Dark Relics: TFA and History #2

One of the most visually arresting moments in The Force Awakens trailer had to be the image of Darth Vader’s iconic helmet. Darth Vader's battered helmet But it’s more than the helmet itself, it’s what it implies. Examine the still closely – see how the worn helmet isn’t just shown on the remains of the pyre? No, this helmet has been carefully retrieved and preserved. It is a relic, a relic of the Empire. And relics have a long history in our own world. Maybe their stories will add some insight into what’s going on as we await the seventh movie.

What is a relic? To a historian of Christianity, a relic is either actual remains or an artifact associated with a holy person. For instance, you could have a relic being a thorn from the crown that Jesus wore at his crucifixion or the bones of a saint, carefully preserved centuries after her or his death. Relics were preserved in churches but were also treasured by individuals who often sought out these significant remains. For instance, in the fourth century, St. Helena, St. Helena (15th c. illumination)mother to Emperor Constantine, discovered the True Cross upon which Jesus was crucified. The relic was revered not only for the historic connection, but for its miraculous powers, in this case, to revive the dead. Throughout history, relics not only memorialized the founders and great figures of the faith; relics also offered worshippers a chance to connect with the divine and the miracles that such a connection might offer. Many wealthy individuals collected relics or, at the very least, sought to visit and draw on their power.

Some relics were as gruesome as Vader’s half-destroyed helmet, even more so. Bits of bone, hair and teeth were treasured by faithful followers. Many were housed in the most extravagant and sometimes macabre housings known as reliquaries, such as this Reliquary Bustbust of St. Yrieix, crafted in the thirteenth century to preserve a fragment of the saint’s centuries-old remains. In the trailer clip, Vader’s helmet appears with less ostentation but clearly some care. Perhaps a supporter of the empire’s restoration sought out the remains and plans to wield them for a Force-driven miracle or to inspire the masses?

Relics had great power in the medieval world, no Force needed! Believers trekked across the continent of Europe and beyond on pilgrimages often to have a chance to view or touch a relic. One of the most famous pilgrimage destinations was Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This UNESCO Heritage site was first popularized in the ninth century for preserving the remains of the apostle James. Over the centuries, a great cathedral and a host of other buildings arose to celebrate the holy power and also to serve the thousands of pilgrims who flocked there. From the trailer clip, it appears that Endor doesn’t play this role for those who have retrieved Vader’s remains. Who that is remains a mystery at this point: possibly the faithful followers of the First Order or one driven individual who seeks to wield miraculous powers wakened from Vader’s remains? In any case, I predict that Vader’s helmet will be employed like a medieval relic to inspire someone who seeks to restore the empire and the power of the Dark Side.

For more on medieval relics and reliquaries, see the Treasures of Heaven online exhibit or the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History’s Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Dark Relics: TFA and History #2

  1. Aven McMaster

    What if Vader is being revered as a martyr for the Force? He did kill the Emperor, after all — is it necessarily as a Sith he’s being remembered? Admittedly it looks a bit sinister in the trailer.

    • J Liedl

      I agree! Vader could be a rallying point for the First Order or some other group (I’m sure that the Sith aren’t completely forgotten!). His remains might have a very physical power, too, as the prequel trilogy established that midichlorians were a biological component of force-sensitivity. Maybe the bits of bone that remain actually have some miraculous power? That would make this a very powerful relic, indeed.