Cover image for Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400–circa 1204 By Cynthia Hahn

Strange Beauty

Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400–circa 1204

Cynthia Hahn


$59.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05948-8

312 pages
9" × 10"
43 color/90 b&w illustrations

Strange Beauty

Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400–circa 1204

Cynthia Hahn

“Lavishly illustrated in color, this book will be of fundamental importance.”


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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

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.

“Lavishly illustrated in color, this book will be of fundamental importance.”
“[Strange Beauty] stands as a major study in the field and is worth a serious read. Since Strange Beauty, more literature has engaged with concepts of reception, materiality, metaphor, and performance, demonstrating the continued relevance of this approach. As important as this work is to the study of relics, it is Hahn’s approach to the complexities of material culture that will provide the greatest appeal to a wide range of scholars and students, both within and beyond medieval studies.”
“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.”
“What discourses of otherness exist as particular and appropriate to premodernity and not as retrofitted versions of the theoretical frameworks designed to consider these issues for modernity? Addressing this question can profit us beyond the domain of medieval studies. Strange Beauty’s intricate objects offer clues to such possible discourses, expressed visually and poised to train viewers—medieval and modern—in significations that we still seek to understand.”

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





Relics do not signify unless encased in a proper story.

—Eugene Vance

Dramatically lit and displayed like a precious gem in its glass vitrine in the cool, secure vault of the treasury of the Limburg an der Lahn Cathedral, a curiously phallic-shaped, hyperattenuated object captures the viewer’s attention and at the same moment confounds it (fig. 1). For the modern viewer, the object allows little or no insight into either its meaning or its controversial past. One’s first impression is of an entity—glittering, magnificent, static, and undeniably exotic. More than six feet long and covered with gold foil, what could be described as a floating spear (if not in more Freudian terms) culminates at its apex in a small orb heavily ornamented with gems, pearls, enamels, filigree, and many, many inscriptions.

The inscriptions—in Latin—introduce a series of demands that the object makes upon the spectator. They call upon the viewer who is capable of reading (and who is close enough to piece together the long series of letters) to recognize the illustrious origin of the relic inside this reliquary, which itself comes from Trier. The inscription, which begins “Baculum beati Petri,” claims that this is the very “staff of Saint Peter,” reputed to have been used by an early bishop of Trier to resurrect a dead man. As a relic, therefore, it is doubly sacred, invested with the indexical aura of having once touched the hands of the founder of the Western Church, and proven already to be a conduit of miraculous power.

But even the illiterate, semiliterate, or relatively inattentive viewer is unlikely to miss at least some portion of the message that this golden staff aggressively promotes. The cloisonné enamels on the upper half of the spherical knop represent the four evangelical beasts, while the lower half is encircled by a similarly worked series of enamels depicting, in the company of Peter himself, his missionaries, the first bishop of Trier Eucharius, the man who accomplished the resurrection, and Maternus and Valerius, his companions. The third and fourth rows of six enamels represent the twelve Apostles, each of whom is also labeled. Down the long sides of the staff, paralleling equally long inscriptions, are low-relief portraits of ten popes and ten bishops of Trier, ending with Egbert, who was then archbishop and patron of the magnificent object. If the viewer identifies only a few members of this impressive cast of characters, it is nevertheless evident that the whole depicts the hierarchy of the Church and represents Trier’s position as an apostolically founded archbishopric within a grand ecclesiastical “framework.”

The actual framework of the staff is significant as well. The alluring power of gold and gems was used to build a lattice that holds and doubles the meaning of the figural and textual elements. Gems and pearls in series of four, six, and twelve are repeated among the network of precious stones that encloses the enamels. At the very top of the staff, a cross shape composed of emeralds lifted above on beautiful “architectural” settings with tiny arches suggests the eternal cross ruling over the Heavenly Jerusalem, the holy city that is often symbolized by gems recalling each of its twelve gates. Clearly, this reliquary is a magnificent and powerful enclosure and representation of a relic, a relic that supports the archbishopric of Trier in its place in the earthly Church and is capable of astounding miracles connecting Trier to the heavenly Church.

In the last sentence, the word “representation” is carefully chosen. What is the relic really? Did it indeed belong to Trier, and by what right? Why is it no longer in Trier, its proclaimed and vaunted home? Only further careful examination begins to open up these potentially troubling issues.

The long inscription reveals the first intimations of uncertainty. In tracing the provenance of the relic from Peter to Eucharius through a short residence in Metz to escape the Huns (Normans) and via Cologne finally back to Trier, where it was divided and a portion returned to Cologne with the upper portion kept for Trier, the text not only drops names of saints, bishops, and emperors (Otto I and II), but also repeatedly calls attention to “this church.” In its fulsome claims to prestige, does it cast doubt on its own accuracy? Does it protest too much?

Indeed, as Thomas Head has argued, the assertions that the reliquary makes in this inscription, as well as in its entire presentation, are “brazen” fiction and represent the first record of the claim that the staff had been given to Eucharius by Peter. Cologne also independently claimed a staff of Peter that, in fact, it never relinquished to Trier. Ultimately, the desire to possess such a staff is a consequence of the fierce competition to hold the status of foremost archbishopric of the empire, and thus we find this object in the center of the controversy.

What is really inside the reliquary? Typical of reliquaries made in the Western medieval world, this golden staff holds its relic tightly and invisibly, inaccessible to both devout and skeptical eyes. Nevertheless, its (somewhat exaggerated) staff-shaped form allows it to intimate a whole and undamaged relic, carefully protected from Huns, the ravages of time, or both (a dubious assertion indeed). Furthermore, its length allowed it to be carried upright, prominently visible in processions—and it is known to have been carried by Egbert himself. Moreover, in these processions it would have shared star billing with another renowned and striking reliquary made for Egbert that also claimed an apostolic association, the presence of which would reinforce the staff’s prestige (figs. 2 and 3).

The self-proclaimed “altar consecrated to Andrew” contains, according to further details of its inscription: the nail of the Lord, the sandal of Andrew, the beard of Peter, and “other holy relics.” Once more Egbert, who is named as patron, claims association to apostolic origins, in this case to both Peter and Andrew. As Head notes, however, Egbert chooses through this reliquary altar to highlight Andrew, the apostolic patron of Constantinople. A member of the Ottonian court, Egbert was no novice to the niceties of invoking Byzantine prestige and power. One of the many antique spolia (reused artworks) included on the altar is a Frankish fibula inset with a coin depicting the sixth-century Byzantine emperor Justinian at its center (visible in fig. 3), a further glorification by association of the Trier relics (and simultaneously a claim to great age and authenticity).

Of course, the Andrew altar, with its image of a disembodied foot, presents a spectacle more astounding and strange than the staff reliquary. We must agree in this case with the text of Romans 10:15: “How beautiful are the feet of those [the Apostles] who bring good news of good things!” (NAS). With this foot as frame for Andrew’s sandal, Egbert created a striking, memorable, and indeed beautiful image, while perhaps also making a personal claim to “walk in the footsteps” of mission and conversion implied by the sandal, which was inherited by the bishop of an apostolically founded see. (He almost certainly would have followed the altar as it was carried in processions.) Although we must leave the exploration of such “body-part reliquaries” and their full range of meanings to a later chapter, it is already apparent how impressive and creative such reliquaries could be.

Turning back to the staff reliquary, one wonders how much remains of the original object that was manufactured circa 980 in Egbert’s acclaimed workshop. Years of being carried in processions of various kinds produced damage to its length, and repairs are recorded to the gems and details of ornaments. Like all such reliquaries more than a thousand years old, to some extent this beautiful object is a product of making and remaking. It would not adequately put forth its splendid testimony if its gems and gold were allowed to remain battered or broken. In its long history of disputes over possession and repossession, the reliquary has landed outside its original home and now is in the Diözesanmuseum Limburg an der Lahn.

A first introduction to early medieval reliquaries has begun here with two exemplary objects. Both, and in particular the staff, perfectly represent the issues that play central roles in this study.

The reliquary works hard to “represent” the relic as powerful, holy, and sacred, part of the larger institution of the Church, often using biblical metaphor as part of the process of creating meaning. While at the same time the relic is thus made “fully visible” in its power and associations, it is also unquestionably hidden from view. Obscured by a glittering container covered with gems (meaningful in its very materials), it was given very specific value in an elaborate system of provenance and exchange through gift, theft, or even invention. As an object of continuing power, the reliquary has been repeatedly revised, physically or contextually, and brought up to date, surviving today as a token of prestige for the modern Church. However, in contrast to its modern isolation in a case, lit and immobilized as an art object, it was created to be a dynamic part of the chorus of saints, in company with other relics in reliquaries, representing the Church and its saints and their powers. It has been used, throughout its history, as an object to be carried and manipulated, displayed and presented.

