October 6, 2002 6:52 AM   Subscribe

Reliquaries are containers built to hold objects of special religious significance, such as the foot of a saint, or the skull of a king. The art of European reliquary making reached it's zenith in the Middle Ages when craftsman created fantastic objets d'art for cathedrals and monasteries in the form of caskets, bodily appendages, and freestanding holders built to visually display occasionally gruesome bits of the venerated individual. The layperson had access to reliquaries as well, typically in the form of small lead crosses worn around the neck, containing pieces of bone or one of the ubiquitous fragments of the True Cross. Reliquaries are not unique to the Christianity, but can also be found in Buddhist and Islamic tradition.
posted by MrBaliHai (27 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. So much to read, so little time this morning. I'm absolutely fascinated with this kind of stuff... Great post.
posted by greengrl at 6:56 AM on October 6, 2002

Question: How come you can spell "objets d'art " correctly but you write "it's" when you should write "its"?
posted by rwkenyon at 7:06 AM on October 6, 2002

Question: Who cares?

As for the post, I'm trying desperately to remember the name of a book I read that mentioned reliquaries - I'm wanting to think Timeline by Michael Crichton, but I'm pretty sure it isn't...
posted by Orange Goblin at 7:36 AM on October 6, 2002

Thanks for the links! Reliquaries are very, uh, interesting. I saw a bunch in a museum in Germany that were skulls covered in velvet that had been pearled and embroidered with gold. It was all very macabre.
posted by kate_fairfax at 8:03 AM on October 6, 2002

Could you be thinking of Reliquary, perchance, Orange Goblin?
posted by rushmc at 8:09 AM on October 6, 2002

My girlfriend the art historian came across her favorite relic, Saint Munditia, in Munich in St. Peter's Church. The picture is worth looking at... full skeleton, complete with glass eyes and lots of jewels.

My personal favorite reliquary is that of Oliver Plunkett in Drogheda, Co. Meath, Ireland. Yes, that really is a dessicated head. Relics were also hugely important in medieval Ireland as symbols of the Church's primacy in the nation. Each monestary or diocese had a territory, and they went on circuits through the territories with the relics and reliquaries collecting money and goods from the people. Great scam, if you ask me.
posted by The Michael The at 8:19 AM on October 6, 2002

More Buddhist reliquaries, including the one linked above (and one Shingon mandala). The thirteen Buddhas of the Shingon sect. An interesting article on artifacts, relics, and cultural memory
posted by ligeia at 8:28 AM on October 6, 2002

The Michael The: Your link is giving a 404 at prohosting. Here's another picture, for the curious.
posted by whatzit at 8:31 AM on October 6, 2002

Wow, these are so beautiful, MrBaliHai - I love medieval art but there certainly was quite an emphasis on the macabre throughout the history of the church, wasn't there? And relics were not just body parts, sometimes entire bodies - in Prague and in Portugal, I've seen several church altars that served as reliquaries for preserved corpses. And perhaps one of the most unusual reliquaries is an entire chapel made of the bones of Franciscan monks in the city of Evora, Portugal.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:34 AM on October 6, 2002

Thanks for the fantastic links! There's a great line in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, when the older monk says to the younger (who is quite impressed by the collection of relics at the monastery they are visiting) something along the lines of, "If all the relics I've seen of the True Cross were genuine, Christ must have been thirty feet tall and crucified on a pine tree."

Also, no discussion of relics is complete without our old friend Geoffrey Chaucer and the Pardoner.
posted by UKnowForKids at 8:43 AM on October 6, 2002

Excellent post.
I've been fascinated with modern day tributes and pilgramages, the positioning of modern relics. Hollywood, mixed celebrity in the architect of Brasilia, the Burning Man Festival in the US, others.
posted by plexi at 8:48 AM on October 6, 2002

Great links! The Islamic one is a little misleading, though; whatever the Ka'ba and its Black Stone (al-hajar al-aswad) are, they're not really parallel to Christian relics. (If they were, they wouldn't be there -- the Wahhabis destroyed everything that infringed on tawhid, the oneness and uniqueness of God, when they took over the Hejaz and its holy places.) There are parallels, but they're far from Mecca.
posted by languagehat at 9:15 AM on October 6, 2002

I do, however, love this from the "Islamic" link:
"The Kaaba - former storage place of Arabs Deities"
posted by languagehat at 9:28 AM on October 6, 2002

Thanks to everyone who contributed the extra reliquary URLs! I have loved reliquaries for years, and have bookmarked so many links, that there was no way that I could fit them all into one post. I've seen many of the objects in the links firsthand during my trips to Europe and various museums here in the US. One of the best collections of medieval religious objects I've encountered resides at the Catharijnconvent Musueum in the city of Utrecht, Netherlands. Unfortunately, the official site doesn't really convey the sheer number of reliquaries in the museum's collection.

