Storing an arm or a leg of a saint beneath an altar is a longstanding Christian tradition. Based on a passage from the Book of Revelation, this practice became a vital part of Christian ritual in the eighth century, when the Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicea determined that every altar should contain a relic. Churches in turn performed the function of a giant reliquary, built to house and protect the remains of holy men and women.
The intimate relationship between rituals, like the consecration of an altar by depositing a relic in its casing, and the space in which those rituals took place, is apparent in the development of the annular crypt. Comprised of a semicircular space, buried partly beneath the choir of a church, annular crypts allowed pilgrims to process around a saint's remains below, without disturbing the liturgy above.
Based in part on the changes that Pope Gregory the Great introduced to the tropaion of Saint Peter in Rome in the sixth century, annular crypts became a regular feature of church architecture in the ninth century. The annular crypt, however, was only solution to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. Another was to add chapels along the side of the nave, allowing for multiple altars within the same structure.
Multiple altars typically entailed multiple saints, although a single altar might contain the remains of many saints, as in the case of the portable altar from Hildesheim said to contain the bones of forty holy men and women. Used to celebrate the Eucharist in situations where one might not have ready access to a church, portable altars maintained the connection between ritual and performance in their design, with many assuming the appearance of a church, albeit one constructed on a much smaller scale.
Chrismatory The relationship between reliquaries and other sacred containers is vividly demonstrated by this intriguing chrismatory. In form and size, it resembles surviving house-shaped continental and Insular reliquaries.
The Franks Casket The casket resembles some fourth- to fifth-century ivory boxes such as that from Brescia, northern Italy. It served as a reliquary but was probably made to hold a holy text such as a Gospel, or the Psalms, and this may have been the original purpose of the Franks Casket.
Treasure Binding of a Gospel Book This manuscript copy of the Gospels, probably made at Regensburg in the eleventh century, is covered with a treasure binding, the front cover of which includes silver, copper gilt, ivory, and rock crystal.
The Crippled and Sick Cured at the Tomb of St. Nicholas In this rendering of the tomb of St. Nicholas, Gentile da Fabriano imagines the tomb within a basilica-style church interior, complete with a raised presbytery, central and side chapels, and a small ambulatory.
Fragment of a Relic Shroud When the main altar of the Benedictine abbey church of St. Peter in Salzburg was torn down in 1606, this fragment of a brocaded silk was among the precious textiles reportedly found in the or altar tomb of St. Amandus.
The Shrine of St. Amandus Before the end of the seventh century, Amandus was considered a saint and a pilgrimage cult developed at Elnon, eventually requiring that his bones be housed in a reliquary that could be shown to the faithful.
Panels from a Window Showing the Life and Martyrdom of St. Vincent of Saragossa When a new chapel at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés was built in the 1240s, windows depicting the lives and relics of Sts. Vincent and Germain were installed.
Reliquary Pendant for the Holy Thorn The thorn in this reliquary may have come from the Crown of Thorns that was purchased by King Louis IX of France in 1238 from the Latin Emperor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Baldwin II.