Finally, in addition to all these qualities, one of the most distinctive of the characteristics of Egbert’s reliquaries, in particular, is their strangeness. To the modern and perhaps the medieval eye as well, these objects are “wondrous strange.” They create a glittering spectacle that delights and captures the gaze. They demand attention and investigation. As we will see, they intend to initiate a complex process of visualization and imaginative memory that might lead to wonder, change of heart, compunction, and thence ultimately to faith.

Wonder is by no means the least of these effects that are induced by the strange and beautiful spectacle of relics and reliquaries; indeed it is the key transformative response, which vis-à-vis relics suddenly recognizes divine presence in mundane objects and allows them to possess their striking power. The inscription on a Mosan gemmed, quatrefoil, phylactery reliquary with a crystal center surrounded by images of saints (fig. 4), from circa 1180 (but with later changes), quotes Psalms 118:23 and focuses our attention on the possibilities of viewing relics (which must have been behind the crystal): “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes.” I argue that reliquaries—that is, artful containers for relics—attempt to carefully condition and circumscribe the approach of the believer to the holy. In particular, they propose a complex interaction of the senses and the imagination, originating a discourse on the holy that encompasses space, time, and performance. They teach the viewer what a relic is and how to interact with it.

This book is arranged in terms of the issues introduced above. The present introduction lays groundwork concerning the early Christian and early medieval cult of relics (with particular attention to the Holy Land), especially insofar as it taught devotees how to experience relics. Chapter 2 briefly sketches some of the medieval beliefs about qualities and legendary powers of materials, and discusses the role of the artist in the making of reliquaries, specifically the saintly artisan Eligius. Chapter 3 addresses some of the earliest reliquaries in one of the most prestigious materials, ivory, demonstrating the complex action of their narrative and typological imagery. Chapter 4 goes to the heart of the innovative and literal “shaping” of reliquaries, proposing the structure of metaphor as a primary model for understanding the production of meaning in medieval reliquaries. Chapters 5 through 8 explore the most significant metaphorical shapes, including crosses, purses, heads, arms, and others, and examine how viewers may have understood them. In particular, the discussion of the cross proposes a model of the reception process of a reliquary through sight, attendance, prayer, and devotion. Chapters 9 through 11 focus on groups of reliquaries and their interactions, both physical and imaginative: chapter 9 sets the stage for the activation of reliquaries with a summary of knowledge on how reliquaries were used; chapter 10, a much lengthier treatment, argues that collections of reliquaries in treasuries created legendary identities for institutions; and chapter 11 discusses the physical display of reliquaries. Chapter 12 considers the case study of one very creative patron, Wibald of Stavelot. Chapter 13 not only assesses what I have proposed as a methodology for the consideration of relics but also presents something of an epilogue both to justify the end point (1204) and to suggest the direction of change after that momentous year. In order to do so, I first consider the great creativity of certain Byzantine reliquaries and then discuss how these exotic objects from the East have been reinterpreted for a post–Lateran IV Western Church. Finally, I suggest that all reliquaries in some sense seek to reconstruct a form of sacred space that originates in a typologically conceived relationship to the Ark of the Covenant and the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Definitions of Terms, the Status of Relics, Reliquaries

Before exploring further, however, we must pause to define and clarify terms. First and foremost are the following questions: What is a relic? What is a reliquary?

The simplest answer to the first question is that a relic is a physical object understood to carry the virtus of a saint or Christ, literally “virtue” but more accurately the “power” of a holy person. It can be a bone or bones, some other portion of the body, or merely an object that has been sanctified through contact with a sacred person. Sometimes it is even a tertiary relic or brandeum, an object that has touched a relic and thus now carries the transferred, one might almost say “contagious,” virtus. It is often necessary that a relic be identified by a tag, or authentic (a written label, usually vellum). Materials from sites in the Holy Land—dust, oil, or water—were collected avidly and called eulogiae, or “blessings”; perhaps at first more appropriately categorized as holy souvenirs rather than as relics, such objects gradually assumed a more sacred status as they began to circulate in the medieval West.

Although relic veneration was not clearly established as a practice by the Church until the fourth century, the first evidence involves the faithful of Smyrna in the mid-second century who collected the bones of the martyr Polycarp to use them to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, calling them “more dear than precious stones.” In other words, an object’s status as a relic is defined through the recognition by some audience of the presence of power that leads to a certain desirability. This power may be represented by miracles, or it simply may be acknowledged by institutional affirmation. Most important is that, without some form of recognition, a relic is merely bone, dust, or scraps of cloth. An audience is indispensable. It authenticates and validates the relic.

Thus, it is apparent why reliquaries themselves are also essential. They are mentioned in the earliest texts concerning relics as a means of honoring and transporting the sacred substances of relics, but in addition, from the beginning, they have carried messages about the significance, authenticity, and meaning of the relics they contain. Even if such messages are conveyed only by abstractions of the prestige of precious materials, reliquaries in their essence are mediations between relics and audiences. As such, we see that they teach meanings and prepare audiences for the proper reception and treatment of the holy objects, what Peter Brown calls reverentia, “an etiquette toward the supernatural.” Investigating the ramifications of this last statement proves to be a central preoccupation of this study.

Although it is not unusual for reliquaries themselves to become objects of veneration as a sort of slippage of the meaning between container and contained, ultimately we must understand these vessels as profoundly utilitarian. In the modern sense they are not artworks and surely not “art for art’s sake.” They are intended to elicit veneration and to honor the relic—and beauty is decidedly subservient to these primary needs (although beauty serves a purpose in the production of reliquaries, and, as above, they are “artful”). One exemplary consequence of such priorities is that reliquaries rarely have integrity as unique objects. They are only rarely “original” artworks because they often closely adhere to precedents. Moreover, they are constantly remade—a renewal that is not just practical but significant: “All things renewed are pleasing to God; Christ is ever renewing all things, and ennobling them to enhance His light.”

With these words, Paulinus of Nola, circa 400, concludes his comments on the rebuilding of the architectural shrine of Saint Felix. His words express the motivations of any cleric or patron who renews and refurbishes a sacred reliquary or shrine—or for that matter encloses an ancient relic in a new reliquary. His remarks deserve our close attention as a first and very early example of an understanding of how reliquaries work and why they are made.

Paulinus describes two processes in his approach to relics: first, “ennobling” relics by encasing them in order to create “enhanced light” and to appreciate their origin in Christ; and second, “renewing” older reliquaries and structures to honor their contents and their ultimate maker. Both processes share in the same intent. Paulinus makes it clear that a spiritual dynamic is set in motion, a dynamic that seeks to recharge the power of the relic. Already metaphors are important—in his description, the renewal of the buildings around the shrine is compared to the cleansing of the soul of a sinner, preparing it for the Last Judgment: “A new look gleams on the outside of the walls while the antiquity is hidden, enclosed within. . . . They are the same yet not the same as they depict the shape of future and present blessings. . . . So it will be on the day when men are permitted to rise again with life renewed. Amongst those who rise, precedence will be given to the group whose flesh is covered with a shining garment.” Renewal becomes a virtue of the soul and a spiritual process that must not be ignored. Although the sacred core remains untouched, all around it has been refreshed, polished, and perfected. The connection of these sacred things to the resurrection and end of time is explicit—in Paulinus’s words and in his renewal are contained the promise of the future.

Paulinus also begins to explicate the very important use in reliquaries of spolia, often gems. He explains that, although he left the original cult building alone, “it remains inset like a jewel amongst the buildings.” There is no embarrassment in this sort of retouching, and the core seems to be rightfully hidden, although not destroyed. Ultimately, perhaps the most telling aspect of Paulinus’s poem is his use of a bodily metaphor for the reliquary. Surprisingly, however, it is not the relic and its reliquary that are justified in terms of a previous living body, but the newly arisen body of the faithful soul that is given value in its transfiguration into a sort of reliquary: “flesh . . . covered with a shining garment.”

Such a metaphorical linking of body and soul, relic and shrine is a first and very early instance in which a patron expresses his actions as clearly spiritual rather than artistic. As we will see, later clerics followed the same path—making and remaking reliquaries as part of their duty to the Church, as part of a spiritual project to lift the minds of the faithful, to perfect their bodies and their souls.

We are thus engaged, it would seem, in the study of a series of objects that resist most of the categories of conventional art history. Their beauty is secondary, their originality suspect, and their meaning and contents often obscure. The dating of such composite objects is difficult and documentation often scanty or incomplete. Many of the richest collections and most renowned objects have been destroyed in cataclysmic events, such as the French Revolution or the Protestant iconoclasm. Perhaps most damning of all, the charges of being products of “superstition” or “pious ignorance” cling to them like a sticky ooze. To the modern mind, reliquaries are at best uncanny, at worst only the utilitarian instruments of misdirected piety. Nonetheless, they hold an undeniable fascination, a distinctive and strange beauty.

