Relics & Reliquaries

In 313 CE, Constantine the Great declared Christianity an official religion of the Roman Empire. This made it possible for Christians to build large-scale, public monuments, proclaiming their devotion to God, for the first time. It also allowed them to openly commemorate the holy men and women—collectively referred to as saints—who in life and death served as their models.

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Tree Sarcophagus with the Anastasis, detailFrom Tomb to AltarAlthough early Christians believed that all bodies should remain intact before the Last Judgment, the dismemberment of saintly bodies became increasingly common after relics became an integral part of the Christian altar.

Reliquary Box with Scenes from the Life of John the Baptist, detailGathering the SaintsThe desire to own a memento, or eulogiai, from a holy place was already apparent among early pilgrims and led to the development of an extensive trade in relics during the Middle Ages.

Reliquary of the True Cross, detailRitual and PerformanceIn the eighth century, the remains of holy men and women gained increased significance in the liturgical life of the Church, as ritual objects used in the consecration of new altars.

Imago pietatis (Man of Sorrows), detailMatter of FaithMade to contain the remains of holy men and women, reliquaries likewise assumed the status of precious objects, as evidenced by the expensive gems and metals used in their manufacture.

Broadside of Relics from Kloster Andechs, detailBeyond the Middle AgesNear the end of the Middle Ages, reformers began to decry the disjunction between the worldliness of the cult of the saints, and their original purpose as intercessors on behalf of humankind.