Provenance uncertain, but ancient human head draws plenty of bidders

Auctions often throw up some pretty unusual lots, none more so than the human head that went under the hammer in rural Ireland at the weekend. And this is not just any old human head: it is claimed to be that of St Vitalis of Assisi, the patron saint of genital diseases.

The auctioneer, Damien Matthews, joked from his podium that the head, which he described as "probably the most unusual item I will ever sell", had provoked interest from "all kinds of crackpots and oddballs".

Speaking earlier, Mr Matthews says the head was part of an annual fine art sale at Annesbrook, a country house best known for being rebuilt in preparation for a visit by George IV, then Prince Regent, who turned up drunk and didn't bother to go inside.

"The Anglo-Irish family who are selling it had an ancestor who brought it back from a grand tour in the 18th century," Mr Matthews said. "The current owners didn't want it frightening their kids in the hall and so it was pushed out to an outbuilding, which is where I came upon it.

The skull sits inside a carved wooden reliquary with a garland of equally dead flowers. Mr Matthews said interest had been strong, with 100 enquiries including a "well-known Irish rock star" and several Hollywood celebrities.

"I was a little repelled and shocked at first, but it's an object of beauty as well as being sad and macabre," he said.

In the end an unnamed bidder from Los Angeles paid €3,500 for the memento mori, well above the reserve of €800 and outbidding everyone in the room, including a couple in their 30s who settled instead for an elephant's foot.

Quite whose head is in the box may not be as simple as it seems, however. There are no official documents verifying that the cracked skull belongs to Vitalis of Assisi.

Reverend Dr Vincent Twomey, a theologian at the Divine Word missionaries in Maynooth, County Kildare, cast doubt on the head's provenance. "The relics claim to be those of a martyr but St Vitalis of Assisi wasn't a martyr, which raises all kinds of questions. There was a Vitalis in the fourth century who was, but that's quite a bit older," he said.

Rock musicians and Hollywood stars may have a taste for the macabre but the Catholic Church doesn't see the sale as legitimate.

"I'm quite upset by this," Dr Twomey said. "It's forbidden under canon law." Statute 1190 of the code of canon law of the Catholic church says: "It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...