The Project

As stated, I begin with objects and attempt to understand what they can teach us. To some degree, this study is facilitated by treating reliquaries in terms of genres and types, although I also try to avoid the pitfalls and “ahistoricism” that such an approach has tended to produce in the past. As opposed to a comprehensive study, this one attempts to find particular issues that give insight into the production of reliquaries up until the early thirteenth century, when two events radically changed the use and look of reliquaries. First, the Sack of Constantinople and theft of its relic treasures by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 led to an influx of reliquaries into the West that changed the Western understanding of reliquaries as well as their distribution in Europe. Second, the Lateran Council of 1215 made important legislative statements about reliquaries that stabilized certain practices and attitudes, setting the stage for further developments.

In this introductory material it will be useful to turn first to textual evidence of the early history of relics. As Patrick Geary has noted, however, given the importance of saints, “The articulated doctrine of the saints’ cult . . . is . . . remarkably small in theology and law.” A survey of some of the sources that will prove important in the following chapters will assist us in understanding the somewhat unexpected nature of what has been preserved.

Early doctrine and discussion of relics occur in a variety of texts. One primary source is De laude sanctorum (A.D. 396), the sermon written by Victricius, bishop of Rouen, upon the occasion of his reception of relic fragments from Ambrose of Milan. It vividly fleshes out the contemporary cult of relics and relic devotion. An additional rich source for our purposes, encountered above, is found in the poems and letters of Paulinus of Nola concerning his patron saint, Felix, and ardently describing his personal devotion to relics; some of the letters are addressed to another important hagiographic author, Sulpitius Severus, the biographer of Saint Martin.

Miracle collections are useful in understanding saints’ cults. In celebrating the cult of the relics of Stephen in the early fifth century, Augustine records the saint’s miracles in The City of God. Pope Gregory the Great’s Dialogues tells of saints and their miracles in Italy, and Bishop Gregory of Tours’s Life of the Fathers, Glory of the Martyrs, and Glory of the Confessors recount stories from Gaul. Both write at the end of the sixth century. The Carolingians begin to produce, in addition to various miracle accounts, a series of laws and customs regulating the use of relics, but the evidence is neither particularly rich nor completely stabilized.

In countering Claudius of Turin’s argument that saintly intercession was not effective, the Carolingian Irish scholar Dungal turns to Ambrose, Jerome, Paulinus, Prudentius, and Sulpitius Severus, showing the continuing importance of early materials. Bernard of Angers in the eleventh century again returns to the miracle format when discussing, critiquing, and finally celebrating the cult of Sainte Foi. Only in treatises that criticize the excesses and errors of the cult of saints, however, such as those of Claudius of Turin in his Apologeticum atque rescriptum of 825, and Guibert of Nogent in his De pignoribus sanctorum of the early twelfth century, do we depart from devotional, narrative, or liturgical contexts. Finally, at the turn of the twelfth century, the abbot Thiofrid of Echternach writes Flores epytaphii sanctorum, the only medieval treatise that focuses on the meaning of relics and that specifically discusses reliquaries. Of course, many other saints’ lives and miracle accounts also contribute to our understanding, but in effect it was practice not theology that determined the shape of the cult of relics.

This shape was formed by “acts, uses, and ritual in society” but also concerned the imaginative place of relics in medieval culture, a topic beautifully sketched by Peter Brown. In considering both aspects, I think it helpful to turn again to Paulinus of Nola, who introduces us to many of the issues concerning the practice of the cult of relics including the acquisition of sanctified objects, whether by gift or theft, and their celebration in art.

The Spread of Relics: Gift, Theft, Commerce, “Scattered . . . Like Life-Giving Seeds”

Although the normal means of acquiring relics was through the reception of a gift, theft was an alternative, and commerce was generally not, as Geary explains: “Not only were theft and gift more basic forms of property circulation than trade in the early Middle Ages, but they enjoyed higher prestige. . . . In both situations, the relationship of relative honor and status was at stake, and the property that changed hands functioned symbolically to affirm or deny that relationship. Commerce [in contrast] suggests neutrality.” In his book Furta Sacra, Geary discusses medieval justification for the theft of a saint’s relics based on his or her “participation” in the act. That is, the saint was understood always to have the power to make his or her body immobile. In choosing not to work a miracle to do so, the saint allows a theft, because, for example, he or she is dissatisfied with the celebration of the cult at the original location of the burial. This is surely the radical opposite of the neutral exchange that might be represented by commerce.

In discussing the translation of relics—the movement of a relic from interment at one site to another—at first Paulinus almost seems to cast the devotee as a merchant extracting payment for transport. He quickly shifts, however, to other justifications and culminates his commentary with vivid metaphors of natural dispersal and multiplication that not only defend but insist upon relic distribution. Paulinus contends that those trusted with the transport of relics believed themselves justified in taking a bit of the relics for their own reward, protection, and payment, a variety of defensible relic theft: “The faithful and zealous escorts of the relics were afforded a chance at the prompting of faith to break off some keepsakes from the holy bones as their deserved reward . . . for their personal protection.” This practice of dismembering or breaking the relic, far from being condemned, is cast as a natural act that envisions the relics as a sort of sustenance (Paulinus at one point calls Felix his “bread”) and mimics the scattering of seeds by birds: “The sacred ashes have been scattered over different areas like life-giving seeds . . . the drops of ashes have begotten rivers of life.” Rather than an immoral act, the theft of relics thus becomes an act inspired by God, explicitly through the “prompting of faith.”

In a continuation of such metaphorical implications, Paulinus and others describe relics not as dead and quiescent remains but instead as part of the still-living world and thus able to reproduce themselves, through contact relics—oil, perfume, or cloth that is allowed to touch the body and gain a measure of sanctity—but also through more immediate “reproduction.” Relics can make gifts of themselves.

Paulinus tells of an occasion at the tomb of Felix when “those who had bestowed the nard on the tomb prepared to draw it up to apply it to themselves.” They found, however, “the vessels miraculously filled not with nard but with a heap of dust which burst out from below.” Rather than the dismaying picture this presents to the modern mind, this miracle was an occasion for joy, as the dust that “burst” forth constituted Felix’s authentic relics. Paulinus clarifies, “Those bones of the saint’s body are not choked with the dust of death, but endowed with the hidden seed of eternal life.” Similarly, Gregory of Tours tells us that Saint Aredius, returning to his Limoges abbey with a capsule about his neck containing some dust from the grave of Saint Martin, witnessed how the contents increased and squeezed out of the capsule when placed in an oratory.

Of course, as noted, relics were also exchanged as gifts, and as gifts they became a purposeful enactment of ties of friendship and other affiliations. Paulinus received his precious relic of the cross from the Roman matron Melania and, in turn, passed on a fragment to his friend Severus. Unlike the case of earlier forms of Roman gift giving, it is notable that women could be involved in the presentation of gifts as well as the support of the foundations that were essential to the cult of saints. Because of these practices, as Brown has noted, relics in the late antique world were not concentrated in only a few holy locations, such as Jerusalem or Rome, but were spread throughout Christendom (as Paulinus poetically described, like seeds). They “took on the shifting quality of late-Roman social relationships: distances between groups and persons were overcome by gestures of grace and favor.”

Relics also found their proper place within social relations. With a few notable exceptions, relics were very early brought under the control of the Church rather than being allowed to fall under the unregulated control of private persons and face the possibility of scandal. The clergy (and perhaps royalty) were relics’ closest friends, and the behavior of relics and of those in their company were subject to a strict etiquette—a set of customs and a notion of proper behavior.

Relics in Groups, Relics and Fragmentation, “On Earth and in Heaven”

What were these relics that were subject to such lively exchange? What form did they take? As discussed above, relics were often small, nearly unidentifiable fragments in the form of dust or bone or cloth. It was, again, their provenance or accompanying story that validated them. Sometimes, it was also the company they kept—their association with collections of relics.

For example, when Paulinus sent Severus a bit of the relic of the True Cross for his basilica at Primuliacum, he included a verse to be used as an inscription: “The revered altar conceals a sacred union, for martyrs lie there with the holy cross. The entire martyrdom of the saving Christ is here assembled—cross, body, and blood of the Martyr, God himself . . . where the cross is, there too, is the Martyr; for the Martyr’s cross is the holy reason for the martyrdom of the saints.” The linking of saints to the sacrifice of Christ through the relic of the cross in “sacred union” is essential to the meaning of the relic. In describing the altar of his own church dedicated to Felix, Paulinus uses similar terms: “Under the lighted altar, a royal slab of purple marble covers the bones of holy men. Here God’s grace sets before you the power of the apostles by the great pledges contained in this meagre dust. . . . One simple casket embraces here this holy band, and in its tiny bosom embraces names so great.” Rather than focus on sacrifice and martyrdom, Paulinus emphasizes the presence of the grace of the power of the “holy band” of the Apostles. Elsewhere he speaks of the way that a saint in the altar joins with Christ during the Mass: “When the chaste gift of Christ is devoutly offered there, the fragrance of his soul may be joined to the divine sacrifice.” A remarkable continuity throughout the Middle Ages preserves these ideas of the collective union of saints under the altar. Although the general reference is to Revelation 6:9 (souls “under the altar”), it can also be much more specific. One is reminded of the slab of “purple marble,” porphyry, that protects the gatherings of saints in each of a series of portable altars from the central Middle Ages. (Fig. 5 shows a list of saints collected in a Hildesheim portable altar.)

