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Art History Colloquium: Cynthia Hahn, Hunter College

March 2, 2017 @ 5:00 pm - 6:30 pm

“Relics and Reliquaries, Discourses of Power and Containment”


Professor of Art History Cynthia Hahn teaches both early and late medieval art at Hunter College and The Graduate Center. Her courses focus on issues of production and meaning for both medieval and contemporary makers and audiences. She has published on material from the early Christian period to the Gothic, from across Europe–Italy to England to the Byzantine East. Her work has appeared in Art HistoryArt BulletinGestaSpeculum, and many other journals and collections. Her books include a study on the Hannover manuscript of the lives of saints Kilian and Margaret published by Graz, and Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of the Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century, University of California Press, 2001. She has served on the boards of the ICMA, CASVA, and CAA online reviews, where she has also been an editor.

Hahn earned her PhD from the Johns Hopkins University and her MA from the University of Chicago. She has previously held teaching positions at Florida State University where she was Gulnar K. Bosch professor of Art History, the University of Chicago, the University of Delaware and the University of Michigan. Currently, Hahn’s projects include a book-length essay on reliquaries from early Christianity to the Sack of 1204 to be published in 2012 by Penn State University Press. That study began with her work on arm reliquaries (“The Voices of the Saints, What Do Speaking Reliquaries Say?” Gesta, 36, 1997.) and has grown into an examination of the art historical issues surrounding relics and reliquaries. The work has been supported by residences at the Institute for Advanced Study and the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. In line with these interests, she recently participated in the planning of the major exhibition  “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in the Middle Ages” that had venues in Cleveland, Baltimore, and London.  She wrote an essay for the catalog.  During the run of the show, Hunter staged its own show in which medieval reliquaries were put in dialogue with contemporary art: Objects of Devotion and Desire: Medieval Relic to Contemporary Art.  The show was curated by Hahn and a group of M.A., Ph.D., and MFA. students.

Professor Hahn’s new book The Reliquary Effect: Enshrining the Sacred Object is forthcoming in 2017 from the University of Chicago Press. From skeletons to strips of cloth to little pieces of dust, reliquaries can be found in many forms, and while sometimes they may seem grotesque on their surface, they are nonetheless invested with great spiritual and memorial value. In her book, Hahn offers the first full survey in English of the societal value of reliquaries, showing how they commemorate religious and historical events and, more importantly, inspire awe, faith, and, for many, the miraculous. She looks deeply into the Christian tradition, examining relics and reliquaries throughout history and around the world, going from the earliest years of the cult of saints through to the post-Reformation response. She looks at relic footprints, incorrupt bodies, the Crown of Thorns, the Shroud of Turin, and many other renowned relics, and she shows how the architectural creation of sacred space and the evocation of the biblical tradition of the temple is central to the reliquary’s numinous power. She also discusses relics from other traditions—especially from Buddhism and Islam—and she even looks at how reliquaries figure in contemporary art.
Co-sponsored by Medieval and Early Modern Studies


March 2, 2017
5:00 pm - 6:30 pm
Event Category:


Dorothy Verkerk


104 Peabody Hall
UNC at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27599 United States
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