BMCR 2020.09.21

Relics @ the lab: an analytical approach to the study of relics

, , , Relics @ the lab: an analytical approach to the study of relics. Interdisciplinary studies in ancient culture and religion, 20. Leuven; Paris: Peeters, 2018. vi, 353 p.. ISBN 9789042936676. €78,00 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

In recent years, the material turn has provoked scholars to consider new avenues of research. For historians and classicists that often means identifying and reading objects long overlooked in texts. Archaeology—its methods, cautions, and debates—has added to the ways that scholars analyze artifacts and bring the physical world to bear on the imaginative and intellectual. The combined insights of archaeology and scientific and textual analysis comes to the fore in Relics @ the Lab. While relic collections have been opened and examined in the past—particularly during periods of church rebuilding, reform, or stress—such projects have most often been directed to a collection’s religious, art historical, or patrimonial background. By contrast, this volume moves beyond ecclesiastical or theological interests to bring relics and other “kindred artifacts” contained in reliquaries into the lab to undergo sustained scientific and scholarly analysis. The present volume is the product of an international workshop organized in October 2016 by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in Brussels, Belgium. The resulting essays address scientific methodologies for dating, identifying, and analyzing physical remains and material culture. At times the chapters are more descriptive than synthetic, having more to say about materials than context, meaning, or interpretation. Nevertheless, together they afford access inside the caskets, boxes, cases, and wrappings that contain relics and thus bring to light a host of new objects and sources with which to probe into the past more precisely.

Ranging widely in temporal and geographic scope, the volume as a whole makes two critical if implicit arguments. First, that the Christian practice of collecting, enshrining, and preserving relics and related artifacts has a long history documented in texts and materials, and that such practices persisted from late antiquity through the Reformation and moved across the Atlantic world and beyond. Relics and their physical distribution and preservation were thus a significant part of what has been called Global Christianity. Second, the materials preserved as, and with, relics have a different, although often complementary and more complex, history to relate than the written texts that accompany them. One of the overriding conclusions of the volume, confirmed with each article, is that the materials and bones recorded as one object/person/saint typically preserved assemblages of far greater diversity and variety than the written record suggests. Indeed, scientific analysis demonstrates clearly that in addition to third- and fourth-century human remains, a range of other materials including bones of animals, stones, metals, cloth, and beads were also preserved but often with no written or contextual explanation. Why was this the case? How can scholars make sense of these other things, the additional “stuff” that persisted as material continuities? The scientific and anthropological analysis of which scholars are now capable rightly produces more questions than answers.

The majority of the essays in the volume focus on research conducted in Belgium on Belgian relic collections and under the auspices of the KIK-IRPA. In part this is because Belgium has been at the forefront in allowing researchers access to relic shrines and their contents. The approach is systematic and multi-disciplinary, analyzing the shrines, reliquaries, and decoration as well as material contents. The articles devoted to Saint Guidon’s shrine (Chapter 4), the reliquary of Saint Dymphna in Geel (Antwerp) (Chapter 5), the reliquary of Jacques de Vitry (Chapter 6), as well as the relics of Saint Odilia (in Kerniel) (Chapter 8), the treasury of Herkenrode (Chapter 9), the relics of St. Rumbold Cathedral (Mechelen) (Chapter 10), and the relic shrines of St. Harlindis and Relindis (Chapter 11) all employ a similar, extremely thorough, and complementary methodology moving from a brief analysis of surviving textual records, to an analysis of the shrine itself, then to a complex and multipoint analysis of the contents, which typically include human and animal bones, as well as fabric, metals, beads, threads, and ribbons used to craft and embellish the shrine and its contents. More interesting are the objects seemingly out of place that turn up in various shrines, for example, the bones of children that appear among bones of adults, male and female, regardless of the sex of the saint. In many cases radiocarbon dating confirms the late antique origins of a martyr’s bones, but then adds complexity with additional bone fragments from later periods. Whose bones were those and why were they added to the shrine? We typically cannot know. In the case of St. Dymphna’s shrine, dendrochronological analysis was used to date the wooden reliquary, the provenance of the timber used to build it, and the history of its repair. In the case of the reliquary of Jacques de Vitry, an analysis of the insect remains found within the reliquary suggest that it had been opened in the mid-nineteenth century, if not more recently. Throughout these essays we are afforded the chance to sift through materials—sacred and mundane—kept in cathedral and abbey treasuries and consider what it means that the dust of bones long decomposed, ash from pyres still unidentified, and beads and needles, are preserved together wrapped in linen and silks. Each object is given its due: identified, measured, dated, and analyzed scientifically for what it is or was, even as its humanistic, religious, or metaphysical interpretation remains open.