Let us, however, take these ideas one at a time, first considering the relic in company and then the relic as fragment.

The union, or “holy band,” of saints is none other, of course, than a representation of the Court of Heaven. As Victricius of Rouen remarked of his precious collection of relic fragments, “So great a multitude of citizens of Heaven . . . so mysterious a unity of heavenly power.” The Carolingian scholar Einhard also praises the powers of Petrus and Marcellinus in a long account (circa 830) of their miracles, noting that the saints work together, “since those who are believed to have equal merit before God, are thought, and not absurdly [so], to work in common when performing miracles.”

Just as, in placing relics in an altar, Paulinus imagined a company of saints, so a similar situation obtains for reliquaries. More often than not, surviving examples contain more than one relic. Renowned shrines—such as the twelfth-century Arca Santa in Oviedo, with its Asturian relic cache (fig. 6), or Angilbert’s reliquaries in early Carolingian Centula—achieved their fame in part because of the astounding number of relics they contain. In a less well-known example, in 835 Hrabanus Maurus, abbot of Fulda, created a reliquary that explicitly imitated the Ark of the Covenant, including its cherubim and handles. In this arca, used in liturgical processions, he deposited the relics of seven saints and a year later added eight more. Indeed, collecting relics became the role of important ecclesiastics such as Einhard, since bishops and others were responsible for both the saintly foundation and the ornamenta of their churches. Similarly, kings and aristocrats had an interest in the well-being of their nations and families. The Frankish queen Radegund collected in part to facilitate her own devotions.

The hagiographer and nun Baudonivia reports that Queen Radegund (520–587) determined from the earliest moments of her life to “collect relics of all the saints.” This desire culminated in Ste-Croix, the monastery that she founded, where she “assembled a great multitude of the saints through her most faithful prayers . . . she managed to obtain those precious gems which Paradise has and Heaven hoards and as many came freely to her as gifts as came in response to her pleas. In their company, she gave herself up to chanting hymns and psalms continuously in ceaseless meditation.” But Radegund “burned” for more and eventually was miraculously granted a finger of the Jerusalem saint Mammus and a piece of the True Cross, which worked miracles in her monastery (and from which the monastery’s name derived; fig. 7). Her pious life of desire and prayer was fulfilled by a vision of Christ as a beautiful young man with a “tender touch.” What is striking in Baudonivia’s narrative is the way that Radegund, as bride of Christ, joins the Court of Heaven through her efforts to assemble the court in her own monastery.

The contemplation of the Court of Heaven seems to have been a meditation encouraged among the faithful, including those who were not themselves to become saints, and one that lifted the devotee out of the cares of this world. As residents of the Heavenly Jerusalem, saints have the ability to carry the prayers of the faithful before the Lord. As “intercessors,” the saints remain in heaven always ready to lend their help. Ambrose writes in 386 about the elevation of Gervase and Protase: “Our eyes were shut, so long as the bodies of the saints lay hidden. The Lord opened our eyes, and we saw the aids wherewith we have been often protected . . . as though the Lord had said to us . . . ‘See what great martyrs I have given you,’ so we with opened eyes behold the glory of the Lord, . . . we had patrons and knew it not.” Thus, intercession was an essential part of the importance of relics and made possible their function within social relations. One imagines the saints and martyrs as part of a lively and glittering court life, and an individual saint as one’s own special and intimate friend.

In contrast to such positive images of social cohesion, relic fragmentation presents a less welcome image. The notion of a fragment of a dismembered body can elicit a shudder of distaste, even horror, in the modern observer. Nevertheless, Peter Brown vividly argues for the central importance of the fragment:

It is precisely the detachment of the relic from its physical associations that summed up most convincingly the imaginative dialectic. . . . For how better to suppress the fact of death, than to remove part of the dead from its original context in the all too cluttered grave? How better to symbolize the abolition of time in such dead, than to add to that an indeterminacy of space? Furthermore, how better to express the paradox of the linking of heaven and earth than by an effect of “inverted magnitudes,” by which the object around which boundless associations cluster should be tiny and compact?

Susan Stewart observes that the miniature can be particularly effective in its promise that it might “open itself to reveal a secret life—indeed to reveal a set of actions and hence a narrativity and history outside the given field of perception.” Further, scientific studies document a “compressed time of interiority” when one studies a tiny object, a remarkable change in the experience of time. Gaston Bachelard links the small to the poetics of space and sites of “grandeur” through the concentration of essence, while Richard Etlin links it to imagined life: “The small seems to concentrate a limitless power through its miniaturization and through a natural process of animism whereby we invest matter with spirit.” The Gospel parable of the mustard seed—in which the smallest seed grows to a great size, sheltering even the birds of the skies—intimates some of these ideas, and in his Dialogues Pope Gregory the Great describes a miracle in which “all the powers of [Benedict’s] mind unfolded, and he saw the whole world gathered up before his eyes in what appeared to be a single ray of light.”

Such observations about the power and potential of the very small precisely match Paulinus’s experience of meditating on a relic of the True Cross preserved in a tiny golden capsule, and of becoming lost in contemplation of the “invulnerable sign,” warning a friend: “Let not your faith shrink because the eyes of the body behold evidence so small; let it look with the inner eye on the whole power of the cross in this tiny segment.”

Although the dismemberment and decomposition of saints is vividly described in the stories of their Passions, these same Passions also describe the healing of bodies. The insistence on the reconstitution of saintly bodies through miraculous healing is an ever present and important topos, or narrative commonplace. What does one make therefore of its opposite, of the equally important topos of the incorruptibility of saintly bodies? It is often claimed that such incorruptibility demonstrates sanctity and, perhaps, virginity. But its use as a saintly topos along with various claims of the wholeness of relic bodies cannot be reconciled to the very real practices of dismemberment and fragmentation unless one realizes that incorruptibility is a metaphorical description of the saint, whole and living in heaven. The theology derives from Christological narratives and meanings (torture, death, and resurrection), but applies fully to the saints. As such, a fragment too can be a metaphor of incorruption, as Bruno Reudenbach has shown. Furthermore, despite assertions to the contrary, the West, even Rome, dealt in relic fragments from the beginnings of the cult of relics.

This is not to say that dismemberment and fragmentation were not disturbing to some in the Middle Ages. Guibert of Nogent was most distressed by the practice and very vocal in condemning it. He claimed that the trade in parts of bodies made the dissemination of false relics more likely, and he objected to translations and displays of reliquaries as well as, apparently, the use of gold and silver on them. He preferred saints remaining in their tombs to “the dragging around of reliquaries.” Guibert’s critique came at a moment in the eleventh century when portable reliquaries commonly began to appear on altars and when new forms, such as arm reliquaries, emerged. His dissenting voice is one exception that proves the rule of the enthusiastic acceptance of such forms. Despite the negative potential of dismemberment, the positive actualizations—that is, the portable reliquaries that are the focus of this book—allow through their use and presentation a more flexible understanding of the meaning and place of saints in society.

Ultimately, whether represented by whole bodies or fragments, saints are imagined as fully present both in their relics and in heaven—a double presence that allows them to act as messengers of prayers and requests. Seemingly quiescent saints could interrogate demons, and the groans of the possessed testified to their living presence: “In this way they bring home the presence of the saints of God to human minds, that there should be no doubt that the saints are present at their tombs.” Dead bodies of saints have pink complexions, relic fragments bleed, and saints reach out of their tombs to work miracles!

When it comes to the saintly, the categories of living and dead are so flexible that stories tell of relics appropriating bodies as living reliquaries and of living bodies serving as relics. One last example, again Paulinus writing to the Roman senator Macarius, reveals a great deal about the early attitude toward relics both as memoria and as indexical proof. The letter accompanies and introduces a sailor, Valgius renamed Victor, whom Paulinus is sending to the senator as a “spiritual gift.” Paulinus suggests that Valgius is a kind of relic, a treasure greater even than loca sancta eulogiae from the Holy Land or Christ’s footprints in the soil there. In Paulinus’s conception, the reason for Victor’s relic-like status is that after being abandoned by his ship’s crew during a horrendous storm at sea, the lowly sailor had visions in which Christ and angels spoke to him, renamed him Victor, instructed him on how to care for the ship as well as when to sleep and eat, and once tweaked his ear to awaken him. Paulinus is impressed with that tweaking and argues that,

if living proofs in lifeless objects [eulogiae] demonstrate the ancient truth for today’s belief, then with what reverence must this man be regarded, with whom God deigned to converse, before whom God’s face was not concealed . . . ? . . . Valgius is the living earth on which we see impressed the traces of the Lord’s body, if with the eye of faith and spiritual sight we scrutinize what Christ’s bosom and Christ’s hand have touched in him . . . [we] touch the tender ear which heavenly fingers pulled when the Lord played His joke.

