A reliquary (also referred to as a shrine or by the French term châsse) is a container for relics. These may be the purported or actual 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.

Relics have long been important to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and many other religions.[1][2][3] In these cultures, reliquaries are often presented in shrines, churches, or temples to which the faithful make pilgrimages in order to gain blessings.

The term is sometimes used loosely of containers for the body parts of non-religious figures; in particular the Kings of France often specified that their hearts and sometimes other organs be buried in a different location from their main burial.

Reliquary Shrine Jean de Touyl
Reliquary Shrine, French, c 1325–50, The Cloisters, New York

In Christianity

A view inside the shrine of Saint Boniface of Dokkum in the hermit-church of Warfhuizen in the Netherlands. The little folded paper on the left contains a bone-fragment of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the folded paper on the right a piece of the habit of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. The large bone in the middle (about 5 cm. in length) is the actual relic of Saint Boniface.
Reliquary Cross (French, The Cloisters)
Reliquary Cross, French, c. 1180

The use of reliquaries became an important part of Christian practices from at least the 4th century, initially in the Eastern Churches, which adopted the practice of moving and dividing the bodies of saints much earlier than the West, probably in part because the new capital of Constantinople, unlike Rome, lacked buried saints. Relics are venerated in the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and some Anglican Churches. Reliquaries provide a means of protecting and displaying relics. While frequently taking the form of caskets,[4] they range in size from simple pendants or rings to very elaborate ossuaries.

Since the relics themselves were considered "more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold," [5] it was only appropriate that they be enshrined in containers crafted of or covered with gold, silver, gems, and enamel.[4] Ivory was widely used in the Middle Ages for reliquaries; its pure white color an indication of the holy status of its contents.[6] These objects constituted a major form of artistic production across Europe and Byzantium throughout the Middle Ages.

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 on 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 feretrum was a medieval form of reliquary or shrine containing the sacred effigies and relics of a saint.

Perhaps the most magnificent example is that known as the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral. After the storming of Milan in 1162 the supposed relics of the Magi were carried off and brought to Cologne, where a magnificent silver casket, nearly 6 feet long, and 4.5 feet high was constructed for them. This superb piece of silversmith's work resembles in outward form a church with a nave and two aisles.[7]

In the late Middle Ages the craze for relics, many now fraudulent, became extreme, and was criticized by many otherwise conventional churchmen.

16th-century reformers such as Martin Luther opposed the use of relics since many had no proof of historic authenticity, and they objected to the cult of saints. Many reliquaries, particularly in northern Europe, were destroyed by Calvinists or Calvinist sympathizers 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.


The earliest reliquaries were essentially boxes, either simply box-shaped or based on an architectural design, taking the form of a model of a church with a pitched roof. These latter are known by the French term chasse, and typical examples from the 12th to 14th century have wooden frameworks with gilt-copper plaques nailed on, decorated in champlevé enamel. Limoges was the largest centre of production; NB the English usage differs from that of the French châsse, which denotes large size rather than shape.

French - Reliquary for a Finger Bone - Walters 57690
Franco-Flemish Gothic philatory for a finger bone, late 15th century (Walters Art Museum)

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, the skull of Pope Alexander I 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.

Many Eastern Orthodox reliquaries housing tiny pieces of relics have circular or cylindrical slots in which small disks of wax-mastic in which the actual relic is embedded.[8]

A philatory is a transparent reliquary designed to contain and exhibit the bones and relics of saints. This style of reliquary has a viewing portal by which to view the relic contained inside.

Buddha relics
Reliquaries holding relics of the Buddha from a stupa in Kanishka, Peshawar, Pakistan, now in Mandalay, Burma. Teresa Merrigan, 2005

During the later Middle Ages, the monstrance form, mostly used for consecrated hosts, was sometimes used for reliquaries. These housed the relic in a rock crystal or glass capsule mounted on a column above a base, enabling the relic to be displayed to the faithful. Reliquaries in the form of large pieces of metalwork jewellery also appeared around this time, housing tiny relics such as pieces of the Holy Thorn, notably the Holy Thorn Reliquary now in the British Museum.

