What Is a Reliquary? Here’s a Short Introduction To the Bejeweled Medieval Vessels

Reliquary of St. Elizabeth

The Reliquary of St. Elizabeth—once thought to hold the head of the Hungarian saint—is now held at the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm. Made of agate, precious metals, and stones, the oldest elements date to late antiquity, while the more recent additions date from the 11th and 13th centuries. (Photo: Ola Myrin via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.5])

The veneration of saints was a fundamental feature of medieval Christianity. The remaining relics of these holy people took on new religious significance in the early Middle Ages. As objects of veneration and pilgrimage, the physical remains of the holy and their belongings required some of the finest works of medieval metallurgy and artistry: reliquaries. These purpose-built containers were typically constructed of precious materials and often depicted scenes from the saint's life and Biblical history.

A saint's life provided a holy guide to believers, and their relics could still work miracles. For the medieval faithful, touching a relic could heal afflictions or soothe troubled souls. As a result, churches and the very wealthy commissioned grand reliquaries worthy of their priceless relics. Ordinary people would encounter reliquaries in their places of worship, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles in pilgrimage to view the most important spiritual objects. The ornate reliquaries of medieval Christianity are objects of great religious importance, but they are also unparalleled examples of craftsmanship.

Reliquaries are fascinating objects of faith and fine art. Learn more about them below.

Shrine of The Three Kings Cologne

The Shrine of the Three Kings in the Cologne Cathedral. Completed circa 1225, it is the largest Christian reliquary and features reliefs depicting Biblical scenes in an example of fine medieval goldsmithery. The reliquary is believed to house the remains of the three magi. (Photo: Stock Photos from SAIKO3P/Shutterstock)

 

A (Roughly) Chronological Tale of Reliquaries

 

Early Reliquaries

Silver Reliquary Late Antiquity

A silver reliquary casket from the early 5th century, discovered in Lombardy, Italy and now housed at the Louvre Museum. The sides display biblical scenes accented with gold. (Photo: © Photo RMN / Gérard Blot from the Musée de Louvre)

In the long history of the Roman Catholic Church, pious individuals have reached sainthood through their faith, attested miracles, and (sometimes) martyrdom. Many of the earliest Christians who walked with Christ are now considered saints. However, the specific designation and veneration of saintly individuals did not begin until the 4th century CE, after the decriminalization of Christianity in the late Roman Empire. In late antiquity, individuals were deemed martyrs or confessors by local bishops without centralized papal control. Despite this decentralized process, the fame of many saintly individuals spread far beyond the localities where they were officially recognized.

Romanesque Ivory Reliquary 1125

A small ivory reliquary crafted around 1125, likely in Norway. The designs feature vegetal motifs and animals. (Photo: Rijksmuseum [Public domain])

As the saints gained devoted followers, their remains and belongings were coveted as a connection to the illustrious departed. Early reliquaries were often stone boxes, inside which were placed smaller decorative cases of precious metals. These cases could hold relics wrapped in cloth. During the 6th century CE, many believers began to voyage to the Holy Land in search of Biblical sites. They returned to Europe with unearthed relics. According to Marie-Bénédicte Astier, writing for the Louvre Museum, the small metal reliquaries of late antiquity were ideal for such travels. These items represent some of the earliest Christian iconography, known as Paleo-Christian for its inclusion of older pagan motifs. As the veneration of saints gained in popularity (and Christianity spread across Western Europe), changes in the style of reliquaries exemplify an evolving aesthetic of faith.

 

The Medieval Cult of Saints

Reliquary Pendant 1174

A late 12th century reliquary pendant depicting Queen Margaret of Sicily receiving a blessing from Bishop Reginald of Bath.The back of the pendant encased blood and cloth from Saint Thomas Becket. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art [Public domain])

By the 9th century, the cult of relics had become integral to the worship of Christians across Europe and the Byzantine Empire. With the Great Schism in 1054, the Eastern and Western European Christian churches ideologically and institutionally split. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church each developed their own approach to relics and sainthood; even after the split, however, relics could still cross the geographic and ideological divide. This brief introduction focuses on the Catholic reliquaries, leaving the Easter Orthodox treatment of relics to another day.

In the early medieval period, reliquaries were commissioned by those with relics to house. The relics themselves could be diplomatic gifts, won in conquest, or purchases of devotion—by the wealthy—for specific churches. The relics were placed in vessels crafted by master goldsmiths and silversmiths. Early examples often took the shape of a casket, also known as a chasse. These boxes resembled chests or church buildings, and the relic inside was fully concealed. Ivory was frequently used as paneling on chasses, as the white color was associated with purity and holiness. A chasse containing relics might feature decorations detailing the life or martyrdom of the saint. Old and New Testament scenes also make appearances, particularly the events of Christ's life and passion.

Kuppel Reliquary

A late 12th century domed reliquary, now held at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])

The relics and their reliquary played an important role in church rites associated with each respective saint. For a saint's day on the Christian liturgical calendar, their relics would be removed from the altar and paraded through the city streets for the public to see. Reliquaries had to be practical for such processions. Other times during the year, the reliquaries could be viewed by weary pilgrims. Medieval pilgrimage routes are still traveled today, such as the famous Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) which leads to the relics of Saint James the Great, an apostle of Jesus said to be enshrined at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Such pilgrims were critical to the local economies surrounding relics. Innkeepers, craftsmen, and the church itself all benefitted financially from a stream of the faithful.