Paulinus further confesses, “I have so incessantly fingered his ear, that I have almost worn it away; I should have liked to cut off a part of that . . . ear, except that such a token [pignus] would have meant wounding him!” There seems to be little difference between a bit of dust or oil and this man, excepting that Valgius/Victor could talk, could tell his own story. (But perhaps, as we will see, relics did have the ability to “speak,” a quality vividly encountered in pilgrim accounts and even as a feature of reliquaries.)

Fragments were also important because they could be manipulated readily. Modern scholarship often assumes that gifts of relics were incidental to availability, but investigation shows this was rarely the case. Instead, relic fragments were chosen for the message they could send (or better, carry). Stephen’s relics were distributed throughout Christendom as a sign of unity, especially clerical unity. Gregory the Great sent a relic of the cross to the Lombard prince hoping he would uphold orthodoxy. Similarly, he sent a pendant cross to the governor of Gaul, adding fragments of the chains of Peter and the grille of Lawrence, arguing that the chains worn around the neck would “loose” instead of bind the recipient’s sins and that the grille would “cremate” the flesh so that the governor’s mind could ascend to the love of God. Such intentions concerning the grouping and giving of relics are more typical than not.

Response to Relics, The “Eyes of the Faith” and Imagination

In turning to documentary material about the early history of relics, we immediately encounter issues related to the response to relics. In particular, reliquaries and their presentation from the beginning propose a complex instruction of the body and the senses, the teaching of reverentia. Details of the development of such conventional behavior are most evident and well documented in surviving Holy Land pilgrim accounts. Although most such accounts are bare-bones itineraries, some report vivid stories that speak to a well-developed integration of relics into the Christian imagination. It must be noted, however, that the encounter of pilgrim and relic may have been more immediate and emotional, and was certainly less regulated, than the encounter between a later medieval worshiper and a relic in the West.

Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth-century Greek Father, typically figures the interaction with a relic at a holy site as a markedly intimate encounter: “Those who behold [relics] embrace, as it were, the living body in full flower: they bring the eye, mouth, ear and all the senses into play.” Early Christian commentators in particular examine touch and sight, yet each of these senses is promised satiation only as it is also deferred. Real touch is shown to be secondary to the comfort of divine touch, kissing is secondary to symbolic ingestion, and seeing is secondary to interior sight. Furthermore, although pilgrimage and relics would seem to have everything to do with touch and contact, Georgia Frank in her work on the senses in early Christianity has noted that the earliest pilgrim sites seem to have recommended little or no actual touching. Indeed, among the early sites of importance only Golgotha, with the relic of the cross, involved touch or, as a matter of fact, kissing.

The famous story of the Golgotha pilgrim who surreptitiously but devoutly bit off a piece of the cross leaves an indelible impression upon the modern mind, but there is much reason to doubt. Might we not see the story as a topos, a commonplace or particularly meaningful narrative fragment that may not be true or even original? When we think about the story, the archetypal pilgrim seems a little too close to enacting the model of reception described by Egeria, the famous fourth-century pilgrim who wrote such a full and evocative account of her travels. She noted that one was to approach the relic of the True Cross and touch it with one’s forehead and then eyes, and finally kiss it. As Frank has observed, this is remarkably similar to Cyril of Jerusalem’s discussion of the reception of the Eucharist—with the exception that in this case the final step is to ingest, to eat, the Eucharist. The anonymous Golgotha pilgrim combines the two and gets it wrong. In the later Middle Ages similar stories circulated about devotees who in bouts of overzealous piety bit off chunks of holy relics and scandalized the faithful—notoriously, Hugh of Lincoln in the twelfth century —and in the eleventh century, under the watchful eyes of the Saracens, the legendarily violent Fulk Nerra felt compelled to bite the Holy Sepulcher in order to obtain a relic. This recurring topos serves an important purpose. Through shocking hyperbole it reminds the faithful of the passion that relics inspire, but it also begins to teach them about a more appropriate approach to a relic. Indeed, Fulk should have waited, because the Christian guardians of the Sepulcher later gave him relics as gifts.

Once more, stories (and their material equivalent, reliquaries) are essential. Context and story arouse the interest of the audience and make contact with the relic significant and wondrous. In the milieu of late antique pilgrimage, contexts were supplied in many forms—spoken words, architectural settings, or simple labels. Gary Vikan has demonstrated the use of role-playing in which pilgrims, in pious performance, might take on the persona of the Three Magi at the site of the Nativity. However, without fail one particular ceremony, the reading of a story—whether Gospel text or the vita of a saint—was always performed at pilgrim sites. While some sites merited only brief readings, Egeria describes a complex program of Gospel readings in Jerusalem. Any story, however, when read in the presence of relics began a process of the imaginative reexperience of the sacred events that had occurred at the site.

Other dramatic stagings of the pilgrim experience led to a performative shaping of the pilgrim body. At Bethlehem, where role-playing as the Three Magi took place, a more basic structuring of the architecture led to pilgrim movement toward the “Christ child.” The dome focused attention on the sacred site, and stairs led down into the “cave” of the Nativity, allowing the pious to enter. At Cana the faithful could sit on the very bench that the wedding guests had once occupied. At Golgotha pilgrims suffered in the burning sun (as did Christ on the cross) while a long liturgy was performed.

Such preparations and physical experiences conditioned the faithful to explore the holy sites somatically as well as imaginatively. Jerome describes the matron Paula at Golgotha falling before the cross “as if she could see the Lord hanging on it.” At Bethlehem, “with the eyes of faith, she saw a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, weeping in the Lord’s manger.” Paula herself writes to her friend Marcella, claiming, “As often as we enter [the Lord’s Sepulcher] we see the Savior in His grave clothes, and if we linger we see again the angel sitting at His feet, and the napkin folded at His head.” Pilgrim itineraries are presented as programs of ritual movements, successive sights, series of “sensory wonders,” or visions.

As a fourth-century bishop wrote in a homily concerning pilgrim visitors to the Oak of Mamre, the imagination expands beyond the events of the place: “With the sight of the holy places, they renew the picture in their thinking, behold [the patriarch Moses] in their minds . . . reflect . . . on his descendants . . . and with the recollection . . . become spectators [to] . . . history.” When Paula speaks of “lingering” at the Sepulcher to see more, she seems to be discussing a process in which the vision that she experiences develops gradually and moves to different aspects of the story and its meaning—the piteous body of Christ, the angel messengers, the “relic” testimony of the shroud. Both of these late antique authors cast their discussions and images in conventional enough biblical terms—these are not mystical visions but instead visions and visualizations that could readily be encouraged by pictorial imagery and a structuring of the site. However, they only begin by means of aspects taken in with the corporeal eyes, and they progress through the experience of the “eyes of the faith” to become part of the pilgrim’s “thinking.” That is, parts are integrated by the memory—revolved in the mind and portrayed on the “tablets” of the heart as Gregory the Great described it. In the end they serve the soul in a sort of imitatio Christi. As Athanasius wrote in the fourth century of the pilgrim experience of a group of nuns: “You have seen the place of the Nativity: he has given birth to your souls anew. You have seen the place of the crucifixion: let the world be crucified to you and you to the world. You have seen the place of the ascension: your minds are raised up.”

I have suggested that these experiences could be facilitated by art as well as by setting. We have little surviving evidence of artwork from early pilgrimage sites, but we do have ornamented containers for the eulogiae that the pilgrims gathered in their travels. The objects usually are dated to the sixth century, later than the texts cited above. Although the containers are not complex artistically, they do seem to make various recommendations to the viewer in terms of his or her experience at a holy site. The most famous among them—the small wooden box from the Lateran Sancta Sanctorum, whose lid is decorated with a cross in an aureole on the exterior and with scenes painted on the interior (fig. 8)—contains a collection of eulogiae from Holy Land sites. The narrative of the pilgrimage experience is typically ordered in terms of the Passion and victory of the cross, and some of the narrative paintings, which depict events that took place at various Holy Land sites, include details of the sites represented, such as the grille and the dome at the church of the Holy Sepulcher at the upper left. By representing events that took place at the sites, images of this type implicitly recommend that as a pilgrim recalls his or her trip by touching the souvenirs, he or she should envision these events. Knowing the vivid accounts of Paula, Jerome, and Egeria, we can imagine the form such visualizations took.

