Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe

Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe
Cleveland Museum of Art
October 17, 2010–January 17, 2011

Walters Art Museum
February 13–May 15, 2011

British Museum
June 23–October 9, 2011

Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe
Edited by Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann, and James Robinson
Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2010.
278 pp.; 300 color ills.
Cloth $65.00
ISBN: 9780300168273

Upon entering the exhibition Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe at the Walters Art Museum, the visitor first encounters a lavish bust of St. Baudime (cat. 105, p. 191–3). The likeness is arresting: the figure, two and a half feet tall, is rendered half-length in wood and covered with gilded copper sheets; its arms are outstretched with jarringly large palms, turned upward. The saint’s eyes are opened wide; however, his piercing gaze is not directed at the viewer, but rather it is aimed above and beyond, toward the light outside the dimmed exhibition space. This representation of the saint—sanctified in its own right through the exhibit’s lighting—is an image, a figural sculpture. Yet, at the same time it is an object with a specific function: a container meant to store Baudime’s blood. Other reliquaries may contain heads, hands, legs, teeth, breasts, and even foreskin.

As containers for bodily remains, reliquaries present a type of object with unique issues for art historical inquiry, including concerns about their material qualities. Treasures of Heaven confronts many of these problems through both a chronological and a thematic approach. The exhibition presents 133 objects divided into six distinct spaces, each organized according to the historical development of the cult of relics in Christianity, and then further subdivided according to specific themes (From Tomb to Altar, Relic and Ritual, Sacred Space of the Church, Matter of Faith, Destruction-Continuation-Musealization and Living Tradition/Baltimore Saints). The Walters exhibition is the first major show in America devoted solely to reliquaries, moreover it aids scholarly research on the medieval period as it presents new modes of inquiry into this highly specialized field of study.

Arm Reliquary of the Apostles. German (Lower Saxony), ca. 1190, Silver gilt over wood (oak), enamel (champlevé), 51 x 14 x 9.2 cm, The Cleveland Museum of Art, gift of the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust, 1930.739

Ever since the publication of Josef Braun’s Die Reliquiare des christlichen Kultes und ihre Entwicklung in 1940, the study of the medieval reliquary has become a quasi-independent topic within medieval studies; perhaps it is even a field in and of itself within the discipline of art history.1 Specialization in its study is separate from research on objects that are sometimes classified as small-scale arts (kleines kunst).2 Scholarship that focuses on reliquaries is distinct from an examination of other types of liturgical vessels; it also departs from an analysis of the interior decoration of sacred spaces. The uniqueness of scholarship on reliquaries remains intriguing precisely due to its historiography and methodological impact on the objects under consideration. Reliquaries play a part in studies of pilgrimage and monumental sculpture, on civic saints, personal devotion, and liturgical rite; but they hardly ever receive a place of their own within medieval studies. This is true also when considering reliquaries from aspects of production. Although in many instances they were produced by the same artisans who manufactured other liturgical objects, reliquaries carry different qualities—and were perceived differently—even though they are frequently displayed together.

The issue of the reliquary as an independent field of study is not taken lightly by Martina Bagnoli (The Walters Art Museum), C. Griffith Mann (Cleveland Art Museum), Holger Klein (Columbia University) and James Robinson (British Museum), the exhibition’s co-curators. The show traces the importance of relics and reliquaries from the birth of Christianity until the present day, yet it is also attentive to the methods used to study reliquaries as objects whose discursive definition changes from one historical period to another, and from one geographical location to another. The ambition of the exhibition is to study the metamorphoses of form and typologies of the relics and reliquaries while exemplifying the consistency of the Christian ritual, and it is highly successful in this pursuit.3

