A reliquary (also referred to as a shrine or by the French term
châsse) is a container for relics. These may be the purported or
actual physical remains of saints, such as bones, pieces of clothing,
or some object associated with saints or other religious figures. The
authenticity of any given relic is often a matter of debate; for that
reason, some churches require documentation of the relic's provenance.
Relics have long been important to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and
many other religions. In these cultures, reliquaries are
often presented in shrines, churches, or temples to which the faithful
make pilgrimages in order to gain blessings.
The term is sometimes used loosely of containers for the body parts of
non-religious figures; in particular the
Kings of France
Kings of France often
specified that their hearts and sometimes other organs be buried in a
different location from their main burial.
1 In Christianity
2 In Buddhism
4 See also
5 Further reading
A view inside the shrine of
Saint Boniface of Dokkum in the
Warfhuizen in the Netherlands. The little folded
paper on the left contains a bone-fragment of
Saint Benedict of
Nursia, the folded paper on the right a piece of the habit of Saint
Bernard of Clairvaux. The large bone in the middle (about 5 cm. in
length) is the actual relic of
Reliquary Cross, French, c. 1180
The use of reliquaries became an important part of
from at least the 4th century, initially in the Eastern Churches,
which adopted the practice of moving and dividing the bodies of saints
much earlier than the West, probably in part because the new capital
of Constantinople, unlike Rome, lacked buried saints. Relics are
venerated in the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic
Anglican Churches. Reliquaries provide a means of protecting
and displaying relics. While frequently taking the form of caskets,
they range in size from simple pendants or rings to very elaborate
Since the relics themselves were considered "more valuable than
precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold,"  it was only
appropriate that they be enshrined in containers crafted of or covered
with gold, silver, gems, and enamel. Ivory was widely used in the
Middle Ages for reliquaries; its pure white color an indication of the
holy status of its contents. These objects constituted a major form
of artistic production across Europe and Byzantium throughout the
Many were designed with portability in mind, often being exhibited in
public or carried in procession on the saint's feast day or on other
holy days. Pilgrimages often centered on the veneration of relics. The
faithful often venerate relics by bowing before the reliquary or
kissing it. Those churches which observe the veneration of relics make
a clear distinction between the honor given to the saints and the
worship that is due to God alone (see Second Council of Nicea). The
feretrum was a medieval form of reliquary or shrine containing the
sacred effigies and relics of a saint.
Perhaps the most magnificent example is that known as the
the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral. After the storming of Milan in
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
In the late
Middle Ages the craze for relics, many now fraudulent,
became extreme, and was criticized by many otherwise conventional
16th-century reformers such as
Martin Luther opposed the use of relics
since many had no proof of historic authenticity, and they objected to
the cult of saints. Many reliquaries, particularly in northern Europe,
were destroyed by Calvinists or
Calvinist sympathizers during the
Reformation, being melted down or pulled apart to recover precious
metals and gems. Nonetheless, the use and manufacture of reliquaries
continues to this day, especially in
Roman Catholic and Orthodox
Christian countries. Post-Reformation reliquaries have tended to take
the form of glass-sided caskets to display relics such as the bodies
The earliest reliquaries were essentially boxes, either simply
box-shaped or based on an architectural design, taking the form of a
model of a church with a pitched roof. These latter are known by the
French term chasse, and typical examples from the 12th to 14th century
have wooden frameworks with gilt-copper plaques nailed on, decorated
in champlevé enamel.
Limoges was the largest centre of production; NB
the English usage differs from that of the French châsse, which
denotes large size rather than shape.
Franco-Flemish Gothic philatory for a finger bone, late 15th century
(Walters Art Museum)
Relics of the
True Cross became very popular from the 9th century
onwards and were housed in magnificent gold and silver cross-shaped
reliquaries, decorated with enamels and precious stones. From about
the end of the 10th century, reliquaries in the shape of the relics
they housed also became popular; hence, for instance, the skull of
Pope Alexander I
Pope Alexander I was housed in a head-shaped reliquary. Similarly, the
bones of saints were often housed in reliquaries that recalled the
shape of the original body part, such as an arm or a foot.
A philatory is a transparent reliquary designed to contain and exhibit
the bones and relics of saints. This style of reliquary has a viewing
portal by which to view the relic contained inside.
Reliquaries holding relics of the Buddha from a stupa in Kanishka,
Peshawar, Pakistan, now in Mandalay, Burma. Teresa Merrigan, 2005
During the later Middle Ages, the monstrance form, mostly used for
consecrated hosts, was sometimes used for reliquaries. These housed
the relic in a rock crystal or glass capsule mounted on a column above
a base, enabling the relic to be displayed to the faithful.
Reliquaries in the form of large pieces of metalwork jewellery also
appeared around this time, housing tiny relics such as pieces of the
Holy Thorn, notably the
Holy Thorn Reliquary
Holy Thorn Reliquary now in the British
Box Reliquary/Chasse: Gilded reliquary St. Taurin
Icon of St. Guriy of Kazan, with relic embedded in it (19th century).
In Buddhism, stupa are an important form of reliquary, and may be
included in a larger complex known as a chaitya. Particularly in China
and throughout East and Southeast Asia, these take the form of a
pagoda; in Japan this is known as a tō.
Theravada Buddhism, relics are known as cetiya; one of the most
significant in the relic of the tooth of the Buddha in Sri Lanka.
In Japan, Buddhist relics are known as shari (舎利), and are often
stored in a shariden (舎利殿, relic hall, reliquary) – see
Japanese Buddhist architecture.
^ "Two Gandhāran Reliquaries" K. Walton Dobbins. East and West, 18
(1968), pp. 151–162.
^ The Stūpa and Vihāra of
Kanishka I. K. Walton Dobbins. (1971) The
Asiatic Society of Bengal Monograph Series, Vol. XVIII. Calcutta.
^ "Is the Kaniṣka
Reliquary a work from Mathurā?" Mirella Levi
d’Ancona. Art Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec., 1949), pp. 321–323.
^ a b Boehm, Barbara Drake. "Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval
Christianity". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The
Metropolitan Museum of Art,(October 2001)
^ Quote from the 'Martyrdom of St Polycarp' (2nd Century AD )
^ Speakman, Naomi C., "Treasures of Heaven", The British Museum,
^ Thurston, Herbert. "Reliquaries." The
Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 12.
New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 14 March 2014
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the
public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Reliquaries".
Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Reliquary.
Saint Anthony's Chapel (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
Shrine of the Holy Relics in Maria Stein, Ohio
Weitzmann, Kurt, ed., Age of spirituality: late antique and early
Christian art, third to seventh century, no. 569-575, 1979,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ISBN&