Similarly, ampullae (small flat bottles) probably held a bit of water, oil, or dust collected from a site. A collection survives at Monza (fig. 9). In depictions of the crucifixion on the Monza ampullae, we see pilgrims kneeling at either side of the foot of the cross, praying and—we can infer—visualizing the event as they gaze upon the face of Christ that appears at the top of the cross. Underneath is the shrine of the Holy Sepulcher, again with the grille. The two women, the Marys, are conversing with the angel, and the angel’s words—which can be translated as “The Lord is arisen”—are written above the scene on the ampulla to the right in figure 9. Instead of a descriptive titulus, this inscription records the fragment of a speech act. In contrast to the Vatican box, on which the Ascension is depicted, here the pilgrim is called upon to imagine the event (although, on the obverse of the right-hand ampulla, the resurrected Christ does himself appear in the scene of the doubting Thomas).

Roman Christian objects and images from the fourth and fifth centuries, thus somewhat earlier than these Holy Land examples, suggest that the pilgrimage experience was not unique to the Holy Land. However, now the holy is experienced through the relics of saints rather than through travel to the places of the events of Christ’s life. According to some theories, the presence of corporeal relics—in contrast to the experience of loca sancta, or holy places—should decisively shift the audience’s focus from the visual to the tactile, but this is not the case. An ivory casket found in the altar of Hermagoras in Samagher near Pola (and now at the Museo Archeologico in Venice) is believed to memorialize a number of cult sites in Rome and may have served, again, as a receptacle for eulogiae from those sites (fig. 10). St. Peter’s basilica is recognizable because of the distinctive crossed arches that rose above the fourth-century shrine of the saint. More remarkable is that the pilgrim devotees have been represented taking part in ritual celebration at a Roman church: in front of the shrine we see the praying congregation, men on one side (our left) and women on the other (our right). The four standing figures pray in the orant position, with hands raised and palms facing out. In a similar gender configuration, the two devotees make offering gestures before the shrine. Curtains are drawn back to reveal the tomb for visual access, but the unopened doors still prevent tactile access.

Perhaps even more like the representations on the objects from the Holy Land, a fourth-century fresco at SS. Giovanni e Paolo depicts praying devotees who flank their vision of the living saint. The devotees take an extreme posture—what in the East would be called proskynesis but in the West is called more camelorum, in the mode of a camel. In this humbling animal-like pose, crouched with elbows to knees, the devotee cannot touch or see. Indeed, in a description of the proper posture of a visitor to the shrine of St. Martin at Tours, Paulinus of Perigeux recommends that while contemplating the depictions of Martin’s healing miracles one should lie prostrate on the ground, pressing one’s face into the dust until the imprint of one’s eyelids is left on the earth. Only then was one to lift the eyes to view the miracles offered to the “trembling gaze.” This preparation was suffered in order to view, not the relics of Martin, but the representation of a miracle in a fresco.

Indeed, Western textual sources that discuss sight and visualization vis-à-vis relics are fewer in number than those from the East and do not always present a consistent approach. Nevertheless, at least one authority, Paulinus of Nola, forcefully argued that for the faithful in the early Middle Ages some use of vision, especially the sight of the relic of the True Cross, could be a genuinely powerful and effective means of access to the divine. Yet, in his comments on vision, Paulinus insists on a gradation of the powers of looking—one level obtains for the newly converted and another for the fully initiated Christian. He condescendingly allows that the rustics might “gape” at Old Testament frescoes in the basilica he has built at Nola, and justifies the use of paintings as a substitute for the uncontrolled feasting that generally occurred. Instead of gorging themselves on food, “they roam around, their unsophisticated minds beguiled in devotion.” In supplying what today we might term “eye candy,” Paulinus hopes that the paintings will “excite interest by their attractive appearance,” but he also expects that the rustics will “point out and read over to each other the subjects painted. . . . In this way, as the paintings beguile their hunger, their astonishment may allow better behavior to develop in them . . . as they gape, their drink is sobriety.” He concludes by arguing that “they have spent their time on the wonders of the place.” Clearly, these rustic devotees are not looking at relics or reliquaries. Here, instead, we are concerned with the general shrine complex that Paulinus has so carefully constructed. The tomb of Saint Felix has only a simple silver covering, but he has taken care to create a beautiful setting for the spiritual benefit of visitors.

Paulinus’s thoughts on the evocation of devotion and “wonder” through looking do not, by any means, end here. He begins his description of Nola in a letter about showing the site to his bishop. No rustic, the bishop nonetheless is encouraged to look at the paintings: “Crane your neck a little till you take in everything with face tilted back. The man who looks at these and acknowledges the truth within these empty figures nurtures his believing mind with representations by no means empty.” Paulinus describes an act of looking that takes effort and time, that may cause physical discomfort. He apologizes for the empty figures, but at the same time he claims that the “representations” themselves are not empty. Just as the Eastern Fathers did in regard to pilgrimage sites, Paulinus urges that the viewer look not with the eyes but with the mind.

Finally, Paulinus reserves for himself a very special kind of looking. In describing the relic of the True Cross that he received from the Jerusalem pilgrim Melania, he recommends yet a third mode of looking. As noted above, his own vision is a meditative gaze accompanied by a multivalent consideration of the symbolism of the “invulnerability of Christ’s sign”—the cross. His vision focuses on a tiny relic and, in response, opens to the full implications of faith. Perhaps now that he is looking not at “empty figures” but at the relic of the True Cross, his vision can be meditative, expansive, timeless, and true.

How does this vision work? Paulinus scatters details throughout his writing. Perhaps it is fair to say that his primary concern is the purification of the senses. He describes sight after baptism as vision that has the potential to reconfigure the soul. Elsewhere, however, he describes the difficult process of eradicating sin in all its many forms. Only after the soul is cleansed can one use the senses properly: “Once our senses have been cleansed of all that gives rise to wickedness, our Lord Jesus Christ will gladly walk in them: in them as in the five porticoes, will stroll Wisdom.” In his Dialogues, Gregory the Great similarly argues that true wonders are seen “with spiritual vision, purified with acts of faith and abundant prayers,” and describes a vision of the world in a single ray of light.” Just as Paulinus relates, an intense focus is followed by an opening up of understanding—it is as if only a small aperture can let in the light. In other words, perhaps the small size of the relic actually helps to focus the mind of the devotee.

Paulinus was privileged to possess a personal relic of the True Cross. What then did the average pilgrim see? Even in the East, where the Piacenza pilgrim wrote avidly of touching many sacred relics, access was not always granted. In an inscription in the new shrine at Tebessa built by Bishop Alexander in the late fourth century, the possibilities of sight are extolled: “Where once long rest had robbed [the saints] from our gaze, they blaze with light on a fitting pedestal. . . . From all around the Christian people, young and old, flow in to see them, happy to tread the holy threshold, singing their praises and hailing with outstretched hands the Christian faith.” Characteristically, the relics shine with light and the faithful are filled with joy in seeing them. But can they really see them? This passage describes a liturgical ceremony filled with chanting and arms raised in prayer, not rapt contemplation. The faithful knew that in the center of the new church the relics were lifted and celebrated, but could they really see them?

At the shrine of Thecla in Seleucia, devotees had visions of the saint sitting in the center of the church, and indeed she was “visible to all eyes,” even though the shrine did not possess the relics of the saint. In the West, at the shrine of Saint Peter, if one were lucky enough to be granted the golden key that unlocked the grille at the tomb, one then found it necessary to insert one’s head through a fenestella (or small window), presumably into a dark space—but to see what? Probably the only visible object was the exterior of the saint’s sarcophagus (similar to the arrangement reconstructed at S. Ambrogio in Milan). Throughout the Middle Ages, as in these early cases, the faithful almost never experienced unobstructed views of relics—grilles intervened, distances were maintained, containers with sheets of gold “like mirrors” deflected the gaze from the relics.

Even if a relic was presented for viewing, who might be capable of seeing it? This question was raised in a number of contexts, as miracles are seen by some but not by others. Commentators insist that to have true visions one must prepare the mind for veneration that allows ascent to a higher level. Gregory of Tours describes the relic in a cross at Bazas as a crystallized drop of divine mercy that fell from the vaults to the altar: “When it is adored [the relic] will appear crystal clear to a man free from sin; but if as often happens, some evil is attached to the frail human nature of the beholder, [it] appears totally obscure.” In an eleventh-century miracle among those associated with Sainte Foi, “innocent” witnesses saw a white dove carry off a body part while a criminal who was also at the site saw instead a black-and-white magpie. It was said that evil people could not see the Mandylion relic, the miraculous portrait of Christ from Edessa.

Finally, in 957 a Byzantine court official delivered a speech concerning the arm of John the Baptist in which he asked that John the Baptist be “present through your miracle-working and holy hand appearing entire to the worthy, appearing fully visible to the pure of mind and being fully present at all times in this holy sanctuary [the Pharos].” In turn he asked the saint to look and behold the cult organized in his honor.

