Art History Terms: Relics and Reliquaries
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! Back in March, I posted about 10 key terms to know when studying art history. (Click here to read it.) So, I thought that it would be fun to continue this series with one of my personal favorite aspects of art history: relics and reliquaries! It is important to note that many religions around the world have relics and reliquaries as a part of their faith. However, I will be focusing on Christian pieces for this post. So to learn more, keep on reading!
What is a relic?
A relic is the physical remains of a holy person or place. These objects were more than simple souvenirs or mementos. In the New Testament, objects touched by Christ or His disciplines were imbued with healing powers of their own. Eventually, this belief grew to encompass any object or body part of a saint or holy person. They provided a tangible link between the human and the divine. Relics could be body parts, full bodies, pieces of clothing, personal objects or even pieces of a landscape where a holy event took place. As long as a holy person interacted with the object, it could be a relic.
The most valued relics are those associated with Jesus and his Mother, the Virgin Mary. However, they were both fully bodily assumed into Heaven, leaving no physical remains. So, objects such as Crucifixion objects (nails, pieces of the Cross, and the Crown of Thorns), and pieces of the Virgin’s clothing are used in the place of body parts.
What is a reliquary?
A reliquary is the container that houses the relic. Often, they are designed in such a way that allows the viewer to see the relic inside. For example, in medieval times, rock crystal was used to create little windows in the container. However, there are cases where the reliquary is shaped to indicate to the viewer what kind of relic is contained within. For example, this
arm reliquary contains the arm bone of a saint and is blessing the devotee. Reliquaries are almost always decorated with a variety of precious materials. This highlights just how special and sacred the relics inside were.
Now that we’ve gone over some background information, let’s take a look at some examples of relics and reliquaries!
In life, St. Foy (Faith in English), was a young, Roman girl who practiced Christianity. However, in the early 4th century, this was still illegal and she was martyred during the Diocletian persecutions in 303 CE. When the Romans tried to execute her by placing her on a hot griddle, divine intervention stopped her from getting hurt. So, they had no choice but to behead her. After her death, her relics were associated with several miracles, including curing blindness and providing visions.
Although St. Foy died in Agen, France, her relics have resided in the Abbey Church of St. Foy in Conques for over a thousand years. Conques sits on one of the most important pilgrimage routes in the Catholic Church, the road to St. Iago de Compostela. In order to entice pilgrims to enter their church and give money, the church needed a relic. So, a monk from Conques stole the relics of St. Foy from Agen and brought them home.
The reliquary of St. Foy is one of the most famous in medieval art history. She is seen sitting on a grand throne and covered from head to toe in beautiful jewels. Many of these jewels were donated by patrons, looking to seek favor with the saint.
One detail that is shocking to some viewers is the masculine face that the reliquary has. St. Foy was around 12 when she died, so we expect the face of an innocent, young girl. Art historians believe that the sculpture was not originally used as a reliquary, but instead was repurposed from a Roman statue of a child. This would explain the discrepancy in appearance.
The reuse of materials is called spolia. On one hand, it was practical and cost effective. But, on the other hand, it was a way to associate this object with the riches of the Roman Empire. It shows that Christianity was able to overcome the Romans and succeed as a global religion.
The Reliquary Cross from the Cloisters Museum is a great example of how reliquaries could be used to represent the relic held inside. This piece dates from the late 12th century and was made in France. It is made of silver gilt and has a variety of decorations: engravings representing the items held within, inscriptions, and glass that was colored to resemble
This reliquary is in the shape of the cross because it contains fragments of the True Cross, or the cross on which Christ was crucified upon. The small piece was placed behind a rock crystal “window” in the main shaft of the cross. Today, it is hard to see, but in medieval times, it would have been visible to believers.
Reliquary Box with Rocks from the Holy Land
Unlike the other two examples, this box is quite plain. It isn’t covered in precious metals or jewels, but instead is a simple, wooden box with a painted lid. On the outside, it seems unassuming. However, this reliquary box can actually tell us a lot about pilgrims and their journeys.
Each of the scenes on the outside represents one of the rocks on the inside. The scenes all represent important events in the Bible, the top half are scenes from the Nativity and the bottom are from Easter. They are divided by the main moment of the Crucifixion.
In order to complete the reliquary, a pilgrim had to visit each of these sites and carefully collect a piece of the landscape. Although they appear to be simple stones, they are actually powerful religious objects. Because these important events took place, the landscape has now become holy. By taking a piece of it with them, the pilgrim was able to take some of that holiness back to their home.
To the modern eye, relics and reliquaries can be considered beautiful, artistic objects. But in fact, they are much more than that. They were an essential part of medieval, Christian providing a tangible link to the divine and a place in which to channel devotion.
Images and Sources
Treasures of Heaven by Martina Bagnoli (Editor), Holger A. Klein (Editor), C. Griffith Mann (Editor), James Robinson (Editor)