04 Apr

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion—How Things Matter” (2012)

“Material Religion—How Things Matter” offers an introduction to Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. It introduce readers to the study of religion and things.

Over the past twenty years, historians have been concerned with ideas and beliefs in religion. These are important, but they often dismiss the other aspects of religions. Belief ignores the things that people use in religion. Belief assumes that religion is rational, internal, and about thinking, not feelings, things, and places. The scholarly emphasis on belief can be traced to Max Weber’s dismissive attitude toward religious material culture. Weber emphasized belief as central to Protestantism. He suggested that the further religion progressed, the less it relied on things or material objects. E.B. Taylor also emphasized the belief of religion when he defined religion as animism (the animation of things), which could be explored for its larger meaning. The de-emphasis of materiality can also be traced to Protestants during the Reformation who destroyed Catholic images.

Meyer and Houtman argue that “frontier zones,” where religious cultures meet, are a good place to start examining things. This is especially true of idols and iconoclash. The latter term was coined by Bruno Latour to describe how images gain power through being opposed as idols. The relations between religious cultures can also help scholars understand what W.J.T. Mitchell meant by “bad objecthood.” The terms totem, idol, and fetish are not just different types of things. Their names mark them as bad things; things that carry certain attitudes that influence their use.

The turn to material things has become popular in social sciences and humanities. Scholars have traced ideas about matter and materiality to schools of philosophy. The have examined how things are signs that construct social meaning. Scholars look to nineteenth-century materialism to examine how religions have opposed materiality. In 2000, David Chidester called for a “new materialism.” Others have called this approach material culture and materiality. This approach does not use matter to criticize religion, but rather it uses matter to criticize the study of religion. New materialism and material culture ask how and why things matter to religions and religious peoples. Scholars examine the materiality of religion by studying icons, totems, images, fetishes, idols, inconoclash, bodies, words, commodities, and things.

03 Apr

André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1960)

“The Ontology of the Photographic Image” examines how the plastic arts preserve humans and reality through representation. Photography presents itself as objective and real. This objectivity and realism, however, are only constructions of the mechanical processes of photography.


In ancient Egypt the plastic arts, like statuary, were substitutes for dead bodies. “It is this religious use, then, that lays bare the primordial function of statuary, namely, the preservation of life by a representation of life” (5). The evolution of art and civilization “has relieved the plastic arts of their magical role” (6). According to Bazin, today no one recognizes the ontological link between the body and a representation: “No one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image, but all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death” (6). The arts no longer care about survival after death. Instead, the focus on “the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal identify.” The plastic arts today create a virtual world that has nothing to do with life and afterlife. This explains why photography and cinema caused “the great spiritual and technological crisis that overtook modern painting” in the 1850s. Photography and cinema are plastic realisms. They freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness. Painting could not escape the subjectivity of the artists because true likeness could not be achieved through the human hand. Photography did not perfect the physical process (color, etc.), but it did solve our psychological desire for realism; it satisfied “our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part” (7). Photography is seen as objective because “between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent” (7). The artist and his genius are not present in photography like in painting.

This objective production affected our psychology of the image. We accept the object before us in photography as credible, really existing, and actually re-presented. Reality is transferred from the thing to the reproduction. “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it” (8). This objectivity and reality are a product of impassive mechanical reproduction. “Photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it from its proper corruption” (8). Film takes photography to another level. Film, or the cinema “is objectivity in time.” For the first time with film “the image of things is the likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were” (8).Thus, the “photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being, after the fashion of a finger print” (8). Surrealists embraced photography because it “produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, a hallucination that is also a fact” (9). Photography tricks us because its mechanical nature seems objective and reproduces the model. Photography creates a realism that is not of this world. Photography is “clearly the most important even in the history of the plastic arts” (9).


