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Relic of the catacomb saint Pankratius in Wil (SG) adorned with splendid armor

A relic (from Latin reliquiae "left behind, leftover") is an earthly remnant of a saint , the body or parts of it or a remnant of personal property as an object of cultic religious veneration . A special form of relics are so-called contact relics , i.e. objects with which the saint came or is supposed to have come into contact during his lifetime.

Relics in the world religions

Buddhist Sarira reliquary from Gameunsa Temple, Gyeongju , Korea

Relics can be found in all major religions, but above all in Christianity , Shinto (cf. shintai ) and Buddhism (cf. Sarira ). According to Buddhist tradition, when the enlightened Buddha died of old age, his remains were cremated . Its ashes, bones and teeth were shared by several small kings of northern India. About the relics were mounds erected that were designed more elaborate cult over time. In Shiite Islam there is also worship of relics on the graves of saints.

History of the Christian worship of relics

Leopold V (Austria) gives the Holy Cross Abbey the cross relic that he had acquired in Jerusalem in 1188.

A special veneration of martyrs developed even in the early Church . The first biblical evidence of forerunners of relics is found in the Acts of the Apostles , where the believers took cloths from St. Paul and then placed them on the sick who were being healed. ( Acts 19.12  EU ). With the acceptance of the immortality of the holy body of Christ , the belief in the special power of the remains of the holy martyrs developed. The word Martýrion in the writings of the fathers also means the place where the relics of a martyr are kept. For a long time, the custom from the early church of building churches over the graves of holy martyrs ( e.g. St. Peter's Church in Rome) was maintained. In the Middle Ages, the Latin church began to embed relics under or in the altar . The Eastern Churches, following their tradition, put relics in the walls of their churches. With this practice the inner connection between the "community of saints" and the earthly church is to be symbolized.

The veneration of relics is one of the oldest forms of veneration of saints and has been demonstrable since the middle of the 2nd century. This is remarkable, since in pagan antiquity the worship of relics was not desired and parts of the body of the dead, however pious, were considered unclean. An early reference to the need for relics of martyrs is the Passion of Fructuosus, Augurius and Eulogius. It reports that on the night after the execution of Bishop Fructuosus of Tarragona on January 21, 259 believers tried to get as much of the as possible To obtain ashes of the burned. However, the bishop who appeared to them in a dream asked them to return them.

This attitude changed in the early Middle Ages. The Church Father John of Damascus (650–754) points out that the saints are “not dead” and lists a number of miracles that were wrought by them. Since the 8th century, the church endeavored to equip each of its altars with a relic.

Caused by reports of miracles , the relics of the martyrs have been ascribed healing properties since the early Middle Ages . The great cathedrals of the Middle Ages owe their creation and fame above all to highly venerated relics - such as the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral or the relics of St. Ursula and her companions in St. Ursula in Cologne.

On the eve of the Reformation , popular piety , in which the veneration of relics traditionally played a major role, had become increasingly excessive. The reformers initially criticized these excesses before their criticism became more fundamental. For example, on January 26, 1546 , Martin Luther gave a sermon in the Frauenkirche in Halle against the “reliquary stuff” of Archbishop Albrecht. In the course of the Reformation iconoclasm , relics were removed from many churches, and among the Reformed Calvin and Zwingli they were even burned. The whereabouts of many previously significant relics has since been unknown. Contrary to the orders of the rulers who had become Protestant, the population of Marburg and many other places kept the relics.

Evangelical Christians regard the relics of saints as “ unbiblical ”, and in religious communities such as Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses their worship is even considered idolatry . The New Apostolic Church and the Christadelphians also reject the worship of relics.

At the Council of Trent , the council that initiated the Counter-Reformation , the veneration of relics was expressly recommended in the 25th session (1563) and criticism from the reformers was rejected. As a result, relic worship, which had become rarer, flourished again in Catholic areas. Pilgrimages to reliquary shrines became an important means of the Counter Reformation. In the 19th century there was a renewed boom in the worship of relics. A million pilgrims came to the Trier pilgrimage to the Holy Rock in 1844 within seven weeks. Liberal publications like the Kladderadatsch directed their ridicule against the Catholics.

