Talking Hands, or the Return of the Relic

relic, reliquary, smart phone, animism

Contributed by Sophie Hawkins Hofstra University
October 01, 2013
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Part of the Cluster:

Tokens and talismans in digital spaces


Fig 1. 13th century silver hand reliquary,
(Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

Unless there is some excess or surplus in objects that is currently unexpressed in the world, there would be no reason for anything ever to become different from the way it is right now. The world would be exhaustively deployed in each moment, with nothing hidden from anything else and nothing capable of inducing change.[1]

In “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things”, a recent show curated by the British artist Mark Leckey, a thirteenth century silver hand reliquary (fig 1.) converses with a bionic hand. When we as visitors listen in on this conversation of hands, we are quick to learn that the relationship between them is by no means limited to a story of formal complementarity. Nor is this gossip whispered behind shielding hands, but an interlocution that manipulates us away from the epistemology of viewing subjects and into the animist ontology of speaking objects. Our eyes clap along with the hands[2]. We too, like the bluetooth transmitter of the prosthesis and the intercessor of the saint’s bones, become radios (or, as my father would say, “wirelesses”) amongst many. For Leckey, it is technology itself that “boomerangs” us back into this enchanted space and the corollary is that whilst we may never have been modern we nevertheless are born again as (techno)animists.

Handheld devices, our smart phones, are most obviously “things that talk”[3]. They intercede, they talk back, they alarm, they appease. They are our talismans, our amulets, our phylacteries. They offer access to knowledge (data) so vast that we, like the mystics, can only but lose ourselves in it. They are prosthetic organs for our supernatural selves, magically extending our physical, sensual and mental reach. And yet we remain on edge, unable to decide upon the pharmakon as either cure or curse. Yet this question of how invisible data relates to and/or integrates with physical matter is of course not new to the digital age; whereas the physical may have previously been an anchor for the immaterial (think of the magic ring that houses the djinn, the host that houses the holy spirit, the dessicated caul that protects sailors from drowning) it may be more accurate to say that the digital has now become an anchor for the physical (as seen most explicitly in the technology of 3D printing). It is the digital memory that reminds us of who we are and where we are in concrete space; it is the digital that excites our senses as we text our lovers; and it is the digital that continues to cook up sentiment as we collect and share videos of cute kittens or new dance moves.[4]

Fig 2. 13th century reliquary bag from the portable altar of Countess Gertrude of Braunschweig (The Cleveland Museum of Art). Here, as in Fig 3., the display of physical fragments invites comparison to the fragmentation and/or taxonomy of social functions afforded by iPhone apps.

Digital data may then be thought of as the leftovers (or reliquiae) of materiality that nevertheless exceed the material—in the same way that the bones, hair, and bodily fluids of the saints were treasured for their very promise to connect to a heavenly realm beyond. Both the physical relic and the digital photo can in this sense be understood as “charmed things”: “they become microcosmic entities and personae imbued with special associations; they are established by personal connection through bodily contact, or by imaginative and emotional projection, leading to attachment, even dependency, in a virtual theatre of make-believe.”[5] These remains of the physical (i.e. the dematerialized—whether bone dust or pixels) become (re)animated through technology—whether reliquary, cabinet of curiosity, or iPhone—as auguries or talismans. Hence the interest here is not the human-technology interface[6], but rather the material-digital interface within the object itself. By “boomeranging” the smart phone back to the medieval reliquary, we can explore the animate relation of matter and data, container and contained, and thereby reclaim an animism that modernity sought to deny but could never quite kill. “Even the most malleable things […] have a bony materiality that makes them what they are.”[7]

Fig. 3. 14th century tabernacle painted by Naddo Ceccarelli
(The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

Fig. 4. The arrangement of apps on the screen is not dissimilar to the thirty four glass relic chambers in Ceccarelli’s tabernacle. Both invite touch as a means to communicate with the spiritual/immaterial.

Nowhere is this relation between container and contained more tangibly addressed than in the relation between reliquary and relic in medieval Christianity—specifically those reliquaries known as redende or “speaking” that were popular between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. The conventional art historical narrative explains that these “redende reliquiare” are said to speak in that they give form to their concealed innards. They are more prosaically known as “body part reliquaries”, and it is widely assumed that an arm-shaped reliquary houses a saint’s ulna, a bust a saint’s skull et cetera. However Cynthia Hahn’s work has sought to fray the neat identification of form and content. On the one hand the form of the reliquary may have in part been determined by liturgical use—a prosthetic extension to the priest’s own arm to better bless the faithful with. On the other, it was by no means uncommon for a singular reliquary to house a pick-and-mix collection of saintly bones – this one’s mandible, that one’s clavicle.