This is what Walter Benjamin argued about photography and film. They construct objectivity and realism through mechanical reproduction. Photography and film are hallucinations and un-real worlds. They don’t show truth because they are constructed through mechanical reproduction. Benjamin refers to Dadaism as an attack on reason, logic, materialism, and nationalism through the arts. It was meant to awaken people from a false reality and a false consciousness. Similarly, Bazin refers to surrealism photography as a means of awakening people from the false reality and false consciousness of photography.

Benjamin, however, went further in his argument that photography and film are harmful. They lose their aura (originality, subjectivity, production history) and trick the masses into believing that a constructed reality is reality. For Bazin, the tricks of photography and film have no moral affects. The opposite is true for Benjamin.

Given the ability of all plastic arts to present and re-represent, I’m not convinced that Egyptian statuary and photography are all that different. They both create realities in their re-presentations. Photography does provide more realism. But in the 1850s, photographs of dead bodies were used like Egyptian statues as substitutes for dead bodies. For many people, the plastic arts do retain their magical role. In fact, this is what Bazin seems to argue when he suggests that they are hallucinations. Photography and film can make us believe things that may or may not be not real. They are still magical because they still create worlds. Maybe photography renewed this sense of magic experienced in ancient Egypt.

30 Mar

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936)

Walter Benjamin wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936 for a small circle of academics discussing art and mass media. The article was published in French in 1936, in German in 1955 and 1961, and in English in 1968. Benjamin argues that the work of art transforms over time and that historians must recognize this transformation. Art works in particular ways in the age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin situates his analysis of the work of art in Marxist terms. Marx recognized commodities as history-less objects whose value was determined by exchange rather than their actual material form and the labor relations in their production.


A work of art has always been reproducible in the sense that replicas have always been made for craft, diffusion, and gain. Mechanical reproduction “represents something new” (218). Mechanical reproduction advanced from replicating small bronze statues and coins to the production of woodcuts, lithographs, and photographs. Photography was special because in this process of reproduction the artists’ hands were freed from reproduction. The photographer only needed his eye and the lens in the process of reproduction. Mechanically reproduced images and sounds culminated in film in the twentieth century. The “reproduction of works of art and the art of film” have had the most profound influence on art in its traditional form (220).

Mechanical reproductions of art lack unique existences and histories. The presence created by time, space, and history give a work of art is authenticity and authority. Mechanically reproduced artworks lack history, or the presence of the maker. Since mechanically reproduced artworks don’t have a specific history they can be “inserted into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (220). Thus, mechanically reproduced artworks lack authenticity and authority. “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (221). When the historical testimony of an artwork is affected, the authority of the object is jeopardized. History matters for works of art. When history is eliminated “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (221).

The human sense of perception can be historicized to understand the current decay of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. In the 1930s, Benjamin recognized that the human sense of perception relied on “the masses.” “Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.” The masses wanted mechanically reproduced images in magazines and film. Benjamin argued that the masses’ sense perception was the “sense of the universal equality of thing.” Mechanical reproductions were sensed by the masses as equal works of art because the works of art had no particular histories. Art work was not unique.

For Benjamin, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition” (223). This is exemplified by artwork in ritual. Artwork in ritual is thought of as unique and having aura because it is embedded in place, location, time, and a particular history. Mechanical reproduction posed a problem for artwork because “it emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (224). In other words, mechanical reproduction does not focus on the ritual and history of an object. Mechanical reproduction is based on the practice of politics.

Works of art have been received based on different value planes. One is the cult of value, which recognizes value as the existence of the material thing and ritual. The other is exhibition value which recognizes value based on the display of things. Exhibition vales does not favor ritual history. In the 1930s, people favored exhibition value. This changed the nature of the work of art, like photography and film, which took on a new function based on exhibition value.

Photography did not take on this new nature from the beginning. People favored photography at first for its cult value. Photographs created a “cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead” where the cult value and aura resided in the photographed face. As men withdrew their faces from photographs, something changed. You could no longer see the cult value in images. Their meaning depended on the captions and other images that surrounded them, particularly in film. “When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever” (226). In other words, without history and ritual and cult value, art could not act of its own accord. The meaning of art had to be created by the other images which surrounded it. Films could be taken out of their actual context and create their own meaning, their own history.

