Working With the Past

Alicia Cannizzo working on a large head. Photo: Dalton Cannizzo

The first time I made a series of work I really liked it was directly inspired by the past. I had come across the book The Power of Images by David Freedberg, which is a close look at the impact images have on cultures and individuals, using the Middle Ages and early modern period as an example. As an undergraduate I felt compelled to justify my decision to study art, perhaps because the over culture was telling me it was not a valuable thing to pursue, and I picked this book up on the recommendation of someone who knew I wouldn’t start making anything of substance until I had accepted the importance of artwork to me and to society. The book focused a lot on interactions between the viewer and the artwork, pointing out the many ways the viewer charges the artwork with meaning and experience, but more importantly on the way the artwork in turn acts upon the viewer. Body part reliquaries were a crucial part of the argument. 

Alicia Cannizzo, Altarpiece, 2009.

I was also interested in a phrase that had been haunting me for years. I had read Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body  while in high school, and while I had loved the book, the most profound impact it had on me came simply from the title. Sometimes a phrase gets written on our own hearts, and we don’t know why. There they sit, coloring our worldview. David Freedberg’s exploration of body part reliquaries opened up that phrase for me, making me think about what does get written in the body and why, and coloring my own interpretation of body part reliquaries. 

Reliquary Bust of a Female Saint, ca. 1520-30, South Netherlandish. Image in the public domaine, courtesy of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I began to make work in response to these two ideas. It began with the figure above, a 30” tall bust made from a very fine white stoneware. The body was inspired by the busts of female saints like the one pictured that once populated church shrines and altars in great number. I loved that the reliquary combined the physical response to sculpture with the abstract idea of the physically sacred. What I mean by that is that when we encounter a humanoid sculpture, even if we know it is not alive, there is a response in our brains which tells us we are having some kind of encounter with a being. We know it isn’t true rationally, but put your body in proximity to any figurative sculpture of approximate life size and you will feel the smallest frisson of tension, a moment when your own lizard brain is deciding whether this other creature is a friend or foe. The size, coloring, and gaze of the reliquary bust all exploit this, so that the viewer feels that sense of encounter strongly. What is so amazing about reliquaries is that behind that rather abstract feeling, there is also an actual remnant of the saint. Quite often it is a bone or some hair, and in some cases something the saint touched, like a tunic or a sandal. These relics were thought to have a direct link to the saint in heaven, so that the encounter with the object was in fact an encounter with the holy person. 

I made my reliquary bust with an opening in the chest shaped loosely like a gothic arch. The guide holds the doors open like an altarpiece, and inside there are shelves and cubbyholes for sacred objects. At the time I first made it, I had a very hard time deciding what to put inside the cubbyholes. I began with a finger made out of clay with a wedding band on it, a macabre (but very medieval) exploration of the yearning I felt to marry the man I was living with at the time (reader, I married him). I also included a black bird because of the crows who lived outside the studio where I worked. As time has gone on, though, this piece has become a living artwork. I continue to add items to it as mementos of a life in progress, including bits of mica from the river that flooded and destroyed my parents’ home, hair from a beloved family dog who passed away, and fragments of a ring that shattered. 

Arm Reliquary ca. 1230, South Netherlandish. Image in the public domaine, courtesy of The Metropolitan museum of Art

Body part reliquaries come in all body parts (well, as far as I know there are none devoted to genetalia!) and some of my favorites are the arm reliquaries. Dr. Cynthia Hahn has done the most important recent work on them. She is now my dissertation advisor. She has shown that the reliquary does not reflect the type of bone or relic inside (many assume that an arm reliquary, for example, must hold the arm bode of the saint). Instead, the shape of the reliquary reflects its use, its role in the liturgy or its place on the shrine. An arm reliquary may hold an ankle bone of a saint, but it could be used by the priest to gesture and perhaps to bless the congregation, or to reinforce a blessing as it sits on the altar, therefore increasing the potency of the of the liturgy or the blissing itself. These pieces were created to act upon the congregation. That is one of the most significant and compelling things about them. 

Alicia Cannizzo, Relic, 2009.

I particularly love the arm reliquaries because I like to imagine them in action, in a candle-lit interior where all the gold and gems would be a truly astonishing sight. The pieces I made in response to the arm reliquary are covered in a thin layer of beeswax instead of gold.

The study of history is necessary to my work. It doesn’t have to be distant history; I’m inspired by Barbara Hepworth and Bernard Leach as much as I am by the Middle Ages. But there is something about looking to the past that allows one to re-interpret, to explore, to make an idea one’s own more thoroughly. That is the basis of my work. 

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