What’s a Reliquary? Definition + Examples


Cultures and religions worldwide have had centuries of traditions and rituals built around their respect for the dead. For example, there are the Sky Burials in Tibet or the Jesa Ceremony in Korea that honor their dead. There are also thousands of cemeteries and catacombs that display not only famous graves, but also have elaborate designs and artwork. 

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There are many rich histories to delve into when it comes to the customs, ceremonies, and elaborate entombments of a culture. But there are some specific artifacts that hold not only the attention of modern people, but centuries of archaeologists and many adventurers alike.

These relics and reliquaries in Medieval Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism may be considered top of the list for many believers who wish to see or touch these sacred objects and containers that have been passed down through the eons.

Curious to know more about what reliquaries are and how they were used? More importantly, can you still find these reliquaries? Are they still being used today? Let’s find out.

Reliquaries Explained

A reliquary is “a container or shrine in which sacred relics are kept.” But to have a better understanding of the word, it would be helpful to study its history. 

The word reliquary is related to the word “relic.” A relic is “an object esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr.” While some relics are physical body parts or clothing connected to a saint or a martyr, other relics may be items that were touched by these individuals.

To be clear, the relic is the item that is held in high esteem. The reliquary is the container that holds the relic. The relic is usually so revered that the reliquary is traditionally made of precious metals or gems. 

Relics may include pieces of bone or hair, pieces of cloth, or natural objects that were significant in the lives of a saint or holy person. 

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Etymology of Reliquary

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word reliquary has been used since the 1650s meaning “receptacle for keeping relics.” It derived from the 14th-century French word, reliquaire.

The word is related to “relik,” which was used around the year 1200. The meaning of “relik” at that time was “a body part or other object held in reverence or affection due to its connection with a holy person.” “Relik” is from the Old French relique, relike, and from Late Latin reliquiæ. The Latin word meant “the remains of a martyr,” “remains, remnants,” or “remaining, that which remains.”

History of Christian Reliquaries

According to Madeleine Muzdakis’ article “What Is a Reliquary? Here’s a Short Introduction to the Bejeweled Medieval Vessels,” early reliquaries were stone boxes with smaller decorative cases inside. Inside those decorative cases, one could find the relic, usually wrapped in cloth.

Other early reliquaries were made of metal, an ideal type of container for fifth-century travelers to hold precious cargo. As Christianity spread, the containers holding the relics garnered more attention.

During the medieval period, craftspeople were commissioned to create reliquaries out of gold, silver, or ivory. They were often made in the shape of a casket, but they could also resemble church buildings. Some reliquaries were decorated with scenes from either the Old or New Testament. Many of them depicted scenes of the life of Christ. 

Catholic reliquaries changed in the Middle Ages. At this time, it became more common for reliquaries to be made to represent the relics they held. For example, segments of the cross may be held inside a golden cross reliquary. The bones of a saint may be kept in a reliquary made to look like the hand, arm, or foot where the bone originated. 

Some reliquaries were designed so the contents could be seen without opening the container. Some reliquaries were intended to be displayed on altars, while others were carried throughout the streets.

During the late middle ages, some reliquaries were designed as busts of the saint. The skull (or portion of the skull) of the saint may be held inside the statue. Some of these busts were painted and designed to reflect the hairstyles and clothing of the time they were made. 

Reliquaries fell in popularity during the time of the Protestant Reformation. At this time, protestants aimed to distance themselves from the Catholic beliefs that the relics of saints were to be revered. 

According to Muzdakis’ article, reliquaries were removed, melted down, destroyed, or lost during the Renaissance. However, even though relics and reliquaries were not as popular among protestant believers, Catholics continued to commission reliquaries, even creating some that could be worn around the necks of aristocrats. 

Today, Christian reliquaries may be found in art museum collections throughout the world. Others remain in cathedrals on display and used in worship. 

What Religions Use Reliquaries?

Reliquaries have been used in Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Often the faithful make pilgrimages to see reliquaries and to gain blessings. 

But you can find non-religious relics as well, such as the heart of Louis the XVII, Galileo’s middle finger, or even Thomas Edison’s last breath.

Where Can You Find Reliquaries?

You would find most religious reliquaries in shrines, churches, or temples. Sometimes religious and non-religious reliquaries can be found in museums. Most cathedrals also have a relic, which have traditionally been kept in a reliquary. Here are some reliquaries from across the world. Some still hold their relic inside, while others are simply the vessels. 

1. St. Nazarius Reliquary in Milan, Italy

A silver reliquary dating from the fourth century is connected to Saint Nazarius, one of the patron saints of Milan, and was found in the Church of San Nazaro Maggiore. It is now located in the Museum of the Archdiocese of Milan.

2. Samagher Reliquary in Pola, Yugoslavia (Croatia)

The Samagher Reliquary dates back to the 5th Century A.D. and was found in the Church of St. Hermagoras. It is made from carved ivory with silver accessories. The box depicts intricate carvings. 

3. Reliquary Shrine by de Touyl in New York

This magnificent piece can be found in the Met Cloisters in New York. It dates back to 325 A.D. and was thought to have been created by a French goldsmith named Jehan de Touyl. The centerpiece of the elaborate reliquary features Mary and the baby Jesus. 

