The anxiety over the material aspects of relics came to a head during the Protestant Reformation. Some reformers, like Erasmus of Rotterdam, argued for a more tempered view, in which the remains of holy men and women were mementos of a life well lived, rather than magical talismans. Others, like John Calvin, wanted to abolish the cult of the saints altogether, associating dazzling reliquaries with the deceptive ways of the Catholic Church.
One of the tactics assumed by the Church for combating the reformers was to underscore the relationship between relic and reliquary. According to this line of defense, relics without their casing were in danger of theft, mishandling and misidentification. The problem of how to properly identify relics was of particular concern to the Church, since the fervor of the cult of the saints had led to the existence of many "false" relics, like the multiple heads of John the Baptist.
Perceived as idols by the reformers, many reliquaries fell into the hands of the iconoclasts in northern Europe during the latter part of the sixteenth century. Although they destroyed a vast number of reliquaries, the iconodules managed to save a comparable amount. Most of these reliquaries then entered private collections, where they were often emptied of their contents and turned into "art."
While the shift from a public, sacred space to a private, secular one undeniably altered the relationship between object and viewer, it was not without precedence in the cult of the saints itself. Pilgrims, for example, had long been gathering mementos, or eulogiai, for their private use. Furthermore, the relocation of relics and reliquaries to cabinets of curiosity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was in keeping with the feeling of wonder that had accompanied the cult of the saints since its conception.
Print of the Relics of the Holy Roman Empire This single-leaf woodcut illustrating the relics of the Holy Roman Empire, first printed around 1480 and then again in 1496, came in a hand-colored version.
Appliqué with Saint George Slaying the Dragon This fragment is all that remains of a circular relief that was once attached to a pax, a tablet with a sacred image kissed by the celebrant and the faithful during Mass.
Box for a French Pennant Taken at the Battle of Pavia The inscription declares that this box held a French pennant taken on 25 February 1525 (actually 24 February), at the Battle of Pavia in Italy, when the French army under Francis I was defeated by that of Emperor Charles V.
Eight Plaques from the Saint Servatius Bust at St. Servatius in Maastricht These eight silver gilt relief plaques, preserved at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg since 1885, probably adorned the—presumably polygonal—plinth of Duke Henry's reliquary bust.
Goldsmith's Model for a Reliquary in the Shape of the St. Andrew's Cross This reliquary originally belonged to the Archbishop of Magdeburg and Mainz, Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490–1545) and formed part of the so-called "Hallesche Heiltum", a treasure of precious relics.