"The Little Blue Flower Is Red": Relics and the Poetizing of the Body

Viewing relics from the perspectives of the rhetoric and art in which they were embedded, this essay argues that the transformative process whereby human body-parts became relics was aesthetic. Attentive both to the specter of idolatry and to the danger of a spirituality that negates "matter," late ancient Christians created a religio-aesthetic environment within which the remains of special human beings could be apprehended as relics, that is, as spiritual objects worthy of ritual devotion. More specifically, the paper focuses on such relic-minded Christians as Prudentius, Asterius of Amaseia, and Paulinus of Nola. Their use of a particular rhetorical form, the ekphrasis, is highlighted as a major component of the aesthetic style that vested in bones a signifying capacity that marked their emergence as relics. In addition, the paper explores literary and artistic dependence on an aesthetic sensibility associated with the late ancient cultural taste for color and brilliance that contributed to the sensuously intense atmosphere within which the cult of relics achieved expression.