A Conduit for Physical Devotion: The Medieval Phylactery

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Adorned with champlevé enamel, cabachons, and an array of other precious and semi-precious materials, the phylactery served as a wearable reliquary of sorts for royal and ecclesiastical figures in twelfth-century Europe. Though very few of these necklace-like reliquaries are extant, the importance these ornate objects of devotion held to their makers, wearers, and viewers is paramount and worthy of closer study.

In the medieval mind, relics were hardly the cold, deadened remains of a religious figure--they were living, seductive objects that commanded religious meditation of a very phenomenological kind. Memories and meanings of these relics were constructed by communities of viewers, artists, and patrons for each relic. Ultimately, to be in physical proximity to a relic would have transferred the religious power of the saint (or Christ) to an individual; thus the physical closeness that one would have had to the relic via the phylactery is central in our study. The phylactery was a site of liminality, paradoxically reinforcing and obscuring the physical boundaries between the wearer and saint.

In this paper, we aim to demonstrate how the very materiality of the phylactery also bestows meaning upon the relic within as well as inspires a particular kind of meditative experience on the part of the wearer. Though personal testimonies and hagiographers imparted power and legitimacy to a relic, it was indeed the container of the relic — the phylactery — that provided for the most intimate kind of devotional experience one could have with the sacred object. We will also investigate how this literally tactile experience one had with the worn object informs more general practices of physical devotion in the medieval world.


Keywords: Medieval, Reliquary, Phylactery, Devotion, Phenomenology
Stream: Other
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Nancy Thebaut

Masters Student, History of Art, Courtauld Institute of Art
London, UK

Nancy Thebaut studies under the supervision of John Lowden in the Masters option "Making and Meaning in Medieval Art" at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on British Library manuscript Egerton 1821 and its use by its female owner. Upon completion of her Masters, she will begin applying for PhD programs in medieval art history.

Hannah Kim

Masters Student, History of Art, Courtauld Institute of Art
London, UK

Hannah Kim studies under the supervision of John Lowden in the Masters option "Making and Meaning in Medieval Art" at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on depictions of lepers in twelfth to fifteenth century art in western Europe. Upon the completion of her MA in July 2009, she hopes to begin a PhD in medieval art history.

Ref: A09P0682