The camera guided the audience’s interpretation of the film, not the actor’s aura. Benjamin argues that “for the first time—and this is the effect of the film—mas has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing it aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura, which on stage, emanates from Macbeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public. Consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays” (229). The audience did not have a relationship with the actors themselves or the set. The camera guided reception and meaning. The cult of the actor (or the Hollywood persona) and films were commodities. They were taken out of history, out of time, place, and context. Capitalism set the agenda of films. While some films could “promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property” the films that Benjamin was concerned with were not doing this. Benjamin concludes, “In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculation” (232). Films could create a new reality with camera equipment, lighting, and machinery. The work of art was, indeed, to present a reality. “Thus, for contemporary man the presentation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thorough going permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to as from a work of art” (234).

But, the “mechanical reproduction of art changed the reaction of the masses toward art” and transformed reality. Mechanical reproduction changed the way art worked. Film allowed art to be viewed by mass audiences. Individual reactions to this art were constrained and formed by the mass audience response. Films changed the ways and the numbers of people who reacted to art. The camera also introduced us “to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulse” (237). The camera was the meaning-maker. The camera was sinister. Mechanical reproduction was responsible for the loss of aura and for a “change in the mode of participation.” Mechanical reproduction meant that “the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” Benjamin concluded “Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeable in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in appreciation, finds in the film its true means of existence. The film with its shock effect meets this mode of reception halfway. The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent one.” The masses absorbed the realities created by film.

In the “Epilogue” Benjamin contextualizes his argument for the decay of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its own counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.” Benjamin recognized that art as film had been commoditized. It lost its aura because there was no recognizable history in the making of the film. Fascists used history-less art to create their own history in films which created alternative realities. The masses bought into these realities because they could not recognize the production of film beyond its created aesthetics and commodity form. Mechanically reproduced art supported the Nazi party and controlled the distracted masses. Benjamin argued that Communism recognized this creation of history through history-less things. Benjamin called for this recognition by politicizing art.


Historians have read Benjamin as suggesting that mechanical reproduction decays the aura of mass reproduced art. And, this is his argument. But, scholars must be careful in their application of Benjamin to their projects. Benjamin recognized the decay of aura above all in film. Photography and lithography did not erode aura in the same way or to the same degree as film. Benjamin also recognized the decay of aura in a particular time and place. He argued that the mechanical reproduction of images via film hid the realities of twentieth-century Fascism, which created new realities through film. Film, as a commodity, did not have a history because its production was concealed. Film was used a propaganda to create new histories among the masses. Mechanical reproduction via film changed the form of art and its reception among the masses. Mechanically reproduced art concealed reality. Film was a means of control. Film lost it aura, or its history of production and in doing so it created something sinister, something with no authenticity.

30 Mar

Arjun Appadurai, “The Thing Itself” (2006)

“The Thing Itself” examines the relationship and problem between the profusion and abstraction of things. In the Social Life of Things (1986), Appadurai and other scholars investigated the “idea that persons and things are not radically distinct categories, and that the transactions that surround things are invested with the properties of social relations” (15). Appadurai continues thinking about people and things in this essay. He argues that scholars must also recognize “the thing itself” not just the social relations of things and persons.

Things can move in and out of categories, from commodities to singularities and back. Things are always in motion in terms of their object status, but they are also moving in terms of their position, materiality, and permanence. “These underlying materials are ever volatile, which is why museums always insist that “we do not touch” them. What is at risk is not just aura or authenticity but the fragility of objecthood itself” (15). This illusion of permanence comes through not just in the material composition of the thing. It comes through when we can see the production of the thing, or the traces of its maker and production. These traces require further action through restoration and conservation. These actions are a “testimony to the fact that the very objecthood of art objects requires action in order to resist the historical processes that turn one kind of thing into another kind of thing” (16). Art objects are constantly in motion. They require action to maintain them and these actions often change their status. Appadurai argues that “all art is a momentary assemblage of mobile persons and things and that art objects, assemblages, events, and performances vary only in the intensity of their interest in denying or celebrating the social trajectory to which all things are subject” (16).

