Defining, transforming, and providing sacred presence : a sarcophagus reliquary in the Menil Collection

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Date

2018-05-03

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Mann, Jacqueline Elizabeth

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Abstract

This thesis attempts a complete object biography of a fifth-century sarcophagus reliquary currently held by the Menil Collection in Houston. This thesis proposes that the Menil reliquary is a container with acute agency in its original context that continues into its modern museum context. This stone container has openings on its lid and front face, a pattern of carved birds and crosses, and is shaped like a Roman sarcophagus. The relics contained by this reliquary are completely concealed. This makes an analysis of their container even more vital, as the Menil reliquary carries the signifiers for the material inside. Without reliquaries surrounding them, relics would be unrecognizable fragments. Reliquaries define relics. Due to its iconographic program and complete circulation system for liquids, the Menil sarcophagus reliquary was displayed visibly in a late-antique pilgrimage church. A common belief in Late Antiquity was that sacred power could be transferred via touch. Liquids poured into the tops of sarcophagus reliquaries touched the relics, sources of sacred power, inside. When they exited the second opening in the reliquary, these substances had also become sacred material. Audiences of these reliquaries could then interact directly with the sacred power they desired by touching, tasting, and otherwise experiencing these sanctified fluids. Reliquaries with this ability, including the Menil reliquary, transformed and provided a means of contacting otherwise-inaccessible sacred presences. The Menil sarcophagus reliquary was a visible object that communicated the above abilities to its late-antique audience through its various physical features. The Menil reliquary continues to be a tangible point of recognition of and access to invisible, distant worlds in its modern location. As a museum object, the Menil sarcophagus reliquary has become a relic like those it once contained, while the institution of the Menil Collection acts a reliquary. This object has an ongoing vitality and, in both its late-antique and modern contexts, makes tangible the otherwise unattainable.

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