- Kings and Priests have a common unction of holy oil, a common spirit of sanctification, a common quality of benediction … whatever they do by virtue of this grace is not done by a man, but by a God and a Christ of the Lord. (Norman Anonymous, ca. 1100)
- L’opération souveraine, qui ne tient que d’elle-même son autorité, expie en même temps cette autorité. (Georges Bataille)
Gil Anidjar locates the “the way in which and upon which Christianity made its mark” in the form and substance of blood—blood is, per the thesis of his opus Blood, “the element of Christianity,” that thing which “mobilizes and condences,” “singles out and constitutes” the unique force of Christian civilization. He writes of blood following Schmitt as the basis of sovereign legitimacy: “sovereignty itself [is] an institution grounded in the supreme right to spill and draw blood”—a privilege native to what he calls the imagined “exceptionality” of the Christian middle ages.
Elaborating on this theme, I want to posit an ancillary element (substance, fluid) alongside Anidjar’s; to place, on the shelf next to Christ’s blood, a vial of holy oil. This element—an inheritance from the Jews, no less—I offer as the support to Anidjar’s insistence on the singularity of Christianity (Derrida: “either it is the only religion, or no religion at all”). If blood is, indeed, the flowing life-source of Christian domination, then the anointing oil is the element of its mysterium tremendum, its hidden rooms, its opacity. As oil is for the Zohar the “mystery of mysteries” (razin de-razin), so for Christianity the oil of holy anointment is the ground of sovereign ineffability, that negating force which sustains empire.
A note on names: what I’m calling anointing oil is a translation of the Greek khrîsma, a noun form of the verb khríō: to smear, rub, anoint. This lent itself itself to the Latin sanctum chrisma and the English “chrism”. Thus also “Christ,” khrīstós, the anointed one—a translation of the Hebrew mashiach, from the root M-Š-H: to anoint. What for the Greeks was a question of topical olive oil and its health benefits became for the Christians a questions of grace; as Cyril of Jerusalem writes in his Mystagogic Catecheses: “Christ was not anointed by men with oil or material ointment, but the Father … anointed him with the spiritus sanctus.” Like many ritual aspects of biblical Judaism, then, anointment in the person of Christ became totally spiritualized—a notion inherited in certain depictions of Byzantine coronation, like that of Alexios above, in which a king’s head is touched by the Holy Spirit.
The immateriality of Christ’s anointment didn’t discourage Christian legalists from thinking deeply about the proper way to mix and consecrate chrism. I copy a recipe from a nineteenth century Russian Orthodox manual below:
The consecration of oil in the western rite is less elaborate and much more public, meriting its own “Chrism Mass” each Holy Thursday. The Church of England in the coronation of its monarchs has historically included the gland oil of civets and ambergris; in deference to Charles III’s ecological concerns, the oil used in this Saturday’s coronation will be entirely olive oil based. Likewise, as an expression of the new king’s ecumenical (read: Perennialist) sympathies, the coronation chrism has been blessed in a joint “special ceremony” by an Anglican archbishop and the eastern Orthdox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos II, using oil from the Mount of Olives.
I record the above with an acknowledgement that the actual chemical reality of chrism has been the subject of a kind of strategic ambiguity. Although its fragrant ingredients are (only occasionally) a matter of public knowledge, there remains a detectable discomfort from Church authorities in dealing with the oil as a having any kind of real material property to speak of; like the transformed sacrament, like the blood and body of Christ, the real substance of this oil is a dubious and opaque thing. Just as the event of the anointment is the one aspect of the coronation hidden from view by a screen (in the case of the present king, one designed by an Orthodox iconographer—the Byzantine influences are endless), so to is its element a mystery: a compromise with the Holy Spirit, negotiating the boundaries of earth and heaven.
The European monarch’s participation in this substance has itself been a matter of historical controversy. At root of this question is a clerical monopoly on which parties have the right to the earthly imitation of Christ, what Kantorowicz calls a royal “christomimesis”. By the decree of Pope Innocent II in the third century access to genuine chrism was the domain of bishops alone, and the anointment of kings relied on a lesser quality oil. It would be difficult to find a more concrete example of the submission of temporal power to spiritual authority in the early middle ages.
In the English case, however, we take for granted that the power of the king is total, and that absolute temporal and spiritual power are united in a single body—the monarch being also Supreme Governor of the Church and Defender of the Faith. The question then arises: who, excepting the Holy Spirit, has right to bestow power onto the highest existing authority? If the king’s power is by ordination of God alone, by what merit does the archbishop of Canterbury (of all people) communicate this power?
I need to return here to my native language: for the Rebbe Rashab, coronation finds its source in the will of the king’s subjects. This logic follows from a citation in the gemara (Sanhedrin 22a) which equates the crowning of a king with the renewed “fear” (or “awe”) of his subjects. A nation must desire a king and through their fear inspire the will to kingship within him. A seeming reversal of our usual logic, yet one still grounded in classical political theory: the king’s authority is rooted in the total incorporation of the subjects within his body (notes of Hobbes; notes of Louis XIV: l’etat, c’est moi).
There are two ways to think about this dynamic. The most obvious would be to imagine the total negation of the nation’s will in deference to the will of the sovereign. This is the line pursued by the one of the last great conservative political theorists, the Lubavitcher Rebbe:
- A coronation (even on the earthly plane, how much more so when the concept is used as a metaphor) involves the ultimate self-negation [bittul]. The people give themselves over to the king entirely to the extent that they no longer feel their own desires at all. Rather, they concentrate on the king alone. (Rosh Hashanah, 5750)
From a Hasidic perspective, then, the holy oil of coronation finds its real substance in the bittul of the king’s subjects, a variation of the principle that the essence of divine service is in self-negation.
A more radical reading, however, would suggest the opposite: coronation implies the willful self-contraction of the sovereign himself; a tsimtsum that allows him the space to incorporate not merely the state but the spirit of the empty crown. Upon coronation a man sheds his personal identity and becomes, like Christ, a vessel of pure divinity—a king.
This is what Kantorowicz means in writing of the “immaterial and invisible Crown” as the agent of hereditary monarchy which sublimates the particularity of its individual wearers, a “dynastic continuity without break or incision and, as it were, without change of person—despite a change of the mortal individuals.” This is also how I read the Byzantine illumination below, wherein the individual being anointed (in this case the emperor Basil II) is by far the smallest man present. Coronation requires one to make themselves tiny, to negate and deny the fact of their person. This is the secret of anointment: kénōsis.