Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.01.25
Galit Noga-Banai, The Trophies of the Martyrs: An Art Historical Study of Early Christian Silver Reliquaries. Oxford Studies in Byzantium. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xvi, 186, ills. 52. ISBN 9780199217748. $170.00.
Reviewed by Lucy Grig, University of Edinburgh (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 1364 words
Table of Contents
While the literary aspect of the cult of saints in Late Antiquity is a topic that continues to receive copious scholarly attention the material and visual culture of the cult has been comparatively neglected. The corpus that forms the subject of this present study, a catalogue of silver reliquary caskets, is perhaps doubly underappreciated: in fact it constitutes important testimony of both religious practice and artistic developments. The 'minor arts' of (Late) Antiquity continue to have something of a Cinderella status, but there are signs that this situation is changing and this volume constitutes a very welcome addition to current scholarship.1
The structure of the book is simple: Galit Noga-Banai has a catalogue of sixteen objects, of which four (each retaining a complete and complex iconographical programme) provide the focus for the study. The first chapter considers two reliquaries decorated with biblical scenes, the second chapter considers two caskets which depict martyrs. Detailed descriptions are given, supported by excellent illustrations, and a number of comparanda in various media. A third chapter seeks to pull this material together and to ask bigger questions about the function and meaning of the caskets and their decorative programmes, then summarised in a brief conclusion. Understandably, much of the discussion, in the first two chapters in particular, is highly detailed so this review will not attempt to summarise the material point by point, but will instead attempt to highlight key points of the argument and consider, where appropriate, the methodology used.
In introducing her corpus Noga-Banai immediately brings a key issue to bear: how can we be certain that all these objects were, in fact, reliquaries? In some cases, in fact, we simply cannot, and the dangers of circular identification are only too clear. Noga-Banai comments briskly that we should not assume that all caskets were made for identical purposes, and that we need to allow for the possibility of reuse. This caveat dealt with, Noga-Banai goes on to explain her four basic aims when examining each casket: to explain its iconographical programme, to ascribe as accurate a date as possible, to relate it, stylistically and iconographically, to the (better-known) monumental art of the period, and, finally, to establish the 'message' each object sought to transmit.
This study combines close art-historical analysis with a broader consideration of history and theology. Therefore, this work moves some way beyond traditional stylistic analysis but, somewhat disappointingly, does not draw as strongly on cultural and social history as other recent studies have done, e.g. by focusing on questions of audience and patronage.2 It is a study that scrutinises, albeit with great care and attention, its objects in a determinedly 'Early Christian' rather than a 'late antique' context. Noga-Banai's methodology also tends towards the conservative in showing a preference for linking iconographic details and programmes to established textual sources, which for some readers, will seem overly limiting. Also surprising is the lack of consideration of late antique martyr iconography in other media.3
Nonetheless, the studies of the four caskets are impressively detailed and comprehensive. Noga-Banai's methodology enables her to make interesting comparisons with a range of media and enables largely convincing close geographical and chronological attributions, rejecting, in some cases, previous vague and, indeed, pejorative labelling. For instance, in Chapter One, the first example considered is the casket from Nea Herakleia, now in Thessaloniki. Noga-Banai compares it stylistically with the Projecta casket, and thematically with the painting programme of the Cubiculum Leonis in the Catacomb of Commodilla, as well as, more broadly, with the interests of Pope Damasus, ultimately suggesting a date of c. 380 and a Roman provenance. The second 'biblical' casket, the Capsella Brivio, from Northern Italy shows some overlap in its iconography with the Nea Herakleia reliquary, though an eschatological emphasis is particularly striking. Both caskets depict largely familiar scenes from the early Christian repertoire, without overt martyrological reference. Can we be certain that these caskets were intended as reliquaries?
