Byzantine Reliquaries, David Hume’s Toe, and the Importance of Touch

In what state do we want to find our material evidence? Taking the example of Byzantine reliquaries, Hugh Jeffery takes a look at the value of used and worn objects, and what they can reveal about religion as a result.

The cross below was produced during the tenth or eleventh century AD. It was found at Aphrodisias, an ancient and medieval settlement in southwestern Asia Minor, where it had been interred alongside a deceased individual in the cemetery surrounding the town’s cathedral. The devotional material culture of Byzantium is primarily known through sumptuous icons in precious metals, ivory and enamel. Small, inexpensive objects such as this open a window onto a more popular Christianity. They offer a vernacular perspective on questions of sacred matter and iconic representation fundamental to Byzantine thought.

10-11th c. cross found at Aphrodisias. Photo: reproduced with kind permission of the Aphrodisias Excavations project.

Our cross would originally have formed one half of a pectoral reliquary. These are small cruciform boxes around eight to twelve centimetres in height. Two symmetrical bronze lids are joined through riveted hinges at the top and bottom of the vertical arm. A bead positioned above the upper hinge allowed for the suspension of the cross on a chain, which could then be worn around the neck. A wide variety of sacred matter could be housed within the reliquary, from small fragments of saintly bone, to rocks or earth collected from a holy site or scraps of cloth coated with scented oil.

The crosses were decorated with sacred iconography. The crucifixion is a recurrent theme; the Body of Christ is mounted on a cross that is then echoed in the cruciform frame of the reliquary. Images of standing saints are also common, as is the Virgin in the Orans position, her arms raised in a gesture of prayer. In some cases the iconography was simply engraved onto a flat surface with a sharp implement. Alternatively the lid might be cast in a mould, with figures rendered in bas-relief. Details and any epigraphic captions would then be incised onto the moulded surface.

None of this detail survives on our cross. Its relief iconography has been flattened to the extent that it is difficult to discern individual figures. Without reference to standard iconographic types, it would be impossible to tell that we are looking at the Mother of God at the centre, with medallion portraits of the Evangelists in the extremities of the arms. It is very common to find reliquary crosses in this condition. This reflects the vital importance of touch. Smooth surfaces testify to repeated abrasive action over the course of their lives as vehicles for sacred power. Held in the palm of the hand, the bronze was rubbed and polished, developing a reflective sheen that obscured iconographic detail.

Archaeological literature has tended to emphasise the iconographic content at the expense of other modes of veneration. This is rarely explicit. Rather, such an approach is embedded in the vocabulary used to describe “worn” or “poorly preserved” crosses. “Worn” is not very helpful. It suggests passivity, as if this is simply what happens to bronze over time. “Poorly preserved” is even worse. The phrase implies that the ideal condition for archaeological study of the cross would be immediately subsequent to its creation, and that any alteration to its fabric through ritual use is an impediment to interpretation. Obviously this is not the case, because it is just this use that ought to be the true object of our study.


Symeon Stylites Token
Clay pilgrimage token featuring a depiction of St. Symeon the younger.


Touching was a vital component of the veneration offered to such crosses. Like modern Orthodox Christians, Byzantine worshipers touched, kissed and rubbed their holy objects. This tactile element to devotion is evident in other small items of personal piety. Take for example the clay tokens produced for pilgrims coming to venerate St. Symeon the Younger in late antique Syria. Symeon was a stylite, an ascetic holy man who climbed to the top of a column and remained there for the duration of his life. Earth was collected from the base of the column and pressed into round tokens showing the image of the saint. The reverse of each token bore the imprint of a human palm. This was a deliberate choice on the part of those manufacturing the token. The palm print anticipates and demands a tactile response, the pilgrim’s touch integrating her into a chain of physical contact leading all the way back to the column, to the saint and ultimately to God.


David Hume statue Edinburgh
Alexander Stoddart’s depiction of David Hume sat halfway along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, in a rare moment of not having his toes tickled. Photo: Kim Traynor.


The smooth face of the cross performs a similar function to the palm print on the token, in that it guides the user towards a tactile response. There is something almost self-perpetuating about a polished surface. Simple rituals of rubbing an object, or a specific part of an object, are common both in antiquity and today. The over life-size seated statue of the philosopher David Hume situated on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is illustrative. Hume’s toe, protruding slightly from the plinth, gleams with a bright yellow lustre that contrasts with the green patina covering the rest of the statue. The ritual is immediately legible. One infers from the nature of the surface that this toe is to be rubbed, presumably for good fortune of some kind. And so the material legibility of the ritual encourages its repetition. The surface of the reliquary cross may be read in the same way to Hume’s toe, encouraging further touch.

All this reveals the range of modes of veneration available to the Byzantine worshiper when confronted with a holy object. Iconographic representation was no doubt important, but so too were scent, whispered prayers, gestures and touch. All were made to be touched, but a preference for iconography in modern scholarship has led to the neglect of “poorly preserved” examples.

Hugh will be speaking in the Imagining the Divine exhibition with Sajda van der Leeuw on ‘Deities and Daemons’ on the 22nd November 2017 and 3rd February 2018 at 12:15, as part of the Talking Religion series.

Author: Hugh Jeffery
Photos © 2017 Empires of Faith; cross reproduced with permission of the Aphrodisias Excavations project; images of David Hume statue creative commons license, property of Bandan and Kim Traynor.


One thought on “Byzantine Reliquaries, David Hume’s Toe, and the Importance of Touch

  1. Interesting point of the cross, reliquary boxes to hold items the faithful found as sacred and a means to seek the touch of the Divine.
    Seems so modern especially to those who have lost sight of icons, and another idea, those who have lost a close. loved one. Our nuns were murdered last year. brutally, the younger sister’s family forgave the killer, the older nun’s sister could not. At the church, the bodies were in caskets, and to me to touch my friends though dead, meant something as a reliquary, a means for me to place memories in a box. A touch of the simplicity but exquisiteness of faith.
    Thanks for this article, well done.

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