The 20th century in the German-speaking area, influenced by the liturgical movement with its turn towards inwardness and the liturgical reform , was characterized by a steady decline in the importance of the worship of relics. In the past two decades, supported by a large number of popular scientific publications, interest in the relics and their veneration has grown again.


Sandals of Jesus, Prüm Abbey (Eifel)
  1. First class relics are all parts of the body of saints, especially from the skeleton ( ex ossibus , from the bones ), but also hair, fingernails and, if preserved, other remains, in rare cases also blood. In the case of saints whose bodies have been cremated, the ashes are considered a first-class relic.
  2. Second-class relics , also called real touch relics , are objects that the saint is said to have touched during his lifetime, especially objects of particular biographical significance. In the case of canonized priests and religious, this includes their vestments, in the case of martyrs also the torture devices and weapons with which they were killed.
  3. Third class relics or indirect touch relics are items that first class relics have touched. Such objects, usually small squares of paper or fabric that are briefly placed on the relics and then stuck on pictures of saints , are given to pilgrims in many Catholic places of pilgrimage, especially in southern Europe .

The so-called biblical relics , i.e. the objects that are directly connected with the New Testament salvation event, in particular with Jesus Christ and the Mother of God , but also with John the Baptist , have a position outside of this scheme . These include above all the cross relics , small splinters of wood from the cross of Christ, many thousands of which are venerated in Catholic and Orthodox churches all over the world. The objects that have references to the Passion , i.e. the story of Jesus' passion, also include the lance that was used at the crucifixion ( Jn 19.34  EU ), or particles of the cross nails (e.g. in the iron crown of the Lombards ), particles the crown of thorns (in Notre-Dame de Paris ), also the Turin shroud , the handkerchief of Veronica (in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome) as well as the other instruments of suffering . Robes that Mary and Jesus are said to have worn during their lifetime are venerated in a similar way, such as the holy skirt in Trier , Jesus 'sandals in Prüm and Jesus' diaper and loincloth in Aachen . The vestments of Mary ( veil , belt, holy ring ) are among the relics in Constantinople, Paris and elsewhere. Many of the most important Biblical relics were in Constantinople for a long time and only made their way west after the city was conquered by the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Since Jesus after Lk 24.50 to 53  EU , Acts 1.1 to 11  EU and bodily to heaven after teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, the Virgin Mary received were of them there are logically no relics ex ossibus and few First class relics . Such relics of Christ appeared in the Middle Ages, are today mainly regarded as fakes and are still locally venerated in the Catholic Church

Miracle effects

Full body relic of St. Hyacinthus in the Fürstenfeld monastery church

Especially in the Middle Ages, many miracles ( miracula ) were attributed to the relics . In hagiography , times of such miracles are often the inventio (finding) of relics and the translatio (transfer) of the holy bones from one place to another, for example when the Holy Cross is found or when the bones of St. Nicholas from Myra to Bari . The life descriptions of the saints were collected in hagiographies, such as the “golden legend” ( Legenda aurea ) or the works of Caesarius von Heisterbach . Their great veneration and miracle stories triggered a general search for relics of saints, especially those of martyrs , during the Middle Ages . One did not shy away from stealing the holy corpses ( corpora sanctorum ). B. in the translation report written by Einhard about the transfer of Saints Marcellinus and Peter from Rome to Michelstadt- Steinbach.

After the Crusaders conquered Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 , hundreds of tiny parts of the cross , which according to tradition the Empress Mother Helena had brought from Jerusalem to Rome and Constantinople around 325 , were scattered over the countries of Europe. As a result, numerous churches claimed possession of a particle of the cross. French architect Charles Rohault de Fleury took the trouble to determine the total amount of all cross relics and came up with about a third of a cross. The claim that Erasmus of Rotterdam mocked that the alleged splinters of the cross of Jesus were enough to build a whole ship out of it is false. In the Enchiridion militis Christiani he merely reminds us that having relics on the cross is nothing compared to following the cross.