Appadurai turns to the profusion of things in India to explain why the thing itself is important. India is filled with things and people. “In regard to both…what is sought and desired is the warmth of profusion and the enchantment of multiplicity” (17). Profusion means that things are wanted in and of themselves for their thingness, and, so, things are multiplied. Profusion does not recognize a sharp line between people and things. This characteristic exemplifies the arguments of Mauss and Marx about things. For Mauss, things never lose the magic of their makers, owners, or handlers. For Marx, people and things both share in the mystery of the commodity form and are defined by the value of labor. Profusion does not define art objects against everyday objects. This profusion of things calls Appadurai to examine abstraction.

The profusion of things, especially in capitalist societies like the United States, often leads to the abstraction of materiality. Abstraction entails that things are not enjoyed for their sheer materiality. Things are always means to other ends. Abstraction also recognizes that things are convertible and no thing is truly priceless. Things don’t have values in and of themselves. Abstraction also means that there is a deep tension between the singularity and the commodity. This tension was addressed in The Social Life of Things. This tension can also be seen in the gift economy and the commodity economy in the United States. People buy commodities and give them as gifts, but people recognize the commodity as “my” gift. They give a history to the commodity. So, “a gift and a commodity are often one and the same thing” (20). But, no thing is singular forever and ever, and no commodity can be a singularity. This exemplifies a problem: “how to create human relations in a world where all things are potentially in the market or on the market” as commodities (20).

A possible space for redemption of this problem, especially for India, which is an emerging capitalist society, is the “idea of the thing itself.” According to Appadurai, “the idea of the thing itself is a way to capture the stubbornness of the materiality of things, which is also connected to their profusion, their resistance to strict measures of equivalence, and to strict distinctions between the maker and the made, the gift and the commodity, the world of art and the objects of everyday life.” The idea of the thing calls for historians, artists, and critics to focus more on the thing, its physical, material nature, in order to understand its social relations. By focusing on the thing itself, “abstraction may remain the servant of materiality.” Appadurai thinks the idea of the thing itself may help “India’s artists and critics find pathways through the global market without losing entirely the magic of the materiality and the unruliness of the world of things.” The thing itself seems to shift the weight of analysis to the material nature of things in order to observe their social relations and social life. The thing cannot have a social life without the recognition that the thing is a thing itself.

30 Mar

Martin Heidegger, “The Thing” (1950)

Martin Heidegger was a twentieth-century German philosopher. He joined the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party in 1933 and served as Rector of Freiburg University until 1934. Heidegger remained a member of the Nazi Party until 1945. Heidegger was banned from teaching after WWII because of his involvement with the Nazi Party, but resumed teaching at Freiburg University in 1950. Heidegger gave the lecture “The Thing” in 1950 as part of the Breman lecture series in Munich to the Brevarian Academy of Fine Arts. Heidegger’s work has become central to Western philosophy, but it is also controversial because of his membership in the Nazi party.


Heidegger examines nearness by observing things, particularly a jug. Things are self-supporting. Objects are representations and stand “before, over against, opposite us” (168). Thingness is not constituted in processes of making or physical appearance. Thingness cannot be observed from voids or extracted from scientific thought that assumes annihilation. Thingness resides in a void’s holding and the outpouring of a gift. The sky and earth dwell in gifts poured out to mortals and immortals. Gathering constitutes things’ thingness by bringing humans nearer and uniting them to the sky, earth, other mortals and divinities.


Heidegger’s work is known for its emphasis on phenomenology, or the study of experience and consciousness. Heidegger departed from Husserl’s notion of phenomenology, which recognized that a person could experience pure phenomena without any presuppositions.  “The Thing” examines how a person can experience and know a thing. Humans do not recognize thingness in the making or producing of a thing. They experience a jug when they experience its pouring a gift. They experience a thing when it pours a gift because they experience the surrounding phenomena too–the sky, earth, other mortals, and divinities. Humans can’t experience unmediated things. They experience things in relation to other phenomena. This decentralizes the physical thing itself. The experiences doesn’t come from experiencing the physical thing, but from what is between the observer and the thing, what is presenced. The physical object matters less than what the first-person experiences through mediation.

