Who in Italy will have not noted her reliquaries? Vast collections grace even the humblest hamlet — carefully provenanced thumbs, teeth, hair, thorns, fingernails, arms, jaws — all held captive in exquisite vitrines of greenish glass.
Tourists file dutifully past these things, a guilty giggle suppressed – ‘Popish idolatry’. Yet to go to the Basilica of Sant’Antonio di Padova is to see not merely a display of specimens, but sacred objects in use. Tearful pilgrims crowd the back of the chapel, touching the Saint’s sepulchre, some knocking their heads on cold stone. Meanwhile the less devout visitor gingerly steps around them to find the Tullio Lombardo relief. The contrast is stark – desperation born of sickness, juxtaposed with the Instagram-ready culture vulture, ticking off a tourist itinerary.
From what source then derives the power of the relic, and its cousin, the icon? We are assured that Christ and the Virgin Mary were safely lifted into the empyrean through the Resurrection and the Assumption, respectively. Thus, in a historical echo of the Arian Controversy, the question of Christ’s physical remains does not arise and may border on blasphemy. For these principals, it is usually secondary objects — thorns from the crown, nails from the cross, the Mandylion of Edessa — that are venerated.
A supply-demand imbalance presents itself, leading to a panoply of martyr’s remains. Between the years 360 AD to 430 AD, the early Church sought to resolve its foundational disputes, through a string of synods, councils, and diets. It became theologically acceptable to divide up bodies of martyrs, thus causing an extraordinary efflorescence in relics across the empire. In the historian Cyril Mango’s words: ‘regions that had an excess [of relics] could supply those that suffered a deficiency’.
Not only bodily remnants attracted veneration. At Rome’s church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, the Empress Helena (c. 246/50-330 AD), mother of Constantine the Great, brought back pieces of the True Cross, and a great quantity of blood-soaked soil from the Crucifixion. Alexander Nagel, theorising the connections between contemporary land/installation art and Medieval chapels, sees this church as ‘an ancient earthworks project…a piece of transplanted territory, a bit of Jerusalem installed in Rome’. An age of effortless travel makes it difficult to appreciate the impact — most in the congregation would never make it to the real Jerusalem — this was an opportunity for them to visually and phenomenologically project themselves to Golgotha.
Nagel, discussing Robert Smithson’s Non-site works (c. 1968), shows a 6th-century reliquary held in the Vatican Collections. A wooden box contains rocks and a splinter from the Holy Land, inscribed in faded Greek: Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, the citadel on Mount Zion. The artefacts rest in ossified mud, presumably from Palestine, whilst the cover, designed to slot into the box, features five tiny primitive paintings from Christ’s life. This, the obverse to Santa Croce: instead of an architectural environment transporting the faithful, here a small, rather crudely-made object acts as a visual and haptic aid to the viewer’s imagination.
Neither dismembered bodies nor transplanted land fully satisfied the proselytising needs of an œcumenical church; hence Roman painting was pressed into service. Larger, mobile, and above all, unambiguously narrative, the painted picture could reach far more people, even the dim-witted and unimaginative. Yet, the early Church had inherited the Judaic prohibition on holy images. Over the years, a variety of justifications were proposed: some didactic, others citing as precedent L’evangelista Luca, pittore. Canonical guidance held that religious paintings could be efficacious in intermediating with the Divinity, and could even perform miracles, speak, bleed, and exude oil. Paintings were to be done from life — that is, from direct observation of the saintly subject. When it became obvious that this wasn’t always practicable, a welcome theological flexibility, anticipating the Jesuits, ruled it acceptable to copy from a faithful likeness, subject to certain pictorial conventions being observed. Needless to say, the issue was periodically revisited, not least in the First and Second Iconoclasms (726-787 AD and 814-842 AD respectively), yet the sacred image was never proscribed for long. The drastic contrast between Christianity’s attitude to images, and that of say Islam and Judaism, led the essayist George Steiner’s to observe that ‘Christianity…is a form of polytheism…charged with an awareness of the symbolic, allegoric and the imaginary’.
