“Relics and Icons and Art, Oh my!”

oh myThis is a diary entry, unfortunately long on words and short on images. The catalyst is an FX miniseries, “The Lost Room.” If you haven’t seen it, you might want to read a summary before reading this blog entry, or just skip the blog and watch the show.


I won’t discuss the plot except to say that people who enter the Lost Room disappear if the door closes behind them, unless they have the Key. There are no lions and tigers and bears in this 1960s-era motel room—nothing obviously threatening. There’s nothing in it but a bed.

Over time, objects belonging to the room begin to appear and people hoard them; they lie and kill to get them. For the most part, the objects are ordinary (a watch, a nail file), the kind you might expect to find in any occupied motel room.

But each of these Objects is very, very creepy. Outside the room, the Objects have Powers.

After Carl and I finished watching “The Lost Room,” we had the inevitable discussion about our society’s obsession with things–possessions (our own, other people’s), gadgets, devices, and relics.

A little time passed. We were watching TV. Carl said, “You know that quilt made out of Hayden’s shirts? It’s an Object.” He hid the TV remote under the quilt and pushed the “off” button. Nothing happened. He hid the remote under a different blanket, and it worked. He hid it under a flannel bathrobe; it worked.


My Dad’s shirt quilt is special to me: he wore the fabric until it was threadbare; my Mom painstakingly stitched it back together after he passed. So sure, I believe it has Power.

This got me to thinking about relics and icons and their relationship to art, and about a book I read last year:

Art Forgery, the History of a Modern Obsession, by Thierry Lenain (2012).

Lenain explains that the attribution of mystical power to religious icons and relics was progressively reduced to a replicable process and then commodified, starting in the Middle Ages, and that the aura of spiritual power became attached to fine art and individual artists during the Romantic Era. Initially, a relic might be a scrap of clothing or a knucklebone belonging to a saint. Since any scrap or piece of bone from the original source was as good as another, it was relatively simple to get a knock-off “validated” by an appropriate religious authority. Much later, in the case of art, the validator was an art connoisseur. The growing popularity of these transactions fueled a rise in lucrative forgeries, first in the realm of icons and relics and eventually, in fine art. If you could fool the connoisseur, the art object became what you said it was.

I read the book to learn more about art forgery, but it also introduced me to the fascinating history of icons and relics, and demystified contemporary connections between art and our relationship with Objects of Power. Flannery O’Connor would have had choice words for the characters in “The Lost Room” who hoarded objects, but she also understood the power of objects to impact behavioral positively and negatively.

Here are examples of my Flannery O’Connor work pertaining to relics and icons. This is not my best work, and also it bears  little connection to the O’Connor characters it represents, so I’ve wondered from time to time why I made it. The story (“A View of the Woods”) is about a dysfunctional rural family in which a little girl, who shares her grandfather’s looks and temperament, sides instead with her deadbeat dad over whether or not to sell a piece of land.  The woods and the cows grazing there remind her of her family as she idealizes it. In reality the dad, unsuccessful and reminded of it often by his father-in-law, takes his frustration out on his family and beats the child. But he is still her dad and to defend him, she stands up to the overbearing grandfather (disaster ensues).

pinballFamily Pinball

In the story, the dad is a peripheral character. But he became the inspiration for my portrait of a dad, a “Not So Bad Dad”—not perfect, but not so bad, either, just a dad trying to get by. I used flotsam from a box my father kept for years and years. Anytime he found a miscellaneous screw or washer lying around, it went in that box. Maybe this is why I save flotsam. It’s comforting; it reminds me of him.

DadNot So Bad Dad

In “Not So Bad Dad,” I gave new use to a pair of glasses a car flattened and a tie clasp that has no tie; these are my relics of him. This Dad stares at you penetratingly, straight on like an icon, but he also sticks out his tongue, which reminds me of Hayden’s quirky sense of humor. Making this art renewed my bond with a father I sometimes didn’t understand while I was growing up. Every time I look at it, I’m reminded that in some ways I have grown to be  more like him than you could ever have told me would happen when I was 20.

Perhaps the greatest relevance of “Not So Bad Dad” to Flannery O’Connor’s fiction lies in evoking her medieval use of religious imagery based on ordinary objects. Reading her fiction, one visualizes odd icons and relics (an orthopedic shoe, a wooden leg). My favorite icon of hers is the tattoo of a stern Byzantine Christ in “Parker’s Back.”

O'Connor riddleI Thought She’d Love Me if I Put Jesus on My Back (detail)

Parker gets the tattoo on his back as a gift to his very religious wife. He wishes that she would hold up a mirror so he could see it. But instead, she beats him for his “idolatry.” She never really sees the tattoo, but it burns into Parker’s soul. He looks deeply even though he can’t see it, but she refuses to look at the image before her. I felt drawn to depict a scene that doesn’t actually occur in O’Connor’s story, the point at which they both confront the icon from their different perspectives. It’s what she’s saying we have to do—look hard and drink deeply, with humility and sometimes in discomfort.

I’ll end with a description of Byzantine imagery that explains why I’m drawn to it, and also with a promise to get back to making Objects in 2015 instead of reflecting on their Powers.

“…. Orthodox images are not simply illustrative—telling a story from the Bible, say—or allegorical—revealing an essential truth in the form of a parable or set of meaning-laced symbols. They are meant to DO something: to serve as a portal, an urgent and direct route to the divine. You don’t just admire an Orthodox image; you certainly don’t worship it. You interact with it.”

Charles King. Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul. 2014, page 280.


About Lillian-Trettin

I grew up in the Appalachian "Bible Belt" of East Tennessee in the southern United States, listening to banjo music and gospel lyrics as well as the Beatles. As a kid, I was curious about religious rituals like speaking in tongues and snake handling but resistant to the fundamentalist thinking they involved. Flannery O'Connor's tales of religious fanatics, con men, bigots, and the spiritually bereft or ambivalent resonate for me. Despite having traveled widely and lived in other places, I am (as so many Southerners claim to be) permanently "South haunted." I returned to making art full time in 2011, following a career as a teacher, researcher, and consultant and after raising two sons. I’m convinced the delay enriched rather than impeded my growth as an artist.
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1 Response to “Relics and Icons and Art, Oh my!”

  1. Katherine hannabass says:

    Very will done and I’m sure you are not alone in making that kind of discovery. K

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