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Reliquary Shrine, French, c 1325-50, The Cloisters, New York Reliquary Shrine Jean de Touyl.jpg
Reliquary Shrine , French, c 1325–50, The Cloisters, New York

A reliquary (also referred to as a shrine or by the French term châsse) is a container for relics. These may be the purported or actual physical remains of saints, such as bones, pieces of clothing, or some object associated with saints or other religious figures. The authenticity of any given relic is often a matter of debate; for that reason, some churches require documentation of the relic's provenance.

Shrine holy or sacred place, which is dedicated to a specific deity

A shrine is a holy or sacred place, which is dedicated to a specific deity, ancestor, hero, martyr, saint, daemon, or similar figure of respect, at which they are venerated or worshipped. Shrines often contain idols, relics, or other such objects associated with the figure being venerated. A shrine at which votive offerings are made is called an altar.

Relic ancient religious object preserved for purposes of veneration

In religion, a relic usually consists of the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint or venerated person preserved for purposes of veneration as a tangible memorial. Relics are an important aspect of some forms of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Shamanism, and many other religions. Relic derives from the Latin reliquiae, meaning "remains", and a form of the Latin verb relinquere, to "leave behind, or abandon". A reliquary is a shrine that houses one or more religious relics.

Saint one who has been recognized for having an exceptional degree of holiness, sanctity, and virtue

A saint is a person who is recognized as having an exceptional degree of holiness or likeness or closeness to God. However, the use of the term "saint" depends on the context and denomination. In Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Oriental Orthodox, and Lutheran doctrine, all of their faithful deceased in Heaven are considered to be saints, but some are considered worthy of greater honor or emulation; official ecclesiastical recognition, and consequently veneration, is given to some saints through the process of canonization in the Catholic Church or glorification in the Eastern Orthodox Church.


Relics have long been important to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and many other religions. [1] [2] [3] In these cultures, reliquaries are often presented in shrines, churches, or temples to which the faithful make pilgrimages in order to gain blessings.

Buddhism World religion, founded by the Buddha

Buddhism is the world's fourth-largest religion with over 520 million followers, or over 7% of the global population, known as Buddhists. Buddhism encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha and resulting interpreted philosophies. Buddhism originated in ancient India as a Sramana tradition sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, spreading through much of Asia. Two major extant branches of Buddhism are generally recognized by scholars: Theravada and Mahayana.

Christianity is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Its adherents, known as Christians, believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and savior of all people, whose coming as the Messiah was prophesied in the Old Testament and chronicled in the New Testament. It is the world's largest religion with over 2.4 billion followers.

Hinduism is an Indian religion and dharma, or way of life, widely practised in the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia. Hinduism has been called the oldest religion in the world, and some practitioners and scholars refer to it as Sanātana Dharma, "the eternal tradition", or the "eternal way", beyond human history. Scholars regard Hinduism as a fusion or synthesis of various Indian cultures and traditions, with diverse roots and no founder. This "Hindu synthesis" started to develop between 500 BCE and 300 CE, after the end of the Vedic period, and flourished in the medieval period, with the decline of Buddhism in India.

The term is sometimes used loosely of containers for the body parts of non-religious figures; in particular the Kings of France often specified that their hearts and sometimes other organs be buried in a different location from their main burial.

In Christianity

A view inside the shrine of Saint Boniface of Dokkum in the hermit-church of Warfhuizen in the Netherlands. The little folded paper on the left contains a bone-fragment of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the folded paper on the right a piece of the habit of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. The large bone in the middle (about 5 cm. in length) is the actual relic of Saint Boniface. Reliekschrijnbinnen.jpg
A view inside the shrine of Saint Boniface of Dokkum in the hermit-church of Warfhuizen in the Netherlands. The little folded paper on the left contains a bone-fragment of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the folded paper on the right a piece of the habit of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. The large bone in the middle (about 5 cm. in length) is the actual relic of Saint Boniface.
Reliquary Cross, French, c. 1180 Reliquary Cross (French, The Cloisters).jpg
Reliquary Cross , French, c. 1180

The use of reliquaries became an important part of Christian practices from at least the 4th century, initially in the Eastern Churches, which adopted the practice of moving and dividing the bodies of saints much earlier than the West, probably in part because the new capital of Constantinople, unlike Rome, lacked buried saints. Relics are venerated in the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and some Anglican Churches. Reliquaries provide a means of protecting and displaying relics. While frequently taking the form of caskets, [4] they range in size from simple pendants or rings to very elaborate ossuaries.

Eastern Christianity Christian traditions originating from Greek- and Syriac-speaking populations

Eastern Christianity comprises church families that developed outside the Occident, with major bodies including the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox churches, the Eastern Catholic Churches, and the denominations descended from the Church of the East. The Ukrainian Lutheran Church is also an Eastern Christian church that uses the Byzantine Rite. The term is used in contrast with Western Christianity, although its scope has been one of continual discussion. Eastern Christianity consists of the Christian traditions and churches that developed distinctively over several centuries in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Malabar coast of South India, and parts of the Far East. The term does not describe a single communion or religious denomination. Some Eastern churches have more in common historically and theologically with Western Christianity than with one another. The various Eastern churches do not normally refer to themselves as "Eastern", with the exception of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East.

