Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 24, 2018
Cynthia Hahn Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400–circa 1204 University Park: Penn State University Press, 2014. 312 pp.; 43 color ills.; 90 b/w ills. Paper $51.95 (9780271059488)

Medieval reliquaries—metalwork and bejeweled objects housing the relics of saints—often inspire analyses predicated on theories of signs, meaning, and the relationship of text to visual matter. Reliquaries demand such modes of inquiry. They layer their signifying strategies, which range from enamel images to patterned jewel inlay to poetic inscription to crystal windows mediating the display of the enshrined relic. Because they participate in so many sign systems, relics and reliquaries attract interdisciplinary approaches, such as mine (2008) and Robyn Malo’s (2013), which lend the perspective of literary and textual studies to the signifying strategies of reliquaries, relics, and their attendant discourses. In Strange Beauty, Cynthia Hahn supplements her many important contributions to the study of reliquaries, bringing art-historical methodologies to the analysis of sign systems associated with reliquaries. Tracing the development of the European reliquary, Hahn sets this history in dialogue with scriptural language and other textual expression. Strange Beauty demonstrates that as a meaning-making object, the reliquary teaches its viewers to understand the relic within by training them in protocols for seeing reliquaries, ultimately creating a space in which to draw the mind heavenward.

The book’s organization signals its attention throughout to those who produce and commission reliquaries as well as those who encounter them; both modes of engagement enable interpretive work. Strange Beauty’s first part provides an illustrative reading of early ivory reliquaries that “attempted to structure viewer response through narrative” (61), training in “sympathetic models of behavior” (60) to “effect a change in the very nature of the individual’s contact with the holy” (61). But just as important as the experience of the viewer for Hahn is the subjectivity of artists themselves. The “worthiness and spiritual preparedness of the artists” (31) are crucial components for understanding the culture of reliquaries and their signifying practices. In this way, Hahn establishes a focus that encompasses maker and audience.

The book proceeds to acknowledge these perspectives through crosses, head reliquaries, and other “shaped” reliquaries. But it also takes into account the contexts in which reliquaries appeared and the discourses surrounding them, including liturgical ceremony, military procession, translations (the movement of sacred relics to new locations), and treasury settings. Particularly fascinating in this latter instance is Hahn’s description of the relics and reliquaries in a treasury as a “gathering,” a sense that “saints flock together” (161) as a representation of heaven.

Within these material contexts, the reliquary dynamically combines sign systems. In part, it does so through the collectivity that Hahn ascribes to it: “when medieval viewers looked at a richly ornamented reliquary, they saw an ensemble not unlike a collection . . . a myriad of points upon which to begin a contemplation” (43). Other experiments that reliquaries conduct in signifying strategy appear as well, from the multivalent mediations produced in layering relic matter, inscribed vellum, and rock crystal over each other (216) to the reliquary’s participation in nonverbal sign systems of gesture, such as arm-shaped reliquaries lending themselves to ceremonial motion (137).

Hahn also explores the reliquary’s engagement with metaphor, a trope through which the reliquary signifies by pointing away from or deferring its meaning (110). This discussion’s deployment of literary theoretical terms is not always so clear as it might be, but one helpful aspect of Hahn’s consideration of metaphor is her use of scriptural language to understand the metaphoric character of certain reliquary shapes. She reads purse reliquaries, for instance, through scripture to illustrate their figuration of wisdom spilled and disseminated through preaching (108). She also considers reliquaries in light of literary texts, like The Dream of the Rood, that themselves establish a poetics of the reliquary.

Hahn’s analyses are powerful because she posits the encounter between reliquary and viewer as characterized by profound consideration of detail. As with all medieval events occurring in the ephemerality of performance or ceremony, it is difficult to reconstruct reliquary-centered scenes with certainty, to specify the exact capacities and limitations at stake in those experiences of looking. But it is important to consider, as Hahn does, how a reliquary’s sign systems might have been accessible to a viewer and thus responsive to visual study. If, as Hahn notes throughout, visuality is a crucial sense in understanding the reliquary, this visuality is not simply a numinous and impressionistic ocular experience; it can equally be—for certain privileged agents—the apprehension of exquisitely minute embellishments. Hahn’s readings of Western reliquaries implicitly make this case throughout, but it finds particular emphasis in the Byzantine tradition to which she also turns. Hahn describes the “dollhouse effect” of a tenth-century silver reliquary, the diminutive model of a ciborium of Saint Demetrios at Thessalonike, with “tiny lamps” and “little doors” all contributing to the signifying project (227–28). Here again, she looks to text, arguing that the reliquary collaborates with visionary writing to negotiate between the saint’s fleshly body and its representation.