The current exhibition presents a developmental narrative that in many ways follows the account given in Hans Belting’s Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst, undoubtedly one of the more influential modern studies that deals with religious imagery.4 Belting offers a trajectory from the rise of Christianity through the eighteenth century for the expansion of images used for worshipping, which he also terms cult images. This narrative favors an emphasis on the way religious images were used in liturgical practice; and at the end of the day Belting presents a succession of religious images that mark a gradual growth in the worship of images as a source for private devotion. His study deals with structures of image production, their expansion and reception–however, Belting does not distinguish between two or three-dimensional representations. Likewise, he does not address the display and use of different types of three-dimensional objects. One of the most significant displays at the Walters is of two objects discussed at length by Belting: the Vatican Mandylion (cat. 113, pp. 198–99) and the Man of Sorrows micro-mosaic housed at Santa Croce in Gerusaleme in Rome (cat. 116, p. 202). This part of the exhibition, in the fifth out of six exhibition spaces, is entitled “Image and Relic,” which directly follows a section title in Belting’s seminal work.5 While in Belting’s study image and relic set out to portray an historical moment in which Byzantine practices of image devotion were conflated with Western ones, at the Walters this moment is portrayed as a transformation from objects to “paintings.” This is not necessarily the curators’ fault: the special-exhibition galleries at the Walters are the most problematic and offer the possibility for only linear, narrative, and developmental, rather than theme or question-based types of exhibitions. And so, while the visitor proceeds from one room to another learning the development of that “thing” called reliquary, he or she then encounters these two extremely important, but two-dimensional, relics. Furthermore, following the argument set by Belting, the show does not go into detail in explaining how such a conceptual shift was possible.

One doubts whether an exhibition on the topic of relics and reliquaries could be organized without directly confronting Belting’s text, and the Walters show ably rises to the challenge. The organization of the show and selection of objects is masterful in and of itself; that it explicitly focuses on Belting makes the exhibition all the more impressive.

Mandylion. Mandylion: unknown; frame: Grancesco Corni, 1623, Mandylion: painted cloth; frame: silver gilt, enamel, Mandylion: 28 x 19 cm; frame: 65 x 45 cm, Ufficio delle Celebrazione Liturgiche del Sommo Pontefice, Vatican City, Courtesy of Sacrestia Pontific

One issue that is brought out very forcibly is the high material quality of the medieval reliquary. More than that, another striking aspect is the sheer interest in organic materials shown by the original makers of reliquaries; they are artistic objects made for organs, their vessels made of organic material rather than composites. This is as true for the silk cloth used to store the actual relics (cat. 68, pp. 128–29), as it is for the Reliquary Sarcophagus with Libation Opening carved from a single piece of gypseus stone (cat. 4, p. 32). Such objects stress that reliquaries, as containers, are organic, yet they are also man-made objects. Scholarship on reliquaries previously has conflated a study of sainthood—examining the physical remains of the saint, the person’s hagiography, and how the relics came into the possession of a given institution—with another category of inquiry, the facture of the container, which involves questions of materiality, style, narrative, and provenance.6 The current show should be lauded in that it recognizes that reliquaries demand two distinct modes of analysis.

Reliquary with Tooth of St. John the Baptist. Reliquary: German (Lower Saxony), rock crystal vessel: Egyptian (Fatimid), reliquary: 1375/1400; vessel: 10th or 11th century, silver gilt, rock crystal, 45.5 × 14.6 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Chauncey McCormick (1962.91)

The remarkable number of single-piece stone shrines raises the issue of whether reliquaries, especially early ones, were created from a desire to display an ontological presence, which might not have been the case if the works were composed of inorganic materials. The presentness of “things” or ontology rather than epistemology, it seems, motivated the making of early reliquaries. Another object that raises this issue is the babushka-like Set of Reliquary Boxes now in the museum of Archaeology in Varna (cat. 15a-c, p. 38–39), in which a marble reliquary enshrines a silver box that in turn encases a golden one. The decoration on this piece is minimal, and it is the material austerity of these three inorganic substances that marks these caskets as reliquary.7 An interest in organic materials, natural fibers and particles is also detected in the abundance of reliquaries fashioned from earthly deposits. In raising these questions, the exhibition redresses Belting’s narrative, which is in the end about epistemology and the gradual spread of iconography, rather than the ontological presence of the organic object. It is also possible that biblical passages, such as Ecclesiastes 12:7 (“And the dust goes back to the earth as it was, and the spirit goes back to God who gave it”), sparked an interest in organic materials. Or it could also be that the preoccupation with organic materials came from the very inherent vitality and possible animism that such materials offered.8

