Healing and Veneration: Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity


Reliquary chasse of in the form of a miniature simplified church building. / Photo by Maria-Lan Nguyen, Victoria & Albert Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Medieval reliquaries have been subject to widespread destruction during times of religious and political strife.


By Dr. Barbara Drake Boehm
Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters
Metropolitan Museum of Art


Relics

Christian belief in the power of relics, the physical remains of a holy site or holy person, or objects with which they had contact, is as old as the faith itself and developed alongside it. Relics were more than mementos.

The Fieschi Morgan Staurotheke (early 9th century): Elaborately worked in cloisonné enamel, the lid of this box displays Christ on the cross wearing the colobium (sleeveless or short-sleeve tunic) associated with early images of the Crucifixion. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

The New Testament refers to the healing power of objects that were touched by Christ or his apostles. The body of the saint provided a spiritual link between life and death, between man and God: “Because of the grace remaining in the martyr, they were an inestimable treasure for the holy congregation of the faithful.” Fueled by the Christian belief in the afterlife and resurrection, in the power of the soul, and in the role of saints as advocates for humankind in heaven, the veneration of relics in the Middle Ages came to rival the sacraments in the daily life of the medieval church. Indeed, from the time of Charlemagne, it was obligatory that every altar contain a relic.

The holiest of relics were those associated with Christ and his mother. Because of the belief in the resurrection of Christ and the bodily assumption of the Virgin into heaven, physical relics of Christ and the Virgin were—with a few rare exceptions, like the baby teeth of Jesus or the Virgin’s milk—usually objects that they touched in their lifetime, such as the wood from the True Cross or pieces of the Virgin’s veil. The most common relics are associated with the apostles and those local saints renowned for the working of miracles across Europe.

Scenes from the Legend of Saint Vincent of Saragossa and the History of His Relics (c.1245-1247): The monks of Saint-Germain-des-Prés had a special devotion for Saint Vincent (d. 304), as their abbey had been founded to receive a relic of the saint’s tunic. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

All relics bestowed honor and privileges upon the possessor; monasteries and cathedrals sought to obtain the prestigious relics, and when they succeeded, their proud accomplishment is sometimes celebrated in the decoration of their sanctuaries. Some relics were even stolen from one church, only to find a new home in another, those of Saint Mark in Venice, Saint Nicholas in Bari on the Adriatic coast, or Saint Foy at Conques being among the most famous examples.

Reliquaries

Reliquary in the Shape of a Sarcophagus (400-600 CE): The inscription on this reliquary suggests that it was given to a church or shrine in memory of a miracle, likely a cure, or in anticipation of a request made to the saint whose remains were kept in the box. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Reliquaries are the containers that store and display relics. Since the relics themselves were considered “more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold,” it was considered only appropriate that they be enshrined in vessels, or reliquaries, crafted of or covered by gold, silver, ivory, gems, and enamel. These precious objects constituted a major form of artistic production across Europe and Byzantium throughout the Middle Ages.

Medieval reliquaries frequently assume the form of caskets (chasses), but complex containers in the form of parts of the body, usually mimicking the relics they enshrined, are one of the most remarkable art forms created in the Middle Ages for the precious remains of saints. Reliquaries were often covered with narrative scenes from the life of saints, whose remains may have been contained within.

Chasse with the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty (c.1180-1190): Shimmering with gold and jewel-like color, enameled altar furnishings from Limoges are luxurious in appearance, yet remarkably sturdy. The unlikely combination of preciousness and practicality contributed to the international renown of Limoges enameling from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Sometimes the decoration of chasses was not specific to any given saint or community but rather reflected common, making them appropriate to the use of any community. Reliquaries were also fashioned into full-body statues, or more abbreviated, but still imposing, bust-length images of saints, often those with local reputations of great authority, including revered women saints.

Oliphant (12th century): Decorated elephant tusks could be employed as drinking vessels, as horns to announce the hunt, or as symbols of feudal rights. In churches, some served as reliquary containers. As this example shows Christ as the Lamb of God, it probably was made for a Christian patron. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Set on an altar and carried in procession, their arrival sometimes heralded by the sounding of ivory horns, these highly decorated works of art made an indelible impression on the faithful. The distinction between the meaning of an image such as the famous Reliquary Statue of Sainte-Foy, still preserved at the monastery of Conques in France, and pagan idols was clearly articulated in an important chronicle written by Bernard of Angers in the eleventh century: “It is not an impure idol that receives the worship of an oracle or of sacrifice, it is a pious memorial, before which the faithful heart feels more easily and more strongly touched by solemnity, and implores more fervently the powerful intercession of the saint for its sins.”

Reliquary Bust of Saint Balbina (c.1530-1540): Medieval reliquaries often took the form of the body parts they were created to contain. Bust reliquaries for the skulls of saints were placed on or near altars and, by the late Middle Ages, were assembled in large numbers in some church sanctuaries. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

By the end of the Middle Ages, image reliquaries, which traditionally were meant to suggest a saint’s heavenly form and visage, came to mirror contemporary ideas of beauty. Meanwhile, the relics themselves, once hidden within the container, could be glimpsed through apertures or vials of rock crystal.

Reliquary Shrine (c.1325-1350): This sumptuous reliquary sets the Virgin and Child, accompanied by angels, within an elaborate architectural shrine. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Reliquaries were sometimes created expressly for privileged individuals or purchased by them. The faithful of humble means might still acquire a souvenir badge at the shrines of saints that called to mind the precious works of art associated with them. Whether created for a church or for a private individual, medieval reliquaries have been subject to widespread destruction during times of religious and political strife. Those that survive bear precious witness to exceptional artistic creativity inspired by contemporary faith.


Originally published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2001, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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