Other chapters in the volume move beyond the Belgian context in useful ways. Chapter 1 focuses on the remarkable collection of textiles used to wrap bone relics and preserved as “second-class” relics in their own right from Turku Cathedral in Finland. The variety of textiles, including silk, cotton, linen, nettle, and wool as well as a red silk wrapping identified as Chinese in origin, speak to the distant trade relationships that linked Turku, probably through Novgorod, to a larger world of travel, trade, and interaction. The authors explain in detail how samples of the fabrics were taken, how they were radiocarbon-dated with accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) between 2008 and 2011, and how the organic dyes and mordants were identified in 2016 using reversed-phase liquid chromatography and photo-diode array detection among other methods to identify dye compounds, materials, and wear. Most of the fabrics were found to date between 1290 and 1410.

Textiles are also the focus of Chapter 3, which turns to a remarkable twelfth-century collection preserved in situ in the cathedral of Roda de Isabena in Huesca, Aragon in Spain. Here the authors seek to draw on technical, ethnohistorical, and documentary analyses to write “a cultural history … of medieval textile treasures” (44). The textiles studied are associated with the cult of San Ramón, Bishop of Roda (r. 1104-1126) who was part of “the first wave of post-conquest French-born bishops appointed to head the Iberian church” under Alfonso IV (45). Ramón died in 1126 and was recognized as a saint in 1135. In 1170 his remains were translated to a new tomb in the church of Roda de Isábena, where they soon began to attract pilgrims. Although the reliquary was opened periodically between the twelfth and the twentieth centuries, the lavish episcopal garments associated with the saint, including a chasuble, dalmatic, embroidered mitre, leather and silk shoes, a glove, and several shrouds and textile bands of silk and linen, remain preserved. Also present in the Roda collection is “a remarkable amount of woven Arabic epigraphy” (68). Indeed, the chasuble offers a splendid example, for it is embellished with a black-and-white tapestry band with epigraphic decoration, “which is the longest and clearest epigraphic program in the medieval Iberian textile corpus, [and] reads like a litany or an invocation” (69). If read aloud when dressing the bishop, the inscription would have functioned as a medieval vesting prayer. Using the textile to reconstruct this practice, this analysis contributes a remarkable detail to the saint’s life given the highly contentious role Ramón played in Iberia during the Reconquista. But Roda was, as the authors note, a “recently conquered territory [which] likely made it a polyglot place, where Arabic, Catalan, Aragonese, Latin and Hebrew were routinely spoken” (71). This essay offers a model for how to pursue an interdisciplinary study of materials for all that they yield about practices, beliefs, and ideas of the past.

In the vein of relic containers, two complementary chapters (2 and 7) bring to bear scientific analysis of the remarkable corpi sancti or holy bodies that circulated out of Rome after 1578, throughout Europe, and into the New World during the Reformation and especially the papacy of Pius VI (1775-1799). With the rediscovery of the Roman catacombs in 1578, the popes began to disperse what were believed to be the relics of early Christian martyrs, whose bones were preserved and encased in exquisitely complex reliquaries made to resemble a martyr’s recumbent body. As many scholars have shown, “the last quarter of the eighteenth century was a golden age” for the translation and manufacture of the corpi sancti. Under pope Pius IV’s patronage, workshops in Rome produced these signature assemblages. After removing the relics from the catacombs, the “bones were assembled with wires and stuffed with cotton or fiber to fix the skeleton to create the shape of a body. The facial features and limbs were made over the assembled bones using an Italian technique called cartapesta, a type of paper-mâché covered with a thin layer of silk that gave the appearance of dried human skin” (29). The reliquary-sculpture was then decorated with a wig of hair, crown of flowers, and silk and beaded garments. In addition, Pius VI sent such reliquaries out with an accompanying vasa sanguinis resembling a chalice made to look as if it contained the martyr’s blood, and an authentica, an official document issued by the pope attesting to the authenticity of the relic. Such corpi sancti were sent throughout Europe and beyond; sixty-three examples are still extant in Mexico, distributed over thirteen states. Reading the documentary evidence with the material, it is clear that “in the case of New Spain, these notable relics were only granted to people with economic power that could afford their freightage: mining owners, entrepreneurs and members of prestigious families; … owning a corpo sancto was a signal of prestige and a spiritual grace awarded by the Pope himself” (41). A marvelous complement to this study follows later in the collection (Chapter 7) and employs radiographic images of ceroplastic or wax reliquaries, like the corpi sancti of Pius VI, again, found in present day Mexico. Here, the authors used portable X-ray machines to view, record, and analyze the non-visible materials inside these assemblages. The article itself, however, reads more like a proposal of methods rather than a conclusive study, and nowhere do the authors state clearly how many samples they have examined. Nevertheless, the two chapters illuminate the historical manufacture of sanctity and historicity as Roman bones were repurposed and remade into a seemingly unending supply of holy objects used to unify and announce the goals of the Reformation and the reach of global Catholic devotion.

