Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A reliquary (also referred to as a shrine, chasse or monstrance) is a container for holy relics. These may be the physical remains of saints, such as bones or shreds of clothing, or some object associated with the saints or other holy figures. (The authenticity of any given relic is often a matter of debate).
Relics became an important part of Christian ritual from about the 4th century onwards, as cults formed around specific saints. They provided a means of protecting and displaying holy relics, and were often deemed to have miraculous powers of intercession. They ranged in size from simple pendants or rings to coffin-like containers to very elaborate ossuaries. 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 around the visitation of holy relics in reliquaries.
The earliest reliquaries were essentially boxes, either simply box-shaped or based on an architectural design (e.g. taking the form of a model of a church); these were known as shrines or chasses. 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, Pope Alexander I's skull was housed in a head-shaped reliquaries. 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.
During the later Middle Ages, the monstrance was introduced - a form of reliquary which housed the relic in a rock crystal or glass capsule mounted on a rod, enabling the relic to be displayed to the faithful. Reliquaries in the form of jewellery also appeared around this time, housing tiny relics such as pieces of the Holy Thorn.
16th-century reformers such as Martin Luther opposed the use of reliquaries and regarded them as idolatrous. Many reliquaries, particularly in northern Europe, were destroyed 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 in the Catholic and Orthodox countries. Post-Reformation reliquaries have tended to take the form of glass-sided caskets to display relics such as the bodies of saints.
Reliquaries in literature
In A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first of the Brother Cadfael mysteries written by Edith Pargeter writing as Ellis Peters, she fictionalizes the real-life exhumation of the bones of St. Winifred. Winifred's bones are then placed into a reliquary which is later brought back from the saint's home in Gwytherin, Wales to the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, England. The reliquary then occasionally figures into the remainder of the Cadfael mysteries.
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