Currently reading : Parts Sanctified
As an aspiring medievalist, I am often fascinated by the body part reliquaries of the Middle Ages and beyond. Created both to encase and to display the remains of saints, body part reliquaries often mimicked their relics: a hand of benediction might hold an arm bone, a foot reliquary nail clippings, etc. With lustrous gold and silver shells, sometimes embellished with polished gemstones, these reliquaries at once encased their less photogenic contents and served as a visual reminder of their saint’s corporeal form, which might have glowed with holy light during life. (There were often rumors of saints’ bodies emitting light, a visible sign of their extreme piety.) These magnificent structures also tested their audiences: quite counterintuitively (for us), medieval viewers were confronted with gold, silver, and precious stones in order to recognize that true value lay in the fragmented bits of bone or bloody dirt that remained unseen.
[A German arm reliquary ca. 1190 + an X-ray image of a human arm bone contained therein]
[A foot reliquary from the Swiss National Museum. I don’t know anything about its date and unfortunately can’t find much information on it at all.]
*Top: An amazing hand reliquary from the V&A with rock crystal “windows” that potentially could have allowed a glimpse of the enclosed relics