How the Inquisition Saved Lives

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition," goes the popular Monty Python sketch. But everyone believes that the Inquisitions rate among the all-time worst sins of the Christian Church. An 800-page report issued by the Vatican in June 2004, however, suggests that conventional wisdom is wrong. "Recourse to torture and the death sentence were not as frequent as was long believed," said Agostino Borromeo, professor of church history at Sapienza University.

In fact, only about 1 percent of the 125,000 brought before the Spanish Inquisition were executed. But the unheard story, says St. Louis University's Thomas F. Madden, is that "the Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions. It was the secular authorities that held heresy to be a capital offense, not the Church." The Inquisition "saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule." As the Inquisition "slipped out of papal hands and into those of kings," practices varied by region. This, coupled with attempts to stifle Protestantism, gave rise to the more popular view of the Inquisition.

"There is no doubt," says the report, that Inquisition procedures "were applied with excessive vigor and in some cases degenerated into real abuse." The report arose from John Paul II's desire to apologize for the abuses. "Before seeking pardon," he said, "it is necessary to have a precise knowledge of the facts. The image of the Inquisition represents almost the symbol … of scandal."

Looking good at 500

Fans of Michelangelo's biblical sculptures had a good summer, especially if they were in Florence. First restoration work finished on David, which turns 500 this year. "David is still itself, only what has changed is his luminosity," said Cinzia Parnigoni, who oversaw the cleaning of the six-ton marble statue (applying distilled water and cellulose pulp wrapped in rice paper). Elsewhere in town, the Horne Museum displayed a small wooden carving of Jesus, the latest Michelangelo discovery. The artist reportedly carved the 41cm (16 in.) figure in 1495, when he was 20, using a fresh corpse from a monastery as a model. About one or two Michelangelo "finds" turn up each year, The Guardian reported, but this one appears to be authentic.

Name that Tomb

Since early Christian historians agree that Mark the Evangelist was burned after his martyrdom, who is buried in his Venice tomb? Historian Andrew Chugg has one theory that is gaining support: the remains at St. Mark's Basilica, he argues in the July 2004 issue of History Today, belong to Alexander the Great. He'll give greater detail in The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great (Periplus, forthcoming), but the case goes like this: After the Macedonian conqueror died in his early 30s around 323 B.C., he was buried in Alexandria. But by the 4th century A.D., his remains were gone. Chugg says "somebody in the Church hierarchy, perhaps even the Patriarch himself, decided … to pretend the remains of Alexander were those of St. Mark" to protect them from being destroyed during an uprising. The Venetians who stole "Mark's" body in 828, then, were the victims of a ruse. "Both bodies were … mummified in linen, and one seems to disappear at the same time that the other appears—in almost exactly the same place, near the central crossroads of Alexandria."

Bach's Earliest Cantata—Or Not

According to some texts—including Albert Schweitzer's biography of J. S. Bach—this year marks the 300th anniversary of the composer's first cantata. But scholars now doubt that the German composer actually wrote the Easter Cantata based on the text "For Thou will not leave my Soul in Hell." Still, in 1704 Bach was the organist at Arnstadt, and some scholars believe that during this time he did write his first cantata: "Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich" (Psalm 25: "Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul"). In commemoration, the cantata will be performed at the Bach Festival in Leipzig, as well as by groups worldwide including the Hong Kong Chamber Orchestra, the Calgary Bach Festival Society Choir, Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and Boston's Emmanuel Music.

To hear Bach in more historical surroundings, travelers to Arnstadt can still visit the church (now named The Bach Church), which has been recently renovated and its organ restored to its condition of 300 years ago. The original keyboard is on display, and the church hosts an organ festival each summer.

Even more shrouded in mystery

Authentic burial cloth of Christ or medieval hoax, the Shroud of Turin is undoubtedly one of the most sensational relics in all of church history. And its long, strange story just got even more mysterious: The Journal of Optics, from London's Institute of Physics, reports that the image of a man's face also appears in the back of the linen. "Though the image is very faint, features such as nose, eyes, hair, beard, and moustache are clearly visible," Giulio Fanti, professor of Mechanical and Thermal Measurements at Padua University, told the Discovery Channel. But the image apparently isn't the result of paint seeping through from one side to another. "One extremely superficial image appears above and one below, but there's nothing in the middle. It is extremely difficult to make a fake with these features," he said. The shroud, first publicly displayed in 1355, won't go public again until 2025.

Chunky Monks

Martin Luther was relatively svelte before he left monastic life and married. Benedict ordered his monks to avoid gluttony and indigestion, "for there is nothing so opposed to Christian life as over-indulgence." Several rules governing Celtic monasteries commanded, "Take not of food till thou art hungry."

Still, today's stereotype of a medieval monk is the corpulent Friar Tuck. Now Philippa Patrick, who has been studying the hefty subject for her Ph.D. at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, says the stereotype is broad but not grossly inflated.

"They were taking in about 6,000 calories a day, and 4,500 even when they were fasting," she told The Guardian during the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. "Their meals were full of saturated fats. They were five times more likely to suffer from obesity than their secular contemporaries, including wealthy merchants or courtiers." That's because, she says, they were eating suet, lard, and butter "in startling quantities."

Patrick bases her conclusions upon 300 sets of skeletons at three London-area monasteries (Tower Hill, Bermondsey, and Merton). The monks, she says, evidenced much more obesity-related arthritis than was the norm. Several suffered from a degenerative form of arthritis called DISH (diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis), also known as Forestier's disease. "The marks of DISH keep appearing on their skeletons," Patrick told The Guardian. "It forms a coating on the spine, like candlewax dripping down the side."

Every Early English Bible in One Place

This year, the complete Holman Christian Standard Bible was released. The last few years have also seen the full English Standard Version (2001) and The Message (2002), and the full Today's New International Version is due out in 2005. With this glut of English versions, it's easy to forget how radical the first translations were. However, since 2004 is the 400th anniversary of the Hampton Court Conference (birthplace of the King James Version), early English translations are getting some attention. Of particular note is "The Bible in English" exhibit, appearing at Southern Methodist University, Princeton University, and England's University of Manchester. The exhibit includes William Tyndale's rare Pentateuch (only nine remain), two Wycliffite New Testaments, Miles Coverdale's 1535 and large 1539 Bibles, a 1560 Geneva Bible, and the highly illustrated Bishops' Bible of the 1570s. SMU's David Price and Charles C. Ryrie created the exhibit and its companion book, Let It Go among Our People (Lutterworth).