Spring 2012

Holy Rollers

The floral paroxysms of paper reliquaries

Celeste Olalquiaga

While female ecstatic mysticism has been abundantly studied, the visual material produced in female cloisters, equally fervent and more tangible, is still being discovered. Particularly outstanding are the private devotional objects known as reliquaires à paperoles, glass-covered boxes filled with both human relics and ornaments made with rolled or folded paper. Dating back to at least 1643, these reliquaries usually depict a religious scene amid luscious vegetation: paste or cutout figures from Christian iconography are set with animal glue and surrounded with sacred relics, the whole immersed in a floral proliferation made mainly of paper but also including glass beads, shells, and leftover matter such as breadcrumbs. Evoking enchanted forests, these three-dimensional tableaux were produced by the thousands during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Bavaria, northern Spain, and the south of France. After being discarded and forgotten for decades, they have begun to resurface in small parishes and collectors’ circles.

The flourishing of paperoles in cloistered female orders such as the Carmelites, Visitandines, and Ursulines can be framed, like much of the period’s devotional creation, between two papal councils. Reacting to the Protestant Reformation and its iconoclasm by authorizing religious iconography, the Council of Trent (1534–1565) legitimized the most contested of Catholicism’s elements—saints’ relics. Four hundred years later, the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) would radically secularize the liturgy, resulting in a mass disposal of cult objects.

Made by the nuns as gifts for the cloisters’ sponsors or for their own families, paper reliquaries had circulated mainly in the private domain. As such, these objects of worship were part of the domestic décor, whether in the main room, a bedroom, or the private chapel of a home. They were never kept in the cloisters, as their ornamental character was at odds with monastic austerity.

Elaborated with simple materials, these reliquaries are extremely fragile: sunlight melts the waxes and glues used to fix ornaments in the boxes and fades the paper’s color, insects devour all three, and humidity and mold complete the task, becoming almost part of the scenes’ vegetal portrayal. This material fragility reiterates the triple cultural precariousness of paper reliquaries. Not only do they belong to an extremely polemical lineage—the cult of relics—but they were made by women and with “poor” materials, as female contemplative orders were forbidden from using metal or precious stones in their work. Sin of sins, paperoles’ visual exuberance made them into ornaments. It is not surprising that they were indiscriminately thrown into the garbage during the post-Council period of the 1960s and 1970s.

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.