A reliquary (also referred to as a shrine or by the French term chasse) is a container for relics. These may be the 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.
A philatory is a transparent reliquary designed to contain and exhibit the bones and relics of saints. Another form of reliquary is called a monstrance. This style of reliquary has a viewing portal by which to view the relic contained inside.
Relics have long been important to both Hindus and Buddhists. In these cultures, reliquaries are often preserved in stupas or temples, to which the faithful make pilgrimages in order to gain merit.
In Central West Africa, reliquaries used in the Bwete rituals contain objects considered magical, or the bones of ancestors, and are commonly constructed with a guardian figure attached to the reliquary.
The use of reliquaries became an important part of Christian ritual from at least the 4th century. Relics are venerated in the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and some Anglican Churches. Reliquaries provide a means of protecting and displaying relics, which many believe are endowed by God with the grace of miraculous powers. They range 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 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 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 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.
The feretrum was a medieval form of reliquary or shrine containing the sacred effigies and relics of a saint.
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 relics 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, 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.
- "Two Gandhāran Reliquaries" K. Walton Dobbins. East and West, 18 (1968), pp. 151–162.
- The Stūpa and Vihāra of Kanishka I. K. Walton Dobbins. (1971) The Asiatic Society of Bengal Monograph Series, Vol. XVIII. Calcutta.
- "Is the Kaniṣka Reliquary a work from Mathurā?" Mirella Levi d’Ancona. Art Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec., 1949), pp. 321–323.
- Shrine of the Holy Relics in Maria Stein, Ohio
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