One of the central questions plaguing the cult of saints since its inception is how can the remains of holy men and women act as agents of God? After all, one is entirely material and thereby earth-bound, while the other is spiritual and can be manifest only in heaven.
The twelfth-century theologian, Thiofrid of Echternacht, addressed this paradox with another vexing problem, namely how the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ. What makes Thiofrid's tract so remarkable is that he saw the Eucharist bread and wine, as well as the gold and precious jewels of reliquaries, as a necessary ruse, designed to help the faithful to stomach what they were consuming.
Certainly the materials used to protect and display the remains of the saints had a great deal to do with the perception of their power. Not only were precious metals considered to be incorruptible, just like the flesh of all those who lived an holy life, but also the gems that covered reliquaries were believed to contain magical properties akin to the bodies contained within.
This is not to say that there was always a one-to-one correlation between the exterior and the interior of a reliquary. Most reliquaries produced in the Middle Ages exhibit a marked disjunction between form and function, as in the case of the reliquary chasses produced in Cologne and Limoges during the twelfth century. Here the decorative enameling on the exterior usually depicts a compelling Christian story, rather than one related to the saint in question. A similar situation exists with the body-part reliquaries that became popular beginning in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These reliquaries did not necessarily contain the remnants of an arm or a foot, but instead served as props for enacting the liturgy
Fatimid Flask Reliquary The modest dimensions of this Fatimid rock crystal vessel suggest that it was probably crafted originally as a perfume flask. At some point in the fourteenth century, it was converted to use as a Christian reliquary.
Reliquary of the True Cross Purported fragments of the True Cross were brought to western Europe from the Holy Land and the Byzantine Empire throughout the Middle Ages, and their popularity appears to have increased with the greater contact between these regions during the Crusades.
Triptych Reliquary of the True Cross The triptych's elaborate iconographic program is intimately tied to the relic of the True Cross—and possibly other relics of Christ's Passion—once displayed behind rock crystal in the cavity at its center.
Reliquary Chasse with the Virgin and Child We do not know what this casket once held, but the large image of the Virgin and Child that dominates the front of the chasse may hint at the type of relics it contained.
Reliquary Chasse with the Adoration of the Magi Depictions of the three Wise Men are found on a number of Limoges caskets, ranking with St. Thomas Becket and St. Valerie among the most popular subjects.
Reliquary Chasse with the Adoration of the Magi In addition to their role as historical witnesses to the Nativity, the three Magi are symbolically important to Christian doctrine: they are icons of true faith and belief in the divinity of Christ.
Reliquary Chasse with Scenes from the Life of Christ The front of the casket features several scenes from the life of Christ: along the top are the Presentation in the Temple, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Flight into Egypt, and on the lower panel, Christ carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion, and the Holy Women at the Tomb.
Reliquary Chasse with Scenes of the Martyrdom of Thomas Becket This is undoubtedly one of the earliest reliquaries associated with the sainted archbishop of Canterbury; its dramatic use of niello lends a cold, graphic immediacy to the scenes.
Reliquary Pendant with Queen Margaret of Sicily and Bishop Reginald of Bath Reginald Fitz-Jocelyn, who was consecrated as bishop of Bath in 1174, presented this pendant to Margaret of Navarre, queen of Sicily.
Reliquary Chasse with Scenes of the Martyrdom of Thomas Becket A very similar chasse is in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. The front panels of both show the scene of Becket's murder: as he stands by an altar his neck is struck by the sword of one of two knights who advance upon him.
Reliquary Head of St. Eustace This head reliquary has been associated since 1477 with St. Eustace, a Roman general who, having seen a stag with an image of the Crucifixion between its antlers, converted to Christianity and was martyred for his faith.
Reliquary Bust of an Unknown Female Saint, Probably a Companion of St. Ursula By the late Middle Ages, bust reliquaries for the skulls of saints were often assembled in large numbers in church sanctuaries. This was especially the case with reliquaries of the companions of St. Ursula, legendarily reputed to number 11,000.
Reliquary of the Tooth of Mary Magdalene Over the course of the Middle Ages, the Magdalene became a highly venerated saint. Her relics were particularly venerated in France: at Vézelay, reputedly as early as the eighth century, and in Provence from the late thirteenth century.
Mandylion The elaborate seventeenth-century mount that frames and crowns the likeness of Christ's face provides a brilliant contrast for the dark, almost invisible portrait and, simultaneously, establishes its aspect as a relic within a reliquary.
Imago pietatis (Man of Sorrows) A precious icon of the Man of Sorrows made of minute stones in Byzantium at the end of the thirteenth century or the beginning of the fourteenth was treated as a relic only after it was brought to Rome around 1380.
Wing of a Reliquary Diptych with the Crucifixion and Saints This work, probably the right wing of a diptych, brings together an unusual range of media, combining painted surfaces with inset plaques of verre églomisé as well as inlaid fragments of marble and ceramic.
Reliquary Tabernacle with Virgin and Child Naddo Ceccarelli, a talented follower of Simone Martini (ca. 1284–1344), was one of a handful of Sienese painters to create reliquaries that emulated the work produced by goldsmiths.
Reliquary Triptych with the Annunciation, St. Ansanus, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Crucifixion Although related to a devotional format established by the mid-fourteenth century, this winged tabernacle uniquely incorporates an ivory diptych into its central panel.