Imagining the Byzantine Past: The Perception of History in the Illustrated Manuscripts of Skylitzes and Manasses
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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