Art Through Time: A Global View
Cosmology and Belief Art: Reliquary Arm
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.
Cynthia Hahn, Professor of Art History, Hunter College
“Relics and reliquaries—the things that contain relics—are one of the most interesting sorts of objects from the Middle Ages. But a lot modern viewers have no idea what they are looking at when they see these things. Relic—first they are confused by what is a relic? They’ve heard it in general usage but they don’t know what that means vis-à-vis the medieval uses, the usage of the Catholic Church. And relics can be a variety of things. Probably one of the things that troubles modern viewers the most is that they can be body parts; they’re bones and skin and hair and other remnants of the body. They also have or can be things that holy people touched or used. So relics can be a variety of things but pretty much they are kind of formless; they’re sort of minimalist. If you saw a piece of bone or a little bit of dust you wouldn’t make any big deal out of it. You would think ‘Well, what’s that, and it’s not very important.’ So a reliquary, which is a container for a relic, is a really important thing because it focuses attention. It says this is important. It says this is something really valuable. Oftentimes that is because of what a reliquary is made out of. The standard is that they are made of gold and gems. So it’s part the precious materials of reliquaries that let us know just at the most basic level that these are precious objects.
But reliquaries actually have to do some work of teaching their viewers about how to approach relics—how to interact with relics, how to perceive the nature of the relic and its relationship to the divine. They convey a series of levels of meaning to their viewers—things such as narratives on them that tell the stories of saints. But a lot of them are abstract—they are hard to understand in terms of their imagery. Things like arm reliquaries that modern viewers just have no idea how to perceive or to understand. They are sitting in a museum, looking like a part of a body, a disembodied hand—very very spooky, very strange. But if we put that into a medieval context it turns out that it is a much more interesting object. It’s not just, say, identifying the relic inside of it, although sometimes it does that, sometimes there is an arm bone inside of a hand reliquary, that’s only fitting. But sometimes there are other kinds of relics inside of arm reliquaries.
And, in fact, if we let that lead us to a different place and think about well, why make it in the shape of a hand if it doesn’t indeed have a hand inside of it, we start to understand that it is part of a medieval kind of approach to the spectacle, to the liturgy, the celebrations within the church as a kind of spectacle. So that you can take this gorgeous object made out of silver, gold, and gems in the spectacular shape of a hand, pick it up wave it over the crowd and bless the crowd, and make them feel as if the saint is reaching right out for them. And that is just, really, a pretty exciting movement in a church. You have to think, this is not a culture that is filled with Broadway shows and films and so forth, and the liturgy is really a location where there’s excitement, there’s music, there’s the smells of incense, and then there are these beautiful objects that are carried around and moved and things happen with them. So reliquaries shouldn’t be thought of as static objects that are only there sitting still and possibly glittering. No, in fact, they are moving around they are being carried and they are being used in various liturgical ceremonies.”
Boehm, Barbara Drake. “Body-Part Reliquaries: The State of Research.” Gestavol. 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.