Containers for relics

There’s one last important category of medieval containers. Whereas other containers were defined by being watertight, stout, flexible or portable, containers for relics didn’t need any of these ordinary attributes. Instead, they were designed to contain, share and spread holiness.

Until the modern period, old things were not valued for historical information, and they were often not valued at all. But if they were ancient bits of bone, hair or any other item that had belonged to a holy person, that was a different matter. Historical importance was still irrelevant; our concept of displaying an antique exactly as we found it, or intact behind glass, was not their notion. They believed that the item contained holiness the way ale contained water. The container needed to preserve the relic, whatever it was, from physical decay while allowing worshipers to carry holiness away like a benevolent infection.

Not only that, but the container needed to stress as strongly as possible that the relic was being honored. A leaky barrel might allow ale to dribble away until none was left. A hole in a wallet might let your dinner fall out on the road. But a reliquary that wasn’t sufficiently honoring might suggest to the item’s original owner, now a saint in heaven, that the bone, hair or scrap was better off in another church. It might be stolen, with the saint’s blessing and assistance. Such vanishings were not uncommon!

Reliquaries were ornate, above all. Everything most precious had to be packed into the small space required to contain the relic. Some relics were large, like a skull. Others were extremely small, like a scrap of cloth, hair or bone that had been cut into pieces in order to share the holiness more widely. So some reliquaries were large boxes, while others could be as small as lockets or rings.

Reliquaries were made of the most expensive materials possible to their makers: if wood, then expensive wood, highly carved and covered with gold leaf or jewels. If possible, pure silver or gold, or perhaps carved ivory. Simple local jewels like amber or coral, definitely, but even better, imported jewels like emeralds and rubies.

Reliquaries could be, literally, lockets or rings. It was common for bishops to wear relics this way. Some crowns had relics embedded in them, so as objects, they were reliquaries already. The ancient crown of the Lombards is made of gold, but centered around a thin iron band that was supposedly made from an original nail of Jesus’ cross.

Box-shaped reliquaries were larger, and they were displayed in the cathedral or chapel for pilgrims. Some reliquaries told the story of the saint’s life, even by being shaped like the saint’s head (carved from wood, covered by gold leaf, painted). Scenes from the saint’s life, or miracles worked after the saint’s death, were painted on the sides of a reliquary box.

Reliquaries were reasonably secure containers for their holy items. Some thefts happened when a visiting pilgrim could persuade the keepers to open the reliquary and let him or her see the item. There are stories of desperate measures taken to steal all or part of the relic, including biting it.

As a practical precaution against theft, they often hung reliquaries from a wire running across the ceiling. It was a bit like hanging your hiking food to be safe from bears: the reliquaries had to be high enough that a man on another man’s shoulders couldn’t reach the wire, far enough out from the wall that a climber couldn’t stand on the nearest pillar’s decorations and reach out, and so on. Reliquaries that were not hung thus out of reach were often locked into a crypt with just a small window to allow the holiness to leak through.



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