“Tell Him I Saw His Head in a Box”

Some years ago we visited a traveling exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago called The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence. Among the exhibits was a small collection of reliquaries of the period, including a large, silver, cathedral-shaped box identified as a “Reliquary of St. Sixtus.” It took me a few minutes to realize that behind the small crystal window in front, you could see the teeth and rotted lips of the saint, and that the box apparently held his entire head, wrapped in a golden net.

I stared in fascination for a good fifteen minutes, and pointed it out to some of the other visitors as they stopped to view the object. A few thanked me earnestly, and one or two just said “gross.” A young teenager looked horrified and whispered something into her dad’s ear, who chuckled and said, “She says it’s too bad they didn’t have braces in those days.”

I looked it up, and in fact there were three St. Sixtuses, all popes, from the second, third and fifth centuries respectively; but it hardly matters which one it was supposed to be, because the reliquary, after all, was made a thousand years later. So I sincerely doubt that the head actually belonged to any of them.

Nun's Head Reliquary
Nun’s Head Reliquary

A few months later I had an unusually vivid dream. I was sitting in an old-timey diner across the table from my late mom, with another ghost, a young woman, on my right. We were chatting about this and that, and my mom started joking about how half of her “stinks,” (meaning the physical part that’s deceased). I raised my arms and said, “I already stink, and I’m not even dead!” The two ghosts laughed politely, and the topic changed to famous people from history they had met since entering upon the afterlife. It occurred to me that they might be able to find out for me if the head in the reliquary was really the head of St. Sixtus, or just any old head someone found lying around. But I was reluctant to ask, because it seemed like an imposition. So I told them, “By the way, if you meet some guy called St. Sixtus, tell him I saw his head in a box.”

If you Google “St. Sixtus” you also get a reference to St. Sixtus of Westvleteren Abbey in Westvleteren, Belgium. I can’t tell if it’s the Abbey of “St. Sixtus of Westvleteren,” or just an Abbey in Westvleteren dedicated to one of the people called “St. Sixtus.” Nothing on their own website, aside from their name, makes any reference to their patron saint. It does make clear, however, that they are famous for their beer. They explain:

The name ‘Trappist beer’ is protected by law and can only be applied to beer brewed by Trappist monks in their monastery. Among all Belgian beers only six are allowed to use the name of Trappist Beer: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren. Only these six beers are brewed in a Trappist Abbey. They can be recognised by this logo.

I guess they have their priorities straight!

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