Department of Religious Studies


Ra‘anan Boustan, "The Vessels of the Jerusalem Temple among Jews, Christians, and Muslims: From Locative to Utopian and Back Again"

A wide range of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources from Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages reveal a persistent interest in the fate of the ritual implements from the Jerusalem Temple. These vessels, which had served various ritual functions within the sacrificial cult to the Jewish god Yahweh, were taken to Rome in 70 C.E., at the time of the destruction of the city and its temple, were paraded in the triumph celebrated by the victorious Flavian emperors, and were placed on display in various public buildings. But in the period after their transfer from Jerusalem to Rome, these items were liquidated for their metallic value, destroyed by fire, or otherwise lost to history. The present paper explores how this concern with remains from the Jerusalem cult, which circulated both as discursive objects and as iconographic representations, came to be invested with symbolic capital by multiple communities in late antiquity, thereby fostering both contact and competition across religious boundaries. In particular, I consider how, despite their physical dislocation and obliteration, the Temple vessels served as a broadly shared rhetorical and iconographic idiom for sanctifying specific locales within the shifting and contested religious geography of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. I argue that salience of these now mobile ritual objects should not be taken to signify a unidirectional shift from locative to utopian forms of Mediterranean religion (J. Z. Smith). Rather, these durable signs of traditional sacrificial cult grounded competing claims to present space in mutually recognizable schemes of historical time and its divinely sanctioned cycles of imperial rule.

Donald Cosentino, "Skull Wars"

Napoli is a city that runs by miracles, both grand miracles like the thrice-annual liquification of S. Gennaro's blood, and small miracles, like those generated through the veneration of skulls appropriated from local cemeteries or visited in the purgatorial gloom of vaults in parish churches. In return for prayers offered for their release from the pains of purgatory, the anime pezzentelle attached to these skull-relics are expected to produce dream messages with winning lottery numbers or to intercede for job seekers or disconsolate lovers. In the wake of Vatican II reforms, the Bishop of Napoli denounced these cults as fetishism and ordered Fontanella, the most famous of the skull cemeteries, closed, along with public access to the last three churches which still housed these skulls. Based on field research in Napoli in 1999 and 2006, I have documented the contest between the church and the cult over the stewardship of the skulls, and the significance over their veneration in Neapolitan Catholicism.

Cynthia Hahn, "Making the Crown of Thorns: Mockery, Royalty, Piety"

Origen notes that the crown of thorns "disappeared;" that it is mentioned only very briefly in the Gospels which tell of its mocking placement on Christ's head but not when it was removed or what became of it. Despite this modest beginning, the crown of thorns has risen from a status as only one of the many instruments of the Passion in the Gospel story to a relic that is a primary focus of Passion devotion, and today has even become an icon of popular culture. Histories of relics are often written as if events were inevitable and even perhaps under the control of the relics themselves. If we take a close look, however, we discover that the rise to prominence of the relic of the crown of thorns involved very specific measures taken by powerful players in the medieval world of relics. From its display as one of the important Passion relics in the Pharos chapel, to glorification as the spiritual equivalent to the crown of the French and "most Christian king," the relic of the crown was worked vigorously to express its virtus and in the process its power was increased many times over. Art and architecture was essential in accomplishing these goals as well as clear evidence of the process. I will explore the place of the crown in the relic collection of the Ste Chapelle, its dissemination and presentation in the form of single thorns in sumptuous reliquaries, as well as its inclusion in devotional practices, especially devotional art.

Benjamin Fleming, "Reading the Liṅga as ‘Relic': Śaivism, the Buddhist Distinction, and Other Auspicious Signs of Death in South Asian Religions"

In research on Buddhism over the last two or three decades, the study of relics has helped scholars to move beyond purely doctrinal concerns and what Gregory Schopen and others have referred to as "Protestant assumptions." This development has shaped a new frontier of material considerations of Buddhist religion, culture, and tradition that had been largely ignored in past scholarship. In this regard, however, research on Śaivism is still in its relative infancy, retaining a traditional focus on understanding the canonical texts and on reconstructing sources and Ur-texts. Little attention has been paid to the discourse and practices surrounding the Śaiva counterparts of what are studied under the rubric of "relics" within Buddhist tradition. This paucity is due, in part, to the general lack of discussion about relics within research on Hindu and Jain traditions; Buddhism has been distinguished, by and large, as something of an exception to South Asian religions. This paper uses the material and textual evidence regarding liṅgas as a focus for exploring whether a discourse of relics can be brought into the consideration of South Asian beliefs and practices more broadly. I will map a series of "Buddhist assumptions" about relics onto Śaiva test cases in myth, art, ritual, and, in particular, in examples where Śaiva and Buddhist traditions intersect, whether as shared or contested emblems of sacrality. Attention to relics, thus, leads us to reconsider the nature of the Buddhist distinction in South Asia, while also opening new perspectives on the material culture of Śaivism and on the religious competition that may have shaped it.

