By Kris Bespalec-Davis
Objects and images, preserved in archives, or immaterial and memorialized in the annals of memory: these are Relics.
They are evocative, even provocative, and, through miraculous belief, these cultural traces and markers of personal identity persevere. They channel people, places, events, and ideas from the recent and distant past. They can be incredibly specific, affecting individuals, or transcending culture and class, impacting communities both local and global. Charged by collective belief systems or personal significance, these items are honored through display and safekeeping. In reliquaries, places of worship, and museum vitrines, or locked away in vaults and sock drawers, their presence is embodied in ritual and custom.
I don’t remember my grandmother’s funeral, but after she died there was an estate sale. Amidst my confusion and attempt to comprehend the magnitude of my first broken heart, I remember being told I could pick out a few things to remember her by. As I wandered around a room awkwardly filled with the folding tables on which we had played cards – now strewn about with piles of books and old costume jewelry – I rifled through and picked out a few rhinestone pins and silver clip-on earrings I thought I remembered seeing her wear or that I knew she would like. I snatched up an old handheld camera my dad said my grandpa used to film home movies when he was a kid; accidentally exposing an unfinished reel of film caused my heart to get crushed all over again. I still have those things and a few other cherished items she had set aside for me. They are heirlooms that will go to my children when I am gone.
After my grandmother died, though, what I remember actually wanting was something completely different: a piece of wallpaper in her only bathroom. When I visited her, I tried on her perfume, fumbling through a drawer of treasures: safety pins, miniature metal scissors with a bird on the handle, clippers, a cloth measuring tape, a red, plastic, beaded rosary and the ever-present Carmex no one used but me. Her wallpaper was cream, woven linen featuring a gold, embossed trompe l’oeil pattern of children playing amidst islands of bush trees with slender branches and pools of reflective water surrounded by cattails and long-necked swans. The section I wanted most was a scene of a small girl, tenderly holding the swan’s face while a young boy placed a crown on its head. What did it mean? I would stare at these scenes during bath time, imagining the games they were playing or the grand ceremony they were pretending to enact.
I was not allowed to cut a piece out. But I remember it exactly.
Wandering through the curved halls off of the grand staircase at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was always struck by the size and sheer impact of giant canvases on display there as I walked toward them, stretching up to see as far as possible into the vanishing point of a rainy street in Paris and the velvet blackness of a man’s umbrella in contrast to a woman’s red lips. I would sneak away from my parents to stand too close to Picasso, positioning myself so there was just enough glare to see the eye and jawline of the woman and nursing child at her breast in the under-painting of the blue guitarist.
The Renaissance and school of Caravaggio were my favorites. I never tired of staring at them, seeking out every last detail, marveling at the stories they told of gods and goddesses, thick-fleshed heroes and beauties with deep shadows and rich color. Just past them, I was struck by the contrast of the medieval period, so stylistically different but full of serpents, gold-leafed halos and disproportioned, wiry-limbed saints and apostles. Off in a vitrine in the corner of the room was an elaborately detailed Gothic church on a tiny pedestal with an object embedded in crystal in its center. I was drawn to it, straining to see inside. A small scroll, a bit of string, and…a tooth? I jumped back – why? Reading the panel nearby: Reliquary Monstrance with a Tooth of Saint John the Baptist. Date: 1433. I have visited it every time since.
An understanding. A revelation. An object becomes precious through its implications and its symbolism as well as the stories attached to it. Since the beginning, we collect and cherish objects we assign meaning to. We pilgrimage. We stash away. We hold dear.
Author cutline: Christine Bespalec-Davis is an artist and museum professional currently living and working in Chattanooga. Her art practice integrates found and precious objects, encapsulating the fragile life of memory while reflecting on the plural acts of womanhood. From child to mother – daily routine to traditional heritage – transitional objects reference the process of heirloom building and integrate the tradition of relics and icons with my own personal narratives.