The Medieval Review 11.06.39

Bagnoli, Martina, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann, James Robinson. Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. xviii, 278. $65. 978-0-300-16827-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Laura A. Smoller
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

One of the entries included in Bagnoli, Klein, Mann, and Robinson's strikingly beautiful exhibition catalogue displays two leaves from the so-called Nuremberg Relic-Book, printed in 1487 and depicting the annual Heiltumsstuhl, or annual display of the city's most important relics (catalogue no. 125). As the commentary notes, such relic-books served as more than mere mementos of a pilgrimage or advertisements of a saint's shrine. Rather, they provided an "orchestrated program for venerating the saints through text and image," in many cases offering the reader "a more intimate access" (224) to holy relics than was possible for actual pilgrims, whose approach to the relics in the illustration at hand was thwarted by a throng of armed guards, as well as by the relics' physical elevation on a high platform. In similar fashion, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, delivers much more than a résumé of what must be a stunning exhibition, currently on display at the British Museum, following stops at the Cleveland Museum of Art and The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Through text and image, the authors bring readers face to face with the artistry expended on medieval reliquaries, theological musings about relics and their display, the liturgical and ritual uses of relics, their appropriation as political symbols, and their meaning for individual believers. Nine essays by a distinguished cadre of art historians and scholars of medieval religion illuminate various aspects of the cult of relics from the early Christian centuries through the Reformation, while a final offering traces the fate of the reliquary in the modern world. One hundred and thirty-nine catalogue entries from the exhibit itself, plus dozens of additional illustrations--there are three hundred color plates in total--, complement and enrich the textual core, affording the reader, as with the viewer of a relic-book, a deeper and richer experience than that of a casual visitor to the exhibit.

The book is divided into five sections, each introduced by an essay or essays and concluding with a subset of the catalogue entries. Part 1, "From Tomb to Altar," contains contributions by Derek Krueger and Arnold Angenendt, as well as exhibit items ranging from a second- century Roman sarcophagus to Byzantine reliquary pendants. Krueger's "The Religion of Relics in Late Antiquity and Byzantium," traces the history of the cult of relics from its inception through the creation of the unsurpassed collection in Constantinople that was dispersed following the Fourth Crusade; it nicely illustrates how the juxtaposition of artistic, textual, and material evidence brought together in Treasures of Heaven can illuminate the lived religion of the period. Artifacts corroborate and indicate the wide extent of pilgrims' practices mentioned in surviving texts, as in the case of reliquaries (such as fig. 5 on p. 10, and cat. no. 4) made with holes at the top and bottom through which oil or water could be poured and collected in small, inexpensive flasks, creating for the faithful visitor contact relics of which large numbers still survive today (e.g., cat. nos. 21-24). Arnold Angenendt's "Relics and Their Veneration" introduces readers to the theory and practice of relic veneration, as it developed in the course of the Middle Ages, relying both on textual sources--ranging from Thiofrid of Echternach's Flores epytaphii sanctorum (the most important medieval treatise defending relic veneration) to monastic charters--and on such material evidence as architecture, tombs, and reliquaries. Again, bringing together the historical and art historical remains serves to deepen our understanding of religious sensibilities, as in Angenendt's observation that the house-like shape of many medieval reliquaries made visible to the faithful Jesus's promise (John 14:2) that "in my Father's house are many mansions" (25), as well as the fact that the saints already dwelt in such a paradise.

Part 2, "Gathering the Saints," encompasses contributions on relic collecting from Holger A. Klein and Guido Cornini, as well as catalogue items including elaborate reliquaries and several portable altars. In "Sacred Things and Holy Bodies: Collecting Relics from Late Antiquity to the Early Renaissance," Klein underscores the way in which relics could create a locus sanctus, whether in the new capital of Constantinople, where the bodies of Andrew and Timothy matched Rome's possession of the relics of Peter and Paul, or in the collection of ampullae from the Holy Land buried with the Irish missionary St. Columban (d. 615) in the monastery he established in Bobbio, bringing together the holy lands of Palestine and Ireland in the soil of his foundation in Lombardy (57). He also notes how relics served to sacralize political power, as in the emperor Charles IV's collection housed in the Chapel of the Holy Cross he had built in Karlstein Castle, a space that effectively equated Charles's authority with that of other important relic holders, such as the Byzantine emperors and the French royal house.

