With Usura: From Reliquary to the Culture Industry

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.

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
Earth from the Crucifixion in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome. Source: http://www.booksandideas.net/Not-Ruled-by-Time-and-Space.html

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.

Vatican reliquary Santa Sanctorum
Inscribed rocks in a reliquary box from Vatican Collections, originally from Sancta Sanctorum in the Lateran Palace. Source: http://phdiva.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/early-images-of-crucifixion.html

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.

Julius Argentarius monogram
Julius the Banker’s monogram, San Vitale Source: Carla Linville White, ‘Reassembled Art and History: The San Michele in Africisco (Ravenna) Mosaics’ , 2014. http://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4610&context=gradschool_theses

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.

Julius the Banker (centre), San Vitale Source: Carla Linville White, ‘Reassembled Art and History: The San Michele in Africisco (Ravenna) Mosaics’ , 2014. http://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4610&context=gradschool_theses

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.

Martorana, Palermo
Donation portrait of George of Antioch in Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (Martorana)

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.

Nagel, Alexander Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time New York, London: Thames and Hudson, 2012, p. 112
Mango, Cyril (ed) The Oxford History of Byzantium Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 108
Nagel, p. 100
Nagel, pp. 118-120
Mango, p.154
Nagel, pp. 230-231
Ronald A. Sharp The Paris Review George Steiner, The Art of Criticism No. 2, Issue 137, Winter 1995, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1506/george-steiner-the-art-of-criticism-no-2-george-steiner accessed 12 April 2017
Gibbon, Edward The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire London: Penguin, 1776,  Ch 15
O’Malley, Michelle The Business of Art: Contracts and the Commissioning Process in Renaissance Italy New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 3-6
Kevin C. Robbins in Powell, Walter W. and Steinberg, Richard The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook p. 22
Mango pp. 14-15

Review: Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’ at Chisenhale Gallery

Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

A visitor to Yuri Pattison’s exhibition User, Space at the Chisenhale Gallery is confronted by a large, nearly empty, room that is, paradoxically, filled with stuff. Orange industrial shelving on two walls support stacking plastic boxes, miniature designer furniture and computer servers. In the middle is a long glass table flanked by semi-opaque room dividers, a profusion of transparent Eames chairs covered in plastic sheeting, and a pile of plants under a steel canopy.  Rectangular panel lights, hanging overhead, come on and off at seemingly random intervals, and the room is filled with the hum of computer equipment. Monitors abound while electrically actuated bottles emit vapour.

The show is a product of an 18-month residency which allowed Pattison to spend time in London’s tech community: the non-profit Hackspace, as well as in Second Home, a ‘co-working’ business where freelance workers, writers, graphic designers, and coders use shared desks. The room represents a “speculative live/work environment drawing influence from Modernist architecture and science fiction”.

Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

There is little physical transformation of materials – other than said plastic sheeting, quite a lot of dust, and electronics stripped of casings.  Lighting and electric window-films are controlled by computer server, while cameras feed live footage from the gallery to a monitor.  A large monitor shows a video based on the architecture of co-working spaces. Some notable contemporary art tropes are missing: 3-D printed objects, UV-printed plastic, casts of body parts (though there is a little finger stuck onto a server), crutches-as-sculpture.

In an accompanying printed interview, one learns that Dexion shelving units relate to Pattison’s interest in global logistics. He talks about an Amazon fulfilment centre in London, recalling for the viewer how work and labour have changed in the contemporary gig economy.  The interview goes on to explain that transparency, surveillance, modification of sleep patterns, and the history of computing are amongst the ideas that occupy Pattison.

Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

He also talks about the work-leisure slippage, a phenomenon that started with the mobile internet, and developed most famously in Silicon Valley offices with their bean-bags, ping-pong tables, and free food.  On a related note, companies like WeWork, which started by developing co-working spaces, are now building ‘co-living’ spaces.  In a co-living arrangement, millennials, finding city-centre housing unaffordable, rent rooms in a shared flat (often decked out as a loft with exposed brick, cable runs and concrete), complete with ‘concierge’ services like cleaning and laundry.  Sounds like a conventional flat-share, except that the flats are owned by a large corporation; in WeWork’s case, valued at sixteen-billion dollars.  Co-living and its economics have attracted mild incredulity in the venture-capital press, and apoplexy in the art press.

Pattison’s particular take is how these practices result in individuals who “isolate themselves…[and] create a physical filter bubble”, resulting in a “disengagement with the fabric of the city”.  Moreover, the sharing economy means time gets carved up, as people rent desks by the hour or co-living spaces by the week, again to the potential detriment of the broader community. Yet this isn’t really picked up, visually, in the installation – the videos and CGI feel a little lazy and could have taken a more critical perspective.

Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

The 14-page interview is fascinating in its breadth, touching on almost ever trendy topic in contemporary cultural and economic theory: Bitcoin-mining rigs, pop-up restaurants and stores, the new international style in interior design, coffee culture, mass-marketing of Modernist furniture, and so forth. These first-world concerns, arguably familiar only to the culturally-aware metropolitan, when combined with the visual poverty of the exhibition, fail to move or surprise the viewer.

The closest Pattison perhaps gets to eloquence, is in the dried sebum and dust covering many surfaces – the abjection of which somehow speaks to the absence of the worker, of the human.  One misses the jargon, rituals of coffee, cigarettes or Soylent, inside jokes, backstabbing, gossip – all of which characterise shared places, whether of work or life.

To end with a counter-example, consider Simon Denny.  He has similar concerns: intersection of corporate and hacker culture, surveillance, the physical and digital material of the work environment.  In contrast to Pattison, Denny’s 2015/2016 exhibition at the Serpentine maintained a tight focus on organisational and software structures.  He married, mediated, and abstracted the graphic and architectural elements of corporate and governmental intelligence entities, producing an installation of sculptures memorable as much for their totemic presence as for any politically-charged content.

Installation View, Simon Denny, ‘Products for Organising’, Serpentine Galleries, 2015/2016. Image courtesy Serpentine Galleries.

The overwhelming sense of Pattison’s show was that of a research project rendered visible, almost a ‘core dump’ (computing term for the aftermath of a crash: the entire contents of memory are dumped into a file, to help programmers debug).  That is not to suggest the collection or display were un-curated or arbitrary, and there were some clever twists, such as a circulating economy of Bitcoins that are mined using free electricity.  Yet somehow, there was a whiff of incoherence, and it is not clear the interview, perhaps due to the sheer catholicity of Pattison’s avowed interests, helped.  Most importantly, the social element that energises any working or living space, was missing.  Yet one could argue, it was precisely that exclusion of the human that generated a pathos and brought forth the moral and ideological bankruptcy of the sharing economy.

Udine, Cormons, and Orange Wine

Udine's poshest cafe, Beltramme.  Superb porchetta panini.
Udine’s poshest cafe, Beltramme. Superb porchetta panini.

Udine, the second city of Friuli Venezia-Giulia (FVG), is somewhat overshadowed by its beautiful, literary, acutely self-conscious and slightly “tristesse” sister, Trieste. More inland, it’s not far from the foothills of the Giulian Alps and close to verdant vine-covered hills of the Collio. The sea plays much less of a part in both life and food, and the city feels more Venetian than Slavic/Austrian.

Udine's cathedral
Udine’s cathedral

Yet it’s precisely this relative lack of mitteleuropanisch glamour that helps the city, for in June, we heard virtually no English, and the few tourists present were Austrian or Italian. Moreover, Udine (as is Trieste) is well-located by bus for the Roman and early Christian ruins of Aquileia, and those of Grado, a wealthy beach resort filled with some fine 1960s-1970s seaside apartment blocks. The patriarchal city of Aquileia itself was an important Roman centre, said to be on par with Antioch, Milan, and Trier. Grado, similarly, had its own patriarch (we had the pleasure of sampling a grappa Due Patriarchi which celebrates the curious schism). Both have lovely cathedrals that hint at their importance in days of old.

Aquileia: Roman ruins
Aquileia: Roman ruins

acquileia6 acquileia5 acquilea1

Udine’s food was rather heavy (for the summer), but distinctive and terroir-infused: cjarsons, a ravioli with a complex filling of sweet things, herbs, and/or nuts, in a melted-butter and aged ricotta sauce; the delicious gnocchi di susine, a potato gnoccho with a ripe pitted plum in the middle, which softens as its cooked, again a mix of savoury and sweet; frico, a disc of montasio cheese that is fried until most of the fat renders out, leaving it crunchy or chewy, depending on the variety; and lastly, the lovely San Daniele prosciutto, second only to that of Parma. All quite different from the distinctive sausage, cabbage, or marinated fish cuisine of Trieste; or the intensely fishy food of Venice. A favourite place was the enoteca La Spezeria Pei Sani, dating from 1939 but with recent new (and very hip) owners. Great wines, very knowledgeable and friendly, awesome meatballs, stun-negronis. For more substantial food, the Osteria al Vecchio Stallo was very likeable and warm-hearted, even if the food was simply good (again in the middle of winter, this old horse-changing stall would probably come into its own).