Chapter Two focuses on two caskets the status of which as reliquaries is more overtly proclaimed: both depict martyrs prominently. The 'Capsella Africana' from Algeria depicts on its lid an unnamed, young male figure, standing at the source of the four rivers of paradise, with a crown in his hands, while a heavenly hand places a crown on his head. This eschatologically tinged imagery is strikingly reminiscent of martyrial and funerary iconography from both North Africa and Campania. Noga-Banai links this iconography with the Catacomb of S. Gennaro in Naples and is keen to push for an identification of the saintly figure with St. Januarius himself, though her reasoning seems tenuous. The casket from Grado, however, depicts, in addition to Christ, Peter and Paul, five portraits, named as the three Aquileian martyrs Cantius, Cantianilla and Cantianus, Latinus, Bishop of Brescia, and Quirinus, bishop of Siscia. This casket also gives the names of three donors. Noga-Banai puts this object squarely into its Adriatic context, comparing these portraits with mosaic portrait medallions and donor inscriptions from nearby Aquileia as well as from Porec and Ravenna.
Chapter Three, 'Decorative Programmes in Context', seeks to set the caskets in the context of the cult of the relics, here making good use of recent scholarship on the subject. Noga-Banai points to an eschatological focus in each of her caskets and the Grado example is the most striking instance of her argument that each reliquary shares 'a combination of local priorities and hope for the fulfilment of Christ's Second Advent' [p. 124]. Noga-Banai goes on to demonstrate this dual focus in such relevant texts as Prudentius' Peristephanon, Victricius of Rouen's striking sermon on the cult of relics, De laude sanctorum, as well as the more cautious words of Augustine. The placing of reliquaries under the altar, which deprived the complex iconographical programmes of an audience, again, for Noga-Banai, alluded to eschatology: 'In the history of salvation... the cult of relics fills the gaps between the coming of Christ and his return in glory' [p. 150].
Not all readers will be equally convinced by this determined eschatological emphasis: Noga-Banai's selection of images and texts for discussion does indeed support her argument, but few scholars would wish to reduce the cult of relics quite so exclusively (and reductively) to hopes for the Second Coming. This is perhaps where Noga-Banai's somewhat conservative methodology comes into play, whereby an interpretation of early Christian art, focused on typology, is strongly dictated by texts produced by the clerical elite. How a viewer-centred approach to these objects might change our perception is never really considered, though this too raises a moot point, as noted by Noga-Banai: most reliquaries, after their initial adventus and deposition, would have been kept out of sight of the congregation, under the altar.
In her conclusion, Noga-Banai asks for a 'substantial place' for her corpus 'as a self-conscious medium with its own characteristics in the formative period of Christian art' [p. 153], as worthy of study both in and of itself, as 'an innovative group' [p. 151], but also as an aid to the study of the broader artistic context. Indeed, if the dates and provenances offered here are accepted more generally, this will indeed be a very useful study for vexed problems of date and provenance in late antique art. Therefore, Noga-Banai has provided new reference and starting points for the study of other related objects, while at the same time enlightening the study of monumental art and artistic practice in Italy (and elsewhere) in the late fourth and fifth centuries. This is no small achievement.
In places this study could have benefited from going further and asking bigger questions: why use silver at all? How do these objects compare with non-liturgical silver? Why/and when use decoration? (a question only briefly touched upon here)? Nonetheless, this monograph is highly valuable for its combination of detailed iconographical study with consideration of broader historical and theological context, taking us far beyond most traditional scholarship on early Christian art. The generous provision of excellent illustrations (over one hundred in total) is particularly welcomed. It is to be hoped that this monograph will go a long way towards helping another, hugely important 'minor art' shake off its Cinderella status.
1. See for instance, R. Leader-Newby, Silver and Society in Late Antiquity, (Aldershot; Ashgate, 2004) and L. Grig 'Portraits, Pontiffs and the Christianization of Fourth-Century Rome,' PBSR 72 (2004), 203-30.
2. See most recently J. Elsner, Roman Eyes: Visuality and Subjectivity in Art and Text (Princeton and Oxford; Princeton University Press, 2007).
3. See here L. Grig, Making Martyrs in Late Antiquity (London; Duckworth, 2004), Ch. 6.