madamjujujive: yes, the macabre aspect is an indelible part of the reliquary's appeal to me.

languagehat: I was probably stretching it a bit with the Ka'ba link, although I think that technically anything built to hold an object of veneration qualifies as a reliquary. I certainly wouldn't insist that they are exact parallels to Christian relics.

rwkenyon: I promise to let you spellcheck all of my posts from here on out, m'kay?
posted by MrBaliHai at 9:50 AM on October 6, 2002

Yes! More like this. This is the first time I've wished for a post to have more links. You've made my Sunday morning, MrBaliHai - thank you. These are going to take a quite a while to sift through, but so far I'm most fascinated by the explanation of how the arm reliquary was made, and by the x-ray, which clearly shows an arm bone through the metal casing.

One of the least recognized modern-day reliquaries houses one of the most controversial and well-known religious artifacts - the Shroud of Turin. Reliquaries in general also bring to mind the mysterious canopian jars used to house the organs of the ancient egyptians. Just as beautiful in their own humble and un-ornate way as the bejeweled reliquaries, and perhaps just as religiously significant. And of couse, we can't forget the Popemobile - that's the coolest (and probably the only bullet-proof!) container built to hold an object of special religious significance that I know of ;)
posted by iconomy at 9:51 AM on October 6, 2002

Beautiful post, MrBaliHai! And thanks, iconomy, for the canopic jars links; I've just been reading about Egyptian funerary practices and loved seeing these images.
posted by taz at 10:13 AM on October 6, 2002

Random fact: Every Catholic church (I don't know about Protestant ones) that is devoted to a saint has a relique from that saint (ie, my high school was called St. Pius X, so there was actually a small piece of his bone in the altar, which is one of the reasons Priests kiss the altar).
posted by jmd82 at 11:24 AM on October 6, 2002

we can't forget the Popemobile

No indeed. I'd really like to see them entomb the Pope in it (after he dies, natch) and mount it over the altar at St. Peter's like it's crashing through the wall.

Quick, Cardinal! To the Popemobile!
posted by MrBaliHai at 11:27 AM on October 6, 2002

I'm sure many of you have heard of a few of the suspicions that lie behind many of the reliquaries and their contents. One of my favorites is the miracle of San Gennaro's blood. His blood is brought out to the public once a year in Naples and they wait to see if it liquifies, which it usually does. When it does not, the city is liable to befall a great disaster.

jmd82: I had forgotten all about that. I remember a priest telling me that when I was little. He was soon sorry. I kept asking him what part of the body was in there. A tooth, hair, toe, nose? I also asked how they keep such a large supply of such relics. A freezer in the Vatican perhaps? Now the first question that comes to mind: What happens if Mother Teresa is canonized? Would it still fly these days to gild her skull?
posted by SimStupid at 12:39 PM on October 6, 2002

And it's not entirely restricted to religious figures either:

Galileo's middle finger

Thanks for the links, MrBaliHai.
posted by mccreath at 2:47 PM on October 6, 2002

Heh, it's like he's flippin' us off!
posted by UKnowForKids at 3:13 PM on October 6, 2002

This is gorgeous, MrBaliHai. One of the pleasures of traveling through Europe, for me, is stopping at unlikely little churches that somehow inherited one of these pieces. I swear I saw a few that looked much like the Chasse of Champagnat that you link to but I cannot recall where.

Beautiful, ancient AND morbid. I dont know what else one could ask for.
posted by Winterfell at 11:29 PM on October 6, 2002

Thanks Mr. BaliHai!

Languagehat: There are parallels, but they're far from Mecca.

Like Topkapi Palace, former home of the Ottoman Sultan, now a big museum and repository of relics of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
posted by BinGregory at 5:47 AM on October 7, 2002

BinGregory: thanks, what an interesting link! I hope I get a chance to visit Topkapi someday.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:08 AM on October 7, 2002

D'oh! I should have thought of that when I posted on Islamic saints -- I've actually been to Topkapi and seen the relics. (They whisk you through frustratingly quickly, but I snuck out of line and wandered through a few off-limits rooms before I panicked and rejoined the group -- who knows, they may still practice impalement deep in the recesses of the palace...) Thanks, BinGregory.
posted by languagehat at 6:34 AM on October 7, 2002

Wow, lucky you, Languagehat! Maybe I'll get there one day. Now I don't know which thread to post this on, but: ArchNet is a fabulous website for Islamic Architecture, ancient and modern. They've got a searchable library of images, without much annotation unfortunately. Here are the results for funerary buildings.
posted by BinGregory at 8:40 AM on October 7, 2002

I just keep my saints foot in good 'ol Tupperware.
posted by dr_dank at 10:03 AM on October 7, 2002

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