Saints and Sacred Matter

The Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond

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Cynthia Hahn, Holger A. Klein
Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Symposia and Colloquia
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , November
     376 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This comprehensive collection of articles written by outstanding scholars, complete with wonderful illustrations, is a commendable and indispensable contribution to a growing field of research dealing with relics, their material articulation, and devotional perception. The majority of essays were presented at the 2011 Dumbarton Oaks Symposium and are related to the loan exhibition Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe at the Walter Art Gallery, Baltimore.

The contributions to the volume present a range of topical investigations of devotion to holy women and men and their remains with the main focus on material aspects of depositories, display, concealment, containment, repertory, assemblage, regulation, and rituals that demarcate the cult of relics from late antiquity to the early modern period. It offers comparative potential by encompassing contributions on Muslim, Christian, and Jewish saints and sacred matter. The general theoretical foundation of the volume is that materiality or “stuff” has agency, and that this is firmly embedded in the fundamental religious paradox of divine perception: how may the spiritual and heavenly be mediated and perceived through earthly and human-made matter? Relics and their reliquaries, it is argued, are just that: material technologies for mediating divine presence. Thus reliquaries not only served to contain, but also to augment and stage the holiness of the relic within, be it through carefully chosen permeable matter, iconography, architectural structures, or technologies of velatio and revelatio.

The articles spell out different ways in which these technologies are constructed, and how they communicate and relate to spiritual matter. Holger A. Klein argues that reliquaries in a Christian context were extraordinary “things” that collapsed the dichotomies between matter and spirit, earth and heaven, life and death, part and whole. Reliquaries incorporated carefully chosen rhetorical strategies—combinations of words and images—in order to prompt reception of the holy. In continuation of this Patricia Cox Miller argues that the senses were instrumental in the production of religious experience: material objects mediated a particular epistemology of perception that articulated and activated the paradox of “spirited matter.”

Devotional reception of Christian saints and their remains in Byzantium was to a large degree prompted by the performative opportunity of otherwise concealed objects (Jaś Elsner). The eventual and sometimes systematically recurring exposure of relics “created an economy of desire” (Vasileios Marinis and Robert Ousterhout, 160). However, in cases where relics and their containers were build into the foundation of a church and thus visually inaccessible to the public, they were monumentally framed and declared by murals, mosaics, architecture, and sometimes very intricate technologies for sensory contact with the subterranean relics (Ann Marie Yasin). The new saints of the 9th-12th centuries in Byzantium were, on the other hand displayed, visited, venerated, and touched on a daily basis (Alice-Mary Talbot).

Relics and reliquaries could potentially function as manifestations of identity. The Crown of Thorns was adopted and staged through liturgy, processions, architecture, and reliquaries by the Capetian and Valois dynasties in medieval France. Cynthia Hahn shows how some of these precious thorns were offered as gifts to select individuals and thus served as a signs of piety and holy lineage. The consolidation of identity also played a major role in medieval Muslim devotion. In 16th century Safavid shrines, the texts, objects, and paintings connected to the dynastic shrine represented, established. and promoted the divine authority incarnated in the body and person of the (Shi’i) shah (Kishwar Rizvi). Plague victims that had fallen in the Jordan valley were transformed into “equivalents of battlefield martyrs,” and pilgrimage to the location helped consolidate Sunni identity (Nancy Khalek).

The fact that the scope of the book extends beyond Byzantium both chronologically and geographically has the advantage of foregrounding a similar heritage of devotion. As Ra’anan Boustan shows, Jewish and Christian culture in the late antique Mediterranean came to share ideas of materiality and the mediation of the divine. Jewish culture developed attitudes that embraced greater contact with the bodies of ”the righteous” in spite of ideas of impurity that led to caution and sometimes direct rejections of such practices. One difference between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim devotion to relics is brought out in the book. Jewish culture does not practice the fragmentation of holy bodies so well known in Christian relic devotion, and the dismembered body is outright anathema in Muslim thought.

One thought-provoking essay takes a historiographical look at the categorization of relics, and argues that the division of relics into two or three orders of descending importance is a post-Tridentine and modern construct whereas the medieval understanding of “holy matter” was much less formal and primarily characterized by heterogeneity and inconsistency (Julia M. H. Smith, 59). This is vividly illustrated by the devotion to relics related to the infancy of Christ. Jannic Durand has located, registered, and systematized numerous Christian relics and reliquaries that all share a common feature: they attempt to attest to the truth of the biblical (and apocryphal) events related to the incarnation of Christ. Commemoration was also at the core of early Byzantine pilgrimage and the iconography of reliquaries. These objects were closely intertwined with the liturgical concept of time that rendered “the biblical past” as “the liturgical present” (Derek Kruger, 124). The use of spolia in reliquaries could potentially have a similar function. The appropriation, use, or re-use of older objects served to revoke older traditions or underline continuous site-specific veneration as “tangible memories” of previous devotion (Hiltrud Westermann-Angerhausen, 179).

The final chapter serves as a comparative conclusion to the book. Anthony Cutler’s rich comparative analyses of the cults of relics in Islam, Orthodox Christianity, and Catholicism illustrates that they share a similar dissimilarity between relics and the figures they represent. Relics and reliquaries are instruments for memory that collapse time and space. Cutler felicitously concludes his chapter—and the whole book—with the following statement by George Did-Hubermann: “Memory does not have only the past for its object; it is in large part a practice of the virtual that animates every figure from the past in a making present, a bringing to presence” (345).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura Katrine Skinnebach is a post-doctoral fellow in art history, focusing on medieval and early modern religious cultures, at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cynthia Hahn is professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Holger A. Klein is professor in the department of art history and archaeology at Columbia University.


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