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5 / Cosmology and Belief

Reliquary Arm
Reliquary Arm
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, Valley of the Meuse, (present-day Belgium)
Region: Europe
Date ca. 1230
Material Silver over oak; hand: bronze-gilt; appliqué plaques: silver-gilt, niello and cabochon stones
Dimensions H: 25 1/2 in. (64.8 cm.), W: 6 1/2 in (16.5 cm.), D: 4 in. (10.2 cm.)
Location The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

expert perspective

Cynthia HahnProfessor of Art History, Hunter College

Additional Resources

Boehm, Barbara Drake. “Body-Part Reliquaries: The State of Research.” Gesta vol. 36, no. 1 (1997): 8–19.

Hahn, Cynthia. “The Voices of Saints: Speaking Reliquaries.” Gesta, vol. 36, no. 1 (1997): 20–31.

Noga-Banai, Galit. The Trophies of the Martyrs: An Art Historical Study of Early Christian Silver Reliquaries. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

“Reliquary Arm [Mosan] (47.101.33).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/07/euwl/ho_47.101.33.htm (October 2006).

Snyder, James, Henry Luttikhuizen, and Dorothy Verkerk. Art of the Middle Ages, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005.

Reliquary Arm

» Unknown artist, Valley of the Meuse, (present-day Belgium)

Reliquaries appear in Christian practice early in the second century, reaching the height of their popularity in the late Middle Ages.

Usually small, portable objects made of luxurious materials, they served as containers for preserving and venerating the physical remains of holy persons as well as objects with which they had come in contact. As tangible traces of Christ, the Virgin, or one of countless saints, relics were believed to have spiritual power. Hence, reliquaries were also a means by which the faithful could make contact with God through an intercessory figure.

This magnificent reliquary is comprised of a bronze-gilt hand set atop an oak base arm covered in silver. The arm is ornamented with decorative filigree plaquettes set with gems, antique cameos, and narrative scenes in niello (a dark metallic alloy) on silver. Two windows, once covered with crystal, are also cut into the arm, allowing a glimpse of the relic inside. The combination of materials and decorative techniques used in the creation of the reliquary is characteristic of goldsmith’s work produced in the Valley of the Meuse, now part of Belgium, and is related to the style of Brother Hugo of Oignies, a celebrated thirteenth-century artist.

It is possible that this reliquary was intended to hold the arm bone of a particular saint. It is just as likely, however, that it contained a relic taken from some other part of the body. Reliquaries were often part of the visual spectacle of church ritual. The clergy probably used hand or arm reliquaries like this one, which makes a gesture of benediction, in the blessing of whole congregations during ceremonies or processions. The presence of the relic within would, under these circumstances, have invoked the power of the saint, lending added spiritual authority to the ritual and enhancing the blessing’s efficacy.

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