cinema but also (to a lesser degree) its American off-shoot, i.e. the Hollywood tradition.

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