Relics & Reliquaries

Print of the Relics of the Holy Roman Empire

The British Museum, London
Copyright © The Trustees of the British Museum

Print of the Relics of the Holy Roman Empire, hand-colored

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Besides relic-books, pilgrims could purchase single-leaf woodcut reproductions of relics associated with a particular church or shrine. Scholars often refer to these woodcuts, or Heiltumsblätter, as cheaper versions of relic-books, since the high cost of parchment and even paper prevented many people from purchasing the latter. While this was generally the case, the single-leaf woodcut illustrating the relics of the Holy Roman Empire first printed around 1480 and then again in 1496 came in a hand-colored version. What really differentiated Heiltumsblätter from relic-books was that their large scale allowed them to be displayed in public places like churches, where they performed a similar function to indulgence announcements. Of course, this did not preclude their use in private devotion; it simply draws attention to how different kinds of objects encourage different viewing practices.

This difference is apparent in the Heiltumsblatt illustrating the relics of the Holy Roman Empire, including pieces of the True Cross, thorns from Christ's crown, along with the sword, robe and scepter of Charlemagne (r. 768–814). The imperial collection also featured the Holy Lance that tradition states was used by Longinus to pierce Christ's side after his death; this was a highly prized possession, since it was one of the few contact relics associated with Christ, who was said to have left behind no bodily relics. In 1423, Emperor Sigismund (r. 1368–1437) bequeathed the Lance to Nuremberg for safekeeping, where it became the centerpiece of the Heiltumsweisung. The Holy Lance's size in the woodcut is one indication of its importance, although this was not a mere effect of representation, for its makers claimed that this was a "true copy" of the Lance, which measures 50.8 cm in height and 7.9 cm in width.

Gabriella Szalay