Arm Reliquary: Journey from Divine to Fine Art

by Meredith McLaughlin


To many museum goers, reliquaries are beautiful, if not slightly morbid, devotional art pieces. However, they differ from other works of art in their function; in the medieval era, reliquaries were holy, and were believed to contain the living agency of a deceased saint. Reliquaries were so vital to Christian religious operations that in the Middle Ages, new churches needed to have a relic in the altar order to be considered legitimate, a practice that continues in today’s Catholic churches. Relics and reliquaries also played important roles in medieval economies and politics. While reliquaries were always in many ways commodities, as the medieval era passed many began to make a transition from being containers of a powerful holy object to a representative of medieval “Art.” The Arm Reliquary, now in the Cloisters Treasury,  entered the art world through a Baron’s collection. Thereafter, it was sold to the Brummer Gallery, and later purchased by the Met. Throughout these modern transactions, the reliquary’s value as an art piece justified its preservation. The Arm Reliquary’s journey from Belgium to the Cloisters is a case study into how an object can be drained of its divinity and becomes a museum art piece.

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Reliquary of Sainte-Foy (9th century with later additions), displayed at east end of the church of Sainte-Foy at Conques, France.

Reliquaries and Their Role in Medieval Society

In the Middle Ages a relic could be an any item or body part of a saint that performed miracles in the living world. Relics are essentially an extension of a core ideal found in many religions: the dead do not “die” for good. In early Christianity, one’s body was considered to have little importance, and it was seen as something that was disposable. Furthermore, Roman authorities had set a standard of quickly disposing of dead bodies, as recognizing them to be a health hazard. As a result, medieval societies buried ordinary bodies as soon as possible, and saw any handling of the dead after burial as being unsanitary and morally repugnant. However, these attitudes did not extend to the bodies of saints. Saintly bodies were seen as a medium through which the holy could act on people’s behalf, intercessors that needed an audience to recognize it in order for it to be authentic. Medieval Christians believed that the saint still resided within the relic, and they hoped to invoke the saint’s holy relationship to God to intercede and protect them. Up until the ninth century it was taboo to divide a saint’s body to make relics, and it was common for a saint’s whole body would be reburied near the altar of the church. However, in 787, the Second Council of Nicaea decreed that all churches needed to house a relic in their altars. This created a high demand for relics, and from this demand dismembering bodies became standard practice. 

In medieval society, the relic’s ability to perform miracles tied directly into its perceived agency and usefulness. Since multiple towns or monasteries would claim to have the same relics of a particular saint, a relic’s ability to perform miracles would serve to prove who had the authentic relic. Once a relic had sufficiently proven itself to the public, the saint was expected to protect their earthly worshipers and vouch for them in heaven. In return, patrons had to be loyal and meditate on their saint. In times of lax or weak government, relics would often take up the role of protector for entire towns and cities. People believed relics could reach out to be discovered if they were unknown, ask to be stolen from an unworthy church, and punish people for doubting their legitimacy. However, relics were as much commodities as they were people. Members of the nobility and high ranking clergy men would gift relics to each other in order to forge political bonds. Theft was also a means of obtaining relics, and could be a net benefit for the legacy of the relic, since only powerful and active relics were worth stealing.

Unfortunately, not much is known about the history of the Arm Reliquary in the Cloisters Treasury before it entered the art market. However, we can infer what purpose this object had by looking at the general roles and uses of reliquaries in the Middle Ages. Reliquaries are precious containers that helped create the aura of power and majesty that was so vital to conveying the legitimacy of a relic. The purpose of the reliquary was never to serve as a stand alone art piece, they were made to service and announce the power and glory of the relic within. That is, a reliquary serves as a “mediary” between the viewer and the relic, and is created to impart significant messages to the viewer through its precious material and decor. While defending the cult of relics and reliquaries in the 11th century, Abbott Thiofrid of Echternach claimed reliquaries are meant to hide the decay of the bodily relic and display the object in a way that is “palatable” to the average person.  This concept is clearly seen in reliquaries that follow the form of a body part, like the Cloisters Arm Reliquary. These objects recreate visually the idea of a living human body, something that might have been lost if only a decayed arm was displayed.

One of the first things a viewer notices about a reliquary is the profusion of expensive materials that went into its creation. The value of the materials used to make reliquaries was believed to at most equal the spiritual value that the relics had. The highly valuable material also attested to the relic’s authenticity. One commenter on reliquaries, Paulinus of Nola, claimed that the relic should be encased in something that “enhances” its holy light. He also comments on the refurbishing of reliquaries. Unlike later artworks, it was encouraged that reliquaries be augmented periodically in order to reaffirm the power of the saint to the public.

It is clear that when they were made, reliquaries were seen as luxurious cases with a splendor suited to holding the remains of the spirit of a powerful saint. In the Middle Ages, the existence of reliquaries were predicated on the relic, and they were not themselves seen as an art object. But after the 16th century, as Christianity began to splinter, relics lost some of the power that they held both as the focus of devotion and as commodities. Reliquaries, however, gained new significance as valuable art pieces of a past era. Rather than representing the power of the relic, reliquaries began to represent different medieval art styles.

