Reliquary Tabernacles in Fourteenth-Century Italy: Image, Relic and Material Culture

Research output: Book/ReportAuthored book


This monograph is a study of a group of nine late medieval Italian reliquary tabernacles: portable wooden panels, diptychs and triptychs, that combine the display of painted imagery with relics of the saints, visibly embedded within the surface of the panels, rather than enshrined and hidden away, as they would be within a traditional reliquary casket. The original tabernacle was the dwelling place of God carried by the Hebrews in the Old Testament. In Christianity, the term is used to refer to a structure that encloses and dignifies a sacred image or object, such as the canopy over an altar, or niches with sacred images; it is used also to define small wooden painted or decorated panels – often folding panels, such as diptychs, and triptychs – that frame or enclose images of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. In the reliquary tabernacles under examination here, the addition of relics of the saints makes them real tabernacles – dwelling places, as well as depictions, of the saints. This sets up a series of complex physical and conceptual dynamics between the various materials and matter brought together in this way.
The particular reliquary tabernacles that are the focus here are from a defined region – from the city and contado of Siena – and date from the 1320s to the 1420s, with the majority dating between 1340 and 1380. They repay close study in several ways. In themselves they provide a fascinating case study in the development of material manifestations of devotional practice in a clearly defined area and period. The first half of the fourteenth century in Central Italy was a period during which several new instances of visual and material culture were developing. These include new forms like multi-levelled and double-sided polyptychs, and new image types such as the Madonna of Humility. Sienese painters and artists had been at the forefront of both formal and technical as well as iconographical developments. Thus these painted and embellished multi-media tabernacles offer a stimulating addition to the known instances of artistic innovation in Siena in the fourteenth century. They imitate architectural forms in miniature, incorporate painted references to sculptural forms, and integrate a variety of types of media and matter into the established format of the painted tabernacle. They also pick up on recent iconographical developments, using the new and unusual images of the Standing Virgin and Child, and of the Madonna of Humility. Combining painted imagery with visible relics, they offer an intriguing way to consider contemporary devotional currents in which the status of images, the ontological status of relics and images, and relationships between visuality and materiality, were all of paramount importance.
Not much attention has been given thus far to the patronage, production, or use of these reliquary tabernacles, or to their material characteristics. For instance, to date, there has been little consideration of the way in which the materiality of the relics resonates with the materiality of the other elements present in these reliquary-tabernacles, nor has there been much detailed consideration of users’ understandings of the characteristics and connotations of the different types of matter combined on the surface of all of these objects. Advances in conservation science and in technical art history have provided more information about how objects in various artistic media were designed and created, and about the physical and technical properties of objects created in different materials. Research on trade and export patterns of artists’ materials provides further information about the relative value and availability of different materials and media. Attention to ‘materiality’ more broadly in the work of historians and literary scholars provides a framework of ideas within which one can consider the ways in which makers and users of these tabernacles might have conceived of the relationships between materiality and meaning within these objects.
Alongside that body of varied interdisciplinary and theoretical work, there has been excellent recent work by art historians more specifically, on treasuries and reliquaries, from the perspective of function, perception and use. These add to the earlier body of work on reliquaries that focused more on form and style. The recent advances in history and art history relating to devotional practice and material culture, together with crucial theoretically-informed research on the materiality of objects in the fields of art history, archaeology, and material culture studies, allows for – indeed requires – a new approach to these Italian reliquary tabernacles. This book applies the insights of recent work in material culture, and ‘materiality’, to these objects that have more commonly been examined using the standard art-historical paradigms of stylistic analysis, localization, and formal taxonomy. It also examines the objects in their religious, devotional and social contexts, using these tabernacles as a prism through which to examine devotional practices that focus on visuality, materiality and tactility, and on the value that was accorded to the visibility and physical proximity of material relics of the saints. It interrogates the materiality of these complex ensembles of image and media, and, through the consideration of matter and materiality, it addresses the aesthetic, theological, and devotional possibilities conferred upon these tabernacles as a result of the combinations of the multiple media and materials.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationWoodbridge
PublisherBoydell & Brewer
ISBN (Print)9781783274765
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Medieval Studies


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