23 Mar

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II: The origin of the fetish” (1987)

“The Problem of the Fetish, II” delves deeper into the historical and theological emergence of the fetish. Scholars popularized the idea of the fetish in the long nineteenth century. Sociology, anthropology, and psychology engaged in debates about the explanation of the history and nature of religion by examining the theory of the fetish. Pietz looks beyond these debates to better understand the origin of the fetish. Pietz traces the terms “facticius” to Christian theologians like Tertullian and Augustine to show how the fetish and idol are conceived of as different material objects that work in different ways. The basic components of the fetish as a magical and superstitious object were not present in the medieval notions of the “feiticaria” in Christian law. The idea of the fetish emerged out of the cross-cultural mercantile interaction between Europeans and West Africans in the fifteenth century and later. Portuguese explorers first used the term “feitico,” instead of idolo, to describe the religious practices and objects of the people of Guinea. According to these explorers and merchants, “The central idea of the fetish concerned the error of worshiping material objects,” particularly the idea that “any personal or social value could be attributed to material objects whose only ‘natural’ values were instrumental and commercial.” The idea of the fetish originated in a particular place and time.

23 Mar

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I” (1985)

Pietz historicizes the word fetish and theorizes how it works as a category of material analysis. Pietz argues that the problem-idea of the fetish “arose within and remains specific to a particular type of cross-cultural experience first engaging European consciousness in ongoing situations on the West African coast after the fifteenth century.”[1] Pietz allows the fetish to function as a category on its own rather than a corrupt genus that obscures and dismisses the social and religious practices of non-Western societies. The fetish can help scholars recognize a historical moment about exchange between Europeans and West Africans as well as how Westerners are attached to objects in particularly religious ways.

The characteristics of the fetish include: 1) irreducible materiality, or the recognition that the object embodies truth; 2) a fixed power to repeat an original event and order; 3) social value of things; and 4) personal connection with the object so that personhood is inseparable from the object. The fetish is a “factitious universal” and was never used by a religious group to name its objects or relationship with objects. The term was used by Europeans to describe West Africans’ relationship with material objects. Thus, it emerged from cross-cultural interaction. The fetish names something personal and its truth is experienced as a movement from inside the self to outside the self into a material object in space. The fetish subjects the body to material objects.

Fetish versus Idol

A fetish is not the same thing as an idol. As idol is conceived as a free-standing statue. It emphasizes the worship of a false god or spirit by someone in a religious tradition different than the pronouncer. A fetish is usually worn on the body and is used to achieve tangible effects, like healing, on the user or for the user. The fetish acts on the body and shares a phenomenology relationship with the wearer. Idols do not necessarily participate in a phenomenology relationship.

The Fetish in Marxism and Structuralism

Marxism and structuralism have not fully developed the notion of the fetish because they recognize the displacement of objective social relations. According to Pietz, Marx recognized that “Material objects turned into commodities conceal exploitative social relations, displacing value-consciousness from the true productive market prices and labor.”[2] Marxism and structuralism stress the institutional structuring, or objective structuring, of constructed value consciousness. Marxist fetish theory explains this consciousness as “false consciousness based on illusion (hence alterable only by institutional transformation, not mere subjective ‘consciousness raising’).” Structuralism “either dismisses the fetish as a significant problem or else views it as nothing but a nonverbal signifier, sometimes ‘animated,’ with pure status of sign-vehicle for a process of signification.”[3] By stressing the social objectivity of the fetish, these theorists dismiss the fetish’s relationship to the individual person (like psychological and psychoanalytic theories ignore the social dimensions). Thus, the fetish comes to stand at the point where “the objective institutional systems are ‘personified’ by individuals, in two ways: 1) material entities (the market, natural species) are understood “to constitute the order of personal relations (social production, culture) which establishes “a determinate consciousness of the ‘natural value’ of social objects; and 2) personal activity is understood to be directed by “the impersonal logic of such abstract relations, as guided by the institutionalized systems of material signifiers of values arranged according to this logic.”[4] Fetishes, in these systems, are conceived of as negative material objects that have no personal relationships to individuals and objects of illusions (Marxism), and as immaterial, impersonal signifiers that only have relationships to other signifiers, or words (Structuralism). Thus, Pietz stresses an individual’s relationship with a fetish, and a fetish’s irreducible materiality, historical emergence, socially constructed social value, and fixed power.

