“An Object, A Person, and a Moment”: Christian Relics and the Artifacts of Warehouse 13

The popular television show Warehouse 13 recently concluded its fifth and final season on the SyFy channel. This post takes a closer look at the series and explores the connections between the amazing artifacts of Warehouse 13 and the veneration of relics within certain Christian traditions.

SyFy’s Warehouse 13 debuted on July 7, 2009, and it ended its six-episode, fifth and final season on May 19, 2014. Produced by Jack Kenny and David Simkins, Warehouse 13 is a light-hearted dramatic comedy about secret government agents Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly) and Pete Lattimer (Eddie McClintock) who track down “artifacts” and store them in a giant warehouse in South Dakota.

Mrs. Irene Frederic (CCH Pounder) oversees Warehouse 13, a repository of supernatural human artifacts imbued with powers that usually activate upon touch or manipulation of some sort. Some artifacts are innocuous enough, such as Clark Gable’s Grooming Kit, which causes excessive growth of the fingernails. Many artifacts, however, can grant the user incredible power (e.g., driftwood from the Titanic can be used as a weapon to induce instant hypothermia).

According to Mrs. Frederic, “The creation of an artifact is simply the meeting of an object, a person…and a moment.” The artifacts of Warehouse 13 are generally borrowed from both history and mythology, and they embody the creative power of that confluence of object, person, and moment in time. The historical artifacts include Attila the Hun’s helmet, Ferdinand Magellan’s Astrolabe, and a brick from the Berlin wall. Mythological artifacts are drawn from a broad spectrum of world mythologies; the Scarab of Imhotep, Pandora’s Box, the Wings of Daedalus, Vyasa’s Jade Elephant, and the Norse Hammer are but a few. Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod boosts the energy of anything it touches, while Lewis Carroll’s Looking Glass is a gateway to another dimension.

Warehouse 13 sits at the corner of history, religion, the occult, and pop culture. It has been compared to the X-Files and Friday the 13th: The Series, and like the latter, it does not take itself too seriously. The main characters Pete and Myka, as well as recurring characters Mrs. Frederic, Arthur (Artie) Nielson (Saul Rubinek), Claudia Donavan (Allison Scaglioti), Leena (Genelle Williams), Steve Jinks (Aaron Ashmore), and Helena G. Wells (Jaime Murray) are serious enough at times within the primary meta narrative, but these movements are overshadowed by moments of light-hearted humor within individual episodes. In “Merge With Caution,” the romantic weekend plans of both Pete and Myka are thwarted when an artifact causes their consciousnesses to switch bodies. Pete and Myka race to reunite the artifact – a bookend of Robert Louis Stevenson – with its mate. They must do so before their two bodies eventually try to occupy the same physical space. The episode deploys tropes of mistaken identity and unresolved sexual tension within the larger narrative framework of artifact recovery and eventual storage within Warehouse 13.

Warehouse 13 is not explicitly about Christianity, but its fundamental premise that objects have supernatural power in relation to a historical person invites comparisons. Artifacts are much like the relics of saints within certain branches of Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Relics and artifacts may be likened to fetishes that transfer mystical powers to the one who touches, possesses, or even gets near them. While Warehouse 13 focuses on the powers of historically significant artifacts, these churches promote the power of relics that can inspire believers, beginning with the relics of Christ and the apostles. For Catholics, the Shroud of Turin is one of the most popular of Christ’s relics, and pilgrims flock to its shrine at the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. To believers, this burial shroud is imprinted with the face of Christ and is reputed to have special powers; it has been credited with numerous healings and other miracles over the centuries.

The word “relic” comes from the Latin verb “relinquo,” which means, “I leave behind.” Relics have always been an integral part of the history of Christianity: believers have carefully collected, guarded, and venerated the blood, bones, and teeth of the martyrs and saints for centuries. For believers, saints are exemplars of piety who, in death, can intercede before God on the behalf of those who pray to them or venerate their holy relics. As the Church grew over the centuries, Christians established a growing complex of supernatural relics with the power to perform miracles and help people in their daily lives.

Theologians have often been wary of what the common people believe about relics, lest the people forget who gives them their power. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) likened relics to a keepsake, such as a ring, that a father might give to his son. The son cherished the ring not because of the ring itself, but because of the memory and honor due to his father. For Augustine, Christians should dutifully honor God the Father through the relics of Christ and the saints. Jerome articulated the official position of the Catholic Church in the early fifth century CE: “We honor the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honor the servants that their honor may be reflected upon their Lord.” For theologians like Augustine, Jerome, and others, relics connected Christians to the Holy Spirit who worked miracles through those relics.

Despite the distinction between relics as objects and the Holy Spirit they channel, relics eventually became an edifice of magical power held up by (its critics could have argued) all the wood claimed to be from the true cross of Christ. The best example of this obsession with relics is the collection of Frederick III Electoral Saxony (1463-1525 CE), better known as Frederick the Wise. Fredrick possessed one of the largest relic collections in Europe at the turn of the sixteenth century. By his death, he held a collection of over 19,000 relics at All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, including milk from the Virgin Mary and thorns from Jesus’ crown.

Frederick’s relic collection and Mrs. Frederic’s Warehouse 13 have more in common than just their serendipitous names. Frederick the Wise’s relics were carefully stored and catalogued; an inventory from 1518 numerated some 17,443 relics. As for Warehouse 13, when Pete and Myka recover an artifact, they relocate it to its designated place in the Warehouse. Indeed, the Christmas Artifact Section of Warehouse 13 contains Rudolph’s nose and the infamous Leg Lamp from A Christmas Story. The difference, of course, is that Warehouse 13 is a secret protective vault, while Frederick the Wise’s relic collection was the crown jewel of his piety.

Catholic and Orthodox believers around the world still maintain deeply rooted historical and cultural traditions of relic veneration that border on fetishism, and the United States is no exception. The blood of recently canonized saint Pope John Paul II is currently on tour through the cities of Boston, New York, and Baltimore. A recent article from the Boston Globe about this tour highlights the enduring power of relics in popular Catholic piety today.

On its face, Warehouse 13 is escapist science fiction fare. Still, what are artifacts if not relics of famous figures or events from within the broad historical narratives of politics, science, and world mythology? As Mrs. Frederic says, they are objects imbued with the power of a moment and a person. Instead of saints and martyrs within traditional Catholic, Orthodox, and other Christian histories, however, select scientists, inventors, and historical leaders and events lead the way. In both cases, the narratives are dominated by “greatest hits.” As a historian of Christianity and a follower of pop culture, I think it is worth interrogating the model of history promoted by Warehouse 13 and the kind of church histories articulated above. What is privileged and what is not within these narratives? Why this artifact and not some other? Why is this a relic and that is not?

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