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 the materials used and their ingenious fashioning helped to bridge the chasm between the seen and the unseen. Faced with the many exquisite reliquaries on view in museums and in the treasuries of ancient cathedrals, we must adjust our eyes. We must cease to see a mere shimmer of gold and jewels. Instead we are looking at objects from where one world meets and elevates the other.

We must also learn to look at such objects from the inside out. The physical beauty of the relic case was insubstantial compared with the power and glory housed within it. Reliquaries were nothing when this power was taken from them. Those of us who saw the Metropolitan Museum’s recent exhibition on the magnificent art of the Congo will know what I mean. The fierce wooden figures, bristling with nails and with burning eyes, that loomed up at us from the darkness of the last room of the exhibition were once alive with power. They had been carefully filled with magical substances set in resin deep inside them.

As long as these substances remained inside them, the figures were filled with power. They brought justice, protection, and the hope of redress to a society ravaged in the late nineteenth century by Western commercial exploitation, much as the great relic shrines of early medieval Europe had once stood out as islands of peace in the midst of a war-torn society. But before being surrendered to European outsiders, the “power packs” hidden within these statues were removed by their Congolese makers. Without them, the threatening figures were mere artifacts—impotent objects, suitable only for exhibition in museum galleries.1

The challenge to the imagination implied in the notion of material objects charged with spiritual power runs through every chapter of Saints and Sacred Matter. We are introduced to a civilization caught in the mighty act of creating an entire imaginative world from what appeared to most non-Christians to be a gigantic category mistake. We have to enter minds gripped by the belief that, somehow, somewhere, and with some persons, it was possible to saturate dead matter with living spirit. How was this done?


First and foremost: a relic had to be freed from the anonymous detritus of the past. Not every bone was the bone of a saint; not every stone had been touched by the charged feet of holy persons; not every workaday object had played a part in their lives. This was the first and greatest challenge—to break the eerie silence of mere matter by picking out some little bit that was unique because it was charged with the fullness of life.

For this reason, belief in relics was always ringed by the half-conscious question: Why this particular, unprepossessing fragment and no other? It was easy to be misled. Deliberate frauds abounded. An eleventh-century Byzantine poet caricatured a monk in the relic business who claimed to possess no less than ten hands of one saint, fifteen jawbones of another, and five mummified breasts of a single virgin martyr. An enterprising trader at the court of Charlemagne managed to unload on a credulous bishop a stuffed mouse that he claimed was a holy relic brought all the way from Judea.

One can read these incidents in an ironic mood—“Ho, ho. I told you so.” All too many scholars of the past have done this. But that is to miss a deeper point. The cult of relics was always accompanied by a sharp tension between the known indifference of matter and the wild, remissive hope that there were exceptions to that indifference.

How did Byzantines and Western medieval people attempt to resolve this conundrum? The most salutary message of the symposium is that they did it in very many, very different ways. Let us take only a few examples. Jaś Elsner in Saints and Sacred Matter emphasizes the secrecy of relics. They were not unlike the objects “revealed” by mystery cults in pagan times, hidden in the recesses of caves and sanctuaries. Relics were often displayed in ways that evoked the journey of the relic from secrecy to the full light of cult. Many relic containers were constructed like Russian dolls. The faceless fragment of bone, wood, or dust was placed—like the radioactive core of a nuclear power plant—in containers of ever greater size. These had to be carefully unpacked before the relic was revealed. Hence the extraordinary skill with which Byzantine craftsmen worked in miniature to create the enkolpia—the necklace reliquaries that are triumphs of Byzantine art.

Each reliquary opened up like a Fabergé egg. The icon of the saint with its pious inscription was made in multicolored enamels. This icon would slide back or click open on a hinge to expose a further surface (often of pure, opaque gold). This in turn opened to show the “surprise” hidden in its depths. But unlike the Fabergé egg, this surprise was not anything as trivial as (to take one example of Fabergé’s work) a miniature of the Trans-Siberian Railway, complete with a mobile chapel and a carriage marked “For Ladies Only.”2 For what was revealed at the heart of the enkolpion was the tomb of the saint in miniature together with a tiny pile of dust taken from that tomb. It showed that a precious fragment of the holy rested on the breast of its wearers, in such a way as to reassure them that a protecting saint was as close to them as their own flesh.

