Storing Sanctity: Sacristy Reliquary Cupboards in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy
University of Kansas
History of Art
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Sacristy reliquary cupboards played significant roles in the ritual activities of most late medieval and Renaissance Italian churches. Best understood as a type of liturgical furniture, these large, wall-mounted structures stored the most valuable sacred objects possessed by a church and their shelves were filled with expensive metal reliquaries that contained powerful relics. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they often displayed elaborate painted and, occasionally, sculpted, iconic and narrative images on their moveable doors. This study examines the most complex and visually compelling extant examples of this type of church furnishing from the Tre- and Quattrocento. Consideration of reliquary cupboards from two different Italian regions, Tuscany and the Veneto, provides an indication of the variety of iconography, contents and materials utilized in connection with these ritual objects in distinctive historical contexts. Despite scholars' sustained interest in relics and reliquaries, they have overlooked a significant aspect of how relics functioned in medieval and Renaissance societies, namely how and where they were stored. This dissertation examines a neglected area of relic studies by considering a type of liturgical furniture used to store, protect and augment relic and reliquary collections. During ritual events that required the use of relics, the cupboard would be opened to reveal the sacred objects inside and, often, another visual program on the inside of the doors. Late medieval and Renaissance sacristy reliquary cupboards thus reveal complex and multifaceted interactions between relics, images and rituals. Analysis of the ways in which reliquary cupboards played significant roles in the successful performance of the cult of relics establishes them as a compelling type of liturgical furniture. Following an introduction that traces the history and meaning of sacred storage and concealment in the Christian tradition, the dissertation is composed of five chapters that each focus on the iconography, contents, ritual use and historical context of a particular reliquary cupboard. These case studies reveal sacristy reliquary cupboards as a type of ritual object that served a variety of liturgical and extra-liturgical purposes, reassured communities of saintly presence and protection and functioned as an integral part of the sacred visual environment.
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