Reliquaries became popular around the 4th century. They contained the physical remains of saints, such as bones, body parts, pieces of clothing, or some object associated with saints or other religious figures. The original art idea is not Catholic modern art by any stretch, nor is it iconography.
In Central West Africa, reliquaries contain ritual objects considered magical, and were commonly constructed with a guardian figure attached to the reliquary. The Kings of France often specified that their hearts and sometimes other organs be buried in a different location from their main burial. In Egypt many of the organs were preserved and purported as having sacred power preserved in sacred canisters.
Traditionally, a reliquary is a type of religious artifact.
Despite their protest and the destruction of numerous ancient reliquaries, the practice has survived. In past centuries the relics themselves were considered “more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold,” it was only appropriate that they be enshrined containers crafted of or covered with gold, silver, gems, and enamel. Perhaps for this reason, today reliquaries are more often church interior decorating rather than collected than honored.
The authenticity of any given relic is frequently a matter of debate; for that reason, some churches require documentation of the relic’s provenance. 16th-century reformers such as Martin Luther opposed the use of relics since many had no proof of historic authenticity. The practice was often criticized for being idolatrous, worshiping an image or material thing, rather than the actual divine spirit
I have been fascinated by these collections as religious art and icon, and not at all surprised humanity would integrate ritual practices with them. It is perfectly logical to want to preserve a piece of something you loved and further more imagine it still contained some spiritual remnant of presence or power to comfort you.
While holding a small bag of my own sister’s ashes I was debating whether the idea of painting her ashes into an icon is a good idea?
Last spring I was gawking around a small church on the island of Cephalonia. There, beside the altar was a coffin with the patron saints petrified body under glass. Suddenly, the bells began to ring and 8 people arrived, the priest came in with incense, they all approached the glass coffin and as the priest raised the side to expose the body they each in turn reached in to touch the foot of the saint.
Two little children had to be lifted up by their parents to make the sacramental offering of touch. I watched at a distance thinking; how many people had touched that foot, how many people had taken time from their day to make this pilgrimage, how many lives had been changed because of this body under glass so well preserved?
Today’s reliquary in egg tempera.
Each small pouch contains the contents and effects from its label. Simple words like “Forgiveness and Sacrifice” at once connote a story line. The words signify emotions, states of mind, attitudes and dispositions, they imply history and consequence.
The word alone has the power to alter and change behavior within a community. The effect is not seen but securely contained in the bag. Today our society has bagged up many old words, we don’t seem to need anymore, and they are antiquated words with no meaning for the modern human. I would suggest we look at them again, peak inside or at least reflect on the significance they once held.