Guido Cornini's contribution focuses specifically on relic collecting in early medieval Rome, especially the trove housed in the pope's private Palatine chapel known since the thirteenth century as the Sancta Sanctorum and the rituals associated with these relics, particularly during Easter Week, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14), and on the Feast of the Assumption (August 15), when numbers of the relics were circulated in elaborate processions to various Roman churches. As Cornini masterfully shows, the relics' deposition in a cypress wood chest by Pope Leo III (r. 795-816), as well as the Christological nature of many of the relics added thereto (e.g., Christ's sandals and foreskin, as well as part of the True Cross and the portrait of Jesus supposedly painted by Luke and completed by angels, the so-called acheiropoietos), helped the Sancta Sanctorum and its relics to symbolize "the transfer of God's power to the Roman pontiff...made possible through the intercession of the Virgin and consecrated by the sacraments administered by the Church" (72). After Leo's wooden chest was opened in 1905, many of the relics were removed from their reliquaries before being returned to the container; some of these reliquaries appear in the catalogue items pictured here (e.g., cat. nos. 13, 36).

In Part 3, "Ritual and Performance," essays by Eric Palazzo and James Robinson get at the place of relics in public and private devotions. Palazzo, in his "Relics, Liturgical Space, and the Theology of the Church," makes the case that medieval church architecture was influenced by the liturgical uses of relics. Noting the role of relics in symbolizing and defining places of worship, Palazzo points not simply to the frequent overlap between the structure of reliquaries and that of churches, which were seen as monumental reliquaries, but also to the adaptation of space in Carolingian, Romanesque, and Gothic churches to the needs of relic veneration, as in the creation of annular crypts, side chapels, and rotundas. Citing again Thiofrid's treatise on relics, Palazzo points out the importance to medieval theorists of the sensory qualities of and experience of relics that these rituals and architectural modifications emphasized. Robinson's "From Altar to Amulet: Relics, Portability, and Devotion," by contrast, looks at a more "intimate aspect of relic devotion" (115) by examining the personal jewel reliquaries owned by medieval aristocrats. Robinson's reading of the multiple layers of meaning embedded in such objects is masterful and reminds us that medieval people did not always draw the firm boundaries between religion, science, and magic that modern scholarly disciplines impose upon them. For example, Robinson shows that a fourteenth-century French reliquary pendant for the Holy Thorn (cat. no. 74), designed to be clasped in the owner's hand, was likely valued as a childbirth amulet more than as holy relic, its outer cover of amethyst chosen as much for its magical properties as for its symbolic value. As Robinson notes, the legend of Amethyst, a nymph chased by Dionysius and changed into a stone colored by his tears of wine, associated the stone with the blood of Christ consecrated in the Mass, as well as with the blood of childbirth.

In Part 4, "Matters of Faith," Martina Bagnoli, Barbara Drake Boehm, and Cynthia Hahn turn their attention more specifically to reliquaries themselves, and the accompanying catalogue items attest to the variety of forms and styles in which medieval reliquaries were produced. In "The Stuff of Heaven: Materials and Craftsmanship in Medieval Reliquaries," Bagnoli addresses not simply the rationale behind adorning relics in costly precious materials, but also the way in which medieval theories of optics and notions of God as a craftsman helped to glorify the artists who produced such reliquaries as capable of "reveal[ing] God's presence" (145). As is shown in her analysis of a reliquary containing a paten created by the sainted Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim (cat. no. 44, fig. 51), relics and art both could reveal the presence of the Holy Spirit. In "'A Brilliant Resurrection': Enamel Shrines for Relics in Limoges and Cologne, 1100-1230," Barbara Drake Boehm offers insight into one subset of the resplendent craftsmanship bestowed upon medieval reliquaries, the enamel-work produced in Cologne and Limoges. Boehm deftly traces the differing uses of enameling in the two artistic centers and notes the prodigious output of enameled relic shrines from Limoges, many clearly designed with generic themes for an export market (and amply represented among the accompanying catalogues entries). In "The Spectacle of the Charismatic Body: Patrons, Artists, and Body-Part Reliquaries," Cynthia Hahn speculates on the relationship between patrons and artists in the commissioning of body-part reliquaries. Although such reliquaries sometimes were composed in the shape of the body part contained therein, Hahn notes that they frequently were not; an arm- shaped reliquary, for example, might contain numerous relics of various members of many different saints. Hahn persuasively argues that patrons commissioned such reliquaries for symbolic reasons, or for use in a liturgical setting (a reliquary arm could be raised in blessing, for example), or even in an attempt to assemble in one relic collection a representative "body of the faithful."