[1] William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 9 (April 1, 1985): 16.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 9–10.

20 Mar

Alexandra Walsham, “Skeletons in the Cupboard” (2010)

“Skeletons in the Cupboard” explores the “afterlife of relics in the wake of the English Reformation.” Walsham argues that relics were a part of the “confessionalization of material culture in post-Reformation society” and that they became embroiled in the “politics of religious identity formations.”[1]


Protestants decried Catholics’ reverence and use of relics during and after the English Reformation. They argued that Catholic relics were unscriptural inventions of the Papacy and Catholic clergy. Nevertheless, the veneration of relics continued among Catholics in post-Reformation England. Some Catholics recognized the power of the reliquaries of destroyed relics. Others hid relics in their homes. Walsh recognizes that “A significant side-effect of the Reformation was to transfer relics from the custodianship of monasteries and churches into private hands and domestic settings.”[2] Moreover, new relics were formed during this time as priests and believers were martyred for their faith. By the seventeenth-century, relics became confessional badges and markers of the Catholic faithful.

At the same time, a reformed relic culture emerged. Protestants also kept the body fragments and possessions of people who had been martyred for their faith. Many of these acted as memorials that carried “spiritual and emotional rather than material and miraculous character.”[3] For many Protestants, these objects were signs or remembrances that served a didactic purpose. For many other Protestants, relics still carried divine powers that could act in the world and on people. Protestants also infused other objects, like the Bible, with powers that could heal and ward off evil. Relics and material objects became badges of adherence to the Protestant faith, just as they had for Catholics. Protestants also incorporated relics into their own religious practices by defining proper burial practices and displaying relics in cabinets of curiosities. Relics carried multiple meanings for Catholics and Protestants in post-Reformation England.


Walsham’s main contribution is her recognition that Protestants continued to use and revere objects in post-Reformation England. This was not due to any syncretism, popular religion, or failure of the Reformation. To the contrary, many Protestants, despite their abhorrence of relics, participated in their own material culture. This material culture often looked like that of Catholics’ devotion to relics as Protestants revered body fragments of martyred clergy and believers. At other times, this material culture was different in that it “remained commemorative in character.” Walsham suggests that this material culture tells us about “a Protestant culture of memory and identity centered as much on material objects as on distinctive dogmas and rituals.”[4] Walsham’s insight are significant in that they recognize the development of a Protestant material culture in post-Reformation England. Protestants did not stop employing things in religion, but they redefined how this material culture worked.

Despite this insight, Walsham’s distinction between relics and memorials in the explanation of this Protestant material culture is unclear. To be sure, some Protestants stopped using material objects as relics. But, I am not convinced that Protestants who employed body fragments of martyrs understood these objects to function as signs, memorials, or remembrances that served a didactic purpose. What would this didactic purpose be? The recognition that good Protestants are willing to die for their religion? Moreover, what exactly is a memorial? And, how is it different from a relic? In “Introduction: Relics and Remains” Walsham suggests that “relics can also be memorials, or material manifestations of the act of remembrance” because they link the past and present. In this article, memorials do not seem to function as relics. Walsham suggests that memorials have “spiritual and emotional rather than material and miraculous character.” But, these memorials were particularly material; they were body parts. And, their emotional and spiritual character does not exclude their power or relation to the divine. So, what is the difference between a relic and a memorial? These body fragments as memorials likely worked in some way to connect living Protestants to martyred Protestants in some material way. This seems to be one of the definitions of a relic, not just a sign of remembrance. Perhaps, further studies of this Protestant material culture can examine how Protestants employed memorials to get a better sense of the powers and functions of these material items, and how Protestants came to understand them as didactic objects, not relics, over time.

