Agent of touch and transformation : a pilgrimage token of Saint Symeon the Younger in the Menil collection

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Date

2011-05

Authors

Steiner, Shannon P.

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Abstract

When considering early Byzantine pilgrimage tokens, questions of touch and tactility arise almost instantly. Tokens lack cords or mountings, and so touch is implicit in such objects. Even gazing at them was a form of touching for the pilgrim. Hagiographies tell of pilgrims crowding to holy sites with the express intent to access sanctity through touch. Touch then, whether visual or manual, mediated the desire for connection between a pilgrim, a site, and a body. This requires an examination of a token’s touch as well as a pilgrim’s. In my thesis, I focus on a surviving token of the stylite saint Symeon the Younger, housed in the Menil Collection. This particular token bears iconography associated with physically and spiritually transformative events. Images of veneration, baptism, and healing appear together on the token’s obverse, while a human handprint on its reverse demands a multifaceted discussion of the implications of touching this object. I propose that in a pilgrim’s interaction with this token both object and viewer had agency. The token encapsulates a comprehensive pilgrimage experience. As a contact relic, the token makes present the saint’s body. Representation of baptism and the token’s backwards inscription enact sphragis – a figurative and literal stamping that pilgrims frequently described. I call attention to the experiential, memorial, and physical impressions made on the lives of early Byzantine pilgrims through the simultaneous touching of both viewer and object.

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