The Glow of Byzantium

Allegories of the Iliad

by John Tzetzes, translated from the Greek by Adam J. Goldwyn and Dimitra Kokkini
Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library/Harvard University Press, 577 pp., $29.95

A reliquary medallion from the court of Charles V of France, who reigned from 1364 to 1380. According to Cynthia Hahn in Saints and Sacred Matter, ‘on the front of the object we see what looks like the back of a ring brooch. The thorn [from Christ’s crown of thorns], identified in inscriptions as enclosed in the brooch’s “pin,” is encircled by a tubular ring that also holds Passion relics and reinforces the idea of the Crown.’
Franck Raux/Musée de Cluny, Paris/RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource
A reliquary medallion from the court of Charles V of France, who reigned from 1364 to 1380. According to Cynthia Hahn in Saints and Sacred Matter, ‘on the front of the object we see what looks like the back of a ring brooch. The thorn [from Christ’s crown of thorns], identified in inscriptions as enclosed in the brooch’s “pin,” is encircled by a tubular ring that also holds Passion relics and reinforces the idea of the Crown.’
At their best, the yearly symposia of the Dumbarton Oaks center for Byzantine studies delineate the high-water mark of scholarship in the particular field to which they are devoted. The collection Saints and Sacred Matter (which emerged from the symposium of 2011) lives up magnificently to this expectation.

Most notably, Cynthia Hahn and Holger Klein have gone well beyond Byzantium. They have included remarkable new studies of the cult of relics in medieval Western Europe, and also in Islam and Judaism. This generous outreach enables us, at last, to compare the function of relics in two major Christian regions—Byzantium and the Catholic West—as well as in the Jewish and Islamic worlds.

The collection addresses a charged topic, with a long history behind it. The idea that little bits of heaven could somehow be tied down on earth by solid stone, gold, and jewel work was central to the Christian cult of relics. The idea warmed the hearts of Byzantines and of medieval Western Catholics for over a thousand years. Then, in the sixteenth century, this notion was fiercely challenged by the Protestant Reformers and was later treated with contempt in Enlightenment Europe. Nowadays, it causes embarrassment even in traditional Catholic circles.

But the notion of sacred matter continues to challenge the imagination of scholars as they try to understand what is now a very distant Christian past. Only recently, our minds have been freed up to face this challenge. Religion is no longer seen as being about things of the spirit alone. As a result, works of religious art—the icons, the jeweled reliquaries, the shimmering mosaics, and the multicolored stones that we admire in museums or in churches—have taken on a new meaning for us. They are no longer considered mere decoration. We have realized that, somehow, in a mute manner that partly escapes the conscious mind (and that largely escaped rationalization by theologians), the very texture of…



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