Reliquary & Relics - A brief History

A reliquary (also referred to as a shrine or by the French term chasse) is a container for relics.
These may be the 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 both Hindus and Buddhists. In these cultures, reliquaries
are often preserved in stupas or temples, to which the faithful make pilgrimages in order to gain merit.
The use of reliquaries became an important part of Christian ritual from at least the 4th century.
Relics are venerated in the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic
and some Anglican Churches. Reliquaries provide a means of protecting and displaying relics,
which many believe are endowed by God with the grace of miraculous powers. They range in size
from simple pendants or rings to coffin-like containers, to very elaborate ossuaries.
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 around 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 earliest reliquaries were essentially boxes, either simply box-shaped or based on an architectural design
(e.g. taking the form of a model of a church); these were known as shrines or chasses. 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,
Pope Alexander I's skull 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.

16th-Century reformers such as Martin Luther opposed the use of relics and regarded them as idolatrous.
Many reliquaries, particularly in northern Europe, were destroyed 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 of saints. In more modern times, relics were created for notorious individuals,
such as gangsters, serial killers, and even Hollywood stars.

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