Four Canons with Saints Augustine and Jerome, oil on panel (c. 1500), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Four Canons with Saints Augustine and Jerome, oil on panel (c. 1500), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.  Photo by Reliquarian.

A Note on Relics

Almost since the dawn of Christianity, the physical remains of holy places, holy persons, and objects with which holy persons came into contact were believed to possess divine power.  Known as relics, these objects were trusted to protect, heal, and perform all manner of miracles on behalf of those who believed in them.  In the 11th-century epic poem The Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland), for example, the poem’s eponymous hero discovers that his sword, Durendal, has been imbued with supernatural strength by relics incorporated into its hilt.[1]  As he nears death, Roland struggles to destroy Durendal to prevent his enemies from seizing it.[2] He repeatedly smites the sword on a mighty stone, but it fails to break or splinter.  Eventually, Roland realizes the sword, fortified by the embedded relics, cannot be destroyed.

When the Count sees it never will be broke,
Then to himself right softly he makes moan:
“Ah, Durendal, fair, hallowed, and devote,
What store of relics lie in thy hilt of gold!
St Peter’s tooth, St Basil’s blood, it holds,
Hair of my lord St Denis, there enclosed,
Likewise a piece of Blessed Mary’s robe . . . .”[3]

Though relics were occasionally incorporated into objects like swords, most were encased in sumptuous reliquaries for public display and veneration.  The routine display of Christian relics likely dates to the late 4th century, though as noted above, relics were believed to possess special power long before then.  The Acts of the Apostles, for example, describes how Saint Paul’s handkerchiefs could heal the sick,[4] and the bones of Saint Polycarp, a bishop of Smyrna who was martyred around 155, were believed to be “more valuable than precious stones and purer than wrought iron.”[5]

Reliquary of Saint Oswald

Reliquary of Saint Oswald (detail), gold, silver, pearls, and gemstones over wood core (c. 1185-1189), Hildesheim Cathedral, Hildesheim, Germany.  The skull of Saint Oswald, a 7th-century King of Northumbria, remains enclosed in the reliquary, wrapped in silk.  Photo by Reliquarian.

About Reliquarian

The following pages endeavor to describe some of the stories and legends associated with relics displayed in churches, treasuries, and museums around the world.  The entries are inspired by relics we’ve encountered in our travels, so serendipity has much to do with the order and timing of each post.

We’ve attempted to include notes on history and art history whenever possible to add context to each entry.  Deciphering the identities of saints in art often requires some familiarity with Christian iconography, so we have tried to highlight key attributes that have come to be associated with individual saints over the centuries.  Like gods and goddesses in Greek and Roman art, saints in Christian art often carry unique objects and symbols that help distinguish them visually in art.  So, for example, while Poseidon (Neptune) is frequently depicted carrying a trident, Saint James is often shown with a seashell or a pilgrim’s staff.  Similarly, while Zeus (Jupiter) is commonly portrayed clutching a lightning bolt, Saint Peter is often represented with keys.  A basic knowledge of these symbols can be critical to understanding—and enjoying—Christian art.

Saint James - Metropolitan Museum

Saint James the Greater, pine with paint and gilding, South German (1475-1500), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Saint James is portrayed here carrying his characteristic pilgrim’s staff. His pilgrim’s hat is also embellished with a sea shell, a common attribute of Saint James.  Photo by Reliquarian.

A Note on Photographs

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs featured in Reliquarian are our own, and all rights to them are reserved.  We are by no means professional photographers, but we do our best to photograph the relics, reliquaries, buildings, and works of art we feature in our posts.

We sincerely hope you enjoy our website, and we look forward to sharing further entries with you in the future.  We also welcome your comments and encourage you to share your thoughts and insights with us as we continue to explore the intriguing world of holy relics and reliquaries.

Portable Altar, oak with original polychrome, lead, copper and glass, Brussels (c. 1525-1540), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Portable Altar, oak with original polychrome, lead, copper and glass, Brussels (c. 1525-1540), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.  The image of Jesus as the Man of Sorrows was intended as an Andachtsbild, or religious image intended for devotional contemplation.  The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture (volume 2, page 64) states that most Andachtsbilder are “based on both biblical and apocryphal Passion narratives.” The encyclopedia further notes that “one of the most important representations is that of the Man of Sorrows showing his wounds, either as a half- or full-length figure.”  Photo by Reliquarian.

[1] The Song of Roland (Dorothy L. Sayers trans., 1957) (1115).

[2]  Roland is depicted attempting to destroy Durendal in panel 19 of the Legends of Charlemagne Window at Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France. A photograph of the panel can be found here.  The complete window is available here, with links to close-ups of the window’s various panels.

[3] The Song of Roland, supra note 1, at 141. Roland was serving the emperor Charlemagne at the time he was killed at Battle of Roncevaux, and like Roland’s sword, the emperor Charlemagne’s sword, Joyeuse, was augmented by a relic. The pommel of Joyeuse contained the Holy Lance. The Song of Roland states:

You know the lance—for oft we’ve heard the tale—
Which pierced Our Lord when He on cross was slain:
Carlon possesses the lance head, God be praised!
In the gold pummel he’s had it shrined and cased,
And for to honour such favor and such grace
This sword of his is called Joyeuse by name.

Id. at 147.

[4]  Acts 19:11-12 (New International Version) (“God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.”).

[5]  Charles Freeman, Holy Bones, Holy Dust 20-21 (2011).

6 thoughts on “About”

  1. Your site is exceptionally smart and fascinating! I do a happy dance whenever you publish a new post.

  2. Thanks–hint: there are some great relics coming our way in January…

  3. Hi. If I wish to reproduce one of your photos in a publication would you give copyright permission for this provided I gave you appropriate credit?

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