HIST230 - The Living Dead: Religious and Cultural Relics in a Global Context

Why have various people and religious groups – over thousands of years – so insistently preserved, collected and displayed the remains of their revered dead – from the bones of saints to the body of Lenin to Elvis’ hair? And why have these very same remains, at certain points, become targets of extreme violence or heated debate? This seminar will offer an in-depth study of the history and uses of sacred remains and the objects, buildings and sites associated with them. A major focus of the course will be the analysis of how and why bodily remains and material objects become invested with meaning and power. In the first half of the course, we will examine relics in the context of several major religions, comparing how each tradition has used or rejected relics. We will also pay close attention to the artwork and social phenomena inspired by such relics including pilgrimages, reliquaries/shrines and iconoclasm. In the second half of the course, we will widen our lens to explore bodily and cultural relics in the 19th and 20th centuries, including objects, places or monuments cherished for historical or memorial value. Topics to be explored include relics/sacred sites and politics, modern pilgrimage and how attitudes toward the display of human remains, especially in museums or memorials, has changed over time. Each class will combine several scholarly articles and primary sources (textual and material) to introduce students to the methods which historians and art historians use to analyze relics, reliquaries, and material objects more generally. Students will then employ these techniques in two essays analyzing reliquaries and relics from different time periods. A final comparative essay will ask students compare the two previously selected relics and to contrast how they functioned in different cultural and temporal contexts. The course will also include field trips to the Mütter Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.
Day and Time: 
M 0500PM-0800PM


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