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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > R > Reliquaries

Reliquaries

It would follow of necessity from the data given in the article RELICS that reliquaries—by which we understand in the wider sense any box, casket, or shrine destined for the reception of relics—must have existed in some shape or form almost from the beginning of Christianity: With regard, however, to their construction, material etc. in the early centuries, nothing can be said positively. Even the names by which they were known (capsa, capsella, theca, pyxis, arca etc.) are quite general in character, and it seems certain that the same names also designated receptacles for the Blessed Eucharist, the holy oils, and other pious objects. Thus it becomes difficult to decide in the case of certain circular ivory pyxes, of which one in the Berlin Museum is the best known and the earliest in date, whether they were or were not used as reliquaries. Most of them show nothing but scenes or figures from the Gospel in the carvings with which they are abundantly decorated, but as there is one which depicts the martyrdom and exaltation of the popular Egyptian martyr St. Menas, it seems likely that this at least was a reliquary, intended possibly to contain the oil from his shrine. This oil was more commonly preserved in clay flasks, of which many still survive in various European collections. Passing over the phials attached to the loculi in the catacombs and supposed to contain blood, upon which disputed problem sufficient has been said in the article AMPULLÆ, the earliest known reliquaries are probably certain silver boxes, two of which (one circular, the other oval in shape) were discovered at Grado in 1871 (see De Rossi in "Bull. di arch. crist.", 1872, p. 155). Both of these, along with various Christian emblems, bear inscriptions giving the names of saints, while other details confirm the view that they must have been intended for relics. A very similar box, but without inscription, was afterwards found in Numidia, and is now in the Vatican Museum. It was assigned with confidence by De Rossi to the fifth century (Bullettino, 1887 p. 119). Still another specimen, beyond all question intended for relics, has come to light in the treasury of the Sancta Sanctorum at the Lateran (Grisar, "Die römische Kapelle", 108-10). These were no doubt the kind of capselloe argenteoe which Justinian in 519 wished to send to Rome in hopes of obtaining from Pope Hormisdas relics of St. Lawrence and other Roman saints (P.L., LXIII, 474). Of somewhat later date are the pewter flasks and a little golden cross, or encolpion, still preserved in the treasury of Monza, and identified with much probability as presents sent by Gregory the Great to Queen Theodolinda. The pewter flasks contained oil, very probably only that of the lamps which burned before certain relics or in certain churches of the Holy Land. The encolpion, which is a remarkable little piece of jewellery, 3 inches in height by 2.5 in breadth, has figures and inscriptions in niello and is believed to contain a fragment of the True Cross. St. Gregory in his letter describes it as a "phylacterium" or "crucem cum ligno sanctæ crucis Domini". Other small encolpia in the form of crosses, belonging approximately to the same period, are also preserved.

Of larger reliquaries, or shrines, our oldest surviving specimens probably date back to the seventh or eighth century. Among the remarkable objects preserved in the treasury of St. Maurice in the Valais is a gabled shrine about 7.25 inches long, 2.5 broad, and 5.25 high. It is studded with stones, and has a large cameo in the centre, while on a plate of gold at the back particulars are given regarding its construction in honour of St. Maurice. This form of gabled shrine, which is often suggestive of a child's "Noah's Ark", remained the favourite type for reliquaries of importance during all the early Middle Ages. Perhaps the most magnificent specimen preserved is that known as the Shrine of the Three Kings in the treasury of Cologne Cathedral. After the storming of Milan (1162) the supposed relics of the Magi were carried off and brought to Cologne, where a magnificent silver casket, nearly 6 feet long, and 4.5 feet high was constructed for them. This superb piece of silversmith's work resembles in outward form a church with a nave and two aisles. Of much earlier date but hardly less magnificent, owing to the profuse employment of enamel and gems, is the Marienschrein at Aachen connected by tradition with the name of Charlemagne. The Ursula Shrine at St. John's Hospital in Bruges also retains the same general form, but here the ornament is supplied by the beautiful paintings of Hans Memling. Quite different in type are the reliquary crosses mentioned by Gregory the Great, the use of which may be traced back to the fifth century, though they belong to all periods and have never completely gone out of fashion. The most venerable existing specimen is undoubtedly the enamelled cross preserved in the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran and recently described by Father Grisar and by Lauer. A large relic of the True Cross is probably still embedded in the hollow of the case, covered with a thick coating of balsam—a perfumed unguent which, as the "Liber Pontificalis" informs us, was applied to such reliquaries as a mark of veneration. This identical cross is probably that found by Pope Sergius (687-701) in a corner of the sacristy of St. Peter's, and it may possibly date from the fifth century.

Other medieval reliquaries, of which specimens still survive, took the form of legs, arms, and particularly heads or busts. Perhaps the earliest known is a bust from the treasury of St. Maurice in the Valais; amongst the later examples are such famous reliquaries as those of the heads of the Apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, at the Lateran and that of St. Januarius in Naples (cf. plate in THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, VIII, 296).

Under this class we may also mention the relic statues which seem to have been rather exceptionally common in England. It is conceivable that some of the prejudice of the English Reformers against "wonder-working" statues was due to the practice of making doors into the hollow of such figures and preserving relics within them. Sir Thomas More ("Works", London, 1557, p. 192) describes a case in which such a hiding-place for relics was unexpectedly discovered in the Abbey of Barking. Lastly it will be sufficient to point out that relics have at all times been kept in simple caskets or boxes, varying indefinitely in size, material, and ornamentation. In more modern times these are invariably secured by a seal, and the contents indicated in a formal episcopal act of authentication, without which it is not Lawful to expose the relics for public veneration. The silver box containing the head of St. Agnes, recently brought to light in the treasury of the Sancta Sanctorum, still preserved the seal of some cardinal deacon affixed to it apparently at the end of the thirteenth century. From a graphical point of view the illustrations of reliquaries in the early German "Heiligthums-Bücher", published in connexion with various famous shrines, e.g. Einsiedeln, Wittemberg, Halle etc. are particularly interesting.

Sources

Probably the most useful work is GRISAR, Die römische Kapelle Sancta Sanctorum u. ihr Schatz (Freiburg, 1908), an account of the recent discoveries made in the treasury of the Sancta Sanctorum at the Lateran; cf. LAUER, Le trésor du Sancta Sanctorum (Paris, 1906). A more formal discussion will be found in works on Christian art: REUSENS, Elements d'archéol. chrét. (Louvain, 1885), I, 476; II. 339; OTTE, Handbuch der Kunst-Archäologie, I (Leipzig, 1886), 183-211; BERGNER, Handbuch der kirchl. Kunstaltertümer (Leipzig, 1905). See also Dict. Christ. Antiq., s. V. Reliquary; DE ROSSI, La capsella reliquiaria africana in Omaggio a Leone XIII (Rome, 1888); MOLINIER, Hist. générale des arts appliqués à l'industrie, especially IV, pt. i (Paris, 1901); FRÖHNER, Collections du château de Goluchow: L'orfèvrerie (Paris, 1897). For any profounder study the separate monographs and articles, of which almost every remarkable reliquary of antiquity has at some time formed the subject, should be consulted

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1911). Reliquaries. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12762a.htm

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Reliquaries." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12762a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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