Relics & Reliquaries

Reliquary Head of St. Eustace

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

Reliquary Head of St. Eustace

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This head reliquary has been associated since 1477 with St. Eustace, a Roman general who, having seen a stag with an image of the Crucifixion between its antlers, converted to Christianity and was martyred for his faith; it was part of the cathedral treasury of Basel until it was sold in 1836.

Body-part reliquaries became popular in the central Middle Ages (twelfth–thirteenth centuries). Although the shape of these reliquaries might be an indication of their content, they sometimes enshrined a number of different relics. Such is the case with the Eustace head-reliquary, which contained numerous relics, including those of Eucharius, first bishop of Trier; Nicolas, bishop of Myra; Benedict, abbot of Monte Cassino, and the Holy Virgins. In 1955 the reliquary was opened and the relics were returned to Basel. The St. Eustace head is composed of a wooden (sycamore maple) core and a silver-gilt repoussé shell composed of eleven gilded silver sheets that cover the neck and head. A brow band decorated with sixteen colored stones encircles the figure's neatly parted and combed hair. The head is mounted on a base clad with silvergilt sheets and decorated with figures of the twelve Apostles standing under arches. The wooden core is also head-shaped, and has been hollowed out with a lathe. The relics were originally wrapped in precious textiles and stored in three layers. Those at the bottom comprise nine unlabeled fragments of skull, presumably the relics of St. Eustace.

Naomi C. Speakman