Your Guide to Funeral Planning | 09.13.2023

All You Need to About Reliquaries: Meaning, History, Examples and More

All You Need to About Reliquaries: Meaning, History, Examples and More


Cross Checked By: JOSHUA SIEGEL

3 min read

A closer look at reliquaries: What are they and why are they used? 

In the simplest terms, a reliquary is a container or a receptacle that is used to hold sacred relics. The relic that is housed within the reliquary can be any sacred object that may have religious or any other kind of significance. Some examples of relics commonly stored in reliquaries include items of clothing of saints and martyrs, objects that were frequently used by them, or even body parts or ashes. 

Ultimately, what constitutes a relic depends on the community and the members that make up the community. Anything that the people within the community hold sacred can be considered a relic and stored safely in a reliquary. 

Why is it called a ‘reliquary?’

The word ‘reliquary’ is not modern; its history can be traced back to the 1650s. Taken from the French word ‘reliquaire,’ it directly translates to ‘a receptacle for holding relics.’ Etymology experts also explain that the word ‘reliquary’ is also related to the 12th-century word ‘relik’ — which meant ‘a part of the body or any other object that is considered to be sacred or thought of as reverent because it was connected with someone holy or divine.’

Other words that may be attributed as sources for the word ‘reliquary’ include the following: 

  • Old French words ‘relique’ and ‘relike’
  • Late Latin word ‘reliquiæ’

In all these languages, the meaning is more or less similar — translating to a martyr’s remains or remnants.

A history of reliquaries in Christianity

The earliest reliquaries were boxes made of stone. They often held smaller and well-decorated cases within, and the relic or sacred object was placed inside. The relics were typically wrapped in cloth. Some other ancient reliquaries from around the fifth century were also made using metal. These were generally used to hold relics or other cargo of value. 

In the centuries that followed, the spread of Christianity to different parts of the world made reliquaries more popular and relevant in the medieval period. Making reliquaries became an art form — with experts being commissioned for this purpose. In addition to stone and metal, other precious materials like ivory, gold and silver began to be incorporated in the making of these relic-holders. 

The design used to build reliquaries has also evolved over time. The earliest reliquaries were designed to resemble caskets. Some were even designed in the shape of churches. Others had scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament depicted on the exterior. 

Then, during the Middle Ages, the designs evolved to take on the shapes of the relics housed within them. Some examples include cross-shaped reliquaries to hold the holy cross, or the shape of a body part to house bones from that body part. Reliquaries were also designed using transparent material, so people could see the contents without having to open the relic-holder. 

Examples of reliquaries from around the world 

Reliquaries are popular in various religions like Christianity, Hinduism and even Buddhism. Here is a list of some popular reliquaries from around the world, and the relics they hold.

  • The Reliquary Shrine in the Met Cloisters, New York: It belongs to 325 A.D. and its centerpiece shows Mother Mary with baby Jesus. 
  • The St. Nazarius Reliquary in Milan, Italy: This is a reliquary made of silver that dates back to the fourth century and houses a relic of Saint Nazarius, who was a patron saint of Milan. 
  • The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar: This entire structure is a reliquary for eight strands of the hair of the Buddha. 
  • The Holy Nail Reliquary in Trier, Germany: This reliquary, located in the Treasury of Trier Cathedral, is believed to have housed a nail from the cross of Jesus Christ. 
  • Reliquaries hold great religious significance

    For the people in a community or a religion, reliquaries with relics of their patron saints or gods hold tremendous significance. They may also be of interest to travelers who want to understand cultures and religious practices from around the world.