The shroud of Turin has not yet been recognized by the church as a relic. The interest in relics can also be justified by the fact that scientifically often inexplicable phenomena in connection with relics have become known. Mainly the "intactness" (no decay) of the canonized or certain organs or parts of their body are to be mentioned here. In the parish church of St. Hildegard and St. John the Baptist in Eibingen in the Rheingau , the shrine of Hildegard von Bingen is kept in an undisturbed condition with heart and tongue. The full-body relics of some saints are also traditionally called incorruptible .


Among Christians, piety basically requires respect for the body of the dead. All the more, out of piety, Christians show reverence to the mortal remains of those people who have gone to God .

The veneration of relics in the Catholic and Orthodox churches is considered to be an expression of the veneration of saints, which, according to tradition, cherishes the images of saints and their relics. With relics of saints, especially the bodies, but also parts of them, “of those who now live in heaven but were once on this earth, because of the heroic holiness of their life as outstanding members of the mystical body of Christ and living temples of the Holy Spirit " designated. The relics also include objects belonging to the saints such as utensils, clothing and manuscripts, as well as objects that have been brought into contact with their bodies or graves as well as those that have come into contact with venerated images.

Storage (reliquary, reliquary)

Originally the relics of people with a reputation for special holiness and closeness to God were buried under the altars of the first Christian churches. This evolved over time, the still valid Catholic tradition, in the consecration of a newly built church a relic of the respective patron in the cafeteria walled in the main altar and build their own in larger churches various saints, equipped with relics altars.

In order to underline the increased importance of the relics for the church in which they were located, the production of special, mostly artistically and materially very valuable containers for storing the relics began. These containers are collectively referred to as reliquaries.

The following images come from Lucas Cranach the Elder's Dye show of the highly praised hailigthum of the stifftkirche all hailig in wittenberg from the year 1509, in which he depicted all the relics of the collegiate church in Wittenberg. The small selection gives an overview of the range of storage options for relics.

Forms of the reliquary


Reliquary in the form of a basilica , Cologne, 1st half of the 13th century

The oldest form of the reliquary is the reliquary . This is a mostly richly decorated box, corresponding to the sarcophagus of the saint, in original size or miniaturized version. Famous shrines of the high Middle Ages are the Epiphany shrine in the Cologne Cathedral , the shrine of Charlemagne and the Marienschrein in Aachen Cathedral , the Marburger Elizabeth Shrine and the Eibinger Hildegardis shrine and the Reliquary of St. Maurus , which since 1888 at the West Bohemian castle Bečov ( Bečov is) .

Storage library

The first forms of reliquary deviating from the type of shrine developed primarily in the Eastern Church , including the Staurothek , a flat golden ark for storing large cross relics - a well-known example from Byzantium, the Limburg Staurothek , is now in the Limburg Cathedral Treasury - and the Enkolpion , a mostly cruciform reliquary capsule that was worn by the priest on a chain around the neck.

Reliquary cross, cross reliquary

Reliquary cross with a depiction of Christ enthroned and the four evangelists, so-called Masters of the Reliquary Cross of Cosenza, 12th century,
Cosenza Cathedral

In the West, in the course of the Middle Ages, reliquary types from the Eastern Church were first adopted, numerous specimens of which reached Central Europe as diplomatic gifts and, particularly as a result of the sacking of Constantinople by Venetian troops in 1204. In addition, there were container variations such as the reliquary cross ; two important examples of this can be found in the Roman-German imperial regalia , the imperial cross worked as a gem cross , and the Borghorster collegiate cross . Cross reliquaries for cross particles are for example the talisman of Charlemagne or the Essen cross nail reliquary .

"Talking Reliquaries"

Head reliquary of St. Ludmilla of Bohemia in the
Agnes Monastery in Prague

There was a growing desire among pilgrims in the early Middle Ages to be able to take a closer look at the relics on their pilgrimages . In many cases, there was a certain distrust of the closed relic boxes, especially since falsified relics were rampant. Therefore, the type of speaking reliquary was first developed - these are containers whose outer shape is modeled on the part of the body whose remains are inside.

