Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Mastery of Design: A Belgian Silver Reliquary, 1250-1300

Parcel Gilt Silver Sheeting
1250-1300, Belgium
The Victoria & Albert Museum
This falls into the category of beautifully creepy—a category into which a lot of religious artifacts fall. Here, we see a sheet silver, parcel-gilt reliquary in the shape of a man’s hand wearing a ring, set with mica and a gemstone. It rests on a modern wooden base.

Orpha Polk could use this.
A reliquary is a container for displaying precious relics. Such relics are usually bones, hair or possessions associated with Christ and the saints. Museums and churches are filled with reliquaries which are, in turn, filled with stuff which is purported to have belonged to a notable theological figure. My father and I often joke that there are enough wrist bones of St. Anne in reliquaries around the world that she must have had hundreds of arms and that there are enough pieces of the true cross floating around to construct a bridge across the ocean. Nevertheless, these little fragments are assigned particular value by the faithful and, for that reason alone, are worth preserving and appreciating.

In the Middle Ages, such relics were thought to have miraculous powers and were greatly venerated. The faithful truly believed that by praying near, and, especially, by touching a reliquary that contained something special, they would receive protection against sickness and ill fortune. Sadly, most reliquaries have been stripped of their relics, but the containers themselves, regardless of their religious value, have a great deal of artistic and historical appeal.

Most reliquaries were crafted of precious materials – gold or silver, with enamel or gems – and were made in a variety of forms. Some of them were modeled to represent the saint, or a portion of the saint such as a body part: an arm, leg, head, foot or finger. Others were designed in the form of a temple, shrine or monstrance (from the Latin meaning “to show”), with the relic on view inside a glass compartment.

This particular reliquary comes from Belgium and dates to the mid-to-late Thirteenth Century. It is in the shape of a hand and may have been part of a larger collection of reliquaries which also included an arm. The relics (now lost) would have been visible through the windows in the fingers. You’ll notice that the ring is worn almost at the fingertip. This was a common practice throughout the Middle ages which lasted well into the 16th century.

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