“The Relic Master,” by Christopher Buckley. Simon and Schuster, 400 pp., $26.95.
Christopher Buckley, merry cynic and satirist, has found targets for his skewering pen in Washington knavery, politically correct bathos, deep-state conspiracy and the dark arts of public relations. He now follows Martin Luther, John Calvin and any number of more lighthearted souls in taking on the 16th century’s relic trade.
It is 1517 when we meet “relic master” Dismas, a former Swiss mercenary who has, with reasonable scrupulousness, turned to buying and selling sacred bits and pieces. His main business comes from supplying the competing relic collections of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, and Albrecht of Brandenberg, elector of the Holy Roman Empire. The latter, who is also a cardinal and holds two archbishoprics, carries on a brisk business in indulgences. His animus toward his rival, Frederick, whose collection is superior to his, is further fueled by the man’s protection of the pestiferous Luther, whose fulminations against indulgences are depressing the market.
Like indulgences, relics, too, in all their multiplicity and specialized powers, represent revenue, attracting the sick and the penitent who cough up their pittance to be healed or absolved of their sins. Buckley gets a good deal of mileage out of all the bones and holy rubbish filling the market: St. Barbara’s toe, St. Anne’s thumb, St. Christopher’s knuckle, St. Thomas’s finger, St. Jerome’s mandible, St. Diomedes’ skull, a fragment of St. Speciosa’s coccyx, and ribs from St. Sebald and St. Chrysogonus. (The author’s membership in Yale’s Skull and Bones society could be paying off here.) Among the other trophies circulating through these pages are St. John the Baptist’s loin cloth, St. Anthony’s tongue, all sorts of crucifixion tackle, and, of course, the “Holy Prepuce” (“one of twelve of its kind”).
One of the most sought after items is the holy shroud, the cloth in which the body of the crucified Christ was wrapped — and, unsurprisingly, there are quite a few of them around. Both Frederick and Albrecht want one, but only the genuine article. When Dismas learns that his life savings have been embezzled, he teams up with his old pal, the artist Albrecht Dürer, who helps him create a shroud of arresting detail, which Dismas then sells to Archbishop Albrecht. An unfortunate prank involving semen (this is a book for the 13-year-old boy in every reader) leads to the two miscreants being sent off to nab the shroud of Chambéry (later of Turin). They are accompanied by three loutish soldiers and the five of them, dressed as monks, squabble and bicker their way across Europe from Wittenberg to Chambéry, a wearisome trip for everyone, not least the reader. Along the way they rescue a beautiful young woman from the rapacious Count Lothar of Schramberg. She is Magda, a student of Paracelsus and wise in the properties of herbal potions, including, it hardly needs saying, a nostrum for the disobliging male organ.
The busy but tedious plot allows our friends to appear at Chambéry masquerading as Count Lothar and his entourage. There they find not only Charles “the Good,” Duke of Savoy, whose court this is, but also Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, who, though dying grotesquely of syphilis, has designs on the lovely Magda. One thing doggedly leads to another, and eventually to the staging of a tableau of the Last Supper by Charles with some noblemen and our boy Dismas. This scene — it being the age of miracles — is actually and finally funny. But it has taken well over 300 limping pages to get here. Some fast-paced, relatively engaging action provides a conclusion, but it is small recompense for having slogged through so many, many pages of pro forma humor, rackety plot and inane chitchat.