Just pause for a moment and take in the monumental amount of time and resources that have been marshaled to bring the Marvel Comic Universe to life on the big screen. It’s consumed more than a decade to produce 22 movies. By the time it finishes its run, the Marvel superhero series will have earned more than $20 billion — yes, that’s a “b” at the start of that figure. It’s the highest-grossing film franchise ever.
If you sat down to watch every Marvel movie back-to-back, from Ironman to Endgame, you’d be pasted to your sofa for two full days. More than half of all Americans between 18–34 have seen at least one of these films. And it all comes down to one villain, Thanos, who wields an object that makes him god-like: the Infinity Gauntlet.
I recently ran across a comparison between the Infinity Gauntlet and — get this — a metal case in an obscure monastery in Spain that holds the incorrupt hand of a famous saint. Y’all aren’t going to believe this, but it’s the same glove.
Hold up, hold up, I told myself. The Infinity Gauntlet is the linchpin to a worldwide superhero comic and film franchise. Thanos is as far removed from a saint as it’s possible for the human imagination to conceive. Why in hell would Marvel base the most important artifact in its entire dramatic arc — literally the most important thing in the UNIVERSE if you’re a character in a Marvel story — on a weird object of veneration in a remote, cloistered monastery in Spain THAT HOLDS THE SEVERED HAND OF A 400-YEAR-OLD NUN?
So I did some digging. It’s a strange journey, but hop on for a brief ride through comic book history and odd Catholic tradition.
Rub your eyes and look for yourself: the Infinity Gauntlet is a metal glove covering Thanos’ left hand and lower forearm. The back of the glove holds six precious stones — one on each knuckle and a sixth in the middle of the back of the hand.
The severed and incorrupt left hand of St. Teresa of Ávila is enclosed in a strikingly similar case. It resides in a convent in Ronda, Spain, and as you can see, it is metal of the same hue as the gauntlet, and also extends past the wrist. The front of the case has small windows to display the saint’s hand, but the back of the glove (look in the mirror) is decorated with precious stones on each knuckle. There is no sixth stone in the middle of the back of the hand, but there is an oval-shaped decorated window there to display the saint’s hand.
How could this be coincidence? It’s a near-perfect match! Both are metal gloves of a similar color covering the left hand with jewels across the back knuckles. The Infinity Gauntlet’s yellow “mind stone” is the largest stone and occupies an oval in the middle of the back of the hand — the same shape as the open window in the relic case.
Again, I ask: What in the hell is going on here?
What does it mean?
Maybe nothing. It’s possible that somewhere along the way, a Marvel comic illustrator needed an idea for a funky glove and found this image.
That theory, though, is really hard to imagine. It’s difficult to find a good photo of the relic online now — the gauntlet was drawn into a comic before the internet existed. So, the probability of an illustrator naturally coming across an image of this relic seems small.
But they start to increase when you factor in that the Marvel comic illustrator who created Thanos and the Infinity Stones, Jim Starlin, was raised Catholic and educated at a Catholic elementary school. In fact, there was a parish named after St. Teresa of Ávila on the same side of Detroit as the area Starlin grew up in (Berkley).
Okay, so the Inifinity Gauntlet illustrator was Catholic, and perhaps — maybe — somewhere in his background, he learns about St. Teresa of Ávila. Maybe he goes to the parish or school named after her. And something about her story — some odd, gruesome, strange detail, like the fact that her hand was removed from her body and put on display — sticks in his imagination and surfaces years later.
The timing, though, seems confused. Starlin introduced Thanos as a character in 1973. While the six Infinity Stones first appear in stories with Thanos in 1976, they don’t come together in a glove until the “Infinity Gauntlet” series that started in 1990 (specifically, Silver Surfer #44 — see, I told you I did some digging). That’s a long time for an image or impression to rattle around in someone’s brain.
BUT! Consider this (as though this deep-dive couldn’t get deeper or more strange): St. Teresa of Ávila is one of Spain’s most famous saints, and Francisco Franco, the dictator who came to power in Spain in 1939, seized this relic during the Spanish Civil War. In fact, he took it with him wherever he went and kept it by his bed. When he died in 1975, he was holding this hand. A year later, the gloved relic was returned to a monastery in Ronda, where it had been for hundreds of years before disappearing in the war.
So, let’s just run through that again: The jeweled, metal glove holding a saint’s incorrupt hand rests in an obscure Spanish monastery for centuries, is stolen during the Spanish Civil War, becomes the prized possession of a violent dictator, and IN THE SAME YEAR that it is returned to the convent, the idea of six Infinity Gems surfaces in the mind of an illustrator who was raised as a Catholic.