4. Reliquary Cross in New York

Also located in the Met Cloisters, you will find a reliquary cross, which dates back to 1180. This double-armed cross originates from Limoges, France. The engravings on the cross were intended to identify the relics that were found inside. 

5. Holy Nail Reliquary in the Treasury of Trier Cathedral in Trier, Germany

The Holy Nail Reliquary is said to have held a nail from the cross of Jesus. The nail was said to have been found by St. Helena. 

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6. Reliquaries of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy

Visitors to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice will find many gold and crystal reliquaries that may have held the bones of saints. 

7. Heart Reliquary in Rennes, France

Several heart-shaped reliquaries were discovered during an archaeological dig in Rennes, France. The heart-shaped reliquaries held human hearts, but it does not seem to be clear who the hearts had belonged to before they were removed.

8. Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar 

The Schwedagon Pagoda is said to hold eight strands of Buddha’s hair. In fact, the magnificent structure was built to hold the eight strands of hair, so some say that the building itself is a reliquary. Other relics are also held in the gold-plated shrine.

8. Reliquary Arm in St. Louis

The reliquary arm on display at the St. Louis Art Museum is said to have held bone fragments of a saint. It dates back to the 1100s and looks like a forearm whose fingers were shaped into a blessing gesture. 

9. St. Anthony’s Tongue at the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, Italy

Thirty years after St. Anthony died, his body was exhumed. Those who uncovered the body were amazed to find that the recently canonized saint’s tongue and jaw bone remained. They were placed in an elaborate gold reliquary. 

10. Reliquary of Saint Taurin in Evreux, France

The reliquary of Saint Taruin is an example of a box—or chasse—reliquary. This one dates back to the 13th century and is made of gilded copper, enamel, and silver. 

11. Reliquary Pendant for the Holy Thorn in London, England

This pendant, which includes a sizable kidney-shaped amethyst, is painted with six scenes from the Passion of Christ. The holy thorn is said to come from the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. 

12. Reliquary Bust of Saint Yrieix in New York

Some reliquaries were made in the shape of a bust or statue. In this particular example, Saint Yrieix’s reliquary contained his skull. Saint Yrieix founded a monastery in the French town of Limoges. 

13. The Manger Fragments at Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Italy

A crystal reliquary at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is said to include fragments from the Holy Crib, which held Jesus following his birth in Bethlehem. The reliquary is paired with a kneeling sculpture of Pope Pius IX. 

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14. The Pillar of Flagellation in the Basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome, Italy

The glass reliquary at the Church of Saint Praxedes, known in Italian as Santa Prassede, holds a piece of granite column. The pillar is said to be the one that Jesus was chained to while being whipped before his crucifixion. 

15. St. Peter’s Chains at the Church and Minor Basilica of St. Peter in Vincoli, Italy

This reliquary holds two sets of chains that were said to be used on Saint Peter. Over time, the two chains in the reliquary have bonded together. 

16. Heads of St. Peter and St. Paul in the Baldachin, Archbasilica in Rome, Italy

The heads of both St. Peter and St. Paul are said to be in silver reliquaries above the altar of this church. The reliquary is in a baldachin, or baldacchino in Italian, which is a canopy of stone or fabric floating above an altar. 

The Archbasilica also holds The Altar of the Holy Sacrament, which is believed to contain the table from the Last Supper. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Reliquaries

While we have presented a basic review of reliquaries, there’s a lot more to study. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject, so we encourage you to learn from the experts who have spent their lives pursuing this topic. 

Here are the answers to some fundamental questions about reliquaries. 

Why are reliquaries important?

Reliquaries have religious or spiritual significance. After all, some reliquaries were created to hold items important to people of faith. Moreover, those relics are said to have powers, and so the container that holds the relics is highly esteemed. 

Reliquaries have historical significance. Like any item still in existence from the Middle Ages, people study how and when reliquaries were created. In addition, they learn about the artist and the organization (or person) who commissioned the design. 

Finally, reliquaries have an artistic significance. The design changed throughout the ages, and art historians study the creative techniques and materials used throughout the centuries.

What’s the difference between a relic and a reliquary?

A relic is “an object esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr.” Some relics are physical body parts or clothing that belonged to a saint or a martyr. Other relics may have been touched by these individuals.

A reliquary refers to the container that holds the relic. Because the relic is highly esteemed, the reliquary may be made of precious materials or intricate designs. 

What are reliquaries typically made of?

Christian reliquaries may have originally been made of stone or metal. They were initially useful items used to safely transport the relic from its place of origin to its new location.

As time went on, reliquaries were made of precious metals, such as gold and silver. They were also made of ivory. 

Final Thoughts

If you are interested in the study of death, you may also be excited to learn why we bury the dead and about above-ground burial options. While these topics may be interesting to you, they may or may not lead you to think about your own end-of-life plans.

Even though modern-day end-of-life plans do not include a reliquary, your choices are important. And your family will appreciate that you went to the time, trouble, and expense of making arrangements and pre-paying for your services. 


  1. “Relic.” “Reliquaries.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/relic
  2. “Relics and Reliquaries.” Atlas Obscura. www.atlasobscura.com/categories/relics-and-reliquaries?page=3
  3. “Reliquaries.” Encyclopedia.com. www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/reliquaries
  4. “Roman Reliquaries.” Leap of Faith. leapoffaithchloe.com/rome-reliquaries/

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