Finally, while solid, Konstantin Voronin and Mariya Kabanova’s multiform analysis of the fifteenth-century Russian Icon of Our Lady Deksiokratusa “Mylostivaja” is an outlier in the collection. To be sure it is fascinating to see what we can learn of the substance and material making of an icon, but larger themes—beyond methods of dating—are not picked up here, and the essay gives little real closure to the book overall.

Relics @ the Lab offers a novel and important contribution to the ways scholars read, register, and analyze materials from the past. In many ways this is a remarkable and valuable collection, ambitious in its scope and provocative in its new use of science to see that past. It is not without fault. Several essays could have benefited from additional copy-editing to smooth the English idiom. Yet given the diverse range of authors and languages, this deficiency is understandable, if regrettable. Additionally, it must be noted that for the most part the essays tend to showcase their respective scientific methods and offer descriptive analyses rather than historical or contextual interpretations. More remains to be done toward making meaning out of the what we learn here. On the whole, the volume represents an exciting new step forward for expansive interdisciplinary methods and collaboration.

Authors and titles

“Introduction,” Mark Van Strydonch, 1-3
1. “Red Fabrics in the Relics Assemblage of Turku Cathedral,” Aki Arponen, Ina Vanden Berghe and Jussi Kinnunen, 3-20
2. “The Corpi Santi under the Government of Pius VI, Materiality as a Sign of Identity: First Approaches to Novohispanic Cases,” Monsterrat A. Báez Hernández, 21-42
3. “Medieval Iberian Relics and their Woven Vessels: The Case of San Ramón del Monte (+1126) Roda de Isabena Cathedral (Huesca, Aragon),” Ana Cabrera-Lafuente, Maria Judith Feliciano, and Enrique Parra, 43-76
4. “Behind the Saint Guidon Shrine, a Multidisciplinary Approach of the Relics,” Mathilde Daumas, Philippe Lefèvre, Jean-Pol Beauthier, Jean-Pierre Werquin, Mark Van Strydonck, Serge Van Sint Jan, Marcel Rooze, Frédéric Leroy and Stéphane Louryan, 77-90
5. “The Reliquary of Saint Dymphna: Dating Wood and Bones,” Kristof Haneca and Marjan Buyle, 91-108
6. “Multidisciplinary Study of the Reliquary Contents Attributed to the Bishop Jacques de Vitry (12-13th C. AD),” Caroline Polet, Aurore Carlier, Lucie Doyen, Fiona Lebecque, Caroline Tilleux, Benoît Bertrand, Jean-Bernard Huchet, Jonathan Brecko, Mathieu Boudin, and Mark Van Strydonck, 109-132
7. “Sanctity Via the Light of Science: Radiographic Images of Ceroplastic Reliquaries,” Gabriela Sánchez Reyes, José Luis Velázquez and Ana Lucía Montes Marrero, 133-154
8. “The Relics of Saint Odilia in Abbey Mariënlof (Kerniel, Belgium),” Jeroen Reyniers, Mathieu Boudin, Kim Quintelier and Mark Van Strydonck, 155-204
9. “The Relic Treasure of Herkenrode, an Online Data Base,” Fanny Van Cleven, Shirin Van Eenhooge, Frieda Sorber, Mark Van Strydonck, Ina Vanden Berghe and Marit Vandenbruaene, 205-212
10. “A Box Full of Surprises: Relics Excavated in St. Rumbold’s Cathedral (Mechelen, Belgium),” Fanny Van Cleven, Ina Vanden Berghe, Mathieu Boudin, Alexia Coudray, Joke Bungeneers, Veerle Hendriks, Marc Mees, Kim Quintelier, Gerrit Vanden Bosch, Marina Van Bos, Maaike Vandorpe, Mark Van Strydonck, Lieve Watteeuw and Ignace Bourgeois, 213-266
11. “The Veneration of Harlindis and Relindis and the Enigmatic Content of their Relics Shrines: A Story about Ashes, Bones, Fabrics, Needles, Ivory and ‘Unexpected’ Substances,” Mark Van Strydonck, Mathieu Boudin, Katrien Houbey, Caroline Polet, Anja Neskens and Fanny Van Cleven, 267-316
12. “Interdisciplinary Study of the 15th Century C.E. Medieval Russian Icon of Our Lady Deksiokratusa “Mylostivaja” (“The Gracious”) (Dendrochronology, Radiocarbon Dating, Chemical and Physical Analysis, Historical and Cultural Studies),” Konstantin Voronin and Mariya Kabanova, 317-324