Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 2, 2003
Eric Thunø Image and Relic: Mediating the Sacred in Early Medieval Rome Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2002. 216 pp.; 8 color ills.; 133 b/w ills.; 141 ills. Paper (8882652173)

In Image and Relic: Mediating the Sacred in Early Medieval Rome, Erik Thunø thoroughly explores three objects that could be justly deemed among the most important works of art created in the Carolingian period. (One of these is pictured here.) Commissioned as part of what was apparently a coherent papal project of art production in support of the cult of saints and relics, the objects were made for the most prestigious location in all of Western Christendom, the Lateran altar of the Holy of Holies. Nevertheless, these works are now less familiar than they ought to be, not only because of their own history but also for certain prejudices of art history as it has been practiced by the last few generations. That is, first and foremost, “minor arts” and especially reliquaries have been undervalued by modern scholarship. In addition, Carolingian studies have focused on the court in the North, to the detriment of an understanding of developments in Rome and Italy. Last, but surely not least, these particular objects were until recently almost never seen and have rarely been published.

Thunø redresses these inequities and sets out to make one principle argument about the gold and silver reliquaries of the true cross that are his subject—that is, that the extensive figural ornament on the reliquaries expresses and amplifies the meaning of the relics that they hold (or held): “The imagery of Paschal’s objects may be expected to reveal content that not only objectively identifies the imported, visually insignificant relics, but that also recharges them with new meaning according to issues prevalent in ninth-century Rome” (15). In support of this overarching thesis, he explores the origins and meaning of each of the scenes on the three metalwork objects and is particularly interested in locating the specific cultural impetus for the creation of the reliquaries. Although style in its more traditional sense remains virtually undiscussed, Thunø clearly locates the cultural and “artistic” origins of the objects in the East. He argues, however, that the Eastern sources are unquestionably modified by local concerns in the making of the reliquaries. Issues such as those of papal primacy and papal devotion to the Virgin Mary leave their mark on presentation and iconography. Finally, the author is able to conclude that Pope Paschal (817–24), the patron named in inscriptions on the objects, is firmly in favor of images regarding the iconoclastic controversies that troubled the Byzantines and, to a lesser extent, Charlemagne’s court.

These conclusions are significant. They allow us a fuller understanding of the commissions of a Pope who made important contributions to the public art of early medieval Rome—he was responsible for the mosaic ornament of the exquisite San Zeno chapel of Sta. Prassede as well as the more imposing apse mosaics in that church and in Sta. Maria in Domnica. (He also transferred thousands of saints’ relics from the catacombs to churches within Rome.) Thunø is able to show that the mosaics and public monuments as well as the reliquaries visually explicate both Paschal’s relic policy and his conception of the importance of images themselves as “mediation” between God and man. Notably, this mediating position is also occupied by relics and by the papacy itself.

Indeed, Paschal followed a policy that was already clearly established by Pope Hadrian and revealed in the Secundinus letter, an eighth-century addition to the papal image theory that had been originally articulated in the letters from Gregory the Great to Serenus. The Secundinus letter may have been forged in response to the challenge of the Libri Carolini and other nearly iconoclastic pronouncements issued by the Carolingian court. The letter argued not just for the didactic utility of images, but also for their ability to “show the invisible by means of the visible” (140). This is a more Byzantine sentiment than most of the image doctrine that emanated from the papal court. As Thunø argues, Paschal or someone in his circle was so committed to the importance of images (as characteristic of earlier Greek practice) that he sent a letter to the Byzantine emperor, in Greek (!), to protest iconoclastic excesses. Furthermore, in a response to internal image controversies, Paschal forcefully expressed his displeasure to Claudius of Turin concerning that bishop’s iconoclastic ideas.

