Reliquary Tabernacles in Fourteenth-Century Italy
Image, Relic and Material Culture
An interview with Beth Williamson
Professor Williamson, welcome to the Medieval Herald and many thanks for joining us. Before we begin, would you let us know when you first became interested in the medieval world and how this has directed your studies and research since?
Most of my family live in Ireland, and I have thus spent a lot of time there since I was a very young child. My parents used to take me and my sister on multiple trips to medieval churches and abbeys each time we were there, as well as to older, archaeological sites – stone circles, tombs, and ring forts: what my sister calls ‘clambering over old stones’! Engagement with the medieval world was therefore a part of my childhood in Ireland. To add to that, my parents are both artists, and met at art school (my mother in the painting school, my father in furniture making). As well as bringing me up on contemporary art, they have always been particularly keen on medieval and renaissance painting. So I have looked at medieval painting for a long time, and galleries and churches were always a part of family holidays. Finally, I read history as an undergraduate, and found my way during that time to specialising in medieval and early modern cultural history, which in time led to my concentrating on medieval art in my postgraduate studies, and subsequent research.
Describe for us the style of the reliquary tabernacles that you focus on in your new book.
They are gilded wooden panels with painted images in their centres, and with a number of chambers set in to the wooden panels surrounding the images. Relics of the saints, or of holy places (such as from Golgotha, the place of Christ’s Crucifixion, or from the room in which the Annunciation took place) were once placed in these chambers. Most of those relics have now been lost, and the empty chambers are all that remain.
And how did these differ from traditional designs?
On the whole, earlier reliquaries were containers – boxes, vessels, or caskets – in which relics were enshrined; these painted reliquary tabernacles place the relics on the surfaces of the wooden panels, allowing them to be visible alongside the painted imagery.
When and where did they appear and what do you think drove their development?
The earliest ones seem to date from around 1340, and they seem to have appeared first in the Central Italian city republic of Siena. What drove their development is still, I think, an open question, but I have suggested that a combination of factors might have been in play at the same time: on the one hand, an appetite for novelty in the cultural milieu of Central Italy – and especially Siena – at this time, which might have driven experiments in new artistic forms that combined aspects of different types of object; on the other hand, new, and self-conscious ways of thinking about seeing and visuality, and making and materiality, might have encouraged the development of a new type of devotional object that facilitated meditation upon images of saints alongside their material remains.
And what, if any, was their effect on the design of tabernacles in Italy or beyond?
They seem to have been a relatively short-lived form, in fact, and not to have spread far beyond Siena, for the most part. However, they did have an impact upon Fra Angelico, working in Florence in the early fifteenth century, and he produced a number of painted reliquary tabernacles of a similar type for the Dominican friary of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
What impact do you think these tabernacles would have had on the faithful?
It is difficult to be certain, of course, because different impacts would have been felt by different individuals, and different viewers and users would have had different reactions to these tabernacles. However, I think that they would have invited people to consider, in part, the relations and oppositions between reality and representation, material and image, and distance and proximity. Some of these objects were designed to be carried in procession, where beholders would have viewed them from some distance, but they would also presumably, some of the time, be viewed statically, and close up. This might have encouraged a viewer to think about what it is to contemplate an image of a saint, and what it is to come close to a relic.
How many still survive? Have you visited them all?
I know of twelve surviving, either complete or fragmentary. And, yes, I have visited them all, except for one part of one of them: the tabernacle at the Berenson Collection in Settignano, just outside Florence, was once double-sided – the two sides were separated from one another at some point. The other half of that tabernacle now resides in a private collection elsewhere in Italy, and I have not seen that part. I was lucky enough to receive a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant, which allowed me, over the course of 2015 and 2016, to visit every other example. Tabernacles or parts of tabernacles are in Baltimore, Cleveland, Boston and Washington, DC, Siena, Montepulciano and Settignano, Lyon, and London.
And do you have a favourite?
I am very keen on the example by Naddo Ceccarelli in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, as it is a complex piece, with many relic chambers, and with relics still surviving in those chambers. Though it is not possible to be certain that these are all original and all in their original places, the overall effect still allows us to imagine what this sort of object would have looked like. I also particularly like one of the smallest examples of the group, the triptych in the Wyvern Collection in London, which, uniquely among the group, has a carved ivory diptych inserted into the central painted panel of the triptych. This tabernacle’s material variety, and its ability to open and close, makes it an exceptionally interesting object, which allows us to think deeply about surface and depth, relief and colour, revealing and hiding, and about tactile values as well as visual aesthetics.
There’s no quick answer to this – that’s why you wrote the book after all! – but can you tell us something of the ‘deep history’ of looking and how your work contributes to it? It sounds absolutely fascinating.
By that I meant that looking and seeing has a history itself, and that to understand how looking and seeing made sense within the culture of the middle ages is not just a concern for medievalists, but for anyone interested in mechanisms of visuality in other periods also. Renaissance looking, and modern seeing, and the assumptions inherent in what it means to say ‘I see’ in any period, all fit within a longue durée perspective on these questions.
And what is next for you now? More on reliquaries or perhaps other fields of medieval material culture are calling to you?
My next project moves away from reliquaries to some extent, or at least away from reliquaries as a sole concern. With the help of a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship I am about to embark on an interdisciplinary project called Describing Devotion. This will result in a book in which I will bring together texts, images, and music to explore medieval religious devotion within a thematic format, with cross-cutting chapters dedicated to a set of key ideas and concepts. The aim is not to carry out a study of devotional art, devotional literature, or devotional music, but to use these various expressions of religious culture together to understand devotional experience itself.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
I read email and social media updates from publishers in a wide variety of areas across the humanities. I also read paper catalogues from publishers – I still find these very useful in seeing what is being published, and in deciding what to order for the library. I go to conferences such as the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo – and I read the programs of big conferences that I might not necessarily attend every year (such as the Medieval Academy of America Annual Meeting, the College Art Association Conference, and the Annual Conference of the Association for Art History) – to keep abreast of current research and work in progress. And of course I read journal articles, both in paper and online form. I appreciate the mixed economy in which publishers work, with both online and hard-copy notifications of their publications and their existing lists.
BETH WILLIAMSON is Professor of Medieval Culture at the University of Bristol.
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