What is a Reliquary?

Niki Foster

A reliquary is a type of shrine used to house relics, which are physical items associated with saints or other religious figures and traditionally believed to have supernatural healing powers. Reliquaries differ greatly in size and appearance, but many, particularly those of medieval Europe, are very elaborate and adorned with precious metals and jewels. Some reliquaries are designed to be portable, either carried on one's person or displayed to the public in processions, while others are made to be permanently housed in churches.

John Calvin dismissed the authenticity of pieces of Christ's crown of thorns and cross used as popular relics in his time.
John Calvin dismissed the authenticity of pieces of Christ's crown of thorns and cross used as popular relics in his time.

Relics are often portions of the physical remains of a saint, such as bones, though they may also be items used or touched by the saint in life, such as clothing. Holy Thorns from Jesus' Crown of Thorns and fragments of the True Cross were popular relics during the medieval period, though, as John Calvin reportedly pointed out, there were so many that few could have been genuine. Perhaps the most impressive relics are the incorruptible bodies of certain saints, often placed on display in their entirety in a coffin-like glass reliquary.

Holy Thorns from Jesus' Crown of Thorns are popular relics during the medieval period.
Holy Thorns from Jesus' Crown of Thorns are popular relics during the medieval period.

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Though relics are revered in other religions, such as Buddhism, they became important to Christians around the 4th century, and the reliquary was a natural next step. The reliquary served both to protect and to attractively showcase a relic. Not all reliquaries allow the relic to be viewed through glass, but most are artistically decorated.

The first reliquaries were simply boxes, but throughout the medieval era, they became increasingly decorative. One popular style was the reliquary fashioned in a shape related to the relic it held, such as a bust-like reliquary for a skull or an arm-shaped one for arm bones. True Cross pieces may be held in a cross-shaped reliquary. In the later Middle Ages, personal reliquaries in the form of jewelry, such as lockets, became popular.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century marked the end of the heyday of the reliquary, which Martin Luther denounced as idolatrous. However, reliquaries are still made, particularly in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries, and many from the medieval period are still on display in churches and museums.

Reliquaries are intended to display relics.
Reliquaries are intended to display relics.

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