Containers for safeguarding and exhibiting the relics of saints; they first appeared with the development of the veneration of relics. Among the oldest known are small casket-form boxes of silver found in the church of St. Nazarius in Milan and the famous ivory Samagher reliquary of Pola, Yugoslavia. The façade of the latter shows the confessio and apse of the fourth-century Constantinian basilica of St. Peter, enabling modern archeologists to reconstruct the interior lineaments of the original church. An earlier example (c. 315) of an ivory casket-type reliquary, preserved in the Reliquary Museum at Brescia, is decorated with a cycle of Old and New Testament scenes.
Rings and Crosses. The discovery of the true cross in Jerusalem by St. Helena, of the relics of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, the bodies of SS. Gervasius and Protasius at Milan, and those of the Forty Martyrs frozen to death under Licinius (c. 320) in the East, as well as the wide dispersal of relic particles of the true cross, said by paulinus of nola to cover the whole world (Epist. 32.11), caused the rapid appearance of many types of reliquaries, including rings, amulets, and encolpia (small round containers suspended on a chain about the neck and worn upon the breast). Crosses of gold, silver, or crystal were used to contain pieces of the true cross (Peregr. Aether. 37.1–2), such as the silver-plated copper cross of Justinian (sixth century) in the Treasury of St. Peter's, Rome, and the cross of Gregory I (603) in the Theodolinda Treasury at Monza. The use of precious metals for reliquaries is attested in the late fourth century by St. Jerome (Adv. Vigil. 5) and at the start of the fifth by Prudentius (Perist. 11.184–8).
Table and "Speaking" Reliquaries. Between the seventh and nineth centuries various forms of reliquaries came into existence. Among the Merovingians a burse-form reliquary was made of cloth with the relic woven into it. An example of this type can be found in the National Museum of Nürnberg, Germany. There were, too, pocket reliquaries of rich metal, conveniently carried on one's person. A seventh-century example is in the Abbey of Saint Moritz, and one from the eighth century is in the former State Museum in Berlin. Reliquaries were also constructed in table form, that is, the relics were imbedded in small tables decorated with enamel, jewels, or paintings. Table reliquaries containing a piece of the true cross are to be found at the cathedral of Limburg (c. 950), the palace of Henry II in Munich (c. 1024), and the church of St. Matthias in Trier (c. 1220).
So-called "speaking reliquaries" were fashioned to symbolize the relics they contained. Examples are the hornshaped reliquary of St. Hubertus, patron of the hunt, in the church of St. Servatius in Maastricht, Holland, and the nail-shaped and the crown-of-thorns-shaped reliquaries in Trier. In the early 12th century, reliquaries were often shaped like parts of the body: a leg, an arm, or especially a head or bust. There are famous bust reliquaries of the Apostles Peter and Paul at the Lateran in Rome, of St. januarius in Naples, and of St. Zenobius in the cathedral of Florence. A famous head reliquary of St. John the Baptist (15th century) adorns the cathedral of Aosta, Italy; and the silver head reliquary of St. Andrew, brought to Rome for safekeeping under Pope Pius II (1464), was returned to the cathedral at Patras by Pope Paul VI (1964).
In the Form of Buildings. A few notable reliquaries took the form of gabled buildings or shrines and reflect the architectural patterns of the period of their construction. Following the Maas-Rhein school of architecture with Godefroid of Claire, Nicholas of Verdun, and Hugo of Oignies, there is the Shrine of the Three Kings in the treasury of the cathedral of Cologne (c. 1200), constructed after the supposed relics of the Magi were captured in the storming of Milan (1162) and carried off to Cologne. This is a magnificent silver shrine (nearly six feet long and four-and-a-half feet wide) that resembles a church with a nave and two aisles. Of slightly later date (c. 1230) and of Gothic design is the resplendent Marienschrein at Aachen. Towers and other building forms were used during the late Middle Ages, and the Renaissance artists bent their talents to the construction of finely jeweled reliquaries. In the baroque period glass casings for bones reconstructed in bodily form became common, and the relics were exhibited beneath the altar in the full clothing of a bishop, monk, or nun. The form of modern reliquaries is a modest capsule with a glass lid, although ostensorial types are still common, usually for exhibiting large relics or groups of relics on an altar.
Bibliography: h. s. crawford, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquarians of Ireland, 53 (1923) 74–93, 151–176. m. s. byne, Forgotten Shrines of Spain (Philadelphia 1926). j. braun, Die Reliquiare des christlichen Kultes und ihre Entwicklung (Freiburg 1940), bibliog. a. grabar, Martyrium, 2 v. and portfolio (Paris 1943–46). a. lipinsky, Münster 15 (1962) 353–375, Bologna reliquaries. f. j. dÖlger, Antike und Christentum, v.3 (Münster 1932) 81–116.
[j. m. farnik/eds.]