Relics – the physical remains of saints or objects associated with them – were believed to embody the saints, the smallest fragment possessing the saint’s complete presence. Miracles demonstrated their power, which was among the most revered in medieval Europe. There are three classes of relics: primary relics (body parts), secondary relics (objects that touched a saint in life), and tertiary relics (items that touched other relics). Christian relic veneration is first evidenced in the passio of St. Polycarp (c. 155). By the 9th century, the cult of relics was widespread, sparking new developments in artistic and literary forms, from church architecture and reliquaries to hagiographic tropes.
Relics were secured in reliquaries, frequently fashioned in precious materials to reflect the sacred nature of their contents. Early reliquaries were often made in small casket or purse form, adorned with enamel or relief imagery that suggested the sacral nature, and even identity of, the contents. Figural reliquaries – most frequently full figures, busts/heads, or arms – visually fleshed out the belief in the reconstituted presence of the saint in her/his relics. Other reliquary forms existed, such as the ostensory or monstrance. Small reliquaries were made for private devotion and personal adornment/protection.