But that was only one way of heightening the “charge” of the relic. In her chapter on “sacred installations” in Saints and Sacred Matter, Ann Marie Yasin points to the extraordinary fact that in North Africa and elsewhere, most relics emerged only for a short time, before being solemnly reburied. Exposed for one moment of high ceremony, they were then carefully placed beneath the bases of columns and the pediments of altars, where they remained until they were discovered, almost two millennia later, by modern archaeologists. It was their very invisibility that charged them with supernatural power. Sent back into darkness, they were the mute guardians of stone.

Relics were not only personalized by their use by individual believers, as with the exquisite enkolpia of Byzantium. They could protect buildings as well as persons. Looking up into the dome of the Hagia Sophia in Ottoman times, pious Muslims noticed the special manner in which one part of the dome glowed in the morning light. They believed that this glow betrayed the presence of a lump of earth from Mecca, dampened with the spittle of the Prophet Muhammad and sent by him, at the request of the Byzantine emperor, to mend the ominous crack that had opened in that vast dome as the result of an earthquake.


Throughout this period, relics not only guaranteed personal safety and the stability of great shrines. They also traveled from one end of the Christian world to the other. The elites of Europe and Byzantium were connected to one another by forms of gift exchange that were as charged with political significance as the transfer of nuclear materials between modern states. Such goods could be called “charismatic.” They brought a touch of otherness to their recipients. This was particularly true of relics. Not only did relics bring together heaven and earth. By carefully assembled touches of strangeness, objects installed in tombs and reliquaries brought together the distant ends of the earth—of places “out there” that were as distant as heaven itself. How else can one explain the presence, in the seventh-century coffin of Saint Cuthbert (in the extreme north of England), of a cowry shell taken from the beaches of the Indian Ocean?

But in this swirl of charismatic goods, how was one to distinguish a relic from other prestigious gifts? For instance: the great polar bear skin donated by Bishop Leofric to the cathedral of Exeter, in the eleventh century, was as heavy with strangeness as was any relic. But it was not a relic. Hence what Julia Smith, in her chapter of Saints and Sacred Matter, rightly calls the “fuzziness” of relics. Not all exotic objects were unambiguously connected to known holy persons and holy sites. Their status was uncertain. Given this fuzziness, there had to be some consensus that some gifts were more charismatic than others—that they were holy relics and not mere curiosities.

In a most elegant contribution to the volume, Derek Krueger has shown this value creation at work in Byzantium and Western Europe. He points out how the liturgy acted as a spur for the collection and identification of relics. The late sixth century was marked by a shift toward a greater emphasis in the liturgy on immediacy. A Christian past was brought directly into the present by dramatic prayers and reenactments. This meant that the life of Christ and the Holy Places were made present in every church. It was this immediacy that primed the desire for relics of the Holy Land. Arranged in little boxes, like modern chemistry sets, each stone was lovingly labeled with the holy place from which it came. Thanks to the liturgy, the believer had already been there.

One further problem remains. When we speak of sacred matter, what do we mean by “matter”? As the work of Caroline Bynum has shown, matter also has a history.3 Opinions on the degree of its distance from the spiritual and the extent of its permeability to nonmatter can vary greatly from age to age and from society to society. The Christian love of paradox, constantly deployed around the cult of the saints, presented spirit and matter as mutually exclusive opposites, locked in an antithesis that only a miracle could resolve. But this antithesis may not have been sensed on every level. The Christian heart did not always ache with a sense of the grinding difference between spirit and matter. There remained the half-conscious hope that such stark dualism was not the last word on the nature of the universe. Somewhere, perhaps, spirit and matter might come together in a more gentle manner.

An onyx head of Medusa from a jeweled cross, circa 900–1050, from the Essen Cathedral Treasury

Birgitta Falk

An onyx head of Medusa from a jeweled cross, circa 900–1050, from the Essen Cathedral Treasury

Indeed, late antique and early medieval Christians lived in a physical world where boundaries were remarkably loose by later standards. Matter itself was unstable. It was thought to be constantly straining upward, toward more refined, more stable, altogether more “spiritualized” versions of itself. The gems that were lavished on relic cases were not mere rocks. They were rocks that had achieved the material equivalent of the stability and purity associated with the world of spirit. For example: those great ovals of pure crystal in which so many relics came to be enclosed in Western Europe were not just rare, semiprecious stones. They were believed to be water—the weakest and most unstable of things—frozen rock-hard in the icy depths of great mountains. As water that had lost its dangerous fluidity while retaining its transparency, crystals were a shadow of the unfissured solidity of eternity.