Finally, in Part 5, "Beyond the Middle Ages," exhibit entries and an enlightening essay by Alexander Nagel trace the fate of reliquaries and the notion of relics in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and into the modern world. As Nagel demonstrates in "The Afterlife of the Reliquary," the criticisms of reformers like Luther and Calvin were not the only factors changing the meaning of relics and reliquaries in the early modern world. As relics formed part of larger collections of curiosities and wonders, relics and reliquaries could be viewed in the same light as the art and antiquities collected by curious patrons, while "works of art were raised to relic-status" (214). Already in the Renaissance, collectors kept artists' effects and hair as relics, while the cans of Merda d'artista" (215) produced by twentieth-century Italian artist Piero Manzoni (fig. 71) attest to a similar fascination in our own age. The final entry in the accompanying catalogue also points to a secularization of the notion of relics. It is a decorated leather box designed to hold a pennant from the Battle of Pavia in 1525. One is reminded of the similar reverence accorded to tattered flags from the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.

While the ten essays included in Treasures of Heaven offer readers a splendid introduction to the cult of relics, relic collecting, and the art of reliquaries in the Middle Ages, the one hundred and thirty-nine catalogue entries from the exhibition, each accompanied by commentary provided by a battery of scholars, deepen the reader's ability to enter imaginatively into the world of medieval Christianity. A Byzantine ivory, for example (catalogue no. 14), portrays the adventus, or ceremonial reception, of relics in Constantinople. A golden fifteenth-century reliquary containing a tooth of John the Baptist (cat. no. 41), finds a new use for a Fatimid rock crystal perfume flask as container for the precious relic, underscoring the relic's exotic, Eastern origins. The commentary accompanying another crystal Fatimid flask reliquary, which once housed hair from the Virgin (cat. no. 78), makes clear that rock crystal was valued as a relic container not simply for its transparency, but also because it was believed to be petrified water, a symbol of the water of life referred to in Revelation 22:1. Leaves from illuminated manuscripts (for example, cat. no. 67, showing pilgrims seeking cures at the tomb of St. Nicholas of Bari) help the reader to envision practices surrounding the cult of relics.

One of the many lessons gleaned from this volume is that medieval reliquaries represented far more than mere art objects. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as noted several times by the authors, once lamented that the faithful tended to admire splendid gilded and jeweled reliquaries more than the saintly relics contained within. Modern viewers, who typically encounter these objects in a museum setting such as the Treasures of Heaven exhibit, also run the risk of looking at medieval reliquaries--often emptied of their saintly relics-- primarily as specimens of artistic production. This catalogue goes a long way towards rectifying that problem, making vivid for the reader the functions of reliquaries as devotional and liturgical objects. Art served to enhance and not obscure their value and that value, in turn, valorized the skill of the craftsmen who produced them. It is not likely a coincidence, as the authors make clear, that reliquaries were among the first signed works of art in medieval Europe.

While lavish exhibition catalogues such as this one have an obvious appeal to art historians and those who appreciate the craftsmanship of bygone days (the book would make a handsome addition to any coffee table), it would be a shame if other scholars of medieval religion did not also dip into this satisfying entrée into the world of medieval relic collecting. In the end, Treasures of Heaven offers its readers a glittering reminder of how much material culture has to teach historians about the lived religion of the Middle Ages in Europe. [1]



1. Although it is nowhere mentioned in the book, I would be remiss not to mention the beautiful and extensive website (or "digital monograph," as it styles itself) that is a companion to the exhibition ( produced, with the supervision of Holger A. Klein, one of this volume's editors, at Columbia University's Media Center for Art History.