James Robson, "Relic Wary: Relic Wary: Facets of Buddhist Relic Veneration and Contestation in East Asia"

The study of relics within the context of Chinese religious history has been dominated by a focus on their place within the Buddhist tradition. Yet, when we look across the artificially constructed sectarian walls that have been erected between different Chinese religious traditions, we do in fact see that Daoism and Confucianism also have their own materials and objects that we would refer to as "relics" (primarily body fragments, whole body mummies, and enlivened statues). Can we, therefore, treat relics, and relic veneration, as being akin to a "total social fact"? That is to say-to modify slightly the development of this notion in the work of Maurice Leenhardt and Marcel Mauss-interpret these objects (and the practices surrounding them) as being tied to key aspects of culture, such that they have implications across society: from religion, aesthetics, and politics to economics. In this talk I plan to employ a variety of Chinese textual sources (historical, doctrinal, and hagiographical) and material objects dating from the medieval period down to the present day, to interrogate some of the different ways that relics were contested in the history of Chinese religious traditions. After introducing the presence and characteristics of relics and sacred objects across the Chinese religious landscape (Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism), I will then discuss a series of accounts that detail how relics were fought over within the Chinese Buddhist tradition, became controversial due to their veneration by the Chinese imperial house, were at the heart of international controversies in East Asia regarding the theft and translation of relics, and have been contested objects in contemporary scholarly discourses on the study of Chinese religions.

Jalane D. Schmidt, "Cimarrón Uprising: Monuments, Memory and Religious Devotion in Cuba"

This paper complicates conventional notions of religious "tradition" by examining the influence of institutions (local, national and transnational) and changing material culture upon religious innovation. Supported in part by UNESCO's "Slave Route" project which commemorates sites associated with the Transatlantic slave trade, in 1997, Cuba's Ministry of Culture installed a large monument to mark the colonial-era history of local cimarrones, or escaped slaves, in El Cobre, Cuba. The heightened visibility of the town's defiant cimarrón history effected religious innovations which became the focus of some controversy in this majority black and mulato community. As some local practitioners of spiritism positioned cimarrón spirits more prominently in their devotional activities, these mediums won greater exposure from local Cuban researchers and foreign ethnographers (this author included). But other local spiritists disapproved of their peers' increasingly "material" work (rituals featuring drumming and sacrifices) which were required to coger (become possessed by) these "muertos africanos" (dead Africans). Additionally, the local rise in cimarrón devotion was perceived, by Catholic clergy, as a competitor with the town's centuries-long popular cult to the Virgin Mary, and local Catholic officials sought to extirpate cimarrón devotions. By interpreting ethnographic data gained from interviews and cimarrón possession trance ceremonies, the paper examines how material changes in the physical landscape can effect changes in people's narrations of their religious history and ritual activities.

Gregory Schopen, "Arguing against Relics and Undercutting Cult: Narratives from the Other Side of the Indian Buddhist Tradition"

The Indian Buddhist tradition is generally presented as having a fully developed form of the cult of relics. Whether this cult was intended for monks and nuns, or for the laity, has been disputed but the fact remains that there is probably not a single certain Buddhist site in the archeological record that lacks a stupa or monumental reliquary, and that all such sites are in one way or another focused on these material objects. This consistency would seem to suggest both the centrality of material remains of the Buddha and of Buddhist “saints,” and unanimity about their value. This, however, may be fundamentally misleading, and certainly is only one side of the whole picture. Formal Buddhist doctrine—and even more so Buddhist scholasticism—is deeply suspicious of the material, and while it never produced anything as vitriolic as Calvin’s Inventory of Relics, there is a significant body of Buddhist narrative texts that move in something like the same orbit. Several examples will be presented and discussed, and they will then be fitted into the larger context of a central tension running through the Indian Buddhist tradition between worship of the Buddha and/or implementing what he taught. This central issue, most simply put, is whether it is better to worship the Buddha or become one.