In a more mundane sense, among the laity adequate preparation was essential for the sight of relics. In discussing the relics of Constantinople and after sorting the sources and condemning some (the Western ones) as hopelessly confused, George Majeska concludes that certain viewers, in this case the Russians, “came to Constantinople to see those marks of God’s activity on earth about which they had heard since childhood. Thus they were capable of understanding what they saw.” It could be said that without long lessons in the general and specific meanings of relics, audiences quite literally could not see. It became one of the primary tasks of the early Western Church to teach congregations how to approach, venerate, and see relics.

Reliquary as Container/Reliquary as Work of Art

Our discussion has for the most part concerned the treatment and status of relics. I have touched briefly on visual representations on the eulogiae boxes and ampullae, but at this moment we must delve more deeply into the potential of reliquaries to guide viewers’ perceptions and beliefs: that is, we must discuss the key issues related to making reliquaries as physical objects and as works of art.

A first and perhaps most important quality of reliquaries complicates the questions raised above regarding the visibility of relics. That is, reliquaries generally hide the relics they contain—protect them from profane sight. One might imagine that relics were concealed by clerics for safekeeping as well as ecclesiastical control, but an alternative reason may have been aesthetic. Circa 1100, Thiofrid of Echternach, who insists that relic and reliquary are truly a single unit, argues that without the compensatory beauty of the reliquary a relic could be repulsive. Ultimately, throughout scattered and disparate medieval commentary, a common theme emerges asserting that relics should not be seen, that decorum requires they never be exposed to improper touch or display.

Again, stories help us to understand, just as they helped medieval viewers. A fifth- or sixth-century miracle account concerns a relic of the True Cross obtained by Saint Peter the Iberian, encased in wax, then wrapped in linen, and finally enclosed in a cassette of gold. On feast days and Sundays, Peter opened the case to adore the relic, but when a young cubicularius did so, the relic turned into a white dove that flew from the palace. Peter was forced to search out a replacement. The relic’s miraculous ability to disguise (or transform) itself and move of its own volition is striking, but perhaps the foremost message is that relics were not to be approached in simple curiosity, especially by those without qualifications. Gregory the Great commented on the Byzantine custom of kissing and touching relics: “For in the Roman and all the western parts it is unendurable and sacrilegious for anyone by any chance to desire to touch the bodies of saints: and, if one should presume to do this, it is certain that his temerity will by no means remain unpunished. For this reason we greatly wonder at the custom of the Greeks, who say that they take up the bones of saints; and we scarcely believe it.” Gregory is probably stating an extreme position here, one that was only clearly established at a relatively late date (he wrote in the sixth century), but such reluctance to touch became an important and enduring difference between Eastern and Western approaches to relics.

Such reluctance to touch relics and reliquaries, however, is securely grounded in biblical precedent. In the case of the prototype of reliquaries, the Ark of the Covenant, touching is explicitly condemned and the most extreme punishment invoked: “And when [the Israelites and David] came to Nachon’s threshing floor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God” (2 Sam. 6:6–7; see also 1 Chron. 13:9–10). In reaction, David becomes frightened and reluctant to move the Ark, but when he does so, he follows a ritual in which the Ark is celebrated with music, dancing, and sacrifices. Furthermore, the king departs from royal decorum and publicly humbles himself before the Ark by dancing (to the scorn of his wife Michal). Finally, he places the Ark in the carefully prepared space of the Tabernacle.

To carry these issues into the later Middle Ages, we can cite miracles associated with processions, as recounted by Pierre-André Sigal, that similarly suggest that the improper approach to relics can cause serious injury or death. Other examples tell of holy fire, as well as blindness or paralysis, threatening unapproved viewers. The exception that proved the rule was the ritual humiliation of relics, in which they were “exposed.” However, such rituals would not have had an impact if they had not been profoundly shocking to sensibilities that had learned a certain reverentia toward relics.

A second question must be posed: where were relics hidden from view? This question turns out to be both practical and metaphorical. In the early Christian era relics (and reliquaries) were concealed in altars. As Paulinus writes of Saint Clarus, “It is right that a pure altar covers your body so that God’s altar may conceal the temple of Christ.” The reference to the saint’s body as a temple may recall the Jewish Temple and biblical sanctions against anyone other than priests entering the Holy of Holies, where Jewish “relics” were kept in the Ark of the Covenant (Exod. 25). The relic of the manna within the Ark was further hidden, enclosed in a golden pot (for otherwise it would have bred worms; Exod. 16:20). References to the body as temple, however, persist throughout the Middle Ages. In the early thirteenth century, Sicardus of Cremona compared the church building to the heart of man, “‘who is the temple of God’ [1 Cor. 3:17], and the placing of the Eucharist and the relics in the altar as the closing up of [both] God’s commands and the example of the saints in his heart so that he can sincerely claim: ‘Thy word I have hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee’ [Ps. 119:11].” With reference to the same passage in Psalms, William Durandus of Mende (1230–1296) wrote, “We hide [these relics] in a capsa, so as to imitate holding them [the saints] in our heart.”

These examples, from opposite ends of the Middle Ages, emphasize that the interior of the heart (or altar or reliquary) is the place to keep eternal religious truths and treasures. A slightly different analogy of reliquary to body, proposed by Thiofrid of Echternach at the turn of the twelfth century, compared the wonder of the soul enclosed in the body to the wonders of miracles performed by “dust.” He wrote, “As the soul itself in the body cannot be seen and yet works its wonders therein, so the precious treasury of dust [relics] works unseen. . . . Who with fast faith touches the outside of the container whether in gold, silver, gems, or fabric, bronze, marble, or wood, he will be touched by that which is concealed inside.” Thiofrid’s assertion that touching the exterior of the relic container is efficacious obviates any necessity to see or touch the relic itself.

Thiofrid was himself an abbot and therefore would have had the privilege of touching relics if he wished. His Flores epytaphii sanctorum details a monastic devotion to the relics of his patron saint, Willibrord, as well as to other relics, especially those of the Passion and martyrs that are depicted on the frontispiece of his treatise (fig. 11). A number of the torture devices venerated as contact relics, a category of particular interest to Thiofrid, are visible without enclosure on the frontispiece—the grille of Saint Lawrence, the shackles of Peter, and what would later come to be known as the arma Christi, or instruments of the Passion—perhaps these could be touched. Across the top of the miniature, however, a series of small reliquaries, of the primary type that Thiofrid discusses, hangs from a beam. Nothing about the reliquaries indicates their contents, although one takes the shape of a domed building. Perhaps the two on the ends are made of crystal, but given a dating in the early twelfth century, these reliquaries were probably the heavily carved Fatimid crystals traded as luxury goods in the Ottonian empire and thus not effective in allowing a view of their contents. In Thiofrid’s exposition of the specific shapes of reliquaries and their materials, he also notes that the name of a saint or his shadow alone could be thought of as powerful “relics.” While he admits the paradoxical ability of material to transmit God’s power, he also insists on seeing with “spiritual eyes.” Although among medieval writers Thiofrid is most willing to concede the material existence and power of reliquaries, he too qualifies their validity—without God’s grace, gold is no better than “excrement.” The enclosure of the relic is essential, but only the means to an end.

A third question arises: what are the physical qualities of reliquaries? Although Thiofrid’s list of the possible materials of reliquaries includes everything from wood to marble and fabric to various metals, the overwhelming majority of references to reliquaries in medieval sources specify that they are gemmis et auro, that is, made “of gems and gold.” Robert Favreau traces the phrase to Ovid and notes that it indicates a product of the very highest quality. Precious materials bestow honor upon relics and, of course, condition their reception by viewers. A rough hierarchy of materials includes at the top gold and gems, which have biblical associations with heaven. In close proximity are ivory, throughout antiquity associated with the body, and crystal, considered the most pure of substances and also associated with heaven (see my further discussion in chapter 2).

However, in addition to materials and their associations, it must be recognized that reliquaries have other physical qualities that contribute to their meaning. In terms of the imaginative perception of relics, which as Patricia Cox Miller emphasizes is essential to their spiritual understanding, relics are physically distinguished as giving off light, a quality apparent in many of the quotations above. This light is not stable but one that flickers, flashes, and coruscates; in short, it is incandescent. Augustine argued that Stephen’s relics brought a healing “light to the whole world,” again clarifying the meaning of relics through the use of metaphor. However, poetic evocations, such as descriptions in Prudentius and Fortunatus, as well as more prosaic miraculous accounts, describe relics and reliquaries as literally glowing or shining with light. Relics and reliquaries are typically honored with “lights,” lighted candles and lamps that often are burned continuously or over a specified period of time in devotion to the saint, but Arnold Angenendt has pointed to the light-producing quality of relics themselves. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that numerous reliquaries take a “lantern” or tower shape (as in the eleventh-century example from Conques; fig. 12; 42 cm). We should understand that the “windows” of such lanterns allowed light to come out rather than the gaze to penetrate inward.