Chasse saint taurin
Box Reliquary/Chasse: Gilded reliquary St. Taurin
Arm Reliquary
Head Reliquary
Gurii (icon whis relic)
Icon of St. Guriy of Kazan, with relic embedded in it (19th century).

In Buddhism

In Buddhism, stupa are an important form of reliquary, and may be included in a larger complex known as a chaitya. Particularly in China and throughout East and Southeast Asia, these take the form of a pagoda; in Japan this is known as a .

In Theravada Buddhism, relics are known as cetiya; one of the most significant in the relic of the tooth of the Buddha in Sri Lanka.

In Japan, Buddhist relics are known as shari (舎利), and are often stored in a shariden (舎利殿, relic hall, reliquary) – see Japanese Buddhist architecture.


  1. ^ "Two Gandhāran Reliquaries" K. Walton Dobbins. East and West, 18 (1968), pp. 151–162.
  2. ^ The Stūpa and Vihāra of Kanishka I. K. Walton Dobbins. (1971) The Asiatic Society of Bengal Monograph Series, Vol. XVIII. Calcutta.
  3. ^ "Is the Kaniṣka Reliquary a work from Mathurā?" Mirella Levi d’Ancona. Art Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec., 1949), pp. 321–323.
  4. ^ a b Boehm, Barbara Drake. "Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,(October 2001)
  5. ^ Quote from the 'Martyrdom of St Polycarp' (2nd Century AD )
  6. ^ Speakman, Naomi C., "Treasures of Heaven", The British Museum, London, 2011
  7. ^ Thurston, Herbert. "Reliquaries." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 14 March 2014
  8. ^ Tomov, Nikola; Dzhangozov, Januarius (Yanko). "Wax Embedding as a Method for Preservation of Body Relics Used by the Orthodox Church" (PDF). Acta Morphologica et Anthropologica. 25 (1–2): 122-125.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Reliquaries". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.

See also

Further reading


The Apracharajas (also known as Apracarajas, Apraca, Avacas) were an Indo-Scythian dynasty ruling dynasty of Western Pakistan. The Apracharaja capital, known as Apracapura (also Avacapura), was located in the Bajaur district of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Apraca rule of Bajaur existed from the 1st century BCE to the 1st century CE. Its rulers formed the dynasty which is referred to as the Apracharajas.

Bimaran casket

The Bimaran casket or Bimaran reliquary is a small gold reliquary for Buddhist relics that was found inside the stupa no.2 at Bimaran, near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

Brussels Cross

The Brussels Cross or Drahmal Cross is an Anglo-Saxon cross-reliquary of the early 11th century, now in the treasury of the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, Brussels, that bears engraved images and an inscription in Old English.

Crown of thorns

According to three of the Gospels, a woven crown of thorns was placed on the head of Jesus during the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. It was one of the instruments of the Passion, employed by Jesus' captors both to cause him pain and to mock his claim of authority. It is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew ("And when they had plaited a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee and mocked him, saying Hail, King of the Jews!" 27:29 KJV), Mark (15:17) and John (19:2, 5) and is often alluded to by the early Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and others.

In later centuries, relics believed by many to be all or part of the Crown of Thorns have been venerated.

Holy Thorn Reliquary

The Holy Thorn Reliquary was probably created in the 1390s in Paris for John, Duke of Berry, to house a relic of the Crown of Thorns. The reliquary was bequeathed to the British Museum in 1898 by Ferdinand de Rothschild as part of the Waddesdon Bequest. It is one of a small number of major goldsmiths' works or joyaux that survive from the extravagant world of the courts of the Valois royal family around 1400. It is made of gold, lavishly decorated with jewels and pearls, and uses the technique of enamelling en ronde bosse, or "in the round", which had been recently developed when the reliquary was made, to create a total of 28 three-dimensional figures, mostly in white enamel.

