Matter and materiality in an Italian reliquary triptych

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A late fourteenth-century painted triptych by the Sienese painter Bartolo di Fredi, now in a private collection in London, depicts the Virgin Mary with the Sienese patron saint Ansanus. It is one of several painted wooden tabernacles that originally incorporated saints’ relics visibly into their surfaces. These tabernacles participate in a discourse around media, materiality, representation,
and re-presentation. Through their combinations of bodily matter and varied artistic media, they raise questions and encourage thought about the relationships between different types of matter and among visuality, materiality, and reality. The tabernacles use a multiplicity of materials to represent the effects of other, more precious substances, such as painted and gilded wood for gold and colored glass for precious jewels. This seems to make an explicit devotional and theological point, highlighting the real value of the saints’ relics in contrast with the apparent
preciousness of the painted, gilded, and embellished surfaces. I suggest that paying attention to the materiality of the various elements of the tabernacles offers additional possibilities for consideration of their use and reception. I propose that the London tabernacle was created in Siena in the wake of the newly reinvigorated cult of relics that followed the acquisition by the hospital
of Sta. Maria della Scala of a major collection of relics from Byzantium. At the same time, the tabernacle responds to the continuing cult of the Virgin in Siena and to the long-standing desire
to link relics of the saints with images of the Virgin.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-42
Number of pages20
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 6 Apr 2018

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Medieval Studies


  • medieval art
  • materiality
  • reliquaries


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