Again — coincidence? People who are better experts in comics than I am are scratching their heads, too.
Who was St. Teresa of Ávila, anyway?
So Teresa of Ávila was one of Spain’s most influential saints. For her time — for any time — she was a remarkable woman.
She was known for experiencing and describing mystical prayer (she’d even levitate during her ecstasies) and was an important reformer of religious life. She was born in Ávila, Spain, in 1515 and though she was remembered as being charismatic and charming — she had beauty, style, and wit — she also felt a profound unhappiness at the prospect of using those gifts for a worldly life.
She felt a calling to join religious life, and entered the convent of the nuns who had taught her, the Carmelites. Then she got sick for a period of several years. Recovering in bed gave her lots of time for prayer. Sometimes she’d be bored or distracted, but she stuck with it and her prayer deepened. She wrote down her experiences in prayer, which has led to a spiritual classic that is still popular today, The Interior Castle.
She saw that her own community needed a kick in the rear because they were living materialistically, so she set out to reform the Carmelite order and establish a more radically faithful way of life. She ran afoul of the Spanish Inquisition (which no one expects!), and was even imprisoned, but eventually founded 15 new monasteries.
She died during one of her travels, and the monastery where she was staying hastily buried her, hoping to keep her body and secure for themselves a lucrative pilgrimage destination. As you can imagine, Teresa’s community didn’t appreciate that, so nine months later, her body was exhumed. They were surprised to find that her body had not decayed even though her clothing had rotted, which sometimes happens as a sign of holiness. So, in exchange for taking the body, her community cut off her hand and left it behind.
Her body was exhumed and moved several other times, and each time a part of her was removed. Her right foot and part of her jaw is in Rome now, she has a hand in Lisbon, and there’s a finger in Paris, for example.
How and why her left hand ended up in Ronda, Spain is unclear, but there it stands ever since the nuns pried it out of Francisco Franco’s cold, dead hands.
Why do Catholics keep severed hands in special cases?
The word “relic” comes from the Latin word for “remains” and refers to an object connected with a saint, such as a part of their body or clothing, or an item that they used.
Obviously, as Catholics we only worship and adore God. We honor and venerate the saints, though, as models of holiness and people who can pray for us. So we honor their relics because it’s a way to feel connected to them. Jesus is the only source of grace, so we understand that relics don’t have any special power in and of themselves. Despite what Franco might have thought, holding St. Teresa of Avila’s hand didn’t mean he held a divine talisman. It just meant he held the severed hand of a dead (but really holy!) nun.
Relics do serve an important purpose, though — they remind us that real people with real bodies tried to live with faithfulness and got pretty good at it. Relics remind us that every place and time had men and women who lived holy lives, often at great cost, and that these people were just like you and me — they had flesh and blood and experienced the same joys and trials of life as we do. We keep and display and honor relics because they spark our imaginations and physically connect us to a family of faith that extends beyond space and time. In fact, relics from saints are embedded in every Catholic altar.
Basically, it’s the same reason we keep Ty Cobb’s sharpened cleats and Lou Gehrig’s uniform in the baseball Hall of Fame — being close to those objects makes us feel close to those people. And when those people loom large in legend and story, that’s a cool feeling. It reminds us that they strove to achieve what they did, and we can put forth the same kind of effort.
What does it say that the Infinity Gauntlet seems to be connected to this relic?
I’m not Jim Starlin (though I did email him — still waiting for a reply), but I have two theories.
First: I can’t get Franco’s obsession with this relic out of my mind. He’s a power-hungry, ruthless dictator who exercised absolute power over Spain, and he depended on this gloved, jeweled hand. Was it a source of his power? Don’t be ridiculous! But it does sound a lot like Thanos.
Second: While Catholics draw a line between worshipping relics and venerating or honoring them, there is something mystical about them. At least in our imaginations, they hold the power to make the divine seem within our reach. Catholics take the opposite road from Thanos at this point, though — instead of gathering power to serve our own vision of reality, we see power as an opportunity to serve others, to empty ourselves.
So, where does that leave us? Your guess is as good as mine. It is a remarkable testament to storytelling that this character, that this dramatic universe, has captured the imaginations of the planet in such a deep way. And it’s fun to wonder about how the wayward events of history have crystallized to put St. Teresa of Ávila’s hand in the Infinity Gauntlet. I can’t think of anyone more suited to wield it.