Except at its base the reliquary is slim, with two faces; the front view shows the end of the world and the Last Judgement, with the Trinity and saints above and the resurrection of the dead below, and the relic of a single long thorn believed to come from the crown of thorns worn by Jesus when he was crucified. The rear view has less extravagant decoration, mostly in plain gold in low relief, and has doors that opened to display a flat object, now missing, which was presumably another relic.

The reliquary was in the Habsburg collections from at least the 16th century until the 1860s, when it was replaced by a forgery during a restoration by an art dealer, Salomon Weininger. The fraud remained undetected until well after the original reliquary came to the British Museum. The reliquary was featured in the BBC's A History of the World in 100 Objects, in which Neil MacGregor described it as "without question one of the supreme achievements of medieval European metalwork", and was a highlight of the exhibition Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe at the British Museum from June 23 to October 2011.


Indravarman or Indravarma (Itravasu on his coinage) was an Indo-Scythian king of the Apracas, who ruled in the area of Bajaur in modern northwestern Pakistan. He was the son of Vispavarma. Indravarma had a son, Aspavarma, commander and later king, known from an inscription discovered at Taxila. Aspavarma also mentioned his father Indravarma on some of his coins.


Indravasu (ruled circa 15 CE) was an Indo-Scythian king of the Apracas in Bajaur, western Pakistan.

Kanishka casket

The Kanishka casket or Kanishka reliquary, is a Buddhist reliquary made in gilded copper, and dated to the first year of the reign of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, in 127 CE. It is now in the Peshawar Museum in the historic city of Peshawar, Pakistan.


Kharahostes or Kharaostasa was an Indo-Scythian ruler (probably a satrap) in the northern Indian subcontinent around 10 BCE – 10 CE. He is known from his coins, often in the name of Azes II, and possibly from an inscription on the Mathura lion capital, although another satrap Kharaostes has been discovered in Mathura.He was probably a successor of Azes II. Epigraphical evidence from inscribed reliquaries show for certain that he was already "Yabgu-King", when the Indravarman Silver Reliquary was dedicated, which is itself positioned with certainty before the 5-6 CE Bajaur casket. There is some dispute however about the exact meaning of Yabgu-King. For Richard Salomon, Yabgu means "tribal chief", in the manner of the Kushans, suggesting that Kharahostes was already fully king by the end of the 1st century BCE, supporting a 10 BCE- 10 CE date for his reign. For Joe Cribb, this is a misspelling by a careless scribe, and should be read "yuva-King" which means "Heir apparent", and therefore would push forward the years Kharahostes actually ruled to the first part of the 1st century CE.Coin finds suggest that Kharahostes ruled in the area of the Darunta district to the west of Jalalabad, probably based on the ancient city of Nagarahara, located to the west of Jalalabad.


A monstrance, also known as an ostensorium (or an ostensory), is the vessel used in Roman Catholic, Old Catholic and Anglican churches for the more convenient exhibition of some object of piety, such as the consecrated Eucharistic host during Eucharistic adoration or Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. It is also used as reliquary for the public display of relics of some saints. The word monstrance comes from the Latin word monstrare, while the word ostensorium came from the Latin word ostendere. Both terms, meaning "to show", are used for vessels intended for the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, but ostensorium has only this meaning.

Monymusk Reliquary

The Monymusk Reliquary is an eighth century Scottish reliquary made of wood and metal characterised by an Insular fusion of Gaelic and Pictish design and Anglo-Saxon metalworking, probably by Ionan monks. It has been said to be the Brecbennoch of St. Columba (modern Gaelic Breac Bannoch or "embossed peaked-thing"), a sacred battle ensign of the Scottish army, used for saintly assistance, but is now thought not to be the object mentioned in historical records. Very few Insular reliquaries survive, although many are mentioned in contemporary records. It is an early example of the chasse or house-shaped reliquary, that became popular across Europe later in the Middle Ages, perhaps influenced by Insular styles. The Monymusk Reliquary is now empty. Its dimensions are W 112mm x D 51mm x H 89mm.

