From Tomb to Altar

At first, Christians followed the same burial practices as other ancient peoples: they buried their dead, bodies intact. But soon they began to exhume certain bodies and rebury them in locations deemed more appropriate by the communities to which they had belonged. In some instances, they even divided up these bodies, distributing their components parts to those who laid claim over them.

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Garland Sarcophagus, detailGarland Sarcophagus This sarcophagus, festooned with carved garlands, was likely made in Phrygia, a region of present-day Turkey, and then shipped to Rome, where it was used in the tomb of a wealthy Roman family.

Gold Glass with Sts. Peter and Paul and Peregrina, detailGold Glass with Sts. Peter and Paul and Peregrina The two men surely represent Sts. Peter and Paul, who are often paired in Christian imagery, are honored on the same feast day, and are commonly depicted on surviving gold glasses.

Votive Plaque with Eyes, detailVotive Plaque with Eyes Pilgrims could take home tokens from the shrines they had visited, but they could also purchase small votive offerings to be left at the shrines, prolonging their spiritual devotion long after they had left.

Front Panel of a Box-Shaped Altar, detailFront Panel of a Box-Shaped Altar This large relief panel was long considered to be the front of an early Byzantine sarcophagus, sliced off and reused as an altar frontal in the Church of San Carlino in Ravenna in the later Middle Ages.

Pyxis, detailPyxis Pyxides—lidded, circular boxes made to store medicines or cosmetics—were also used as reliquaries.

Pilgrim Flask of St. Menas, detailPilgrim Flask of St. Menas The widespread popularity of the cult of St. Menas is attested by the hundreds of pilgrim flasks from his shrine that have been found throughout the Mediterranean region.

Pilgrim Flask, detailPilgrim Flask Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land not only desired to touch and kiss objects associated with Christ's Passion; they also sought to preserve and carry home with them substances that could claim some physical contact or proximity to the sites and objects they had seen and venerated.

Pilgrim Flask of St. Sergios, detailPilgrim Flask of St. Sergios These small vials were made to contain holy water or holy oil from a saint's shrine and were usually made of relatively cheap materials and were cast in reusable molds.

Necklace with Pendants, detailNecklace with Pendants In the Christianized Roman Empire, necklaces with cross pendants and amuletic capsules functioned as objects of personal adornment and symbols of social status as well as powerful protective devices.

Reliquary Pendant of St. Demetrios with St. George, detailReliquary Pendant of St. Demetrios with St. George The relics of Demetrios were not his bones, but oil or myron collected from his tomb and blood-soaked earth taken from the site of his martyrdom.

Menologion with Scenes of Martyrdom, detailMenologion with Scenes of Martyrdom A menologion (from the Greek word for month) is a catalogue of saints arranged in order of their feast days.

Pectoral Reliquary Cross, detailPectoral Reliquary Cross At a depth close to the original street level in the Bulgarian capital of Pliska, archaeologists unearthed this tiny object that would have been treasured because of a miniscule piece of wood inside.

Reliquary Pendant with the Adoration of the Magi, detailReliquary Pendant with the Adoration of the Magi This locket could have been worn or held and contains a cavity, closed by a sliding pin, that probably held relics.

Pendant Reliquary Cross, detailPendant Reliquary Cross This reliquary cross, which preserves its original chain, is made of gold and decorated with multicolored cloisonné enamelwork sunk into a gold background.