Passion Relics and the Medieval Imagination

Art, Architecture, and Society

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Cynthia Hahn
  • Berkeley: 
    University of California Press
    , January
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


One can hardly engage in study of the medieval relic without consulting the scholarship of Cynthia Hahn, who has published dozens of articles and books on the topic—more precisely, on the reliquaries that render relics present and visible. Her latest contribution, Passion Relics and the Medieval Imagination: Art, Architecture, and Society, began as the 2014 Franklin D. Murphy lectures. Hahn sets out to tell the stories of Passion relics as a distinct category of relics because they highlight the tension between absence and presence inherent to relics. Even as Passion relics are the primary relic of Christ, they are not bodily in nature. That is, Passion relics invoke the absence of Jesus’ resurrected body as they simultaneously render it present by pointing to his Passion, not unlike the framing relationship between the reliquary and the relic itself.

This book consists of two chapters, corresponding to the two Murphy lectures. The first chapter, “The Lure of Passion Relics, the Power of the Cross,” begins with an account of the discovery and early dissemination of the True Cross, both of which bore imperial associations. Hahn highlights the significance of the Ark of the Covenant, which “is in some sense the prototype for all Christian reliquaries” (11). She helpfully points out that the cherubim flanking the empty ark in the oratory apse mosaic of Germigny-des-Prés directed viewers not only to the altar below, but also to the cross that was likely displayed there.

Hahn dedicates a section to the semiosis distinct to Christian uses of the cross. In its “unstoppable fluidity and flow of meaning,” the cross can alternately—and simultaneously—function as object, sign, image, and relic. The liturgy is one of the central loci of semiosis and in turn was referenced through subtle details regarding the cross in images of Jesus’ passion.

Hahn goes on to describe the Crusades as a key event in the history of relics. Crusaders waged their violent pilgrimages in the name of the cross and bore its insignia on their person. Indeed, “one of the most coveted rewards for sacrifice and service was a relic of the True Cross” (31). The Crusades thus contributed to the proliferation of relics in the West and to the rise of devotion to the Arma Christi (weapons of Christ). Hahn concludes this chapter with a discussion of a 12th-century reliquary of the True Cross, housed in Toulouse, France, which serves as a case study in the complex variety of stories behind each cross relic. Although Hahn does not note it, the reliquary’s enamel depiction of Christ’s tomb as an open-lidded box draped with cloth bears a remarkable resemblance to the Ark of the Covenant at Germigny-des-Prés. Hahn locates this Reliquary of the True Cross in its political, theological, and liturgical contexts, which, as she demonstrates, are also represented in its decoration.

The second chapter, “Passion Relics: Strength in Unity,” turns to the other relics related to Christ’s Passion, including the nails, crown of thorns, lance, titulus, sponge, column, blood, and cloth relics. Devotion to these relics developed later than that of the True Cross and lack strong discovery legends. Hahn describes the symbiotic relationship between relics and images, as, for example, images of the crown of thorns began to be painted as drawing blood around the time that the crown of thorns emerged as a Crusade relic (63).

Jesus’ blood is arguably a Passion relic but has a history and function that is distinct from other Passion relics. Hahn explains that the fact that the violence and suffering of the Passion narrative ends in the victory of resurrection made Passion relics appealing to Christian rulers. Blood relics, which were often preserved in ampullae or on cloth, particularly drew the attention of rulers and were sometimes incorporated into civic ceremonies. Ecclesial and imperial collection and gift exchange of relics was significant in the Middle Ages and could bring prestige and enhance power—and if withheld could lead to conflict and even violence. In her recounting of three major European Passion relic collections, Hahn illuminates how relics were enclosed not only by reliquaries but also by larger built environments like shrines and chapels.

This chapter concludes with a discussion of the Arma Christi, which is related to but distinct from relics, as the motif consists of a grouped depiction of various weapons of Christ’s Passion. Finally, Hahn returns to the lance as an object and image. Because it caused the wound in Jesus’ side, the lance was associated with death, baptism, and the Eucharist, and also carried connotations of kingship, courtly love, and transformative vision.

The thematic organization of the book is often engaging and beneficial, but I wonder if a sense of development and change is lost by not treating the material with a chronological approach. For instance, in one head-spinning page Hahn moves quickly from the 3rd -century apocryphal Acts of Thomas to a 10th-century Byzantine ivory and a 6th-century hymn to the 2nd-century column of Trajan to a 4th-century sarcophagus to the 9th-century Utrecht Psalter. On the one hand, this navigation is evidence of Hahn’s mastery of the material, but it also glosses over the complex contexts of each artifact, to which in other instances she so carefully attends. Because, as Hahn notes in the introduction, her intended audience includes beginning students and curious members of the public, some of the nuances may be lost.

While Hahn’s previous publications have addressed core issues regarding relics and reliquaries, including some of the same examples, this beautifully illustrated book offers a unique contribution in that it focuses on Passion relics as a distinct category, which span centuries and cultures, appearing in a variety materials, scales, and contexts. Like the slivers of wood of True Cross relics, this book is small but powerful. With characteristic clarity and poetic style, Hahn presents the distinct kind of perspective that comes from a seasoned and creative scholar. It is clear that Hahn enjoys the pursuit of the “unstoppable fluidity” of meaning in Passion relics and reliquaries and she shares that passion with her readers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer Awes Freeman is assistant professor and program director of theology and the arts at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

Date of Review: 
June 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cynthia Hahn is Professor of Art History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has written extensively on saints and relics in both articles and books, including Portrayed on the HeartStrange Beauty, and The Reliquary Effect.


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