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A lot more than saintly bones may be tied up in reliquaries.

Delineating what precisely is, and is not, a relic presents both linguistic and theological challenges.

Consider the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 19th-century "Power Figure" (in full: "Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka"), created by the Kongo people. St. Sebastian-like, iron shards pierce the slightly hunched wooden figure, whose hands are firmly planted on its hips. It may evoke a voodoo doll, but the embedded metal actually marked treaty signing or vow sealing, per the museum website.

The figure--which appears in the New York museum's exhibit "Kongo: Power and Majesty" (through Jan. 3)--also has a stomach cavity with traces of medicines that were stored therein and drew the figure's power. Does that make it a reliquary, and the plant material a relic?

Strictly speaking, the substances once hidden in the stomach weren't rare, and they certainly weren't bones of holy men and women. But an intricate and deliberate vessel did house powerful materials.

Alisa LaGamma, the Met's African art curator who, in 2007, curated "Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary" and curated the Kongo exhibit, insisted in a phone interview that the sculpture isn't a reliquary.

"One has to be very specific about how one uses the term 'reliquary' The Kongo power figures are not reliquaries. A reliquary is a work that is specifically designed to exercise a certain kind of sacra that is related to important and revered individuals," she said. "You just can't apply [the word reliquary] to lots of different religious artifacts. Not all of them are reliquaries."

For most Americans who have spent time in museums or churches, the word reliquary is likely to conjure certain associations: gilded and jewel-encrusted receptacles, perhaps shaped like the body parts of the saints they purport to protect, displayed in dimly lit rooms meant to evoke chapels--if not in actual chapels.

But the story of relics and reliquaries throughout history is much broader than just Catholic objects. Islamic and Jewish mystical traditions have venerated relics, as have Buddhist and Hindu practices. And depending on how much elasticity one is willing to permit the term, secular society may also be said to adore its own relics and reliquaries.

At the St. Louis-based Pulitzer Arts Foundation, the exhibit "Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art" (through March 19) explores about 50 Kota reliquary guardians, wooden and metal sculptures that protected ancestral bones. The exhibit centers on a database of 2,000 Kota reliquaries that Belgian researcher and computer engineer Frederic Cloth developed.

Much of the details surrounding the Kota reliquaries' context and exact uses have been lost, which is part of the excitement of studying them, says Kristina Van Dyke, the Pulitzer's former director and the curator of the exhibit.

"I love the ways these projects make you work harder to think about evidence and what constitutes evidence, because you don't have the luxury of a textual tradition or copious oral history," she said. "You just have to think, what clues do these objects contain in and of themselves, and how can I extract those clues from the objects?"

With objects that are shrouded in mystery, such as the Kota reliquaries (only six highly staged images --two drawings and four photographs --exist of the objects in situ), researchers really have to start with the objects themselves.

"You have to use your imagination and think: What is here? We know what isn't here, and we know what we wish was here," Van Dyke said.

The Kota figures, she explained, would have been attached to baskets that contained relics. "It appears that they are sitting on top of them, protecting the relics," she said, noting that some of the reliquaries also contained relics within.

The baskets would contain bones of multiple ancestors, and were likely stored in small enclosures outside of the villages and were accessible only to the initiated. "These weren't objects that were shown to just anybody," Van Dyke said.

Like European Catholic reliquaries, the Kota figures had precious materials, as well as rare objects such as manufactured buttons, screws, and shell casings, applied to them, according to Van Dyke. "The objects are incredibly expensive," she said.

When the reliquaries made their way to Europe, they typically no longer contained any relics. (Although relics were more important to the local peoples, outsiders likely found the reliquaries more valuable.)

"They might have been willing to turn their objects in, but they would have likely held back the actual relics and not let those fall into the hands of missionaries," Van Dyke said.

The Central African reliquaries also impacted artists in the West, according to LaGamma. "There are great sculptural traditions that were part of those reliquaries that have a very big influence on the Western avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century" she said. "The sculptural elements have become very famous in artistic circles."

The gap between the value of the receptacle and of the sacred material contained within holds for the Kongo power figures as well. So why does that which looks and quacks like a reliquary not necessary amount to a reliquary?

"In the strictest academic sense, a relic refers to the remains of a holy person, or some thing or object associated with that person," said S. Brent Rodriguez Plate, visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and managing editor of the journal Material Religion. Plate cites the teeth of Buddha, the whiskers from Muhammad's beard, and splinters of the true cross or milk from Mary's breast as examples.

"Relics are very bodily and are meant to give a sense of continuity --that an encounter with these remains collapses space and time and becomes a direct encounter with the 'original' person," he said. "Thus, people make pilgrimages over long distances to be in the presence of ' them. The objects stand in for the person who is no longer here."

While "relic" is a neutral term, the American "Protestant-dominated" way of thinking sees other traditions as more superstitious and infatuated with magical things, according to Plate.

"The Protestant conception of Catholics and their uses of things, smells and bells has been negative," he said. "Relics are another one of those things Protestants see as being part of an inferior system."

(Never mind, he says, that Protestant traditions claiming to be more wrapped up in beliefs than objects create their own bibles and particular kinds of music and images of Jesus "that cast him in subtle pastels and calm colors.")

In the ancestral remains in African reliquaries, there's a marked difference from Muslim and Christian relics, which tend to contain a very small piece of a single person.

"The other difference," Plates said, "is that it's probably a lot more likely that the African reliquaries actually contain the bones of the ancestors they say they contain, while it's highly unlikely that the splinter of wood in the reliquary is actually from the cross of Jesus."

So the medicines and other organic materials contained in the Kongo power figures, strictly speaking, aren't relics. But Plate says one can also consider the ways that they functioned in people's lives.

"They may not be bones and 'true relics,' but for the people involved, they are treated as such," he said. "That seems much more interesting to me than trying to give the authoritarian 'That's not a relic!' "

The key, to Plate, is that relics aren't merely symbolic. There's an actual presence that is believed to be contained in the reliquary or in close proximity to it. He admitted, however, "These are, of course, art museum and art history terms, and they may or may not mean much of anything to the original people who used the objects."

Interestingly, that actual presence carried particular kinds of power. For local people, relics had "intrinsic powers," and they might remove particles, submerge them in water, and then drink the water, LaGamma said.

Since the ancestral bones were believed to be a means to appeal to ancestral intervention in times of need, as specific ancestors receded into the more distant past, there was . a process of decommissioning or retiring old bones and adding those of ancestors whose memories were fresher.

"You were always upgrading. Certain things went in; certain things came out," she said. "The more remote an ancestor was, probably the less responsive one considered him or her to be."

Even the Portuguese missionaries who began arriving in Central Africa in 1483 thought the power objects were potent.

Prior to 19th century, when Europeans began thinking of the local people as superstitious, the power figures didn't appear in European collections. Europeans considered the figures idolatrous, and encouraged their destruction; they did not spare any examples and bring them back home with them, as they did with textiles and ivories destined for princely collections.

"They would have had a sense of their potency for local people, and L they wouldn't have casually collected things like that," LaGamma said. "They would have wanted to keep their distance in handling that kind of material."

Caption: A 19th-century reliquary guardian figure from Obamba, Gabon, part of the exhibit "Kota: Digital Excavations in Africa Art"

Caption: Museum of Art "Power Figure (Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka)" a work of Kongo peoples in Angola, shown in the exhibit "Kongo: Power and Majesty"

[Menachem Wecker is a Washington. D.C.-based reporter and co-author of the new book Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education.]


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Title Annotation:SPIRITUALITY
Author:Wecker, Menachem
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 4, 2015
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