Meredith, Hallie G. (éd.): Objects in Motion: The Circulation of Religion and Sacred Objects in the Late Antique and Byzantine World, (BAR International series 2247), viii+129 pages, ill. n&b, ISBN 978 1 4073 0811 1, £32.00
(Archaeopress, Oxford 2011)
Compte rendu par Sabrina Pietrobono, Newcastle University

Nombre de mots : 2479 mots
Publié en ligne le 2012-01-06
Citation: Histara les comptes rendus (ISSN 2100-0700).
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          This book comprises six articles, introduced by curator Hallie G. Meredith’s and concluded by Henry Maguire’s final considerations. It is divided into two section entitled “Becoming Holy” (p. 5-42) and “Holiness in Circulation” (p. 45-109). Basically, the analysis aims at understanding the “double life” of ordinary objects intended as sacred or in the process of becoming sacred. In fact, objects were produced as consecrated to a specific religious role or, depending on the aim with which it was created, could absorb different meaning as a consequence of its religious use and become sacred. Being consecrated in this sense means actually to be, in its final state, remembered as an item with a specifically religious use.


          As pointed out in the curator’s introduction, the mechanism of becoming sacred operated following three recognisable steps (p. 1):

– a key yet ephemeral event occurred;

– then the physical leftovers of an important moment were seen as sacred; usually the material object “was used by or inspired by a divine power, or devoted to a holy figure for use in worship”;

– finally the joining of the history of the objects’ meaning and the moveable object was finalised.


        The culture constructed, moveable object retained a new absorbed religious meaning and social significance. Later, it circulated in society in the role of divine agent, enabling miracles and actions in a manner similar to the person who had imprinted it with divine power. In this process, the circulation of such objects is intended to open up common religious ideas by witnessing to authentic past events.


          “Part I - Becoming Holy” contains two articles: “Christianizing Constantine: Eusebius’ Vita Constantini as a Late Antique Social Canvas”, by Hallie G. Meredith (p. 7-22), and “The Portable Altar in Christian Tradition and Practice”, by Crispin Paine (p. 25-42). According to the editor, both explore that process of “transformation, typically from a familiar, commonly used physical object to a religious object dedicated exclusively to a religious use” (p. 2).


          The first article is compelling and challenging because of its original point of view. Explaining Constantine’s vision, the author wonders how the original object becomes holy in the meaning attributed through the retelling, arguing that textual accounts of the act of viewing objects in circulation “created a history for those objects” and used those as social canvases to fix meaning that we can decode after centuries. The social canvases are “instruments upon which socially-constructed meaning is projected” (p. 7). The divinely inspired idea for the object is what gives it the power of protection.


          A definitive description of a significant holy object is Bishop Eusebius of Cesarea’s retelling of the life of Emperor Constantine: Eusebius portrays the Emperor’s creation of a Christian battle standard as a holy object reinvented as a social canvas. The description of Moses’ staff and the Ark of the Covenant, both from the book of Exodus, served as models for Eusebius’ narration of events framing Constantine divine revelation.


          According to Eusebius, Romans in the 4th century considered the Constantinian battle standard as a tangible proof of Christianity nature because it was divinely inspired and its material form was a testament of this fact. Consequently, Constantine became an intermediary between God and the people of the Roman Empire. That holy sign was reproduced and divine protection was accessible and widely diffused; it became the symbol of the Emperor’s conversion, consequently also of a fundamental transformation of his role as the model of a new Christian Emperor. In this new empire, holy objects are social agents that put ideas and faith in circulation.


          Crispin Paine, considering that portable altars are used in almost all the ancient Christian traditions as sacred object, starts from this question: how do the portable altars become holy and what are the implications of their sanctity? Obviously, he needs to consider their function (p. 25): they are tables that remember the table of the Last Supper, altars on which was celebrated the “bloodless sacrifice” and tombs like that of Christ or a martyr. He also takes into account materiality, because they can be in several different materials (stone, wood, clothes), and rites of consecration and dedication (by a bishop, by anointing with holy oil, or other rites). The analysis extends from fourth century origins to present-day ethnographic evidence.


          After having considered the diffusion and the origins of these objects, he approaches the meaning of their holiness; the Mass can be celebrated just on a consecrated altar, and a portable altar makes it possible even where no permanent altar is available (p. 42): they are powerful objects that mark a sacred place and can share the characteristics of relics.


