Eastern Objects and Western Desires: Relics and Reliquaries between Byzantium and the West

Eastern Objects and Western Desires: Relics and Reliquaries between Byzantium and the West

By Holger A. Klein

Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 58. (2004)

Introduction: Among the many eastern objects that reached western Europe between the seventh and the fifteenth century by way of gift-giving, theft, or trade, sacred relics hold an important, if somewhat unusual, position. Unlike other commodities and luxury goods such as silk, gold, ivory, and precious stones, whose inherent value is intimately tied to their material worth, relic’s value is not as easily quantifiable and tends to resist a definition in purely monetary or economic terms. Rather, as Patrick Geary pointed out, its value rests on the communal acceptance of a set of shared beliefs that determine its authenticity and efficacy in a particular social and cultural environment. If a relic’s value is thus not defined by material worth, but is the result of complex social, cultural, and religious interactions, one may ask, how, in the specific case of eastern relics, their value was constructed – or rather reconstructed – in the social and cultural environment of western medieval Europe.

Likewise, one may ask in what ways a relic’s value was affected by the circumstances of its acquisition and mode of transfer, to what extent it was tied to an attested or alleged eastern provenance, and in what ways it could change as the result of an increasing western knowledge of and familiarity with its eastern cult history or place of origin. If one accepts Georg Simmel’s more general definition of the construction of value and calls “those objects valuable that resist our desire to possess them,” one may further ask how an increasing western knowledge of and desire for these sacred objects affected their value and status as items of economic and noneconomic exchange. It is the aim of this study to explore these and related questions by examining, on the one hand, the literary evidence for the transfer of relics and reliquaries from Byzantium to the Latin West and, on the other hand, the artistic responses they prompted in the new social and cultural environments in which they were placed.

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