[1] Alexandra Walsham, “Skeletons in the Cupboard: Relics after the English Reformation,” Past & Present 206, no. suppl 5 (January 1, 2010): 122, doi:10.1093/pastj/gtq015.

[2] Ibid., 126.

[3] Ibid., 134.

[4] Ibid., 143.

20 Mar

Alexandra Walsham, “Introduction: Relics and Remains” (2010)

Walsham’s essay introduces readers to a collection of essays in a special issue of Past and Present where scholars discuss relics. Walsham provides an overview of the characteristics of relics and their situation in recent historiography and the essays.


The collection of essays define relics as “human remains and physical things [that] have become the focus of reverence, celebrity, curiosity, and conflict” across many times and cultures.[1] It examines “when and why bodies and personal belongings, and other objects come to be regarded as sacred by adherents of different faiths.” It also explores the “political economic, and social dimensions of the identification, discovery, preservation, and fabrication of relics and remains and their meanings and function in the spheres of memory, history, and heritage.” Relics are material objects that are linked to a particular person and events and/or places related to that person.

Walsham defines two types of relics: corporeal and non-corporeal relics. Scholars most often recognize corporeal relics, which are usually bodies or body fragments of dead or living people. These include skulls, bones, blood, teeth, hair, fingernails, and flesh. Non-corporeal relics are things that were possessed or in direct contact with a particular individual. These can be articles of clothing or personal property. These can also be books, written texts, letters, and scraps of paper or other items that bear “an autograph signature or graphic inscription.” Non-corporeal relics may also be rocks or stones with the impression of a foot, hand, or limb. In these latter examples, non-corporeal relics bear the physical traces of their possessors.

Walsh also suggests some characteristics that relics share. Relics are usually durable and resistant to decay. They are transportable and mobile, and usually small in size and scale. Sometimes relics transfer their power or sacred nature to their reliquaries or other proximate things through “holy contagion or radioactivity.”[2] Relics are “ontologically different” from images. They are actual physical embodiments of the divine or departed person in its entirety. Many believers do not recognize the difference between a relic and a forgery, fabrication, or reproduction of a relic. Thus, the modern distinction between original and copy does not usually apply when discussing relics. Relics may also be defined as “material manifestations of the act of remembrance” because they link the past and present. Relics also link the living to the dead by connecting heaven and earth. Sometimes relics cannot be distinguished from memorials, mementos, and antiquities. What does separate relics from other things is that relics are recognized as having a “capacity to operate as a locus and conduit of power.”[3] This power can be supernatural, salvific, apotropaic, or magical. For many societies, relics act as “‘a potentially wonder-working bridge between the mundane and the divine,” physical and metaphysical realms.” The discovery, identification, preservation, and display of relics structure their power.


Until recently, relics have attracted little attention in the academic world. Medievalists have taken up this task with the most zeal. Relics have also come to the attention of scholars who study material culture. Historians are beginning to study relics as objects with “social lives” and “cultural biographies.”[4] The study of the body, death, and memory studies have also made the study of relics more popular.

The collection of essays examines the ways that relics relate to religion, politics, and consumption, collection and display. This last theme is particularly helpful for scholars of material culture because it seeks to under how relics move through history. Relics are often object of commerce—trade, purchase, sale, and exchange. Patrick Geary has explored how relics function as “sacred commodities” in their social lives. Paul Gillingham has examined forgery and fabrication of relics.


  1. When relics act as memorials, or material manifestations of the act of remembrance, do they need to bear a trace of the memorized person?
  2. Can a memory be all the trace that is necessary to make something a relic that bridges the material and spiritual worlds?