A fourth question must be investigated. In her treatment of the rhetorical consideration of relics, Miller goes yet further in invoking the importance of the work of the imagination, casting it in terms of an aesthetic that transforms relics from bones and dust to beauty and power. In discussing ekphrasis, a form of rhetorical description that attempts to evoke the sensations and emotions of the viewer rather than merely describe things in the world, Miller argues that in Asterius’s ekphrasis of 410 at the martyrium of St. Euphemia in Asia Minor, the viewer is “positioned as an active participant in the creation of an aesthetics of relics.” In other words, aesthetics become part of the imaginative understanding of what relics mean. The work, the text, is essentially unfinished, and the rhetor calls upon the listener and viewer to complete it. I would argue that reliquaries often work in precisely the same fashion.

The beauty of a reliquary does not, therefore, only function to honor the saint, or to mediate the “ugliness” of the relic; it also takes part, along with the beauty of the liturgy, the shrine, hymns, poems, and prayers, in creating or constructing the saint and his or her spiritual meaning for (and by) the performative viewer. Thus beauty is an inalienable and required quality of reliquaries, but rather than being taken for granted as intrinsic to materials or craftsmanship, it was actively sought as an experience. As Peter Brown evocatively writes, such artistic effort is concerned with the making of “a carefully maintained crescendo of beauty in poetry, in ceremonial, and in shimmering art around a new and obsessive theme. . . . [Gregory of Tours and Fortunatus] turned the summum malum of physical death preceded by suffering into a theme into which all that was most beautiful and refined in their age could be compressed.” At a later moment in the Middle Ages (circa 980), Egbert of Trier, as noted earlier, transforms what is perhaps the ugliest part of the body, the foot, into the “beautiful . . . feet of [the Apostles] who bring good news of good things!” (Rom. 10:15; see fig. 2). He accomplished this transformation as the active patron of one of the most renowned artistic workshops of the day, seeking out new forms of expression for reliquaries. A contemporary praises his “grand and celebrated ingenuity” in the use of enamels and his employment of superior artists, and notes that the resulting “admirable form” pleases both “eye and spirit.” So, in addition to winning the admiration of his fellows and eliciting requests from them for ornamenta for their own churches, Egbert succeeded in the most important of aesthetic challenges: he was able to create beauty out of ugly things, beauty that pleased both the “eye and spirit.”

Hiltrud Westermann-Angerhausen has argued that Egbert set out to impress his fellow clerics and win prestige for his archbishopric specifically through the making of beautiful artworks, principally manuscripts and the striking reliquaries I discussed at the beginning of this chapter. She casts Countess Gertrude’s efforts at New Brunswick in much the same light (see fig. 44). Of course, as much as fulfilling a desire for political prestige, these patrons were seeking spiritual credit through their contributions to the ornamenta ecclesiae, the beautification of the church. A similar effort can be traced in the artistic patronage of Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim, Abbot Wibald of Stavelot, and Abbot Suger of St-Denis as well as Paulinus of Nola. In other words, the efforts of these renowned patrons to honor the saints of their churches served simultaneously as the engine of artistic innovation and creativity. Perhaps we should consider reliquaries to be works of art after all.

Fifth and finally, the interaction of reliquaries with their audiences must be considered. It is only in an age that admits that artwork can interact with the viewer that reliquaries can indeed be considered art—relics and reliquaries both act and interact. I have noted that relics are “lively” and give “gifts” to those who pray to them, gifts of miracles, healing, and conversion. As noted, relics and reliquaries were believed to give off light, reassuring the faithful of their power and presence. Perhaps most striking to the modern mind, however, is the claim that relics (and reliquaries) had the ability to speak. Innumerable miracle stories relate accounts of saints speaking through their relics to devotees both asleep and awake, promising healing or asking for actions. More surprising, perhaps, is that artists also assumed this possibility for reliquaries and manipulated it in various ways.

Georgia Frank traces this quality to Roman epitaphs that made demands on their viewers: “Stop for a little, stranger, and then go on your way; do not leave the stele at once, but first see what it says.” A similar prolonged dialogue or meditation in the Poem on the Passion of the Lord (from the fifth or sixth century) directly addresses the reader (viewer) and literally designates aspects of Christ’s body as monumenta:

Whoever you are who approach . . . stop a little and look upon me, who, though innocent, suffered for your crime. . . .

Now survey me from head to foot. . . . Behold me and see my locks clotted with blood, and my blood-stained neck under my very hair . . . survey my compressed and sightless eyes . . . see the blood streaming from [my wound], and my perforated feet, and blood-stained limbs. . . .

If these monumenta shall turn away your senses, which are devoted to a perishable world. . . .

Not only does the body speak, it takes the reader (viewer) through a prescribed itinerary of looking and suggests a response. This is precisely the sort of looking that reliquaries demand. A reliquary has the unique ability to draw the viewer into dialogue with its relic, which holds a “paradoxical status as an object that simultaneously belongs to the present and the past.”

Byzantine reliquaries stay close to the ancient tradition, commonly carrying on dialogues with their viewers in the form of inscriptions. For example, an inscription on a finger of John the Baptist addresses the viewer, and in the speech of a Byzantine court official (cited earlier), that relic is further animated, expected to appreciate the ceremonies in which it is included. A reliquary that was once at the Ste-Chapelle in Paris (now at the Louvre), and that was believed to contain a piece of the Stone of the Sepulcher, addresses the viewer, “Come see the place where the Lord lay” [Matt. 28:6], and speaks of its own beauty, “How splendid is the angel . . . his innate quality and his immaterial purity shine from afar: through his beauty he reveals the glory of the Resurrection.”

First-person address by a relic to a viewer was also known in the early medieval West. Behind the main altar at Fulda, Hrabanus Maurus built a stone tower and baldachin with four columns decorated with gold and silver, for the bones of twenty-one saints. On the long coffer with gold, silver, gems, and depictions of each of the saints were inscriptions with verses “as if spoken by the saints themselves.” Many other examples could be cited.

Some reliquaries elicit speech from their devotees, in a process that seeks to teach Christian truths to the faithful. With this approach the reliquary has moved from the passive object of the gaze to the subject of its own story. Perhaps this transition is not surprising considering that reliquaries seem almost to have required activation by viewers. They were lifted, gestured with, carried in processions, opened, and closed.

Finally, before leaving a discussion of reliquaries and their characteristics as objects, I must more clearly make some first suggestions about the means by which reliquaries are able to create significance for the viewer. Above I noted that some, but relatively few, used symbolic or narrative images to convey messages. However, as we will see, rather than through conventional iconography, reliquaries can also make meaning through the use of less familiar and more abstract means. Perhaps most important are two other ideas: that the quality and types of materials used conveyed an intrinsic meaning, and that a participatory aesthetic constructed a particular sort of poetic or imaginative meaning. As suggested, such constructions of imagination and rhetoric in reliquaries are based primarily upon the semiotic principles of the sign and its variant, the figurative sign or metaphor.

The language of early writers on relics such as Ambrose and Prudentius is filled with the word signum (sign). For Ambrose, the blood found at the graves of martyrs is a sign of their martyrdom and a proof of authenticity. Similarly, for Prudentius relics and blood are “signs” of martyrdom. For Augustine and Origen, miracles are signs of the power of God transmitted through the saint. It is in distinctively “semiotic” terms that Thiofrid classifies saints’ names as “relics” not tied to place: “They are present to the faithful anywhere, when the bodies are absent.”

In some sense the reliquary merely assumes this meaning directly from the relic, a transference of significance and power that allies container and contained. But a sign must be recognizable to carry meaning effectively, and the necessity of sending a comprehensible message begins a divergence away from the natural sign to the figurative sign in the case of the manufactured realm of the reliquary.

Although Augustine characterizes the differences and importance of the figurative sign briefly in De doctrina Christiana, classical and late antique treatises on rhetoric or philosophy generally do not consider the possibilities of metaphor and imaginative creation. Nevertheless, Peter Dronke has recently articulated a distinct thread in classical and late antique philosophy and rhetoric that treats imagination as an important source of knowledge and a means to lift the mind to the divine. From a largely negative treatment in Plato and a minor role short of intellection in Aristotle, Dronke traces the place of imagination to significant treatments in Philo and Longinus, Cicero and Philostratus. Early high points of a tradition that blossoms in the later Middle Ages are evident in Pseudo-Dionysus and Plotinus. For these commentators, metaphors as well as images play an important part in the working of the imagination.

Ultimately, whether artists and patrons were aware of such theoretical discussions, it becomes entirely evident that the imaginative and metaphoric construction of meaning is the primary operation of reliquaries. We have seen metaphor used since the beginning in an understanding of relics and reliquaries. I will discuss the “sign” at length in chapter 5 and return to a much amplified discussion of metaphor in chapter 6. After discussions of artists and materials, narrative and typology in the earliest reliquaries, as well as issues of response, the longest section of this book is a consideration of “shaped” reliquaries. There, I propose that shapes were found to serve efficaciously as signs or metaphors to encourage meditation on the meaning of relics and to lift the mind to “the invisible by means of the visible.”