The man with the silver arm. Head of the ivory jaw. The golden hand.
No, they aren’t movie titles and have nothing to do with espionage. Instead, they are the shapes taken by some reliquaries that hold the mortal remains of the saints and blesseds.
Widely speaking, reliquaries are box or casket-shaped, or in the form of a circular case, that holds a small bit of hair, cloth or bone belonging to a saint or blessed. Reliquaries have existed since earliest days of the church, although The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the oldest authenticated reliquaries can accurately be dated only to the fifth century.
The actual veneration of relics of saints — from bones to objects associated with them in life — goes much farther into history. For example, when St. Polycarp was martyred in 155 A.D. at Smyrna (in modern Turkey), the faithful of the local church gathered up his remains. “We took the bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place” (The Martyrdom of Polycarp).
Since that time, relics have often been referred to as “more precious than gems and gold” — and that is why many reliquaries are adorned with gems, silver and gold, and even ivory, whose white color was valued to emphasize the purity of the saint.
Early reliquaries were fairly simple in form, often small boxes sometimes called chasses (French for “shrine”). However, after the 10th century and well into the Middle Ages, reliquaries in the shape of the objects they held within became very popular. One of the most recognizable would be the reliquaries of “the true cross” of Christ, which often took the form of a cross, richly enameled and adorned with jewels.
Besides allowing for public veneration of saintly remains, another reason for reliquaries was the long-standing tradition of placing relics of martyrs inside churches, preferably under the altar. (The earliest Christian churches were built over the tombs of martyrs.) By 787, the Second Council of Nicaea decreed that all new churches were required to have relics placed inside their altars. This rule continued for over 1,000 years, until April 6, 1969, and the institution of the second edition of the Roman Missal following the Second Vatican Council. (This was, in part, because altars became portable or at least movable.) It is still highly recommended that altars contain relics.
The ornateness of reliquaries seemed to increase as churches with more relics, especially of famous saints, became popular pilgrimage sites in the Middle Ages. The size of the relic was also important: the larger, the better; also, the saint’s reputation could correspond to the elaborateness of their reliquaries. For example, the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul are both enshrined at the Lateran Basilica in Rome, while the head of St. Januarius is in Naples.
To allow pilgrims, who were kept at a distance from the expensive reliquaries, to know which relics were present, reliquaries at various shrines and churches began to take on the shapes of the relics they held. Some of the more famous are the “Holy Hand of St. Stephen” in St. Stephen Cathedral in Budapest; the head of Pope Alexander I at Stavelot Abbey in Belgium; the foot of St. Blaise at the convent of the Sœurs de Notre-Dame de Namur in Belgium and the arm of St. George in Prague.
Probably the largest and more magnificent reliquary of its times — or any time — is the 12th century Shrine of the Three Kings in the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. Looking like a small church itself, this gold and silver shrine is six feet long by more than four feet high and weighs 661 pounds. It is said to contain the nearly complete bodies of the three wise men in Matthew’s Gospel, including their skulls. (Some of the relics were given to Milan in the early 20th century, because the relics had been taken from there in the 12th century.)
Another variation on reliquaries is the relic statues of England and France. These full-body statues honoring a particular saint contained a hollowed-out compartment, accessed by a door, to hold the saint’s relics. One of the more famous is the relic statue of St. Foy (St. Faith), in Conques, France, that dates to the late ninth or early 10th centuries.
Today, reliquaries might seem to resemble the monstrances holding the consecrated host at eucharistic adoration and benediction. However, while the monstrance has a circular center for the host — called a lunette for its crescent moon shape — reliquaries are more often square or rectangular in shape. In the center is either a glass vial or a small circular case sealed in red wax. The little case, sealed with red wax and adorned with an authentication mark and the saint’s name, is the important part of the reliquary. It establishes it as a true relic.
All relics must be approved by a church authority — a bishop or the head of a religious community. The relic is sealed into the container, called a theca, tied into place with red thread and sealed with red wax and the mark of the authenticator.
Canon law (c. 1191) forbids the sale of sacred relics. Sometimes a donation is requested when a relic is distributed — not a major relic, but something minor like a bit of cloth from a saint’s clothing — but it is never required.
An important relic — called “distinguished” — can never be moved (alienated) or permanently taken to another site (“translated”) without permission of the Vatican (canon 1190). A “distinguished relic” can refer to the entire body, head, arm, part of an arm, hand or leg, a major organ or a tongue (often of a famous preacher). Such a relic may also not be kept in private hands without express permission from the local bishop. And even a bishop, should his pectoral cross contain a relic, cannot bequeath that cross to anyone else; it must remain in the custody of his diocese after his death.
Sources: 1983 Code of Canon Law; The Catholic Encyclopedia; metmuseum.org; “Treasures of Heaven” at Learn.columbia.edu; Encyclopedia Britannica blog at britannica.com; Collectio Rerum Liturgicarum; “Holy Jewels” at The Economist, (June 23, 2011); forallthesaints.info; britishmuseum.org.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” and “Making Sense of Saints,” both published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.