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Saints and Sacred Matter: the Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond

Byzantine Symposium, April 29-May 1, 2011
Saints and Sacred Matter: The Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond

The physical remains of holy men and women and objects associated with them embody aspects of the divine and therefore play a central role in a number of religions and cultures. Given their ability to link the past and present with an imagined future, sacred remains, or relics, were especially important to the development of Christianity as they testified to Christ's presence and ministry on earth and established a powerful connection between God and man after his resurrection. The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles bore early witness to the healing powers of Christ and his disciples and drew attention to the places, where these miracles occurred. Moreover, cities such as Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Rome, where objects associated with Christ's Passion were kept and where bodies of saints and martyrs were buried, soon developed into important cult centers, drawing pilgrims in large numbers from across the Late Roman Empire. Enshrined in sumptuous metal, ivory, or stone containers, relics formed an important physical and spiritual bond between heaven and earth, linking humankind to their saintly advocates in heaven. As they were carried in liturgical processions, used in imperial ceremonies, and called upon in legal disputes and crises, relics—and, by extension, their precious containers and built shrines—provided a visible link between the living and the venerated dead.

Coinciding with Treasures of Heaven. Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, a major exhibition on relics and reliquaries from Late Antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, this year's symposium addressed a variety of issues surrounding the cult of saints and relics in Byzantium, the Medieval West, and the Islamic East. It sought to pose a series of questions that were intended to open new windows onto the cult of saints and relics in Byzantium and beyond. How did Early Christian cult practices emerge from ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish traditions? How did reliquaries develop as containers of sacred matter, and what kinds of models inspired their earliest makers? What mechanisms governed the exchange and translation of holy relics and assured their efficacy in new social, religious, and cultural contexts? How did these objects and the shrines in which they were preserved and displayed transform the memory of extraordinary individuals into saintly bodies who connected heaven and earth? What role did art and architecture play in the construction of holiness and the animation of sacred matter? In what ways do physical objects link the past with the present and connect cities and their communities across time and space? What impact did relics have on the development of three-dimensional religious sculpture in the West, and what role did two-dimensional representations of holy figures play in the re-presentation of saintly bodies in the East?

The symposium was held at two venues, namely at Dumbarton Oaks (Friday and Sunday) and The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, giving attendees an opportunity to visit and explore the exhibition.