Therefore it is not surprising that when Paschal wanted to honor Eastern relics of the true cross, he encased them in the most precious materials and added what could be called almost a surfeit of imagery and ornament in order to properly present these precious witnesses to the incarnation of Christ. The objects form the presentation and encasement of two cross relics. For the first relic, Pascal ordered a cross-shaped golden reliquary ornamented on its upper surface with cloissoné enamel. As Thunø argues, this material creates imagery that shines with the gorgeous colors of gems, as if it were made from the most precious materials. The reliquary in turn was enclosed in a silver box with a sliding lid in the Eastern manner, decorated this time with gilded repoussé on its upper surface. The second relic of the true cross arrived from Byzantium already enclosed in a golden-gemmed cross. (This cross was stolen from the Vatican and is documented only in photographs.) For this object, Paschal ordered another silver container, this one also shaped in the form of a cross but now ornamented on both the top and side surfaces with images in repoussé. A most remarkable feature of this second container is that it represents the most extensive early medieval cycle of postresurrection imagery. Notwithstanding Thunø’s claim that this cycle depends on a lost fresco cycle from St. Peters, the cruciform box would deserve extensive study for these iconographic riches alone. Thunø’s conclusion, that the imagery in its multiplicity of scenes represents the multifarious individual responses of the Apostles, a “community” of witnesses, seems just and worthy of further exploration. Even more significant is that Thunø is able to show how the rich imagery on all three objects, both infancy and postresurrection scenes, works together to make important theological points about the incarnation of Christ, a central issue for all reliquaries but particularly for those of the cross upon which Christ’s mortal body perished.

Where I must take issue with Thunø’s argument concerns his presentation through a dense analysis of the individual scenes and their rich interrelationships as a “program.” Maybe this is a semantic issue, but it seems to me that it involves methodological questions of audience and reception, as well as any attempt to understand medieval constructions of meaning. Thunø deals very little with these matters in the main body of his text—perhaps he feels justified given the virtual “invisibility” of these objects, hidden as they were in the cypress altar of Leo III within the sacrosanct space of the papal chapel at the Lateran, the Sancta Sanctorum (and earlier than the thirteenth century in the same altar labeled “Sancta Sanctorum” in the equally private oratory dedicated to Saint Lawrence). Nevertheless, even if viewership is almost a fiction, it would seem that the art historian is responsible for considering the possibilities of the audience and its potential for understanding. In this regard, Thunø’s approach values an iconographic survey of all visual possibilities rather than a consideration of what an audience might have seen or what visual associations they may have made, or even what imagery the artist selected from what was available. As a result, the analysis of the objects reads like an overly long catalogue—although one with an exemplary attention to significant detail. Similarly, the discussion of each image is supplemented by many texts, each presented with equal weight as if directly relevant. The interrelationship and relative importance of sources ranging from gospel texts (and their subsequent commentary), to texts in treatises by both Eastern and Western Fathers, to more contemporary texts such as those by Ambrosius Autpertus, needs further attention. In the end, given the variety of images from the Nativity to the Anastasis, Thunø’s “program” becomes not representative of a clear and perceptible idea or set of issues, but rather a wide-ranging and diffuse picture of Western theology up through the ninth century. It is surely the case that all of these ideas are applicable and even important in terms of a cultural and theological context of the reliquaries, but it seems strained to think of this sort of interpretive matrix as a “program.” Moreover, the material is not specific enough, as in the author’s general thesis to “identify” the relics. Indeed, by the eleventh century, the second cross-reliquary was understood to contain other relics altogether—Christ’s navel and foreskin.

Despite this criticism of the analysis of individual images, the argument gains in force, coherence, and focus when the author arrives at specific conclusions and in the more general discussion on papal image theory in chapters 5–7, the last third of the book. In these sections, focused more precisely on historical issues and physical contexts, Thunø begins to give a sense of a papal project and culture in Carolingian Rome that is thorough and compelling. Ultimately, despite its focus on three “minor” art objects, this book makes a decidedly major contribution to our understanding of early medieval art, particularly the lavish and influential art of medieval Rome.

One final comment. In these days it is often difficult to find a publisher for books on medieval art, let alone a study like this that focuses so precisely on three small objects. It is all the more important, therefore, to praise the publisher here for the fine job of production. The book is lavish and luxurious, with glossy paper, beautiful type, and wide margins. I appreciate finding the footnotes at the bottom of the page—there is no pretense that this is not a scholarly book. Although paperbound, the book’s cover is heavy, with an additional fold of material to create extra strength. It is also imprinted with a beautiful detail of the enamel on one of the reliquaries. Each of the tiny panels on the sides of the cross-shape box is reproduced in the many black-and-white illustrations (although given the detail in which the author discusses them, these photos could have been printed even larger.) Despite being published in Italy, there are few errors in English. Bravo!

Cynthia Hahn
Florida State University

Please send comments about this review to