Fig 5. 13th century speaking reliquary of Saint Pantaleon
(The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

These bones, the literal leftovers of the saints, were circulated and venerated as early as the fourth century, and the removal of a saint’s bones from burial ground to personal treasury or sites of worship (known as “translation”) was central to the expansion of Christianity and its political power throughout the Middle Ages.[8]  By the reign of Charlemagne it was mandated by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 that every altar should house its own relic. In order to meet this increased demand, relics were no longer limited to skeletal remains and included both physical discards (Jesus’s foreskin, Mary’s milk) as well as material items (shrouds, ampullae) that had come into contact with either the saints or with higher order relics (e.g. sudarium, holy sponge, True Cross).

Similarly, the role of relics was augmented beyond intercession to include the performance of miracles. It is precisely due to this performative work and augmented status that the “speaking reliquary” is of such significance. “Unadorned relic bones are inexpressive, anonymous, perhaps even repugnant. Without proper identification and a cultural matrix—what medieval sources call a proper veneration—relics remain inert. The reliquary in some senses enables or even constitutes the power of the relic. An argument can be made that the container ultimately supersedes the contained.”[9]

The concealment of relics within reliquaries was moreover a means to control access to the priceless relic and thereby capitalize on its mystique by shoring up political power. But beyond this association with temporal power and/or miraculous potential, it has been suggested that the reliquary lent an aura of authenticity in a market place that was inevitably flooded by fakes. This is indeed a common understanding of the decree of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 that prohibited the sale of relics without reliquary. After all, how many heads could John the Baptist possibly have had?[10] This desire for identification impacted the aesthetic design of the reliquaries and inspired the use of transparent materials (e.g. clear glass or rock crystal); but of course showing something to be there was still no proof of its authenticity. It seems then that the insistence on an accompanying reliquary was driven less by a desire for authenticity as such and more as a means to ensure comparative rarity.  Indeed, up until the seventeenth century the Church continued to display ostrich eggs and unicorn horns alongside splinters of the True Cross, thus blurring any distinction between preternatural wonder and supernatural miracle[11]. Yet it was inevitable that distrust of a relic’s provenance within the Church would be coupled by a distrust of its agency without.

In this dismissal of the agency of saintly paraphernalia, the Protestant Reformation marks a pivotal shift in the formation of the modern taxonomy of thinking subject and inanimate (alienated) object. But, as Latour reminds us, in our creation in factishes we are not doing anything other than the premoderns and their fetishes. Modern objects and subjects are, then, better understood as quasi-objects which straddle both agency and constructedness. And it is as recognised quasi-objects that relics can be said to have maintained a “stubborn vitality”[12]. Indeed, relic production not only continued after the Protestant Reformation but rapidly adapted to shifts in authority. By 1737, Galileo’s body had been harvested for relics (two fingers, one thumb, a tooth and a vertebrae). So whilst the Protestant Reformation sought to deny magical intercession, many relics simply moved out of the church and into the wunderkammer and reliquaries into private art collections. More recently relics have become plentiful online, proliferating in the web of disincarnated commerce, fully accessible through the vitrine of the smart phone. The desire for collecting relics seems unabated, and so too the need for reliquaries. 

Fig 6. This association between smart gadget and reliquary (where the container outstrips the monetary value of the contained) is made concrete in the customized, luxury phones created by Stuart Hughes, UK.

Figs. 7 & 8 The exorbitant expense of a Stuart Hughes creation is not the only way consumers have sought to literalise the iPhone as a reliquary. Whole galleries of reliquary-designed, plastic covers can be found online. Of the thirty or so designs I found, the above are of a reliquary bust of St John Cassian and a reliquary for the veil of St Aldegonde.

