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reliquary

reliquary. Receptacle in which the Relics of Saints are kept. They may be very small, such as a box or casket, or very large, ornate, and magnificent, such as the shrine of St Edward in Westminster Abbey. It should be remembered that great medieval buildings were often erected to house shrines or reliquaries, and so may be regarded, by extension, as reliquaries themselves (e.g. Cologne Cathedral, which contains the lovely reliquary of the Magi).

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reliquary

reliquary (rĕl´əkwĕr´ē), receptacle containing the relics of saints and other sacred objects of the Christian religion. Reliquaries were often designed in shapes that reflected the nature of their contents, such as hands, shoes, buildings, and heads. They were richly decorated with gold, silver, enamel, and jewels.

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reliquary

rel·i·quar·y / ˈreləˌkwerē/ • n. (pl. -quar·ies) a container for holy relics.

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reliquary

reliquary a container, as a box or shrine, for holy relics; reliquaries are often richly ornamented.

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reliquary

reliquary vessel to contain relics. XVII. — (O)F. reliquaire, f. relique RELIC; see -ARY.

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reliquary

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Reliquary

RELIQUARY

As the focus of worship in early Buddhist monasteries, every stŪpa or pagoda had a foundation deposit, usually sealed within a stone casket or small chamber beneath the central mast, and hence inaccessible once the stūpa was raised above it.

Reliquary deposits were placed either in a vault centrally located in the foundations of a pagoda or higher up in a chamber within the structure. Such deposits were made at the time of construction, but those in the foundation vault would be recovered and reconsecrated whenever it became necessary to rebuild the structure above them (e.g., when a pagoda built of wood burnt down and was rebuilt). Exceptionally, as at Famensi, the vault would be accessible on other occasions.

Many deposits have been revealed through excavation and conservation projects in the second half of the twentieth century. The earliest examples, like the earliest pagoda (Songyuesi ta at Dengfeng in Henan province, dated 520) are from the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534). At this date, the reliquary container is a cubical stone chest, no more than thirty centimeters in height, with a chamfered stone lid. The relics or sheli (the Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit śarīra) are tiny crystalline grains, usually enclosed in a very small glass bottle. This in turn is enclosed within other containers, and accompanied by wrappings of silk and offerings of various kinds, including precious objects and coins. Among the latter it is common to find coins minted a decade or so earlier in Byzantium or the Sassanian empire, which had come to China through trade along the Silk Road.

In the seventh century, the shape of the reliquary was changed into the form of a Chinese coffin, with arched lid, higher at one end than the other, a Sinicized form that was to persist until the end of the twentieth century, when clear plastic containers of this form were used to reconsecrate the four relics found in the Famensi pagoda deposit.

The most recently discovered reliquary deposit was recovered during excavation of the Leifengta, on the shores of the West Lake in Hangzhou, the brick core of which collapsed in 1924. Excavated in 2001, the foundation chamber contained an iron chest (the domed and flat-sided one-piece cover extending to the flat square base with raised inner flange) with its contents intact. The relics inside were contained in a miniature one-story stūpa of silver, dedicated by the ruler of the eastern state of Wu-Yue in the tenth]century, set on a gilt-bronze circular tray with floral decoration. A seated bronze image of Śākyamuni supported on a dragon, bronze mirrors, coins, and exquisite jade carvings were also found inside the iron chest. The rulers of Wu-Yue are said to have dedicated eighty-four thousand such miniature stūpas. One reliquary deposit, the Wanfosi at Jinhua in Zhejiang province, contained no fewer than twenty-one of them.

Relic deposits, often dated and containing, besides the relic grains themselves, Buddhist images and scriptures; wooden, lacquered and inlaid containers; and countless objects made of precious materials, provide some of the most fascinating evidence of Buddhist devotion. In the eyes of Buddhist devotees, relics were of equal if not greater importance than scriptures and images. The great traveler and translator Xuanzang (ca. 600–664) brought 150 relic grains, as well as seven images and 657 chapters of Buddhist scriptures, from his sixteen-year journey to India.

See also:Relics and Relics Cults; Ritual Objects

Bibliography

Wang, Eugene Y. "Of the True Body: The Famensi Relics and Corporeal Transformation in Tang Imperial China." In Body and Face in Chinese Visual Culture, ed. Wu Hung et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Asia Center and Harvard University Press, 2003.

Whitfield, Roderick. "Buddhist Monuments in China: Some Recent Finds of Śarīra Deposits." In The Buddhist Heritage: Papers Delivered at the Symposium of the Same Name Convened at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, November 1985, ed. Tadeusz Skorupski. Tring, UK: Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1989.

Roderick Whitfield

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