Hahn’s approach yields many thought-provoking insights about medieval encounters with reliquaries and the aesthetic, social, and political work of these engagements; I will choose one arena to highlight as especially suggestive. At various points in her study, Hahn refers to the incorporation of Eastern elements into Western reliquaries. One famous example is the twelfth-century Stavelot reliquary triptych, which Hahn treats in a section on Wibald of Stavelot, who enabled its creation. As one of the “brilliant, resourceful, and imaginative agents” (211) whose own creativity and vision require consideration in the study of reliquaries, Wibald counteracts our modern tendency to situate these objects in a space of anonymity. Apparently bringing cross fragments from Constantinople, Wibald experimented with the new triptych form to produce in the Stavelot triptych an enshrining object that draws Eastern and Western elements into complicated dialogue. Hahn questions the perception of the piece’s composition as small Byzantine triptychs embedded in a larger Mosan triptych, arguing instead that the small triptychs represent a creative remaking of Byzantine fragments that produces something “Byzantine-style” to underscore the relic’s origin (214). This analysis heightens the degree of nuance at work in the triptych’s visual conversation between East and West.

Indeed throughout, Strange Beauty shows how the reliquary might intensify through its visual language the negotiation of what is other to Western Christianity. The book’s closing section focuses on the influx and influence of Byzantine relics and reliquaries after the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. But earlier in the study, Hahn also mentions the use of Islamic Fatimid rock crystal, as in the tenth-century flasks remounted as reliquaries in the later Middle Ages (188–90). The reliquary’s use of Byzantine as well as Islamic material expands the visual and inscriptional languages with which it names—and could thus train viewers to understand—not just relics but also relations between different cultures and aesthetic traditions.  I make this suggestion to encourage us to consider what reliquaries can bring to analyses of the stereotyping (as Holger A. Klein notes), fetishizing, commodification, and conquest at work in Western Christianity’s confrontation with other cultures during this period. The detailed and diverse sign systems layered within reliquaries allow them to speak visually with a heightened, and thus uniquely revealing, degree of precision about the issues at stake in these foundational moments of encounter.

In other words, I agree with Hahn that reliquaries can train viewers to see their work and meaning; I would extend this claim to suggest that reliquaries train viewers to apprehend and interpret other aspects of culture as well. Hahn sees the Western response to Byzantine relics and reliquaries as expressing “artistic hybridity,” citing Homi Bhabha. The reliquary might additionally reach beyond its own program to comment more broadly on these and other dynamics of contact. As Shirin Khanmohamadi argues, the glances between medieval Europe and the Muslim world ricochet along multiply angled trajectories. Western reliquaries prompt us to wonder how their uses of both Byzantine and Fatimid material inflect and reflect medieval thought structures concerning the nature of these encounters. The signifying presence of Byzantine and Islamic elements in the Western reliquary could, for instance, be seen to operate according to the visual logic of the Stavelot triptych. In speaking a visual language of folding, that is, the Stavelot triptych subverts linear temporal relation and complicates how we imagine the very spatiality of contact. How might this reliquary, as well as those incorporating Islamic elements, elaborate nonverbally upon Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s point that the modern dichotomy of East and West itself sustains considerable spatial multivalence in its medieval development? How might Byzantine conceptions of time—which Roland Betancourt notes are distinct and complex—enter the discourses embedded in a Western reliquary? To gaze at a reliquary that encompasses different traditions and sign systems might be to theorize—through a multiplicity of media—medieval perspectives on cultural contact.

Current ideological conscriptions of medieval sign systems (see, for example, the white supremacist shield devices in Charlottesville) emphasize that we still have inroads to make in explaining how what we call cultural difference signified in medieval contexts. 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. 

Seeta Chaganti
Associate Professor, Department of English, University of California, Davis