Niche (architecture)

A niche (CanE, UK: or US: ) in classical architecture is an exedra or an apse that has been reduced in size, retaining the half-dome heading usual for an apse. Nero's Domus Aurea (AD 64–69) was the first semi-private dwelling that possessed rooms that were given richly varied floor plans, shaped with niches and exedras; sheathed in dazzling polished white marble, such curved surfaces concentrated or dispersed the daylight.

The word derives from the Latin nidus or nest, via the French niche. The Italian nicchio for a sea-shell may also be involved, as the traditional decoration for the top of a niche is a scallop shell, as in the illustration, hence also the alternative term of "conch" for a semi-dome, usually reserved for larger exedra.

In Gothic architecture, a niche may be set within a tabernacle framing, like a richly decorated miniature house ("aedicule"), such as might serve for a reliquary. The backings for the altars in churches ("reredos") can be embedded with niches for statues. Though a niche in either Classical or Gothic contexts may be empty and merely provide some articulation and variety to a section of wall, the cult origins of the niche suggested that it be filled with a statue. One of the earliest buildings which uses external niches containing statues is the Church of Orsanmichele in Florence, built between 1380 and 1404. The Uffizi Palace in Florence (1560–81) modified the concept by setting the niche within the wall so it did not protrude. The Uffizi has two dozen or so such niches containing statues of great historical figures. In England the Uffizi style niches were adopted at Montacute House (c. 1598), where there are 9 exterior niches containing statues of the Nine Worthies. In Fra Filippo Lippi's Madonna, the trompe-l'oeil niche frames her as with the canopy of estate that was positioned over a personage of importance in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe. At the same time, the Madonna is represented as an iconic sculpture who has "come alive" with miraculous immediacy.

Expanding from its primary sense as an architectural recess, a niche can be applied to a rocky hollow, crack, crevice, or foothold. The sense of a niche as a clearly defined narrow space led to its use describing the relational position of an organism's species, its ecological niche.

Palace of Tau

The Palace of Tau (French: Palais du Tau) in Reims, France, was the palace of the Archbishop of Reims. It is associated with the kings of France, whose coronation was held in the nearby cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims and the following coronation banquet in the palace itself.

A large Gallo-Roman villa still occupied the site of the palace in the 6th and 7th centuries, and later became a Carolingian palace. The first documented use of the name dates to 1131, and derives from the plan of the building, which resembles the letter Τ (tau, in the Greek alphabet). Most of the early building has disappeared: the oldest part remaining is the chapel, from 1207. The building was largely rebuilt in Gothic style between 1498 and 1509, and modified to its present Baroque appearance between 1671 and 1710 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and Robert de Cotte. It was damaged by a fire on 19 September 1914, and not repaired until after the Second World War.

The Palace was the residence of the kings of France before their coronation in Notre-Dame de Reims. The king was dressed for the coronation at the palace before proceeding to the cathedral; afterwards, a banquet was held at the palace. The first recorded coronation banquet was held at the palace in 990, and the most recent in 1825.

The palace has housed the Musée de l'Œuvre since 1972, displaying statuary and tapestries from the cathedral, together with the remains of the cathedral treasury and other objects associated with the coronation of the French kings.

The Palace of Tau, together with the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the former Abbey of Saint-Remi, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. It attracts around 100,000 visitors each year.

Płock Diadem

The Płock Diadem (Polish: Diadem płocki) was created in the beginning of the 13th century probably in Hungary. This filigree diadem is wrought of extremely pure gold and set with sapphires, rubies and pearls.