Polpette and negroni
Polpette and negroni
At the "Stallo" restaurant
At the “Stallo” restaurant

Cormons is the centre of the Collio wine zone and is close to Udine (the other main wine zone is the Carso, near Trieste). We didn’t explore the town’s enotecas but did spend time walking through the surrounding hills and vineyards, basing at the superb inn and restaurant La Subida (1 Michelin star). It was at La Subida where we had exquisite orange wine of Gravner: the 1998 of Friuli’s autochthonous ribolla gialla grape (made before he started using Georgian amphorae in 2001) from nearby Oslavia. We also had La Castellada’s excellent ribolla gialla, again from vineyards near Oslavia. Oslavia, a good 2 hour walk away over the vineyards in the heat proved out of reach, and we missed Stan Radikon’s intense, but temperamental (owing to a no sulphur approach), production. The food at La Subida was memorable, particularly a goose ragu nestled in a basket of semolina, which softened in the sauce to become like a pasta.

La Subida's food and Castellada's orange wine
La Subida’s food and Castellada’s orange wine
Gravner and grappa "Due Patriarchi"
Gravner and grappa “Due Patriarchi”

Further reading:

Eric Asimov’s blog on the NY Times has quite a lot on the orange wines of Friuli, particularly on Gravner and the other pioneers.


For food in FVG, as in most of Italy, a great starting point is Italy for the Gourmet Traveller by Fred Plotkin (2010, Kyle Cathie Limited, London). He covers the cuisine, wines, and towns/villages of Italy, and gives restaurant recommendations, which are, at least, a starting point. A few will perhaps have changed owners or even gone downhill, but fortunately things in Italy change but slowly…

Bojan Sarcevic at Stuart Shave/Modern Art

A couple of Sarcevic's sculptures. Sadly not in the Modern Art show.
A couple of Sarcevic’s sculptures. Sadly not in the Modern Art show.

This was a hard show to write about, at least without relying too much on the turgid art-world-lingo of the Frieze 2011 article on Sarcevic. Some of his other work seems to have an architectural, or a social commentary, but the work in Modern Art’s show highlights mainly his interest in materials. The works are mostly made of onyx and wax: one of the works is a polyhedral solid made out of Onyx (the geometric shape is known as a Johnson Solid), while another one is wall-mounted, and a set of onyx shapes arranged in a pattern inspired by the paving on Cairo’s streets.

The good things about the show: the onyx itself has a material beauty that one can admire, without knowing anything else about the work or the artist; the wax that has melted and set over the onyx softens the look of the stone and invites the viewer to look closely, as do the small honeycomb like structures on the edge of the marble panels. Perhaps honeycombs are fashionable at the moment – the show at White Cube Masons Yard has one room filled with them.

Yet the show, or perhaps the problem is with the press release, leaves one slightly befuddled, and certainly not in any cosmic way. The release refers to “perceptual encounters”, “precise gestural intent”, and “convex polyhedra”, yet does very little to contextualise Sarcevic’s practice. So is this a show just about looking at nice bits of stone, close-up, and then walking over to the British Museum to see some proper marbles? Presumably not – so what relation does this work have with Sarcevic’s other work – which is much more installation based, and in one case, seems to be link with Modernism, Constructivism, and the reaction against these? The only thing I can see (admittedly without having talked to the artist or the curator) is an exploration of geometry, and the links between architecture and sculpture.


The Hagia Sophia's "omphalos", the navel of the world, made of opus alexandrinum, where Byzantine emperors were crowned.
The Hagia Sophia’s “omphalos”, the navel of the world, made of opus alexandrinum, where Byzantine emperors were crowned.

I walked out of the show bored, but did, in relation to the onyxes, tremendously enjoy recalling John Freely’s guidebook to Istanbul, where he quotes a Byzantine-era text, describing the marbles in the Hagia Sophia. I reproduce, begging the reader’s forgiveness for the length quotation:

A great variety of rare and beautiful marbles was used…the Silentiary mentions at least eight different varieties: the deep green porphyry from Mount Tagytus near Sparta, a ‘fresh green’ from Carystus in the Aegean island of Euboea; the rose-coloured Phrygian marble from Synnada and a variegated one from Hierapolis in Asia Minor; ‘Iassian, with slanting veins of blood red on livid white’, probably from Lacedaemon; a marble ‘of crocus yellow glittering like gold’, from Simittu Colonia near Tunis; and one from the Pyrenees, ‘the product of the Celtic crags, like milk poured on a flesh of glistening black’; and finally the precious onyx, like alabaster honey-coloured and translucent…[and] the square of Opus Alexandrinum pavement toward the southeast of the nave…chiefly composed of circles of granite, red and green porphyry, and verd antique. According to Antony, Archbishop of Novgorod, who visited the church in 1200, the Emperor’s throne stood upon this square, surrounded by a bronze enclosure.”