Constantinople capital city of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, the Latin and the Ottoman Empire

Constantinople was the capital city of the Roman Empire (330–395), of the Byzantine Empire, of the brief Crusader state known as the Latin Empire (1204–1261) and of the Ottoman Empire (1453–1923). In 1923 the capital of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, was moved to Ankara and the name Constantinople was officially changed to Istanbul. The city was located in what is now the European side and the core of modern Istanbul.

Ossuary place like a building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains

An ossuary is a chest, box, building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains. They are frequently used where burial space is scarce. A body is first buried in a temporary grave, then after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary. The greatly reduced space taken up by an ossuary means that it is possible to store the remains of many more people in a single tomb than if the original coffins were left as is.

Since the relics themselves were considered "more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold," [5] it was only appropriate that they be enshrined in containers crafted of or covered with gold, silver, gems, and enamel. [4] Ivory was widely used in the Middle Ages for reliquaries; its pure white color an indication of the holy status of its contents. [6] These objects constituted a major form of artistic production across Europe and Byzantium throughout the Middle Ages.

Many were designed with portability in mind, often being exhibited in public or carried in procession on the saint's feast day or on other holy days. Pilgrimages often centered on the veneration of relics. The faithful often venerate relics by bowing before the reliquary or kissing it. Those churches which observe the veneration of relics make a clear distinction between the honor given to the saints and the worship that is due to God alone (see Second Council of Nicea). The feretrum was a medieval form of reliquary or shrine containing the sacred effigies and relics of a saint.

Procession organized body of people walking in a formal or ceremonial manner

A procession is an organized body of people walking in a formal or ceremonial manner.

Liturgical year annually recurring fixed sequence of Christian parties and festive seasons

The liturgical year, also known as the church year or Christian year, as well as the kalendar, consists of the cycle of liturgical seasons in Christian churches that determines when feast days, including celebrations of saints, are to be observed, and which portions of Scripture are to be read either in an annual cycle or in a cycle of several years.

Pilgrimage journey or search of moral or spiritual significance

A pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith, although sometimes it can be a metaphorical journey into someone's own beliefs.

Perhaps the most magnificent example is that known as the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral. After the storming of Milan in 1162 the supposed relics of the Magi were carried off and brought to Cologne, where a magnificent silver casket, nearly 6 feet long, and 4.5 feet high was constructed for them. This superb piece of silversmith's work resembles in outward form a church with a nave and two aisles. [7]

In the late Middle Ages the craze for relics, many now fraudulent, became extreme, and was criticized by many otherwise conventional churchmen.

16th-century reformers such as Martin Luther opposed the use of relics since many had no proof of historic authenticity, and they objected to the cult of saints. Many reliquaries, particularly in northern Europe, were destroyed by Calvinists or Calvinist sympathizers during the Reformation, being melted down or pulled apart to recover precious metals and gems. Nonetheless, the use and manufacture of reliquaries continues to this day, especially in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian countries. Post-Reformation reliquaries have tended to take the form of glass-sided caskets to display relics such as the bodies of saints.


The earliest reliquaries were essentially boxes, either simply box-shaped or based on an architectural design, taking the form of a model of a church with a pitched roof. These latter are known by the French term chasse, and typical examples from the 12th to 14th century have wooden frameworks with gilt-copper plaques nailed on, decorated in champlevé enamel. Limoges was the largest centre of production; NB the English usage differs from that of the French châsse, which denotes large size rather than shape.

Franco-Flemish Gothic philatory for a finger bone, late 15th century (Walters Art Museum) French - Reliquary for a Finger Bone - Walters 57690.jpg
Franco-Flemish Gothic philatory for a finger bone, late 15th century (Walters Art Museum)

Relics of the True Cross became very popular from the 9th century onwards and were housed in magnificent gold and silver cross-shaped reliquaries, decorated with enamels and precious stones. From about the end of the 10th century, reliquaries in the shape of the relics they housed also became popular; hence, for instance, the skull of Pope Alexander I was housed in a head-shaped reliquary. Similarly, the bones of saints were often housed in reliquaries that recalled the shape of the original body part, such as an arm or a foot.

Many Eastern Orthodox reliquaries housing tiny pieces of relics have circular or cylindrical slots in which small disks of wax-mastic in which the actual relic is embedded. [8]

A philatory is a transparent reliquary designed to contain and exhibit the bones and relics of saints. This style of reliquary has a viewing portal by which to view the relic contained inside.

