Sacred Objects: Medieval History and Star Wars

tags: medieval history, Star Wars, cultural history

Stephenie McGucken earned her PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 2018 with a thesis examining the representation of women in Late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and what they reveal about the audiences who used the manuscripts. She founded the Edinburgh Medieval Pigment Project to facilitate experimentation with pigments commonly used in the Middle Ages. She is currently working on a project related to the All Souls novels and their television adaptation that analyses how various aspects of art history are deployed to create an impression of reality.

In the Star Wars: Forces of Destiny short “Art History,” Sabine Wren and her brother Tristen climb a mountain in a dusty landscape, stopping to look at a monumental statue of their ancestor, the ancient Mandalorian warrior Tarre Vizsela. Vizsela, the first Mandalorian inducted into the Jedi Order, had created the darksaber, which Sabine now wields. Upon seeing the statue, Sabine reacts in wonder: “Amazing, right? So much history and hope in one carving.” When Tristen notes that a stormtrooper outpost has been erected around the statue, Sabine decides that they should “free” it. After successfully destroying the outpost without damaging the statue, Tristen comments that it “looks happy.” The final seconds of the two-and-a-half minute episode pan over the statue, showing it free from the command post.

This short encapsulates much of how Star Wars utilizes the medieval as inspiration. The statue is reminiscent of an effigy of a medieval knight, and Vizsela’s armor is reminiscent of aspects of plate armor. The Jedi clutches his darksaber in a way that simultaneously recalls a knight holding or gesturing to his sword and holding his hands as if in prayer.

For European believers, relics allowed worshipers to encounter some aspect of an object of devotion—a holy person or place—when the object itself was physically unavailable or geographically inaccessible. They often contained something of a saint’s essence; sometimes a relic was part of the saint’s body, but it could also be something that came into contact with the saint during their lifetime, or even came into contact with the saint’s shrine after their death. Mary’s breastmilk, Christ’s foreskin, the bones of saints, and even bits of cloth all formed part of the relic economy that purported to contain and spread the holy person’s essence. Relics circulated, but so did believers, and pilgrims often bought souvenirs on their travels. Pilgrim badges served as objects of remembrance, while ampullae—small flasks—provided a means to bring home some oil or soil from a key religious site. These souvenirs, especially ampullae, provided a constant multiplication of relics, as did the division of saintly bodies and clothes.

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