Chad Seales, "The Land of Misfit Relics: American Protestants and the Sacred Play of Cultural Objects"

Protestants have long dismissed the agency of relics and mistrusted those, particularly Catholics, who grant them sacred power. As Gregory Schopen notes, "The Protestant reformers were no friends of relics," citing John Calvin's description of relics as "frivolities," "superstition," and evidence of "the stupidity of men." Those disenchanting biases pervaded later Calvinists theologies and missionary interventions, which Max Weber famously typecast as ascetic Protestantism, his historical switchman for the secularizing track of Western capitalism. Scholars of American religions, though, have argued that ascetic discipline and material disenchantment tell only part of the story, as in practice Protestants also displayed what Colin Campbell described as a "romantic ethic" that expressed itself in the cultural terms of product consumption. This paper takes up that line of reasoning to argue that while Protestants historically dismissed religious relics, in the U.S. at least, they replace them with cultural objects. Using a range of evidence that includes Elvis shrines, sports memorabilia, the Antique Road Show, Oprah give-a-ways, and the rise of storage facilities, the paper concludes that cultural objects do things to American people, Americans are okay with the agency of objects as long as they are considered play and not seriousness, and that resolution of sacred power and material objects is the working out of a particular historical strand of Protestantism.

Patricia Spyer, "Treacherous Amulets: Dwelling and Contamination in Ambon's War"

A small stone surrendered by a Muslim to a Christian on an urban battlefield in Ambon City (Indonesia), circulated with stunning effect in a Christian prayer group. Within no time it infected this core scene of Christian worship and community, triggering illness and possession, turning the group's prayers into a Quranic reading session and inserting the spectral presence of a North Moluccan sultan's daughter into its midst. This scene is only the most dramatic instance of the promiscuous traffic in poisonous and protective objects across religious boundaries in the context of the devastating war that racked the Moluccan city and its surroundings from 1999 until the official 2002 peace. From rosaries flaunted by Protestants aiming to pass as Catholics, magical amulets worn close to bodies alongside tiny Quran or Bibles into battle, magical phials and dried seahorses tacked above doorways in religiously and ethnically mixed neighborhoods, or the Jesus faces that emerged on hijacked billboards on city streets as huge talismans meant to ward off danger from Christian neighborhoods, the war fostered and witnessed an explosion of religious and occult technologies along with the objects through which these technologies operate. Of particular interest is the tension and interplay between the deployment of amulets, broadly conceived, as boundary markers and the highly mobile war torn terrain in which they appeared and occasionally went astray, betraying the intentions with which they were first set in motion. Noteworthy, also, is the far-going collapse of the carefully monitored distinction between the space of religion and that of magic, the latter officially prohibited by the Indonesian state and rejected by religions' representatives. Equally important is the way in which magic's force communicated by its objects and signs was widely understood by the diverse parties to the war. Larger issues of dwelling, displacement, cohabitation, and inhabitation haunt the movement and workings of these technologies of war. The aim of this paper is to map this highly mobile terrain through the objects, transactions, and predicaments that emerged in Ambon's wartime.

Rolf Strootman, "The Serpent Column in the Hippodrome of Constantinople: Shifting Meanings of the Pillar at the Center of the World"

In the heart of Istanbul, on the site of the former Hippodrome, stand the remains of the Serpent Column, one of the most ancient and most enigmatic monuments in the city: three intertwined snakes made of bronze, their now lost heads raised watchfully towards the continents Europe, Asia and Africa. The monument strangely unites chthonic and cosmic features. Various sacral and magical properties have been attributed to it through the ages by pagans, Christians, Muslims and Jews. Set up as a votive offering in Greece's most sacred site, Delphi, the column originally commemorated the Greek triumph in the Second Persian War (480-479 BCE). This powerful icon of victory couched in pagan principles of cosmology was brought to Constantinople in the Fourth Century CE to become an emblem of the universal rule of the Christian Roman emperor. In Ottoman times the Serpent Column was one of the apotropaic talismans safeguarding Constantinople from poisonous snakes-Jewish tradition associated it with the bronze serpent of Numbers 21:4-9-and even epidemic disease.

Annabel Wharton, "Protestants, Relics, Things"

My current research on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jerusalem has provided me with a new awareness of Protestants' awkwardness with potent physical objects, like relics. Though the Protestants of my archival investigations were missionaries, evangelical archaeologists and messianists, in this paper I use "protestant" in a broader, impurely Weberian sense evoking a habitus conditioned by religion and markets, e.g. to identify those assimilated in a Protestant-dominated culture. Descriptions of two very different but equally symptomatic cases of the peculiar treatments of things constitute the substance of this talk. One of these examples, pieces of the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, is material; the other, Thing Theory, is theoretical. Each in a distinct way contributes to my conclusion that things with agency at least occasionally drive protestants crazy and that the protestant appropriation of a lively thing often leads to its death. Like the two examples at its core, this paper has both material and theoretical ramifications. It exposes a primal Protestant anxiety that continues to haunt contemporary Western scholarship. It also continues a critique of the use of a Heideggerian version of phenomenology to grasp an historical object.