Reliquaries and relics

Yesterday I went to the British Museum to see “Treasures from Heaven”, an exhibition of medieval relics and reliquaries. I sketched the ‘Icon of the Man of Sorrows’, an incredible portable reliquary with an intricate mosaic of Jesus surrounded by 200 bundles of relics in tiny alcoves.

The finely crafted ancient objects brought to mind many references, including Memory Theatres, the Wunderkammer and the medieval and renaissance trend for elaborate containers for salt (see left), which represented the value of salt as a commodity, and its ability to preserve.

In Kevin Hetherington’s article on ‘Praesentia’1, he defines a relic as a ‘fragment made extraordinary by association’, and uses this to explore the idea of praesentia as a spatial or haptic experience of the relic – “an encounter with the presence of an absence that is Other to direct and previously known representations.” (Josipovici, 1996)

John Newling suggests that places are transformed by what we bring to them; in other words, by the act of pilgrimage. In our work, the salt pan becomes a site of pilgrimage. The Salt acts as a relic – it contains the substance of the place. But it also has the power to both preserve and corrode memory.

In the exhibition, a ‘speaking reliquary’ was explained as one in which the form of the reliquary is defined by the shape of the relic. I think about how relics of place could start to define the spatial form of a reliquary, or a series of reliquaries, which could act as memorials to vanished histories.

1Hetherington, K (2003), Spatial Textures: place, touch and praesentia. In Environemtn and Planning vol 35 

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