For Byzantines and other early medieval people the universe remained a boisterous place, filled with changes. Nothing shows this more plainly than an unusual document from twelfth-century Byzantium. This is the summary and commentary on the Iliad of Homer written by John Tzetzes and now made available in the Dumbarton Oaks series of medieval texts. Tzetzes’ book, Allegories of the Iliad, was the result of one of those strange eddies of fortune that make the last centuries of Byzantium so intriguing. The commentary was put together in the early 1140s by Tzetzes for Bertha von Sulzbach, who had married the emperor Manuel Komnenos I so as to seal a grand alliance with the Holy Roman Empire. Now named Eirene, she settled down as a Byzantine lady. Tzetzes’ summary was to be her first dip in the “Ocean of Homer.”

And a very odd Homer she received. As a good Byzantine Christian, Tzetzes did not believe in the gods. But he did believe in nature. Following a long tradition of Platonic exegesis, he treated each intervention of the gods in human affairs as a meteorological event. Each god was a code name for some powerful weather formation, much as hurricanes are spoken of by their Christian names—with bated breath—on the more excitable modern weather channels. Zeus was a lightning storm. Themis and the Nymphs stood for the rising of the mist. Apollo was the merciless light of the morning sun as it slanted into the eyes of the Trojans, blinding them to the onslaught of Achilles. And above and behind the weather on earth, human affairs were ruled by the planets, who glowed treacherously as they sidled through the Zodiac. This was not a world of steady matter.

Nor was it certain where matter ended and where spirit began. For a pagan Platonic philosopher, such as the great Plotinus (who wrote in the middle of the third century CE), the universe itself was like a vast reliquary. It was totally penetrated by the divine. To look up to the heavy clusters of the Milky Way was to see matter positively glowing with spirit. The universe as a whole was a holy place for him. What disgusted Plotinus and his pagan successors about the Christian cult of relics was its tunnel vision. It looked away from the light-filled glory of the universe, to seek for sacred matter only in narrow and macabre corners of the earth, among the human dead.

These were the ruminations of angry pagan intellectuals. They continued well into the sixth century. But something of the wider Platonic view of a universe bathed in divine energy would linger in Byzantium for centuries. Christians who looked up into the night sky were still tempted to think that somewhere up there, matter and spirit might yet merge. When late antique people witnessed the bright trail of a meteor, they did not see in it a mere lump of rock scraping against the earth’s atmosphere. Far from it. What they saw was an image of ascent into an ever more ethereal world. The blaze of the meteor occurred when a stray bubble of unstable air escaped from beneath the moon and turned incandescent as it entered the pure ether beyond it.

Nor would incense have been so essential to Christian worship if it was not widely believed that scent took the world of matter to the very edge of the world of spirit. Scent was among the lightest, the least material of human senses. Grains of incense became ethereal when touched by fire. They floated upward to form a bridge between spirit and matter, softening, even subverting, the hard Christian paradoxes that assumed a lasting opposition of spiritual and material.

At high moments in the Byzantine liturgy, this subversive hope came true. The drama of the liturgy took place in an atmosphere of refined sensuality. Ordinary matter lost its dull solidity. The shimmering gold of the mosaics was frozen light; and light itself was no more than a version, in infinitely subtle matter, of the light of God’s presence. Accompanied by the weightless sound of chanting, incense also poured upward, to hover on the very edge of total immateriality. This great mutation blocked out for a moment the bleak dichotomy of spirit and matter on which so much of Byzantine spirituality (and, with it, so much of the cult of relics both in East and West) was based. The early ambassadors who arrived at Constantinople from the kingdom of Kiev in 987 were said to have understood this when they witnessed the Great Liturgy in the Hagia Sophia:

We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty…. We only know that God dwells there among men.

