Reliquaries and the Cult of Relics in Late Antiquity

Authored by: Erik Thunø

The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art

Print publication date:  May  2018
Online publication date:  May  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138857223
eBook ISBN: 9781315718835
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter discusses the attitudes towards the cult of relics and the making of reliquaries during the first centuries of Christianity. It begins with the example of Ambrose of Milan whose dealings with the bodies of the martyrs became a model for other early bishops. Included in this chapter are letters and poems that demonstrate a tight and authoritative network of episcopal friendships through which relics of saints traveled rapidly across large distances. What initially prompted this interest in the sacred bones of the martyrs was a basic human need to make the divine—invisible and abstract—tangible and present. This process was further facilitated by a growing material wealth of the Church. Only so could magnificent shrines, lavish processions, and reliquaries of ivory, silver and gold see the light of day. The chapter concludes with an excursus to the Biblical sites of the Holy Land.

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