Adding to this line of inquiry, Treasures of Heaven presents a number of reliquaries created in the later Middle Ages that challenge our conception of what constitutes a “finished” object. Reliquaries evidently point out that they were meant to be ever-changing, the product of a necessary continual interaction between the object and the devotee. From the moment of the acquisition of the relics, their enshrinement is in flux as more precious stones and metals are added to the shrine. The epithet “open work” (opera aperta), coined by Umberto Eco, still serves useful when considering the reliquary’s shifting status of completion.9 The impermanent aspect of reliquaries singles them out from other liturgical objects and other small-scale art. This returns to the idea of vitality, pointing to a chronological development in reliquaries: the material wholeness of the earlier reliquaries offers a type of vitalism that is different from the ever-changing form of later reliquaries.10

The head reliquary of St. Eustace exhibited in the show is a striking example of “open work” (cat. 104, p. 191). The reliquary, now at the British Museum, is made of a carved wooden core onto which sixteen gilded silver sheets were hammered. It was opened in 1995 and its relics were returned to the treasury of Basel Cathedral. This occasion allowed conservators to take the reliquary apart layer by layer, a process discussed in the exhibition catalogue. As the conservators found, the detailed carving of hair on the wooden core is rendered in a different style from that of the hair on the hammered metal sheets. This could suggest that the reliquary once stood as an object made only of a wooden body, with a crown decorating its head, and that the metal sheets were attached later. This type of “additive reliquary” sheds light on how reliquaries were always “works in progress,” rather than consummated and immutable objects.

Another topic addressed by Treasures of Heaven is the development of the relic as an exchange commodity. Byzantium supplied relics to the West almost exclusively, including the relics of the True Cross or the Thorns of Christ’s Crown. This commodities market has reverberations in the production of the Mosan and Limoges Champlevé enamels, which were direct competitors to the venerated Cloisonné enamel reliquaries arriving at the same time from Byzantium. A by-product of the commoditization of reliquaries was their theft, creating an even greater market value for them.11

Reliquary Head of St. Eustace. Upper Rhenish (possibly Basel), ca. 1210, silver gilt over wood, rock crystal, chalcedony, amethyst, cornelian, pearl, and glass, wooden core with gesso, 35 x 16.6 x 18.4 cm, The British Museum, London, PE 1850,1127.1, © Trustees of the British Museum

Many of these issues are taken up in the handsome exhibition catalogue, which presents novel approaches for thinking about the material on display. Essays by Martina Bangioli, Barbara Drake Bohm, and Cynthia Hahn address key issues overlooked in the exhibition itself, for instance, the techniques used to fashion the objects and a consideration of their material symbolism. Other essays, too, emphasize perspectives that are not raised in the exhibition. Holger Klein presents a fresh and much welcomed reexamination of the role of the collector of reliquaries, considering all participants in the economy of buying and selling sacred objects. The issue of how relics functioned within the sacred space of the church and the liturgical rites surrounding them is addressed by Éric Palazzo. James Robinson focuses on portable reliquaries, including those worn as protective pendants. His essay bridges a lacuna of scholarship available in the English on how reliquaries and ampulae were worn in Western Christendom, a topic that until now has been served only by scholarship on Byzantine and eastern Mediterranean practices.12 The last essay in the catalogue, written by Alexander Nagel, pushes the chronological span of the exhibition. Instead of narrating the continuity of Christian relic devotion in modern times (something that the exhibition discusses by exhibiting the relics of the first American-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton), Nagel argues for the survival of the structure of medieval reliquary practice in modern and contemporary art. In presenting the medieval reliquary as a counterpart to the modern art object, Nagel shifts the discourse away from questions relating to Belting’s bildanthropologie and back to a focused study of the Object, or in its modern rendition: the Work of Art.13

Treasures of Heaven is a show that pairs scholarly research with the physical exhibition of objects. Future exhibitions dealing with the sacred art of the Middle Ages ought to take this approach into account. To return to the reliquary of St. Baudime, future currents of research might result in another major reliquary exhibition. The fact that Baudime was made to store a blood relic only a few decades after medicinal practitioners rediscovered theories of blood circulation and its contribution to human vitality might explain the physical form of Baudime, particularly his piercing eyes. Other issues, not touched by the curators of this show, could be raised by the reliquary of St. Baudime. Scholarship that addresses cross cultural exchange might serve as a new approach to exhibiting and thinking about reliquaries. Beyond the market for Byzantine relics in Europe, actual physical parts of the reliquaries were exchanged within Western Europe. The head and palms of St. Baudime, made from a single copper cast, were most likely not made in the area of St. Nectaire, Auvergne. Comparable heads, such the head reliquary of Frederick Barbarossa (ca. 1170) now in Cappenberg Castle, Germany, or the head reliquary of St. Vitalis now in the church of St. Lambertus in Düsseldorf (ca. 1170), perhaps indicate an active market for cast objects in twelfth century Germany.14 Furthermore, it is possible that the head and palms of St. Baudime were purchased somewhere and then attached to this object in an altogether different location. It is likely that we will never know if these objects were commissioned purposely for the St. Baudime reliquary, or if were they manufactured as part of a bulk production of heads and palms and only attached later. These issues are, of course, not unique to the St. Baudime reliquary.

