An Introduction to the Art of Medieval Reliquaries

When looking at medieval art, it is important to recognize that the objects in a modern exhibition are taken out of their original context. Unlike much of the art produced in the intervening centuries, works made in the Middle Ages served specific religious purposes and functions. Reliquaries are a great example of this divide between medieval intentions and modern appreciation. To the people of the Middle Ages, the material contained inside a reliquary far outweighed the reliquary itself in importance, while in modern times we more often appreciate reliquaries as beautiful and ornate pieces of art.

Janie Shanahan ’24 and Nadia Eguchi ’ 21

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Tabernacle with Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty

Reliquary with Rock-Crystal Vessel

The Relic

Within any reliquary would be a relic. Relics could be items that belonged to a saint, perhaps something the saint touched, wore, or used in their lifetime, or, in many cases, the relics were believed to be body parts of a saint, truly powerful objects in the eyes of many medieval Christians, if somewhat grotesque for many modern viewers. Within medieval European Christian belief systems, relics were considered by many to be incredibly potent objects that provided a closer relationship to the holy, offering a direct path to martyrs (people killed for their religious beliefs) and other saints, and, through these saints, to Jesus Christ himself. Essentially, relics were literal manifestations of the Christian idea that death is not that the end, that the dead might continue to act and wield valuable influence even after the time of death. The body of a saint was seen as a holy medium through which people could directly interact with that saints and with the divine. Through relics, saints were believed to have the ability to perform miracles, especially on behalf of those who came near to the relic, or even touched it. As many still do today, countless medieval Christians went on pilgrimages to visit relics in search of healing powers or miracles. Relics became so influential and essential to the Christian faith that in 787 AD the Second Council of Nicaea required that every church exhibit a relic, a mandate that increased the demand for relics across the Christian world. As relics were so vital and ubiquitous, much of the surviving medieval art that we have in the 21st century is in the form of reliquaries. 

The Reliquary

Even though the reliquary was designed to be used as a vessel to hold a relic, reliquaries continue to be valued in the 21st century as impressive and desirable works of art, exemplifying the style of the Middle Ages. Reliquaries were made to accompany the valuable relics, and, using some of the finest materials available and highly refined technical skills, the material value of these reliquaries was intended to emulate the spiritual value of the relics within. 

Limoges Tabernacle History and Function

According to Christian doctrine, Jesus Christ ascended to heaven, leaving behind no body-part relics, but for many medieval Christians, the bread and the wine of the eucharist, transformed into the body and blood of Christ during the ceremony of the mass, took the place of such relics. Tabernacles, designed as receptacles for portions of the transformed bread, can thus be seen as a type of reliquary. 

In the iconography of the Tabernacle with Crucifixion and Christin Majesty (c.1200–1210, Wyvern Collection, 0837) one sees Jesus Christ in his human form at the Crucifixion, and above in his divine form, in the heavens, the two representations reflecting the two natures of Christ, in keeping with medieval Christian orthodox belief. The ornate craft of this object, as with many other enamel works from Limoges, demonstrates the level of financial investment that an owner (probably a church or monastic institution, rather than an individual) was willing and able to make.

The Wyvern tabernacle was made in Limoges, in present-day France, which was an important hub for the production of enamel, including many reliquaries and other religious objects. To meet the high demand for such objects, workshops in Limoges developed techniques that allowed them to efficiently produce a high number of works. While mass production in the twelfth century was not exactly the same as it is today, the workshops used a type of assembly line with individual components that might be used in a variety of reliquaries made by one team of artisans, and then assembled into a specific reliquary by another team. Wealthy patrons could afford to have a custom-made piece, but the mass production and assembly of smaller objects and less ornate items made the ownership of religious and devotional objects more accessible to a wider population.

Creating the Limoges Tabernacle

Rock Crystal History and Function

The Reliquary with Rock Crystal Vessel (c.1200–1230, Wyvern Collection, 0968)contains a bone fragment, perhaps of Saint Sebastian, who has as long been considered the patron saint of arrows and pin-makers, with a modern-day affiliation with sports. Although they are both reliquaries, the appearance and function of this work differ greatly from the Wyvern Tabernacle. While the Tabernacle includes images of Jesus Christ and other biblical figures, the rock crystal reliquary is decorated with metalwork and gemstones, lacking any figural images. The reliquary most likely attracted pilgrims who sought the healing powers of the saint’s bone fragment, and it might well have been displayed on an altar or on beams above or behind and altar, or even placed within an altar or a larger reliquary. It might have been carried in procession or even worn by a priest or high-ranking official. Many reliquaries at this time period were brought out on special occasions, such as on feast days, and housed out of sight for the remainder of the year. 

During the Middle Ages, there was a symbiotic relationship between a patronwho commissioned or purchased a reliquary and the saint whose remains were housed in the reliquary. There was an expectation of loyalty between the venerated saint and venerating patron, as protection came to said patron in exchange for their devotion. If the relic within this reliquary did belong to Saint Sebastian, the rock crystal vessel might have belonged to a church or monastic order dedicated to Saint Sebastian. 

Today, this reliquary functions as a work of art, and is valuable for its beauty, materials, and historical connections. The label on the reliquary is a later addition, and we cannot be certain that the relics within this vessel were always attributed to Saint Sebastian. The label might have been added to make the reliquary more appealing to a buyer, as the relic would be associated with a recognizable saint.

Creating the Reliquary with Rock-Crystal Vessel

For more information: New Views of the Middle Ages Highlights from the Wyvern Collection


Boehm, Barbara Drake. “Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (originally published October 2001, last revised April 2011)

Bagnoli, M., and K. Gerry. The Medieval World. Baltimore, Maryland, Walters ArtMuseum, 2011.

M. Bagnoli, “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 2010.

McLaughlin, Meredith. "Arm Reliquary: Journey from Divine to Fine Ar."Medieval Art and the American Public: A Digital Narrative, FordhamUniversity,