What’s in the box? The art of reliquaries

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Relics (pieces of bone, clothing, shoes, or dust) of Christian martyrs became popular in Western Christianity during the Middle Ages. The cult of relics dates back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, when martyrs were persecuted and often killed in such a way as to fragment the body, which was taboo in Roman society. The intention was to desecrate the body by execution and burning. But Caroline Walker Bynum and Paula Gerson state that at “the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century, the fragments of the martyrs were venerated as places of power and special access to the divine” and, by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, relics were required for the consecration of altars.

Reliquary bust of Saint Yrieix, Limoges, France, ca. 1220-40

Reliquaries, the containers that house relics, took many forms throughout the Middle Ages and were often made in homage to the martyr whose remains were inside. Some were ornate coffins depicting images of the saint’s life or martyrdom, while others were made as busts of saints or ornate works of glass and metal to display larger and more intact relics, such as bones.

Reliquary of Mary Magdalene in gilded copper, gilt silver, rock crystal, eglomised glass, from Tuscany, Italy, 14th and 15th century

An interesting phenomenon in reliquary art are those which are shaped like parts of the human body. These gained popularity in the West in the 12th and 13th centuries and were known as “talking reliquaries”. According to Bynum and Gerson, this implies “that the form expresses or ‘speaks’ the part of the body below; however, we have ample evidence that many body part reliquaries did not in fact contain the bone or body part depicted. Instead, they were often representative of the underlying ritual associated with the relic. For example, an arm-shaped reliquary could signify the blessing given by the priest or bishop. And, in the late Middle Ages, reliquaries in the West did not contain body parts at all, but usually included contact relics, such as pieces of clothing or shoes.

Reliquary arm of Saint Valentine, Switzerland, 14th century

Reliquary art is an interesting and complex part of religious history and art, and speaks both of the form and function of the coffins that housed relics. Many thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for providing these images as part of their open access initiative; all images have Creative Commons Zero (CC0) licenses. You can find these images in the collection of JSTOR Open: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Anyone can view and download these collections at jstor.org; no subscription or connection required.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Artstor blog.


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By: Caroline Walker Bynum and Paula Gerson

Gesta, Vol. 36, No.1 (1997), p. 3-7

The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the International Center for Medieval Art


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