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Members' Research Report Archive

The Reliquary Effect

Cynthia Hahn, Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellow, 2012–2013

Spanish 16th Century, Reliquary Cross, 1550/1575, with late 19th century alterations1550/1575, with late 19th century alterations

Spanish 16th Century, Reliquary Cross, 1550/1575, with late 19th century alterations, enameled gold, rock crystal, diamonds, emerald, rubies, glass pearls, Widener Collection, 1942.9.295

“What is a reliquary?” It is no coincidence that many people I encounter believe they have never heard the word, although they are confident of the meaning of “relic.” If the reliquary can be said to be a container, a box, it is akin to the gift box. As it performs its function of presentation, it is erased in the “presence” of the relic. Thus, precisely as the precious reliquary is materiality glorified, sparkling silver, gold, and gems, it simultaneously denies its own existence, standing only as a setting or context for the staging of the relic. Without the “script” supplied by labels and inscriptions, without the set design and lighting of brilliant substances, without the supporting cast of other relics and sacred things in the surrounding treasury, however, the relic remains mute—a silent and speechless thing, not even an “object” responding to a subject. Ultimately, the reliquary makes the relic.

Reliquaries take on this role as a necessity. In an essay in The Social Lives of Things, a book Arjun Apppadurai introduces by proposing “the conceit that commodities, like persons, have social lives,” Patrick Geary identifies relics as commodities. Their lack of identity, their neutrality and flexibility, is the very quality that allows relics to be put into service as gifts, as well as shaped by story, culture, and context into the ultimate objects of desire and even theft. But, just as once sought-after commodities become valueless as fashionable turns to unfashionable, reliquary presentations are called upon to perform in an unstable environment of desire and are subject to constant change and remaking. Reliquary shapes are edited and revised; for example, from opaque reliquaries obscuring abject pieces of body in the early Middle Ages, to crystal ones that—in a wonderful reversal—celebrate the materiality of relics. In the later Middle Ages, the relic matter itself was seemingly brought under scrutiny, floating behind sparkling gems, often presented in the luxury of fine cloth and shining metal, but ultimately difficult to see.

Following the publication of my book Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400–circa 1204 and the exhibition Objects of Devotion and Desire, which I co-curated with my students at Hunter College, comparing medieval reliquaries and contemporary art, I have been commissioned by Reaktion Press to write a book on relics and reliquaries that moves outside medieval boundaries. This has been my primary project at CASVA.

A first area of concern was to address the complications that occur, in terms of space and design, in reliquaries of the late medieval and Renaissance periods. My colloquium addressed the spatial ductus of such constructions in terms of the Old Testament injunction to measure the Temple (Ezekiel 40). I tried to show how the complex, often architectural construction of reliquaries of this period stimulated the religious imagination and an understanding of the larger meaning of relics.

More of a challenge for a student of the Middle Ages was the investigation of the issues involved in post-Tridentine reliquary presentation. Rather than create ever more complex reliquaries of possibly obscure meaning, artists returned to tried and true reliquary types that were nonetheless displayed in spectacular reliquary presentations. Beginning with a selection of intriguing examples of such presentations—in Bavaria at Waldsassen and in Portugal at Alcobaça and Sao Roque in Lisbon, hardly familiar locations—I traveled to sites, produced photographic documentation, and investigated their history, imagery, and art. I would argue that, although the baroque is one of the eras most committed to reliquary creation and display, it is also one of the least studied.

Finally, I conclude my stay at CASVA working on the last portion of the essay, that is, considering the way in which modern and contemporary artists and patrons mine the structures of reliquary creation, use, and presentation to give added meaning to their own artistic visions. As a patron Napoleon created both religious and historical reliquaries to magnify his position and the glory of his court. Contemporary artists such as Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), Paul Thek (1933–1988), and Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) use the reliquary effect to amplify the indexical charge of their work and to frame and package it in order to focus on viewer interaction.

Spanish 16th Century
Reliquary Cross
1550/1575, with late 19th century alterations