- Passion Relics and the Medieval Imagination: Art, Architecture, and Society by Cynthia Hahn
Relics of Christ's Passion present scholars of medieval Christianity with a fascinating paradox. According to the New Testament, Christ's body ascended into heaven shortly after his resurrection. Therefore, apart from a few alleged relics of Christ's blood and circumcised foreskin, there are no bones or body of Christ to venerate. In the absence of primary relics, medieval Christians collected and enshrined objects that came into contact with Christ—specifically, those items that interacted with his body during the Passion (the whip, crown of thorns, True Cross, holy nails, sponge, and lance, among others). The medieval dissemination and popularity of these relics are the subject of Cynthia Hahn's latest monograph, which surveys the cult of Passion relics in western Europe from the time of Constantine to the sixteenth century.
Hahn's book is taken from two public lectures, given at the Spencer Museum of Art (University of Kansas) and the Nelson-Atkins Museum (Kansas City). Following the division of these lectures, Passion Relics consists of only two chapters, with micro-discussions embedded in each. The first half of the book traces the development of the cult of what Hahn deems the "greatest" Passion relic: the True Cross. Hahn recounts the True Cross's origin story (found by Helena, the mother of Constantine), examines the various medieval records of the dissemination of splinter relics, and analyzes practices of enshrining fragments of the True Cross in Western reliquaries. She discusses the cross as both a material object and as a shorthand for faith, redemption, and sacrifice in text, liturgy, and art. One example of the latter includes the poem "The Dream of the Rood," wherein the True Cross appears to an anonymous viewer as a living tree that has been both attacked and bejeweled by human hands. The second half of the monograph focuses on medieval Passion relics as a group, both in theory and in physical collections. Hahn outlines the major relics, including the holy nails, the lance, and the sponge, and their significance to medieval Christians as [End Page 278] objects that touched Christ's skin, blood, and mouth. Hahn notes that Passion relics appeared to surface in social and political settings in which they served a purpose, emphasizing that the material culture of belief was never far from secular ambitions. In this way, Hahn's second chapter analyzes Passion relics "as holy material but also as social phenomena—as barometers of Christian devotion and its processes" (5). Passion relics were utilized by rulers, such as Constantine and Raymond of Toulouse, to solidify diplomatic ties. Louis IX, Charles IV, and the Savoy dynasty created extravagant architectural works to house their Passion relics and underscore their personal connections to the objects.
Passion relics, however, did not just circulate in the elite circles of medieval Europe. While Passion relics first traveled from east to west relatively slowly and mostly through diplomatic channels, the crusades opened up a much broader network for relics of the True Cross, the holy lance, and others to enter western Europe in larger amounts. The lay populace interacted with Passion relics in the context of grand architecture or elaborate civic processions, which further elevated the status and splendor of the items on display. In addition to this kind of public devotion, Hahn explores the role of Passion relics in female spirituality and imagination. She discusses the images in the Passional of Abbess Kunigunde and the devotion of Gertrude of Helfta, a mystic who used the veil of Veronica as a focus in her meditations. Hahn mentions the sexualized nature of some female devotions to Christ's wounds, but does not analyze them in depth.
A second paradox regarding Passion relics emerges in Hahn's work: items associated with physical pain and torture also become conduits of spiritual redemption and loving devotion for believers. Hahn notes this juxtaposition manifests itself visually through the contrast between the relics themselves (iron or wood) and the materials of their reliquary...