So what about the remarkable society in which this distinctive imaginative world, based on the tension between matter and spirit, had been built up over so many centuries? Those who want to know can turn with confidence to Jonathan Harris’s The Lost World of Byzantium. Compared with the interdisciplinary excitements of Saints and Sacred Matter, it is a quiet book. But it is also a sensible and clear book. It tells the story of a remarkable empire, perilously placed between Asia and Europe. At the beginning of the story, in 300 CE, Byzantium, as the eastern half of the Roman Empire, dominated the world around it. In its later centuries, however, Byzantium did something even more remarkable. It changed from a colossus to a mighty midget. Few superpowers have downscaled with such dignity and flexibility. It learned how to dominate in more subtle ways. In diplomacy and culture, Byzantine “soft power” continued to reach out from Catalonia to the Caucasus, and as far north as the Arctic Ocean, to establish a religious and cultural empire in regions undreamed of by Rome. Harris’s conclusion is eminently sane:

Thus if Byzantium has one outstanding legacy it is not perhaps Orthodox Christianity or its preservation of classical Greek literature. Rather it is the lesson that the strength of a society lies in its ability to adapt and incorporate outsiders in even the most adverse circumstances.

It is a challenge that should give food for thought to those who make bombastic claims to be the heirs of Rome, principally—but not only—as modern ideologues of the European Union. Byzantium was not like Rome. That was its great advantage. It knew not only how to dominate, but also how to survive in hard times. And that is why Byzantium is important for us.

But what was it like to live in an age of survival? Imagining the Byzantine Past by Elena Boeck offers a vivid glimpse of Byzantine high society as seen by two ambitious outsiders who wanted in. One was a pirate-king—Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily (r. 1130–1154). He wanted to despoil and humiliate an empire whose westernmost lands he had snatched. On one occasion, he took his fleet all the way to Constantinople just to tell the emperor what he thought of him. Rocking at anchor off the shore at modern Kum Kapı (where businessmen now eat at tables on the sand to the ceaseless noise of cell-phone conversations), he peppered the imperial palace with silver gilt arrows—tinselly things, worthy, in his opinion, of a lightweight empire—before sailing back to Sicily. The other outsider was more orderly and more dangerous. Thoroughly Byzantinized, Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria (r. 1331–1371) was a candidate to rule the empire itself. He had no wish to destroy, and still less to humiliate, an empire that he himself intended to take over intact.

Both men commissioned chronicles, which were illustrated lavishly. For Roger, the Sicilians copied in Greek the eleventh-century Byzantine chronicle of John Skylitzes. Tsar Ivan was more ambitious. He turned to the World Chronicle of Constantine Manasses, which began with Adam and ended in 1081. This was translated into Church Slavonic and was also illustrated.

Nothing could be more revealing than the contrast between the two sets of illustrations. Those commissioned by Roger show Byzantium from the outside, as viewed by an envious aggressor. They are unusually vivid. They confirm every negative stereotype of Byzantium. Great swatches of red blood drip down the gilded page. An emperor is throttled in the bath by attendants dressed modestly in towels. The head of another emperor is waved on the end of a pike from the upper window of a marble-encrusted palace. This is the Byzantium we like to think we know. We should remember, however, that these illustrations were a monument to sour grapes on the part of a frustrated interloper.

By contrast, the illustrations commissioned by Ivan Alexander, the insider, reveal the other side of Byzantium. This was a truly ancient polity. It was the culmination of world history. The Chronicle of Manasses and its illustrations make plain that monarchy began with Adam. World rulers from the ancient Near East and emperors of ancient Rome line up in identical robes to form an unbroken chain of God-given monarchy that culminated in Byzantium. Had he taken over Constantinople, Ivan Alexander would have stood at the head of six and a half millennia of empire. Even in the late fourteenth century, as the Ottoman Turks were poised to ravage the Balkans, there was nothing lightweight about Byzantium.

Only a generation ago, the late Gilbert Dagron—the doyen of French Byzantinists and a uniquely gifted interpreter of Byzantine civilization—spoke of Byzantium as “this empire which Byzantinists do not doubt enough.”4 After the tidal race of new approaches and new methodologies unleashed in these alert studies, Byzantium is now bathed in creative doubt. It can no longer be taken for granted. Indeed, as a result, we may find, to our surprise, that Byzantium—that wiry old survivor—may have more to say to us, in our own dangerous times, than do those tired platitudes on the fall of Rome (and the consequent decadence of Byzantium) that are so often uttered, these days, by anxious xenophobes and by would-be imitators of Edward Gibbon.