Treasures of Heaven does not confront other issues that should be considered in future research on reliquaries: the Mediterranean basin as a shared world, for example, in which practitioners and consumers from different religions and ethnic groups interacted on a daily basis, producing and purchasing goods from one another. Relics were not just worshipped by Christian communities across the Mediterranean, but were also part of long-standing Islamic traditions. During the early period of Islam, hair and nail clippings of the prophet Muhammad were placed in an alcove underneath the K’aba in Mecca, serving as a treasury of sorts, a room comparable to a Christian crypt. Despite this early precedent, the cult of reliquaries in Islam only grew in earnest during the 15th century once the Ottomans succeeded the Byzantines as the primary suppliers of relics to Western Europe.15

This exhibition thus presents a watershed study of the medieval reliquary. It emphasizes the need to move away from studies based on the method of bildanthropologie as presented by Belting more than twenty years ago, and instead to turn towards an understanding of the distinction between pictorial representation and “things” or objects. Both the show and its accompanying catalog are a true curatorial achievement both in the rarity of the objects gathered and in their presentation. With loans from eight different countries, including a reliquary from the Pope’s personal collection at the Sancta Sanctorum at the Vatican (Reliquary Box with Stones from the Holy land, cat. 13, p. 36), Treasures of Heaven is no doubt a testimony to the curators’ complex work and a measure of international diplomacy. Presently, as museum budgets are continually being cut, and as the international loans of objects becomes increasingly expensive, it is a pleasure to see that medieval art still receives the central and respectable place it has historically held. One can only hope that it remains so in the future.

Acknowledgement: This review benefited from conversations with one of the exhibition curators, Martina Bagnoli, and from a separate dialogue with Christopher Wood. I visited the exhibition on several occasions, the first time with Ben Tilghman and the second with the seminar I teach on votive objects at the Bard Graduate Center. I thank my students for their enthusiasm during our visit to the exhibition. All errors within this review, however, are the author’s own. 

Ittai Weinryb is assistant professor of medieval art and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. He was a Max Planck Doctoral Fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence and a recipient of the International Center of Medieval Art/Kress Foundation Research Award.

