To his medieval devotees Saint Demetrios was not physically accessible through his corporeal remains, but rather through his bodily fluids, his blood mixed with earth collected from the site of his martyrdom and his myron, a sweet-scented oil-like substance that the saint’s tomb in Thessalonike started to exude sometime before the middle of the eleventh century. A series of highly unusual reliquaries designed to contain these holy fluids has come down to us, many of them in the form of enkolpia, or devotional pectoral pendants.
This lecture focuses on two reliquary-enkolpia of Saint Demetrios now preserved in the British Museum and the Dumbarton Oaks collections. Aside from offering a fresh look at these strikingly sophisticated miniature objects, the lecture will engage with larger questions regarding the intersection of personal piety, art, and aesthetics—the latter understood in the pre-Kantian sense as the domain of sensory apprehension and materiality—in Byzantium. What role did aesthetic mediation play in the devotional encounter with the sacred? To what extent was the power and agency of Byzantine religious objects rooted in their artifice—the processes and results of crafting, working out a design, and shaping a material? Indeed, is the very notion of art, often regarded as anachronistic and misguided when applied to Byzantine material culture, still a useful category?