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Brummer Gallery identification card for the Arm Reliquary.

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Brummer Gallery Arm Reliquary Purchace ID Card

The Arm Reliquary from Belgium to America

The first concrete record that we have of the Arm Reliquary is a record of transaction between the Brummer Gallery and The Baron de Decker of Brussels on April 29th, 1930. The Met identifies the Arm Reliquary as being an similar to Mosan art, a Romanesque style that originates around the Meuse River in Belgium. Two of the most famous Mosan artists, Hugo Freres and Nicholas Verdun, were considered by the Brummer Gallery to be potential makers of this object.  Though there is not much information on the Baron de Decker, one could speculate that he inherited this reliquary down the line from a medieval ancestor who received it as a gift. He later sold the reliquary to the Brummer Gallery, which was a well known dealer of medieval objects, and is considered one of the most influential galleries of the 20th century. The short description of the Arm Reliquary on the Brummer’s ID card says it is “in wood covered with plates of gilded silver, decorated with 14 plaquettes of filigree work and 15 plaquettes of silver niello with ornaments and personnages… Rhenish Art.” Missing from this description is an acknowledgement of the rectangular holes in the side of the reliquary. These holes were probably filled with rock crystal, and served as a window for the viewer to see the contained relic. From the Brummer card we can see that the majority of this object’s value is based on its material and artistic origin. The card refers to the reliquary as being an example of Rhenish art, though later the Met was able to determine that it is more similar to Mosan works. Most notably, there is no mention of any relic being acquired with the Arm Reliquary. This “missing piece” shows the momentous shift in attitudes. While in the Middle ages, a reliquary without a relic was a mere hollow container, in the twentieth century a reliquary would be prized for its workmanship, with no mention of the relics necessary. This shift can be seen again in the first public showing of the Arm Reliquary at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. In 1940, the Arm Reliquary was a part of a temporary exhibition meant to show a range of medieval objects from the 11th to 15th centuries. The exhibition intended to show both the “universal style created by the anonymous artists… dominated by the Church and Feudalism…” as well as an “astonishing regional, local, and even individual differentiation [of medieval art].” The Museum of Fine Art discusses how objects crafted in gold, enamel, niello, and other materials were “favorites” of medieval artists, with the focus being again on the period of art history these objects represent.

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The Arm Reliquary in the Met

The anonymity of the saint that this Arm Reliquary was made to encase made it easier for modern institutions to alienate the reliquary’s physical aesthetic from its sacred origin. In 1947 the Arm Reliquary, along with the rest of the Brummer Gallery’s medieval art collection, was bought by the Met. This influx of art pieces greatly expanded the Cloisters’ collection of “small, precious objects” that could match their other collections, which were predominantly comprised of architectural fragments and sculpture. The Met’s description of the Arm Reliquary from 1948 to 2005 consistently focused more on the craftsmanship of the reliquary than on its history or religious significance. In 1948, James J. Romier focuses on the silver and niello metalwork, while naming 13th century goldsmith Brother Hugo of Oinges as a potential creator. He did however allude to the fact that the reliquary was made in the shape of the body part it meant to hold. In a 2005 Met publication, authors Peter Barnet and Nancy Y. Wu elaborated on Rorimer’s assessment by explaining that the two fingered hand gesture of blessing would be amplified by the power of the relic. The focus on all of these entries is mainly on how this object was crafted. However on the Met’s website today, this information is enhanced with an observation that the object would have been used in liturgical services. As the years go on there is some effort to provide more and more background on the reliquary original purpose. Unless the Arm Reliquary were to regain a relic and a devoted group of people were to believe in its power, the work will remain at the museum as an example of fine art.

Further Reading

Angenendt, Arnold. “Relics and Their Veneration,” in Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, ed. Martina Bagnoli, Holger A Klein, C. Griffith Mann, James Robinson. United Kingdom: The British Museum Press, 2011.

Barnet, Peter, and Nancy Y. Wu. The Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture, no. 41. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005. 76.

Bagnoli, Martina. “The Stuff of Heaven: Materials and Craftsmanship in Medieval Reliquaries,” in Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, ed. Martina Bagnoli, Holger A Klein, C. Griffith Mann, James Robinson. United Kingdom: The British Museum Press, 2011.

Brummer, Ernest, and Joseph Brummer. “N4027 : Reliquary arm in wood covered with plates of gilded silver, decorated with 14 plaquettes of filigree work and 15 plaquettes of silver niellé with ornaments and personnages, surmounted by a hand in gilded bronze ornamented with a bracelet in filigree and precious stones.” Brummer Gallery, 1930.

Geary, Patrick. “Sacred Commodities: The Circulation of Medieval Relics,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai. United States of America: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Hahn, Cynthia. "What Do Reliquaries Do for Relics?" in Numen 57, no. 3/4. Brill, 2010. 284-316.

Rorimer, James J. "A Treasury at the Cloisters." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 6, no. 9. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1948. 243.

Swarenski, Georg. “Arts of the Middle Ages,” in Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts 38, No. 225 (Feb., 1940), 2-7.

Arm Reliquary: Journey from Divine to Fine Art