Seminar: Sacred Diplomacy

Dear readers, I have at once both some very happy and some slightly disappointing news. First off, this week, on Wednesday, marked an all time high for readership here at mediaeval musings, so thank you to all of you for visiting and hope you return! Unfortunately, however, yesterday was the last of the Middle East seminar series that I will be attending here at St Andrews, so I’ll try to make this post count!

The seminar was titled ‘The Economy of an Aristocratic Armenian Church around 1000: evidence from the Panegyric of the Holy Cross of Aparank,’ and was given by Dr. Ioanna Rapti (fellow at King’s College London.) Her focus was a particularly little known text by a very widely known author by mediaeval Armenian standards–Gregory of Narek–and the insights it provides about the circulation of relics on the Byzantine/Armenian frontier.

Byzantine Reliquary

A Reliquary of the True Cross produced in Byzantium around the beginning of the 9th century. Perhaps similar to that described by Gregory. © 2000–2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The text itself is difficult to classify, sometimes called a history or a chronicle, sometimes a panegyric, or praise-piece, by scholars, although perhaps in form it most resembles a sermon. It’s subject is a reliquary–a container for holding and displaying christian relics–of the True Cross, gifted to the Armenian church at Mokk by the Byzantine imperial family. The sermon also describes the making of the reliquary by craftsmen, its appearance, and the lavish interior of the church where it was displayed.

Its story is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it illustrates the complex nature of Byzantine/Armenian relations. During the late tenth century, when it was written, the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan clashed continuously with its neighbour Byzantium, and Armenian nobles played both sides to their own personal advantage. In this context, the story of an Armenian noble whose close relationship with the imperial family brings such a highly prestigious relic to Armenia illustrates that these frontier relationships were not all hostile. Instead, political power and allegiance were often communicated through cultural exchange and the patronage of churches.

Reliquary back panel.

The back panel of the above reliquary, with scenes of the True Cross. The relic itself would have been kept inside the box, and revealed only on special occasions. © 2000–2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Second, however, the text’s detailed description of the now-lost reliquary gives an interesting picture of how such a magnificent piece was perceived and respected. Gregory tells us, for example, that the reliquary, made of ‘massive gold,’ held not only a piece of the True Cross (reputedly found by the Empress Helena in the Holy Land) but also other items attesting to the drama of the crucifixion.

What I found most intriguing about Gregory’s description was the way in which he endowed the making of the reliquary itself with religious significance. The artisans arranged its details ‘in the peaceful light of the cross, and moreover they mixed in it wishes of hope.’ That the craftsmanship becomes an act of devotion in Gregory’s writing is in keeping with his other works–mystical religious poetry–and communicates the profound significance of the reliquary upon the faithful. Its sheer presence, its every detail, is endowed with symbolic meaning.

The same is true for the church in which the reliquary will be housed–called Mokk. Its cruciform shape represents the world, as demonstrated by the many exotic adornments inside, while the dome at the centre symbolises the kingdom of heaven. Within the dome, Christ seated in majesty presides over all, earthly and celestial.

While the reliquary thus reveals aspects of worldly political affairs and sacred diplomacy, therefore, Gregory’s perception of its significance is far from cynical. By presenting a tangible piece of Christian history, the relics of the True Cross not only bound the Byzantine Emperors and their allies more closely, but also bridged the distance between the mediaeval believer and God himself.

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