Reliquaries holding relics of the Buddha from a stupa in Kanishka, Peshawar, Pakistan, now in Mandalay, Burma. Teresa Merrigan, 2005 Buddha relics.JPG
Reliquaries holding relics of the Buddha from a stupa in Kanishka, Peshawar, Pakistan, now in Mandalay, Burma. Teresa Merrigan, 2005

During the later Middle Ages, the monstrance form, mostly used for consecrated hosts, was sometimes used for reliquaries. These housed the relic in a rock crystal or glass capsule mounted on a column above a base, enabling the relic to be displayed to the faithful. Reliquaries in the form of large pieces of metalwork jewellery also appeared around this time, housing tiny relics such as pieces of the Holy Thorn, notably the Holy Thorn Reliquary now in the British Museum.

Chasse saint taurin.jpg
Box Reliquary/Chasse: Gilded reliquary St. Taurin
Arm Reliquary
Head Reliquary
Gurii (icon whis relic).jpg
Icon of St. Guriy of Kazan, with relic embedded in it (19th century).

In Buddhism

In Buddhism, stupas are an important form of reliquary, and may be included in a larger complex known as a chaitya. Particularly in China and throughout East and Southeast Asia, these take the form of a pagoda; in Japan this is known as a .

In Theravada Buddhism, relics are known as cetiya; one of the most significant is the relic of the tooth of the Buddha in Sri Lanka.

In Japan, Buddhist relics are known as shari(舎利), and are often stored in a shariden(舎利殿, relic hall, reliquary) – see Japanese Buddhist architecture.


  1. "Two Gandhāran Reliquaries" K. Walton Dobbins. East and West, 18 (1968), pp. 151–162.
  2. The Stūpa and Vihāra of Kanishka I. K. Walton Dobbins. (1971) The Asiatic Society of Bengal Monograph Series, Vol. XVIII. Calcutta.
  3. "Is the Kaniṣka Reliquary a work from Mathurā?" Mirella Levi d’Ancona. Art Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec., 1949), pp. 321–323.
  4. 1 2 Boehm, Barbara Drake. "Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,(October 2001)
  5. Quote from the 'Martyrdom of St Polycarp' (2nd Century AD )
  6. Speakman, Naomi C., "Treasures of Heaven", The British Museum, London, 2011
  7. Thurston, Herbert. "Reliquaries." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 14 March 2014
  8. Tomov, Nikola; Dzhangozov, Januarius (Yanko). "Wax Embedding as a Method for Preservation of Body Relics Used by the Orthodox Church" (PDF). Acta Morphologica et Anthropologica. 25 (1–2): 122-125.

PD-icon.svg  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Reliquaries". Catholic Encyclopedia . New York: Robert Appleton.

See also

Further reading

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Pectoral cross cross worn on the chest by Christian clergy of various denominations

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Becket Casket

The Becket Casket is a reliquary in Limoges enamel now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is made of gilt-copper round a wooden core, decorated with champlevé enamel, and of a shape called a "chasse". It was made in about 1180–90 in Limoges, France, and depicts one of the most infamous events in English history. On the night of 29 December 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury cathedral by four knights obeying the wishes of King Henry II. It provoked outrage throughout Europe, and pilgrims flocked to Canterbury to pray at the site of the murder. In 1173 Becket was canonized and his shrine was one of the most famous in the Christian world, until its total destruction in 1538 during the reign of Henry VIII. It is thought that this particular casket was made to hold the relics of Thomas Becket that were taken to Peterborough Abbey by Abbot Benedict in 1177. Benedict had been Prior at Canterbury Cathedral and therefore saw Becket's assassination.

Reliquary Shrine of Saint Eleutherius

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Limoges enamel

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Chasse (casket) relic holder in the shape of a chest, casket, or small church-like structure

A chasse, châsse or box reliquary is a shape commonly used in medieval metalwork for reliquaries and other containers. To the modern eye the form resembles a house, though a tomb or church was more the intention, with an oblong base, straight sides and two sloping top faces meeting at a central ridge, often marked by a raised strip and decoration. From the sides there are therefore triangular "gable" areas. The casket usually stands on straight stumpy feet, and there is a hinged opening to allow access, either one of the panels, but not on the front face, or the wooden bottom; there is usually a lock. The shape possibly developed from a similar shape of sarcophagus that goes back to Etruscan art, or from Early Medieval Insular art, where there are a number of reliquaries or cumdachs ("book-shrines") with similar shapes, like the Monymusk Reliquary, although in these typically there are four sloping panels above, so no "gables"; a 13th-century example of this type is the chasse of Saint Exupère. The word derives, via the French châsse, from the Latin capsa, meaning "box".

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The Trier Cathedral Treasury is a museum of Christian art and medieval art in Trier, Germany. The museum is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trier and is located inside the Cathedral of Trier. It contains some of the church's most valuable relics, reliquaries, liturgical vessels, ivories, manuscripts and other artistic objects. The history of the Trier church treasure goes back at least 800 years. In spite of heavy losses during the period of the Coalition Wars, it is one of the richest cathedral treasuries in Germany. With the cathedral it forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Pilgrimage of the Relics, Maastricht

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