By Kerr Houston
Let’s begin by imagining a scene. In a solemn, darkened chamber, an expectant crowd gazes upward. The general mood might be called reverential. Above glows a rich golden amber light that seems imbued with a distinct power, an ability to dissolve earthly limits or to embody other worlds. And now a formally dressed figure appears before the crowd, and gestures, and begins to speak in ritualistic terms.
But what scene, exactly, are we looking at? A medieval tomb, perhaps? As Peter Brown, the celebrated scholar of late antiquity, has observed, such tombs function as a bridge between earth and heaven. Organized around the body of a holy man or woman and decorated with hangings and candles, they serve as centers of liturgical performances and endpoints of vast networks of pilgrimages.
Or could we, instead, be in a 20th-century art history classroom with a professor lecturing to a crowd of undergraduates, pointing occasionally to a projected image of a painting or sculpture? As Robert Nelson has noted in 2000, “for many who have passed through university classes, art history is the illustrated lecture.” And those illustrated lectures depend, almost inevitably, upon slides and slide projectors, which whir quietly as their bright beam cuts through the dark and casts vast forms upon a screen.
It could, of course, be either. The weird ambiguity is, I want to argue, a result of a deep similarity between slides and religious relics. That is an abrupt claim, I realize, and, of course, there are differences between the two. Relics, traditionally, are bones or personal effects connected to famous religious figures: the remains of Sainte Foy, the Virgin Mary’s tunic, or a tooth of the Buddha. Often the focus of pilgrimages, they are sometimes said to possess miraculous powers and typically kept in richly decorated shrines or elaborate reliquaries made of gold or rock crystal. Slides, by contrast, are merely mounted pieces of transparency film. No pilgrims seek them out, they are traditionally stored in generic cabinets, and their cheap, plastic frames cost about 20 cents each.
And yet: despite these real differences, there are also some provocative similarities. Relics and slides are both what the linguist Charles Peirce called indices, physical traces of a significant past. The mandylion, for instance, is held to bear the very impress of Jesus’ face; when Veronica extends her veil, he allegedly wipes his face, leaving a residue of blood and sweat that is the precise inverse of his face. Slides, in turn, are made of color reversal film, a strip of plastic covered with layers of cyan, magenta, and yellow. Rays of light, trained through a lens, strike the dyes and reveal underlying primary colors. The resulting form can vary widely, but it’s the physical history that matters, the way in which both relics and slides bear a causal testimony to a past event.
That is important because relics and slides are, as objects, often rather dull. A knuckle bone, a centuries-old shoe, a two-inch square: these are small, inert things and unimpressive on their own. One slide looks at first glance much like any other, and the vocal cords of Saint Anthony look like…well, if you happen to think of a strip of biltong, you’re excused. But that common lack of physical majesty is arguably a sort of virtue, because it almost necessitates explication. That, at least, is the observation of the historian Patrick Geary, who has written that “the bare relic – a bone or a bit of dust – carries no fixed code or sign of its meaning.” So, too, with the slide, which sits mutely on its own, awaiting exposition and the bright, revealing light of the projector.
Relics and slides, then, have to be performed. For Geary, this means that an object becomes a relic only when it is given a new symbolic function. It might be called curative or bleed once a year; in any event, the point is that its function as a relic depends upon the consent and participation of a community. And isn’t that true of slides as well? The loaded carousel is a mere piece of equipment until the uncle begins to speak of his trip to India or the lecturer starts to analyze the paintings of Manet. At that point, something complex occurs: as the art historian Robert Nelson puts it, speakers, slides and audiences “create narratives and social bonds and transform shadows into art, monument, symbolic capital, or disciplinary data.” A label, a lecture, a legend, a liturgy: relics and slides are essentially social objects, acquiring their significance through reification.
But we can be more specific still. Both slides and relics point, at least from our perspective, to a distant and partly unfamiliar past, freighted with particular customs that seem to verge on the superstitious. We marvel and shake our heads, for instance, at the lively accounts of grave robbery and relic thieves in the central Middle Ages. Meanwhile, an art historian in Maryland recently told me of the odd but moving experience of sharing her old slides – made and used in the 1990s, but now obviated by PowerPoint – with her current graduate students. Accustomed to digital imagery, the students were amazed by the materiality of the slides and the byzantine complexity that had characterized their production. In this way, the slides had effectively become relics.
Which is, perhaps, appropriate – for art historical slides often picture relics, as well. Indeed, the art historical canon, as it has long been taught, is built largely around religious sites and cult objects: Olympia (with the remains of Pelops) or Saint-Denis (with its crypt full of French kings) or the Sistine Chapel (with the consecrated body of Christ on the altar). Norman Brockman, in writing about Chartres, imagines a hypothetical pilgrim who “goes to see the relics and marvel at the spiritual riches of the cathedral.” Were the thousands of undergraduates who sat in on, say, Vincent Scully’s famous slide-based course in ancient and medieval art history at Yale really all that different?
Not if we trust a 2008 profile of Scully. “When he shows the huge choir window behind the altar at Chartres,” writes Richard Conniff, “he remarks that you have to climb uphill to the cathedral, and still seem to be climbing once inside. Here he reaches out with both hands for imaginary oars and lays his back into it, as if toward the heavenly light behind the altar.” His audience, rapt, watches as Scully seems to strain towards the numinous light cast by the slide projector – and it then breaks into applause. Brown once argued of early Christianity that “those who possessed the holy, in the form of portable relics, could show gratia by sharing these good things with others…” Scully, perhaps, does something similar, using slides to offer a virtual account of the sheer potency of a reliquary.
And that, perhaps, is partly why contemporary art historians still keep their slides in spite of their inutility. A retired art historian in North Carolina, for example, digitizes many of his slides but keeps several hundred because they remind him so effectively of the Armenian photographers who had produced them for him during a trip to Jerusalem. Kept “because of their association with the men who made them,” they are in his view a rough equivalent of a flask of holy water brought back from the Holy Land.
Nostalgia, of course, is not faith. And slides can always be reproduced, while relics are unica (at least in theory; in practice, as Geary showed, relics also have a history of multiplication). And yet, both embody a past that is rich in associations: “archaic remnants,” as Hallie Bahn calls slides in 2017, “of predigital life.” The word relic, we’re told, derives from the Latin relinquere (to leave behind, to abandon) – but the very purpose of a relic is to perpetuate and honor what might otherwise be forgotten. Which is, you could fairly say, exactly what slides do.
One of the features of slide collections that I have always enjoyed the most are the hand-written notes that fill the appended sticker labels. At my graduate school, these were sometimes remarkable fields: palimpsests, really, in which generations of scholars had noted details about the photographer, and the object depicted, and the contexts in which the slide had been shown. I now live in Baltimore, where the Walters Art Museum owns an altarpiece by Nardo Ceccarelli. The main image depicts the Virgin and Christ child, but it is framed by a series of small glass windows through which we see relics: fragments of saints’ bones and earth from the Holy Land.
Each relic, visible in its frame, is neatly labeled in a crabby script. We step closer, peering in. And as we do, as we think about the purportedly holy origins of these objects, perhaps we are also reminded of what it was like to hold a slide up to the light of a slide room, and to travel across time by means of a modest piece of plastic.
Kerr Houston is a professor of art history, theory and criticism at MICA, where he has taught since 2002. He is the author of two books and numerous articles on art and visual culture.