In religion, a relic usually consists of the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint or venerated person preserved for purposes of veneration as a tangible memorial. Relics are an important aspect of some forms of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Shamanism, and many other religions. Relic derives from the Latin reliquiae, meaning "remains", and a form of the Latin verb relinquere, to "leave behind, or abandon". A reliquary is a shrine that houses one or more religious relics.

Reliquary (novel)

Reliquary is the 1997 New York Times best-selling sequel to Relic, by American authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. The legacy of the blood-maddened Mbwun lives on in "Reliquary", but the focus is shifted from the original museum setting to the tunnels beneath the streets of New York City. The book is the second in the Special Agent Pendergast series.

Reliquary Crown of Henry II

The so-called Crown of Henry II is a medieval crown which came from the reliquary of the saint Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor (972–1024) at Bamberg Cathedral, though it is not thought to date from close to his lifetime. After the process of German Mediatisation, Bamberg became part of the Kingdom of Bavaria and the crown was transferred to the treasury of the Munich Residenz, where it still can be seen today.

This lily crown consists of six plates which are joined together by hinges fixed with pins. Each of the plates carries a large fleur-de-lis. The pins are surmounted by praying angels standing on acanthus leaves. Four of the segments and all fleur-de-lis are adorned with precious stones while two carry antique cameos. The decoration of the frame with foliage work seems to be of later date than the frame. Due to fitting slots at the front and back segment it is possible to add an imperial arch and cross to the frame. One theory states that the crown was made for the reliquary in the 14th century but it may also be a crown of Frederick II that came into the possession of Bamberg Cathedral via Henry VII and Louis IV.

Rukhana reliquary

The Rukhana reliquary is a Buddhist reliquary which was dedicated and inscribed in 16 CE by Rukhana, Queen of Indo-Scythian king Vijayamitra (ruled 12 BCE - 20 CE). The inscription on the reliquary, published by Salomon in 2005, gives a relationship between several eras of the period, and especially gives confirmation of a Yavana era in relation to the Azes era, that is "Azes era= Yavana era - 128 years". This inscription is very useful to clarify relative chronologies during the period. The inscription reads:

In the twenty-seventh - 27 - year in the reign of Lord Vijayamitra, the King of the Apraca; in the seventy-third - 73 - year which is called "of Azes", in the two hundred and first - 201 - year of the Yonas (Greeks), on the eighth day of the month of Sravana; on this day was established [this] stupa by Rukhana, the wife of the King of Apraca, [and] by Vijayamitra, the king of Apraca, [and] by Indravarma (Indravasu?), the commander (stratega), [together] with their wives and sons.

This dedication also indicates that King Vijayamitra and his wife Rukhana were followers of Buddhism.

Since Vijamitra is said to have ruled 27 years already, his reign started in 12 BCE, and ended probably a few years after the dedication took place, around 20 CE.


Vijayamitra (ruled 12 BCE - 20 CE) was an Indo-Scythian king of the Apracas in Bajaur, western Pakistan. He is mentioned in a recently discovered inscription in Kharoshthi on a Buddhist reliquary (the "Rukhana reliquary", published by Salomon in 2005), which gives a relationship between several eras of the period, and especially gives confirmation of a Yavana era in relation to the Azes era:

"In the twenty-seventh - 27 - year in the reign of Lord Vijayamitra, the King of the Apraca; in the seventy-third - 73 - year which is called "of Azes", in the two hundred and first - 201 - year of the Yonas (Greeks), on the eighth day of the month of Sravana; on this day was established [this] stupa by Rukhana, the wife of the King of Apraca, [and] by Vijayamitra, the king of Apraca, [and] by Indravarma (Indravasu?), the commander (stratega), [together] with their wives and sons."This dedication indicates that King Vijayamitra was a follower of Buddhism. His coins also bear the triratna Buddhist symbol.

Since Vijamitra is said to have ruled 27 years already, as the inscription is dated to 16 CE (Year 73 of the Azes era and 201 of the Yavana era), his reign started in 12 BCE, and ended probably a few years after the dedication took place, around 20 CE.

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