          “Part II. Holiness in Circulation” addresses the impact and circulation of the religious value of the consecrated life of an object: this has its own momentum acting as an intermediary in place of the user.


          Georgia Frank in “Telling Jerusalem: Miracles and the Moveable Past in Late Antique Christianity” (p. 49-54) considers also memory as a “moveable object”, particularly related to the movement of the relics and the process of diffusion and conservation, thanks to the containers designed to their preservation. She considers sixth and seventh century material, e.g. pilgrim’s accounts and souvenirs (“eulogiae or “blessings”, small pieces of wood, clay, earth, water, oil, or textile that had come in contact with a holy place or the body of a holy person”, p. 49), addressing the mobility of sacred objects in the form of stories referring to their movement and their relocation as they travelled to the West from Jerusalem. Substantially, Frank’s paper underlines the role of memory in interpreting sacred objects in motion remarking the problem of guaranteeing their authenticity.


          Anthony Cutler in “The Matter of Ivory and the Movement of Ideas: Thoughts on some Christian Diptychs of Late Antiquity” (p. 57-71) considers the visuality tactility, history and use of ivory diptychs. It is important, in his analysis, that this kind of object manifests specific patterns of movement that derive from the act of viewing the ivories: from a leaf of a diptych to another, from the back to the front, and so on (see Maguire, p. 111). Starting from an iconographic analysis of the deep connections between images, he identifies the role of the craftsmen as well as the spectator, introducing the notion that form, idea and image can coexist and be tightly associated, inside a specific view.


          Matthew P. Canepa in “The Art and Ritual of Manichaean Magic: Text, Object and Image from the Mediterranean to Central Asia” (pp. 73-88) explores the global phenomenon of Manichaean magical practises, which transmitted ideas through magical texts; their study highlights the little known interconnected world of Eurasian magical practice. Presenting Manichaean history and beliefs as well as the central role of movement for Manichaeism since its third century inception in the Sasanian empire, he explores “the syncretistic nature of cult practice as well as the cultural contexts for magical practice” (p. 3). This scholar investigates fifth to seventh century Manichaean incantation bowls as well as spells and amulets as a means of understanding how the Manichaean electus-scribe absorbed and embodied ideas into their movable magical texts.


          Ida Toth, in “The Narrative Fabric of the Genoese Pallio and the Silken Diplomacy of Michael VIII Palaiologos” (p. 91-109) analyses the value of an imperial diplomatic gift (“the artefact that changed hands”) in combination with an imperial oration by Manuel/Maximos Holobolos and the document of the Treaty of the Nymphaion between Byzantium and Genoa, which was sealed by this custom made gift (purple-dyed and embroidered silk) in 1261, which preserves one of the rare images of Michael Palaiologos. The Pallio would be that surviving in Palazzo Bianco in Genoa. This exchange was considered as another way of diffusing the circulation of ideas expressed in “movable” material culture.


          The conclusive note, by Henry Maguire (p. 111-115), distinguishes between movement and portability, defining as movement that “carried out by the agency of the objects themselves, as well as movement outside the objects, by their viewers or users” and as portability a reference to “the problems of controlling the uses made of portable objects and the difficulty of guaranteeing their validity” (p. 111).


          For the first issue, he remembers that, in ancient and medieval mentalities, other dynamics must be considered, such as the possibility of latent animation (inscriptions, in the case of pagan statues, or the movement produced by a miracle) or “the movement of the viewer into the imagined space created by the object” (p. 111).


          For the second, he refers to the difficulty of controlling circulation, for example: small sacred or magical objects are often hidden and cannot easily be supervised. He remarks on two concerns: “the nature of the powers to which the objects give access” and “the nature of their use” (p. 112); finally in which way the authenticity of the object can be recognised.  


          It is hard to set this research in the context of similar scientific activity. This is a genuine attempt to investigate a challenging problem, debating the birth of “material holiness”, and the transformation of its meaning, but especially the mobility of these “sacred” objects. With respect to a widespread interest in these single objects and their archaeological dimensions as relics of the past, this book shows an original theoretical perspective focused on understanding material culture first as a social canvas, later as tools of movement of the ideas. This aim is highly ambitious and the scholars involved are debating a huge issue which underlies some specific aspects. Each article opens the door to further considerations, and sometimes the initial perspective could seem reductive; the readers must constantly re-focus their minds to the main argument of the book. 


