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Vol. LXIV, No. 31
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
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Serving as “Place and Narrative in a Box,” Reliquaries Are Information-Rich Sources

Ellen Gilbert

What did a small stone, a pinch of dust, a sliver of bone, a twig, or a few drops of water or lamp oil signify to Medieval Christians?

Quite a lot, according Julia M. H. Smith, Edwards Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow and former Member (2008-09) in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, where she recently presented a talk entitled “Christianity in Miniature: A Look inside Medieval Reliquaries.”

The lecture, supported by the Dr. S. T. Lee Fund for Historical Studies, was part of a workshop called “Matter for Debate: Relics and Related Devotional Objects,” organized by the Institute’s School of Historical Studies. The intent of the workshop, organizers said, is to “provide invited scholars the opportunity to participate in a fundamental exploration of what have been traditionally called ‘relics’ in a range of religious and cultural traditions from many different places and historical periods.” The program is supported by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, a German-based foundation that encourages research at universities and institutions.

“Absolutely Tiny”

Noting that there is no scriptural foundation for collecting relics, Ms. Smith observed that “few Christians today would share faith in a pebble.” In Medieval times, however, relics were collected in “huge quantities” and invested with powers highly disproportionate to their size. The “absolutely tiny” objects found in reliquaries came “from holy shrines all over Christiandom,” according to Ms. Smith. Speaking to a standing room-only crowd, she described how the easily-transportable small objects “travelled far and wide” and “across generations.” They were valued because of their place of origin.

Describing them as “stunning works of art,” Ms. Smith showed images of reliquaries like a seventh- to eighth-century example from the Schnütgen Museum in Cologne. The box, made of panels of carved bone, contains neatly wrapped relics that include a piece of the “true cross” and a scrap of St. Stephen’s tunic. Although the creation of reliquaries was informed by a Western European perspective, Ms. Smith said, the objects were largely either Jerusalem-centered or reflected “respect for Rome.”

Although relics were “carried around, held seen, and even kissed,” the reliquaries that held them were usually “not designed to be seen on a daily basis,” said Ms. Smith. Indeed, some of them were cemented into spaces in churches, providing “a potent but invisible presence.” Although the items in another reliquary she described were not so easily identified and probably incorporated items from pre-existing reliquaries, they had “travelled a long way.” Although concealed, Ms. Smith observed, they were “no less important or potent for that”; these “paltry materials” were “super-charged with meaning.”

Past and Future

Ms. Smith referred to reliquaries as “place and narrative in a box” that helped people in the Middle Ages “make sense of Bible stories.” By including pilgrims’ souvenirs from trips to the Holy Land, they referred both backwards, to past history, as well as forwards, by anticipating “the end-time and promise of redemption.”

Ms. Smith is the author of numerous articles and books, including the upcoming Christianity in Fragments, to be published by Yale University Press. In addition to her year as the George William Cottrell, Jr. Member at the Institute, she has been awarded fellowships by the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study and the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University, among others.

“I am currently working on projects which address the centrality of saints’ cults in Medieval life from two convergent perspectives,” reports Ms. Smith, who is a member of the Glasgow Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and the Centre for Gender History, in her website. One of her projects, Roman Martyrs in the Medieval Imagination, “is grounded in the premise that gender and sanctity were complementary, but fundamentally different ways of organizing, expressing and debating power relations.” The other, Christianity in Fragments, “locates relics at the intersection of material culture and the cultural history of medieval Christianity and thereby substitutes objects for texts as the main field of enquiry.”

As she concluded her talk, Ms. Smith likened reliquaries to the “cross-section of an ancient tree,” observing that Christianity is a “religion of objects as much as ideas for both religious and non-religious people” with “ancient practices replayed over time in changing contexts.”

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