Anonymous, Reliquary of the Virgin and Saints, Southern Germany, c. 1270-80. Baltimore, MD, The Walters Art Museum, 53.27.

by Derrine Solomon

Figure 1. Reverse: Anonymous, Reliquary of the Virgin and Saints, Southern Germany, c. 1270-80. Baltimore, MD, The Walters Art Museum, 53.27.

Figure 1. Reverse: Anonymous, Reliquary of the Virgin and Saints, Southern Germany, c. 1270-80. Baltimore, MD, The Walters Art Museum, 53.27.

Figure 2.  Arm Reliquary of St. Louis of Toulouse, 1337-38, Louvre, Paris

Figure 2. Arm Reliquary of St. Louis of Toulouse, 1337-38, Louvre, Paris

Fig. 3 Reliquary with scenes of the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty , ca. 1180-90, Limoges

Fig. 3 Reliquary with scenes of the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty , ca. 1180-90, Limoges

Figure 4. Albrecht Dürer, Mary with Child and Angels, 1485

Figure 4. Albrecht Dürer, Mary with Child and Angels, 1485

 

The main external face of the Walters Art Museum’s Reliquary of the Virgin and Saints features the image of the Virgin Mary, seated beneath a gothic arch, holding the Christ child.  This beautiful golden image of a mother a child on a bejeweled vessel sets up a stark contrast with the bits and pieces and personal belongings of dead saints once housed inside the reliquary.[1]

A reliquary is a container which has been completely sealed.  These containers come in many different shapes and sizes.  They may resemble the architecture of a cathedral, or often times they have been designed to resemble a body part (also called speaking reliquaries).  For example, the Arm Reliquary of St. Louis of Toulouse (Fig. 2) gives us an idea of what relic is contained inside of the reliquary just by observation of the body part it represents.[2]  The most common type of reliquary is the bursa (purse) reliquary (Fig. 3).  The purse reliquary may contain many types of relics from many different saints.

Relics and the reliquaries that house them have always played a pivotal role in connection with the medieval church.  One of the main reasons that reliquaries were so important is because they housed clothing, body part fragments, or possessions of saints that offered contemporary Christians a direct devotional connection to a holy person. Pilgrims came from near and far to touch and adore these relics, to pray and hope for some divine intercession by way of the saint.[3]

The Walters reliquary’s design is reminiscent of the Gothic architecture, like a miniature golden cathedral.  It is highly embellished with gold and jewels, and it incorporates elements of text and image that would deepen and enrich the pilgrim’s devotions.  Four monstrous, dragon-like creatures on each corner support the base of the reliquary.  The most prominent architectural feature to be noted is the gothic arch that frames Mary and the Christ child, along with the mullions and the multi-foil above their heads.  The figures of Mary and the Christ child are recessed within the arch.  Mary inclines and gazes affectionately toward the child, while he stands on the bench adjacent to her and smiles playfully toward the viewer, as he appears to step onto her lap.

On the opposite face of the reliquary is a lengthy inscription (Fig. 1) in Latin that describes the relics within, including a number of gruesome objects like the tooth of St. Bartholomew and skull of St. Christopher, among many other items.[4] The combination of these holy relics in a single reliquary acted most likely to increase the efficacy or supercharge the reliquary. It is hardly conceivable that an object of this size could contain so much, however the division of relics was common.  In most circumstances, the body of the saint would be divided into pieces and distributed to many different places.[5]

The imagery of the Virgin and Christ has been venerated throughout the ages.  Each one alone represents significant meaning, but in the case of the Walters reliquary the two appear together.  As the Christ child steps onto the lap of the Virgin, he appears to touch her hair as she gazes adoringly at him.  This is a significant connection between the two. It is an especially significant connection in relation to the contents and purpose of the reliquary.   Per the inscription on the back of the reliquary, Mary’s hair is among its contents.  Along with Mary’s hair, the reliquary contained a portion of the Christ child’s cradle.  These two most powerful relics, one of the Virgin and one of Christ himself, are perhaps alluded to by the golden image of the child playing with his mother’s hair on the face of the reliquary.  This image would have provided the pilgrim or devotee a radiant and tangible sign of presence and power of the holy relics within the reliquary.


[1] Hahn, Cynthia, “What Do Reliquaries Do for Relics?” Numen: International Review for the History Of Religions 57, no. 3/4 (2010): 284-316. This article provides a brief overview of what a reliquary is and its relationship to the relic, imagery, and worshippers.

[2]  Boehm, B.D., “Body-Part Reliquaries: The State of Research,” Gesta 36 no. 1 (1997): 8-19

[3] See for example an account of such devotion in Charles Freeman, Holy Bones Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 86.  This book is a comprehensive view of relics and reliquaries in relation to saints, pilgrims, and cathedrals.

[4] The contents as per the inscription consist “Of the tooth of St. Bartholomew, Saints Peter and Paul, Thomas, Stephen, Pantaleon, martyrs; and of the head of Christopher, martyr; the Eleven Thousand Virgins; of the sepulcher of the Lord; of Benedict, Abbot; of the cradle of the Lord; of the hair of the Blessed Virgin Mary; of the garment of Cornelius and of other saints.”

[5] Shortell, E. M.,  “Dismembering Saint Quentin: Gothic Architecture and the Display of Relics,”Gesta 36, no.  1 (1997): 32-47.

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