          “Material culture is made holy in different ways”, but there are also several different ways of “being holy”. I ought to say that there is a different way of being holy for every single object: its holy meaning changes according to the function, to the origin and to the nature of the object itself. If the object was a common one, after its consecration it becomes something else with respect to its original use, by a process of separation: consecrating something means “to separate one thing” from common use, making it inviolable. After that and with this newly assigned habit, that object could embarks on a new journey in the community.


          In other cases, the sacred object is a representation of the Divinity and its emanation that is sacred for a process of participation with the God essence and truth. Their fascinating function as a social canvas much depend on the differences of the original conceptual source of the sanctity (participation or separation). According to this observation, the reading of object movement could be varied and with facets that are not uniformly assimilable, as it is possible to infer reading Maguire’s final note.


          The meaning of “consecration” involves in itself a character of motion, although idealistic motion. In a case like that of the Constantine monogram, from a religious point of view, “holiness” is transformed into “material culture” through a reproduction of some specific revelation. The Mystery of holiness is the starting point that can be shown and must be accepted only through divine inspiration and revelation (“Truly I say to you” repeated Jesus in the Gospel); in this case, the explanation or the retelling allows people to participate in the mystery.


          Christianity is a revealed religion, fixed on the Word of the Lord God. Written texts and retelling or oral traditions are substantially the main way of true transmission of faith and ideas (following the importance of the Logos and the Sapientia in the sacred texts) and witnessed by martyrs and saints. This is why, in my opinion, written texts and retelling are naturally the main way of distinguishing between a sacred object and something in common use. Starting from the Constantine vision, a non-Christian symbol -the imperial standard (labarum) - is gradually transformed into a Christian feature by applying to it the name of Christ in a symbolic shape, the monogram; the standard raised in battle become an expression of the divine presence beside the Emperor from that moment.


          The portable altars are holy because of the initial imposed consecration and, later, they “gain” in sanctity by the repetition of the function to which they were designed. Thanks to this specific use, they also became holier day after day, constantly reminding of the reason for Mass celebrated on the altar: the Eucharist Celebration, itself generated by a divine exhortation (“Do this in remembrance of me”, Lc, 22, 19).


In the first section there is a stronger direct link between the object and the Divine, linking memories and experience. In the second part of the book, the attention is now focused on different kinds of objects, which exist in a more personal continuum as tools of religious diffusion. Sometimes the objects or the relics witness and authenticate stories and facts, sometimes the latter authenticate objects and relics in a strict mutual relationship.


          The presence of the Mystery as an integral part of Holiness is partially visible in the study on Manichaean Religion, where the magical issue underlies this fascinating aspect. However, the relationship between magic and the sacred is deeply complex and would deserve a much longer explanation in future essays. This article gives us a non-Christian perspective of holiness and its diffusion and movement; it should be useful to extend this aspect of the research in the future. 


          To sum up, the aim of this book was expressly “to stimulate research into the overlooked “minor arts” and to re-animate them for modern audiences” (p. 3): in my opinion, this aim is fully achieved; apart from the unlucky case of a double repetition of the same text and notes on p. 93, the book is carefully composed and exhaustive in this purpose, paving the way for further studies.


Table of Contents


Acknowledgements, ii

List of Figures, iii

Abbreviations, vi

Contributors, viii


Introduction by Hallie G. Meredith, p. 1


I. Becoming holy


Christianizing Constantine: Eusebius’ Vita Constantini as a Late Antique Social Canvas

Hallie G. Meredith (University of Colorado, Boulder), p. 7


The Portable Altar in Christian Tradition and Practice

Crispin Paine (University College London), p. 25


II. Holiness in circulation


Telling Jerusalem: Miracles and the Moveable Past in Late Antique Christianity

Georgia Frank (Colgate University), p. 49


The Matter of Ivory and the Movement of Ideas: Thoughts on some Christian Diptychs of Late Antiquity

Anthony Cutler (Pennsylvania State University), p. 57


The Art and Ritual of Manichaean Magic: Text, Object and Image from the Mediterranean to Central Asia

Matthew P. Canepa (University of Minnesota), p. 73


The Narrative Fabric of the Genoese Pallio and the Silken Diplomacy of Michael VIII Palaiologos

Ida Toth (University of Oxford), p. 91


Conclusion by Henry Mcguire (John Hopkins University), p. 111

Bibliography, p. 117