Fig 9. iPhone viscera

But as never-moderns, we have no problem understanding our gadgets to be neither entirely autonomous nor entirely fabricated[13]. Neither acheiropoieta, nor reduced to a collection of parts. “It is precisely the tension between their chimerical composition and their unified gestalt that distinguishes the talkative thing from the speechless sort.”[14] Like the repoussé reliquary housing shards of magical grey bone, our handheld devices store relics of ourselves and lets them talk. It is the very materiality of the device that provides a buffer (or glass virtrine) against the infinite dispersal of possible fakes. This chimerical melding of container and contained is precisely what enables these quasi-objects to straddle the divide (what Leckey calls the “wonderful instability”) between the animate and inanimate, the sensual and transcendent, the subjective and objective, the physical and digital and herein lies their resonance.

Fig 10. One of Galileo’s fingers as displayed in the Museo Galileo in Florence.

Fig 11. Cheryl Field’s (2012) Neither Ready Nor Present To Hand.

Both Galileo’s relic, and Cheryl Field’s work remind us of an older meaning of “digital”, the physical underpinning of code. Indeed, this essay began with hands but now ends with fingers, yet hopefully what has been maintained is an understanding of the interdependence of manual (matter) and digital (data) in the continued production of talismans.  


[1] Graham Harman (2013) in interview with Lucy Kimbell, "The Object Strikes Back" Design and Culture 5 (1): 107

[2]“Its (sic) really compelling, this object, its (sic) got real allure – real presence. Because the object compels me; it’s not me (as a maker), it’s the agency of the object drawing me to it. It causes a physical sensation in my body; this image, this picture, this mere representation, seems to be directly stimulating the material elements in me: all my nerves and fibre. Like I’m responding to a physical encounter. At this point I’m not just contemplating an image, I’ve embraced it and absorbed it into my body. There’s a great British phrase to describe this: ‘clapped eyes on it’ – your eyes are like hands that smack an object.” (Mark Leckey in interview with Karl Rittenbach (12/17/2012), "Chrome and Flesh" Rhizome

[3]“Some things speak irresisitibly, and not only by interpretation, projection or puppetry. It is neither entirely arbitrary nor entirely entailed which objects will become eloquent when, and in what cause.” Lorraine Daston (2002) Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science, Zone Books. p14. See also Bruno Latour (1993) We Have Never Been Modern and (2010) On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods.

[4]This notion of the digital as being the deposit of the physical is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the language of contagion that dominates discussion of the internet with its remaindered biology of “worms” and “viruses”. Whether this digital storehouse enacts the contingency of the wunderkammer or the stultification of heritage culture is of course something that is feverishly debated. Yet the simple point here is that the digital clearly is a space within which we continue to collect tokens and deposit talismans.

[5]Marina Warner (2012) Strange Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, Belknap Press, Cambridge, p. 207.

[6]Given the ease with which we slip into thinking of technology (whether hammer or GPS) as a tool to be used by thinking subjects, the cyborg is only of interest here if seen as a quasi-object alongside the smart phone and the medieval reliquary.

[7]Lorraine Daston, op. cit. p 18.

[8]For the role of relics (i.e. from gift, to theft, to commercial trade) in the shifting political landscape both prior and after the Fall of Constantinople, see Holger Klein (2004) "Eastern Objects and Western Desires: Relics and Reliquaries between Byzantium and the West", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 58  pp. 283-314

[9]Cynthia Hahn (1997) "The Voices of the Saints: Speaking Reliquaries", Gesta 36 (1): 28. It is this very razzle dazzle of the reliquaries that Protestant detractors objected to, seeing in them a misplaced commitment to magic, spectacle and commerce. Perhaps it is in response to the gathering of the Protestant storm that by the late 16th century gem-encrusted reliquaries were no longer awe-inspiring enough, and the greater evidence of God’s power was evidenced by the miraculous incorruptibility of saintly bodies in toto.

[10]A nineteenth-century contender for the most famous, documented case of relic forgery would be Salomon Weininger’s successful switching of the Holy Thorn reliquary for a fake in 1860s Vienna.

[11]Lorraine Daston (1991) "Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence in Early Modern Europe" Critical Inquiry, 18 (1): 93-124 

[12]Peter Manseau (2010) Rag and Bone: A Journey Amongst the World's Holy Dead, St Martin's Griffin, p16

[13]Indeed if it were the case that we, like the Protestant colonialists, insisted that our iconic iPhones were completely fabricated, we might give more thought to the fact that their makers are both underpaid and overworked. The fact that we choose to deny the labour conditions is perhaps related to our thinking of gadgets as being able to look after themselves.

[14]Lorraine Daston (2002) Things That Talk, p24

Cheryl Field (2012) Neither Ready Nor Present To Hand