[1] Alexandra Walsham, “Introduction: Relics and Remains,” Past & Present 206, no. suppl 5 (January 1, 2010): 10.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Ibid., 17.

18 Mar

Helen Knight, The Missionary Cabinet (1847)

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) partnered with the Massachusetts Sabbath School Society to publish The Missionary Cabinet in 1847. This book provided a virtual tour of an actual room at the ABCFM headquarters in Boston that housed idols. The room, called the Cabinet of Curiosities, was open to the public. The book encouraged children to visit the Cabinet at the headquarters. For those who could not, the book served as a surrogate tour of the room and the idols in the cases.

"Interior View of the Cabinet," The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 2.

“Interior View of the Cabinet,” The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 2.

The Missionary Cabinet included an image of the Cabinet (Figure 1), which children could examine as they read. It depicts white, middle-class children and parents perusing idols. There is a long, rectangular table in the center of the room that holds plant and animal specimens in partitioned spaces. There are seven cases against the walls of the room that hold idols from South Asia, the Sandwich Islands, Africa, China, India, Syria, Russia, and Catholic Germany among other places.

The ABCFM opened the Cabinet in the mid-1830s in Boston. An 1838 letter from the ABCFM to missionaries in Hawaii documented the progress of the Missionary Room and the Cabinet. The letter noted, “You are aware that there is, in connection with the Missionary Rooms, a Cabinet of Curiosities, collected principally by the missionaries of the Board. It is open for public inspection, has excited considerable interest, and is daily visited.”[i] The popularity and notoriety of the Cabinet secured funds for building projects at the ABCFM. The Missionary House was expanded so that the Missionary Rooms and Cabinet could “enable us to arrange and exhibit the collection to greater advantage than we now can.”[ii] The Board requested missionaries to donate maps, drawings, missive publications, idols, images, weapons, decorations, coins, relics, and more from mission fields. Donors were to ensure that each article was “distinctly labeled with its name, and accompanied with a complete description,” and packaged carefully for shipment.[iii] Missionaries fulfilled the Board’s demand and packed the Cabinet with idols.

“God of the Sandwich Islanders,” illustration of an idol from The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 11

“God of the Sandwich Islanders,” illustration of an idol from The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 11

The Missionary Cabinet led children through a case by case examination of idols in the Cabinet. The first idol that children examined in the book was “God of the Sandwich Islanders” (Figure 2). This idol is also depicted in the frontispiece of the book in the first image above (Figure 1). It stands in the middle of the image, behind the table, and in profile view. The idol is “one they [the Sandwich Islanders] gave to the missionaries to bring home” after their conversion to Christianity.[iv] The author instructed children, “Come, let us look at it a little nearer. It has legs, arms, and a body, and a head and staring eyes, and a big mouth. It is quite erect, and looks a very little like the image of a man; and yet it does not look like a man, for no man was ever such a hideous object.”[v] The author also exclaimed, “This is a god!…It was a God of the Sandwich Islanders, a god to whom they used to pray and offer sacrifices.” The idol enticed devotees to “leave their old sick parents to die alone in the forest” and “bury their little sick babies in the mud.”[vi] Idols controlled the “heathen” and commanded them do wicked things. The images of idols in this book enticed children to learn about idols and foreign missions.

The Missionary Cabinet also provided a virtual tour of portraits of famous missionaries and ABCFM board members in the Committee Room. After the virtual tour, the author asks children, “when our fathers and mothers, and all the good people who give their money and their prayers to help send out the missionaries, are gone, who will then do it?” The author called children to the missionary cause. The Missionary Cabinet and the actual Cabinet of Curiosities at the ABCFM headquarters suggests that Protestant adults employed real-life idols to mobilize children for the missionary cause. The ABCFM hoped that if children viewed idols at the headquarters or in this book, they would support the Board and their missions.

[i] David W. Forbes (ed.), Hawaiian National Bibliography 1780-1900: 1831-1850 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998), 174.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Knight, The Missionary Cabinet, 18.

[v] Ibid., 10, 13.

[vi] Ibid., 10, 13.