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.
A (Roughly) Chronological Tale of Reliquaries
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.
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
The Medieval Cult of Saints
By the 9th century, the cult of relics had become integral to the worship of Christians across Europe and the Byzantine Empire. With the
In the early medieval period,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.