 

Pinnacles of Craftsmanship

Arm Reliquary St. George, Prague

A reliquary in the shape of an arm containing relics of St. George, a late 13th century treasure from Prague. (Photo: Packare via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0])

Reliquaries began to take many different forms during the Middle Ages. Shards of the True Cross were especially precious for their association with the passion of Christ. These relics were often displayed inset in the shaft of a bejeweled golden cross. Other reliquary designs were equally literal renditions of their holy contents. For saintly bones, reliquaries might resemble the hand, arm, or foot from which the bone originated. Sometimes these were designed with a crystal panel through which the relic itself could be glimpsed; a reliquary which displays its contents as such is known as a philatory.

Other forms for these precious vessels drew from familiar Christian sights. In the Treasury of the Cologne Cathedral is a reliquary of gold and silver in the shape of a domed basilica, much like those which awed pilgrims in Rome. The monstrance—a sunburst-like structure used for displaying the Eucharist during mass—would have been a familiar symbol for medieval Christians. The same ornate form was also used for reliquaries, a fact which highlights the importance of saintly relics. Like monstrances, relics were often displayed on altars in chapels, so some reliquaries were designed as triptychs—a standard altarpiece design. Through these Christian motifs, reliquaries further emphasized the importance of the veneration of the saints.

Koeln Monstrance

The Cologne Cathedral monstrance reliquary from the Cathedral treasury. (Photo: Mkill via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0])

Particularly intriguing are the late medieval reliquaries in the shape of busts. Like an arm-shaped reliquary for a humerus bone, skulls were placed in vessels crafted to represent the visage of the saint in heaven. Churches accumulated these luxurious representations in precious metals and painted in realistic styles. Like other reliquary types, the busts continued to be produced during the early Renaissance, adopting contemporary fashions and hairstyles. Although many of the craftsmen's names are lost to time, prestigious artists are known to have accepted commissions. The 15th-century gilded bust reliquary known as the San Rossore Reliquary was sculpted by Donatello for the skull of Saint Luxorius. The expressive, downcast eyes of the saint are an incredible example of Italian Renaissance sculpture.

Triptych Reliquary

A gold-embellished triptych reliquary from Paris, circa 1400 to 1410. (Photo: Rijksmuseum [Public domain])

Reforming Relics

Reliquary Bust of Saint Balbina

A reliquary bust of Saint Balbina, likely to hold her skull. This object was crafted between 1520 and 1530, likely in Brussels. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art [Public domain])

The Renaissance was an incredible time for art and intellectual pursuits in Europe. New ideas spread north from the Italian Renaissance, and by 1500 the Northern Renaissance was changing intellectual paradigms above the Alps. Despite a burgeoning secular art tradition, religious art, relics, and saints remained very important. However, the enthusiasm for relics had lead to wild and murky claims of authenticity from shady characters looking to profit from the “business.” This was only one of the many problems facing the church in the early 16th century. In 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 Theses in which he took issue with the sale of indulgences (forgiveness for sin). Luther's ideas began the Protestant Reformation, which spread quickly and preached a doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Under this reformed doctrine, saintly relics were no longer to be venerated as mediating powers between a Christian and God.

Ivory Reliquary Casse Casket

A reliquary casket in ivory, crafted circa 1500, likely in France. (Photo: Rijksmuseum [Public domain])

While saints were not entirely rejected, their role under Protestantism was much less prominent than in Catholicism. In the areas of Europe which adopted the new creed, relics became the targets of zealous reformers. John Calvin described them as fake idols which served the devil and the (now vilified among some) pope by defrauding believers. He called the relics, “filthy polution the which ought in no wise to be suffered in the church.” Relics were removed, destroyed, or lost. Reliquaries were stolen or melted as treasuries were gutted. However, as scholars such as the historians Alexandra Walsham and Eamon Duffy have discovered, the transition to Protestantism was an emotionally and theologically complex process for both clerics and everyday people. For many, giving up their relics and reliquaries was not an easy task.

While reliquaries were no longer required or produced in Protestant lands, they continued to be important art and religious objects in Catholic Europe. Early modern aristocrats continued to commission fabulous jewels to wear their relics around their necks while simultaneously displaying their wealth. Monarchs, monasteries, and churches continued to commission reliquaries and treasure their relics.

Reliquary Cross True Cross

A reliquary cross in gold, diamonds, and enamel from 17th century Spain. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art [Public domain])

 

Reliquaries Today

Holy Thorn Reliquary

The Holy Thorn Reliquary in the British Museum. (Photo: Geni via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0])

The richly decorated reliquaries of the medieval and Renaissance periods remained prized treasures today. Many have found their way into museum collections and can be seen across Europe and the United States. Others remain in cathedral treasuries—where they are displayed to the public or used in worship. A significant number of relics enshrined in reliquaries have since been identified as fraudulent (both by the Church and scholars) over the years; others have been recognized by the Church and visited by popes. Still more remain shrouded in the mysteries of time, faith, and bejeweled glory.

Ivory Plaques For Book or Reliquary

Ivory plaques illustrating the Last Supper, probably panels from a German reliquary of the 10th century. (Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0])

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and reading while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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