The Pennsylvania State University
Cover for the book Strange Beauty

Strange Beauty

Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400–circa 1204 Cynthia Hahn
  • Copyright: 2012
  • Dimensions: 9 x 10
  • Page Count: 312 pages
  • Illustrations: 43 color/90 b&w illustrations
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-05078-2
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-05948-8

Finalist, 2012 Charles Rufus Morey Book Award, College Art Association

Publication of this book has been aided by a grant from the Millard Meiss Publication Fund of the College Art Association

“Cynthia Hahn offers a refreshing new synthesis on the topic of medieval reliquaries. She shows that they are a form of ‘representation’ that mediates religious experience of relics as well as their political and institutional meanings. Engaging both primary sources and current theoretical writings, Hahn’s text will be of crucial interest to a broader readership concerned with the material embodiment of the sacred and strategies of representation.”
“Lavishly illustrated in color, this book will be of fundamental importance.”

Reliquaries, one of the central art forms of the Middle Ages, have recently been the object of much interest among historians and artists. Until now, however, they have had no treatment in English that considers their history, origins, and place within religious practice, or, above all, their beauty and aesthetic value. In Strange Beauty, Cynthia Hahn treats issues that cut across the class of medieval reliquaries as a whole. She is particularly concerned with portable reliquaries that often contained tiny relic fragments, which purportedly allowed saints to actively exercise power in the world.

Above all, Hahn argues, reliquaries are a form of representation. They rarely simply depict what they contain; rather, they prepare the viewer for the appropriate reception of their precious contents and establish the “story” of the relics. They are based on forms originating in the Bible, especially the cross and the Ark of the Covenant, but find ways to renew the vision of such forms. They engage the viewer in many ways that are perhaps best described as persuasive or “rhetorical,” and Hahn uses literary terminology—sign, metaphor, and simile—to discuss their operation. At the same time, they make use of unexpected shapes—the purse, the arm or foot, or disembodied heads—to create striking effects and emphatically suggest the presence of the saint.

Cynthia Hahn is Professor of Art History at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.


List of Illustrations


Part I: First Things

1 Introduction

2 The Reliquary and Its Maker

3 Relics, Meaning, and Response: Early Christian Reliquaries, Narrative and Not

Part II: Shaped Reliquaries

4 Spolia and Sign, Metaphor and Simile

5 The Reliquary Cross

6 Like and Unlike Metaphors

7 Body-Part Reliquaries: Heads

8 Body Part Reliquaries: Other Body Parts

Part III: A Gathering of Saints: Processions and Treasuries

9 Reliquaries in Action

10 Treasuries

11 Relic Display

12 A Case Study: Wibald of Stavelot as Patron

13 The Impact of 1204, the “Space” of the Ark, and Conclusion




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