Holding Heaven in their hands: an examination of the functions, materials, and ornament of Insular house-shaped shrines
Gerace, Samuel Thomas
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Since the nineteenth century, the provenances, functions, and defining characteristics of a group of Insular portable containers, commonly called house-, tomb-, or church-shaped shrines, have been of interest to a number of disciplines such as History of Art, Archaeology, and Museology. As nearly all Insular house-shaped shrines were found empty or in fragmentary states, their original contents are a continued point of scholarly debate. In response to these examinations and based in part on the seventh-century riddle on the Chrismal found in the Ænigmata of Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne, this thesis proposes questions such as: what type of container is best categorised as an Insular house-shaped shrine, what were their original contents and functions, and do their forms and materials communicate any specific cultural message(s)? By engaging with the two core concepts of functionality and materiality, which are further informed through direct object handlings of select Insular portable shrines, this thesis examines the forms and materials used in their construction. Taking these questions and the historical conversation into account, this thesis draws on the terminology employed to denote sacral containers in Old Irish and Latin works, which include hagiography and penitentials, discussions on the Temple of Jerusalem within early medieval exegesis, depictions of Insular house-shaped shrines and analogous forms in stonework and other mediums, and antiquarian, archaeological, and anthropological accounts of the discovery of Insular house-shaped shrines to more fully examine the functions of these enigmatic boxes. In doing so, the place of Insular house-shaped shrines within early medieval art, both Continental and Insular, will be more fully outlined. Additionally, a working definition of what can constitute an Insular house-shaped shrine is developed by examining their materiality, form, and prescribed functional terms, such as ‘reliquary’ and ‘chrismal’. Finally, this thesis shows that the functions of Insular house-shaped shrines are best understood in an overlapping and pluralistic sense, namely, that they were containers for a variety of forms of sacral matter and likely were understood as relics themselves only in later periods, which modern antiquarians later used as meaning-making devices in their writings on the spread of the early medieval ‘Celtic’ Church.