Sure, he was 'King,' but now, 'St. Elvis'? Essay: Today, true believers make their pilgrimage to Graceland, but his ancient likeness is right here.

August 16, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

People at the Walters Art Gallery first began to take notice of the face about 20 years ago. Carved on the corners of a marble sarcophagus dated at 210 A.D. and discovered north of Rome in 1885, it's called the Victory Sarcophagus. It is one of the finest pieces in the gallery's antiquities collection.

Comments have been made about the face through the years, the kind of jocular remarks that images out of time or place often provoke. Some people find it eerie. But it's doubtful anybody has ever suggested it's anything more than an interesting coincidence.

Not even Walters director Gary Vikan. When he looks at it, he sees the face of a saint.

Most people just see Elvis.

It's not really Elvis, of course. The lip curls on the wrong side of the face. Anybody knowledgeable about the King would spot that immediately. Vikan is, and he did.

In fact, Vikan is a bit of an expert on the King. He's not among the 50,000 people from all over the world who traipse to his house in Memphis every Aug. 16, hold candlelight vigils and pray at his grave -- all to mark the anniversary of his death.

But he has been there. He's witnessed these intense and sincerely held sentiments, and it has persuaded him that for many people, Elvis has become a "saint."

This is not a unilateral canonization by Vikan, a scholar in medieval art. A lot of people are involved, if not the Vatican, which has held the franchise in bestowing official sainthood for a long time now.

It wasn't always that way. Until about 1,000 years ago saints weren't vetted by Rome; they were chosen by popular acclaim. (They still are in the Orthodox Christian Church.) Back then, vast numbers of people decided spontaneously who would be a saint. How did they do it? By praying, leaving offerings, asking for help, year in, year out. Just like a lot of people do at Graceland.

"St. Elvis?"

It's a troublesome question. It embarrasses some people. Some find it ridiculous. Others become annoyed, dismissive ("They're all nuts!"). It makes them nervous. They might ask: How could such an important thing be left to the common ruck?

But still others are not troubled by such questions. They draw comfort from their visits to Graceland, from the Elvis gimcrackery they keep in their homes, maybe on their dashboards.

They are true believers, though they might never define themselves as such. But about 750,000 of them show up at the mansion each year. For many of them it's like going to Lourdes or Fatima.

Vikan has written and lectured about this. He gives courses. He's really serious, in a lighthearted way. He's not a believer himself; rather a disinterested scholar describing a phenomenon. To him, Elvis is a "saint" because he meets these older, less formal, demotic criteria.

He points out that saints have long existed both within and outside organized religions. They have not always led conventional or exemplary lives. Jesus Malverde was a Mexican bandit hanged in 1909. He is venerated today in Culiacan. He has miracles to his credit.

Elvis led an unconventional life. He wasn't a bandit. He was a substance abuser. But he, too, has miracles to his credit. Raymond A. Moody, a clinical psychiatrist, enumerated them in his book, "Elvis: After Life." Many people believe it.

Some people achieve sainthood through martyrdom. Among Elvis worshipers are those who believe his heart failed because of the pressure put upon him by his fans' demands for continuous entertainment. He was thus martyred.

The most important point of Vikan's thesis is that sainthood depends not at all on who a person is, or was, what he or she has done, good or bad.

In fact, it is not even necessary for saints to have existed to be viable. Consider St. Christopher. How many representations of that man who probably never lived adorn automobile dashboards? They are icons, just like that little plastic doll of Elvis sitting on your co-worker's desk is an icon -- though you might have difficulty getting him or her to admit it.

Sainthood is determined by what the saint's followers believe, how they behave, and if there are enough of them to make their point impressively.

So, if enough people believe that Elvis is a saint, why argue with them? He's their saint.

The thought of Elvis as a saint for some may be impossible to accept. But then, suppose someone had predicted 40 years ago that the actor who played the straight man in the 1951 chimpanzee movie titled "Bedtime for Bonzo" would one day inspire millions of disciples, be elected president of the United States, serve two successful terms, then withdraw into his apotheosis at a faraway place called Rancho del Cielo (Ranch of the Sky).

Who would have believed that?

Pub Date: 8/16/96

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