  1. 1. Joseph Braun, Die Reliquiare des christlichen Kultes und ihre Entwicklung (Freiburg in Breisgau: Herder, 1940).
  2. 2. Because of the condescending nature embedded in the definition of an object as “minor” other terms (and not necessarily successful ones) have been put forward: “portable arts,” “minor arts,” “luxury arts,” “ars sacra,” “micro-architecture” and even simply “decorative arts.” Yet none of these terms renders a better and precise label for the objects in question. Thus I am committed to using the term small-scale arts.
  3. 3. A previous reliquary show, held at De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam in 2000, was entitled, The Way to Heaven: Relic Veneration in the Middle Ages. It presented an anthropological approach to the study of relics and reliquaries and also offered comparative material from different geographical regions and religions.
  4. 4. Hans Belting, Bild und Kult: eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst (München: Beck, 1990); translated into English as Likeness and Presence: a History of the Image Before the Era of Art, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). Of the many critiques and reviews this publication has received, see David Freedberg, “Holy Images and other Images,” in The Art of Interpreting, ed. Susan C. Scott (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 68–87 and Michael Camille’s review of Bild und Kult in The Art Bulletin 74 (1992): 514–517. For a recent overview and an assessment of the influence and reception of Bild und Kult, see: Jeffrey Hamburger, “Art History Reviewed XI: Hans Belting’s ‘Bild und Kult; eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst’, 1990,” The Burlington Magazine 153, no. 1294 (2011): 40–45.
  5. 5. Belting, Likeness and Presence, 297–310.
  6. 6. One could think of the celebrated “Ornamenta Ecclesia” exhibition, organized in Cologne in 1985, as an approach to a whole body of works of diverse function that resided within a shared environment and was produced by the same artisans. In the case of St. Baudime, for example, his reliquary resided within the church of St. Nectaire side by side with a wooden sculpture of Mary enthroned with the Baby Jesus on her lap. The two sculptures–although of different material, sculptural, and functional qualities–shared the same sacred space and interacted with one another. Their proximity with one another would have influenced any interpretation of Baudime, and might have resulted in different conclusions than in an exhibition devoted purely to reliquaries. See: Anton Legner (ed.) Ornamenta ecclesiae: Kunst und Künstler der Romanik (Köln: Schnütgen-Museum, 1985).
  7. 7. Since they do not present a narrative or any type of pictorial representations, these reliquaries are unique in their enhanced materiality. The best study from which to approach these early reliquaries is one dealing with other categories of late Antique boxes. See Jas Elsner, “Framing the Objects we Study: Three Boxes from Late Roman Italy,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 71 (2008): 21–38.
  8. 8. On animism, material, and materiality, see: Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 1–38; Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 11–103; See also, forthcoming: Finbarr Barry Flood, Paradoxical Histories: Islam, Image, and Iconoclasm (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), and my own: “Beyond Representation: Things, Human and Nonhuman,” in Cultural Histories of the Material World, ed. Peter N. Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012).
  9. 9. Umberto Eco, The Open Work (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 1989); in relation to reliquaries, see: Beate Fricke, Ecce Fides: die Statue von Conques, Götzendienst und Bildkultur im Westen (Munich: Fink, 2007), 300–311.
  10. 10. Other objects covered in the margins of the exhibition, such as pilgrimage badges and ex votos (votive offerings), expand the notion of the “open work” in terms of the ever-dynamic interaction between shrine (or reliquary) and devotee. Worshippers bringing votive objects to the shrine and taking away souvenirs amplify our own definition of what is a shrine. See the recent catalogue for the large-scale exhibition in Salzburg: Peter Keller (ed.), Glaube & Aberglaube Amulette, Medaillen & Andachtsbildchen (Salzburg: Salzburg Dommuseum, 2010).
  11. 11. Patrick J. Geary, Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978); and idem, “Sacred Commodities: The Circulation of Medieval Relics,” in Commodities and Culture, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1986), 169‑191.
  12. 12. See, in this respect, the earlier work of Gary Vikan: Byzantine Pilgrimage Art (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 1982), revised in 2010.
  13. 13. For basic introduction to the notions that lie behind bildanthropologie, see: Horst Bredekamp, “A Neglected Tradition?: Art History as Bildwissenschaft,” Critical Inquiry 29 (2003): 418–428.
  14. 14. See Susanne Wittekind, “Caput et corpus: die Bedeutung der Sockel von Kopfreliquiaren,” in Reliquiare im Mittelalter, ed. Bruno Reudenbach and Gia Toussaint (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2005), 107–135.
  15. 15. On relics, reliquaries and the early treasuries in Islam, see: Brannon Wheeler, Mecca and Eden: Ritual, Relics and Territory in Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); idem, “Relics in Islam,” Islamica 11 (2004), 107–112; Josef W. Meri, “Relics of Piety and Power in Medieval Islam,” Past and Present 206, supplement 5 (2010): 97–120; G. R. Hawting, “The Disappearance and Rediscovery of Zamzam and the ‘Well of the Ka’ba’,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 43:1 (1980): 44–54; Avinoam Shalem, “Made for the Show: The Medieval Treasury of the Ka’ba in Mecca,” in The Iconography of Islamic Art: Festschrift in Honour of Professor Robert Hillenbrand, ed. Bernard O’Kane (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 269–283; Hilmi Aydin, The Sacred Trusts: Pavilion of the Sacred Relics, Topkapı Palace Museum (Somerset: Light Press, 2004).

Reliquary Bust of St. Baudime. French (Auvergne), mid-12th century (1146—78), copper-gilt over walnut core, ivory, and horn, 73 × 43 × 46 cm, Mairie de Saint-Nectaire, France, MH 1897/0127, Photo: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource, NY.

© 2020 Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture
West 86th is a publication of the Bard Graduate Center and the University of Chicago Press