So far then, the venerated thing, whether relic or icon, derives its agency from physical and temporal proximity, or else a mimesis, to a holy site or person. But how does one go from a smallish, intricately-worked panel covered in a jewelled carapace, and made for private, perhaps rare, worship, to large mosaics and frescoes on church walls? Such architectural decoration is at one remove from the font of spirituality, neither divinely touched nor a directly-painted likeness. Further, large scale makes them expensive, while site-specificity is inseparable with the local population’s ethnicity, customs and politics. Hence we see that the raw, early belief of a besieged sect, Edward Gibbon’s ‘poor and simple’, needs step aside, in order to make way for an established religion, that practiced by the Imperial house — as well as the merchants, bankers, and generals who formed the body politic of, and funded, a far-flung and multi-ethnic Empire. These worthies sought to commemorate their presence, and perhaps, having lived lives of distinctly imperfect ethics, hedge their bets on eternity.
In the exarchate of Ravenna, there was Julius Argentarius, financier of San Vitale and Sant’Apollinaire in Classe. Possibly commemorated in the Justinian mosaic, he lent his name to distinctive long flat bricks known as giulianei. Nearby, in Padova, we find the patron Enrico Scrovegni, fearing for the soul of his usurer father, endowing a small chapel for public use. On the Scrovegni Chapel’s Last Judgement, the torments awaiting moneylenders are exquisitely rendered under Giotto’s hand.
In another Byzantine theme, Sicily, one comes upon the most moving, and visually explicit, of such donative works. At Palermo’s Church of the Martorana, there is George of Antioch, admiral of King Roger’s fleet and successor to the protonotarius Christodulus. George resembles a glittering, cowering turtle, posed as if handing up a tiny model of the church to the Virgin. A similar motif is replicated in Constantinople, at the monastery of St Saviour in Chora, as well as in the Hagia Sophia.
Why these curious images? Are the donations of Late Antiquity a type of contract? Not in the strict sense — after all, two contracting parties should be roughly equal in status, and at a minimum, a contract needs to specify actions by both parties, and penalties for breaches. We would have to wait until the dawn of the Renaissance to see contracts per se: by the 1500s, much Italian religious art appears to have been made on commission, with a written, notarised contract stipulating precious materials, timing, milestones, while leaving, perhaps surprisingly, the precise subject matter somewhat open to development.
More plausibly, one may view these images as covenants, in the Judaic sense. It would appear that the church is being dedicated, financed, indeed physically offered upwards, in exchange for a promise, that of salvation, handed down by a benevolent deity. We do not know how these donations were documented, but contemporary sources give some clue — in the early Byzantine world, charity became a way for an increasingly wealthy Christian class to retain control over society as well as increase social status. The great Bishop of Constantinople St John Chrysotom (c. 396 AD), baldly writes that alms ‘quickly raise human beings to the heavenly vaults’, and constitute ‘ransom from the bondage of sin’. One suspects that a transactional view of charity, and organised religion, was possibly all the more pronounced in the Byzantine milieu owing to caesaropapism: an institutional unity of the secular and spiritual authorities — perhaps discernible today in Russia, heir of Byzantium.
In summary, as the sacred image grows larger and more complex, organisational and pecuniary needs place it in the warm embrace of patronage. The source of its efficacy becomes more bureaucratised and less authoritatively steeped in apocryphal antiquity. From sacred object to devotional image to architectural decoration – religious art in the Late Antique can be seen to be circumscribed within an arc of gold. That arc stretches from the time of Attic tragedy and the pre-Socratics, becomes increasingly secularised and financialised through the ages, and comes down to us as Adorno’s culture industry, insipid and pervasive. The art object, no longer embedded in a people’s belief, metastasises into its own autonomous reality, becoming reliant on global markets in luxury goods and academic theories for value and justification. Against this world where the medium has indeed become the message, a dull knocking of heads on Proconnesian marble, as in Padova, dimly memorialises the archaic and performative origins of art.