Reliquaries for arm bones were designed as golden arms. Well-known arm reliquaries are:

Foot reliquaries were designed as golden legs, skull or head reliquaries partly as reliquary busts. Important examples of the latter are the Bust of Charlemagne in Aachen Cathedral Treasury and the Schädelreliquiare of the Apostles Peter and Paul in the Lateran Basilica in Rome and the Paul head in Muenster.

The special form of the seat reliquary can be found in the reliquary of Fides of Conques .

In addition, reliquaries imitate the shape of objects. Such shaped reliquaries are

Eastern sensoria

Reliquary with a piece of the tablecloth from the Last Supper (→ cloth relics (imperial jewels) ), Hans Krug the Elder. J. (* Nuremberg around 1485; † Kremnitz 1528), Secular Treasury , Vienna

In the late Middle Ages , people began to create elaborately framed glass containers in which the relics were visible to the viewer. Such a viewing vessel is called a reliquary monstrance or ostensorium , depending on the design . Since the late Middle Ages, small relic fragments have been enclosed in special glazed capsules of mostly oval shape by church authorities and then sealed or lead-sealed in order to document the authenticity of the relic and to prevent small relics from getting lost. Such a capsule is called a theca ; Usually, next to the relic, there is a piece of paper with an explanatory label, the so-called cedula .


A special form of the reliquary is the Osculatorium even Paxtafel , kiss panel or Pacificale called. It is a flat metal plate with an inserted reliquary capsule, which is provided with a handle or handle on the back. In the Tridentine mass , the Osculatorium before Communion was passed through the rows of pews as a symbol of peace and symbolically kissed by every worshiper. A well-known preserved example is the Eberbacher Kusstafel .


A bursa is a cloth bag (reliquary cover) that has been used to hold relics since the early Middle Ages, such as is used for the individual cloth relics that have been shown on the Aachen sanctuary tour to this day . The so-called pilgrim bags , which were particularly popular in the Middle Ages , are also known as bursa. The Stephansbursa , which is kept in the Vienna treasury , is a particularly valuable relic pouch.

Liturgy and Customs

On the feast day of a saint or on the patronage of a church, special remarks are made in the liturgy of the saint or the festive secret. In some places reliquaries with relics are made accessible to the faithful for veneration. The priest can also give a special blessing with the reliquary.

A particularly outstanding form of relic worship in the Catholic Church is the relic procession . Here the relics of saints are carried over a mostly traditionally established processional route. An important celebration of this kind that is still maintained today is the relic procession of St. Hildegard von Bingen , which takes place annually on September 17th in Eibingen .


In many places there are traditional pilgrimages , on which otherwise invisible or accessible relics are shown to the faithful. Travel to the Holy Land to venerate relics has existed since the early Middle Ages. Relics were also often brought to Europe from Jerusalem. Well-known examples are the Aachen Sanctuary Tour , which takes place every seven years , for which the Aachen sanctuaries are taken from the Marian shrine of Aachen Cathedral , the irregular pilgrimages to the Holy Rock ( Christ's tunic ) in Trier and the pilgrimage to the " holy three." Hosts ”according to Andechs .

Relic collections and healing chambers

Mainly in the Middle Ages it was common to give relics to important personalities. Even Charlemagne in Aachen and later Charles IV. Piled in Prague relics collections of. On the eve of the Reformation, Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony had one of the greatest reliquary treasures of his time shown in his Wittenberg residence. The reliquary treasure collected by Saint Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century is still kept in the parish church of Eibingen today . Precious wrappings or vessels made of gold and silver gave the unsightly remains auratic shine. The cathedrals of Aachen , Bamberg , Braunschweig , Essen , Freising , Halberstadt , Cologne , Minden , Münster , Osnabrück , and Trier owned and often still have their holdings displayed in treasure or healing chambers . There are also important church treasuries in Augsburg , Essen-Werden , Schwäbisch Gmünd and Xanten . In the Middle Ages (even later in Catholic centers) the pilgrims were presented with the reliquary treasures during processions and so-called healing instructions from a gallery, gallery or healing chair (Vienna) or, as in Trier, the holy skirt was periodically exhibited on the occasion of pilgrimages there .

Relic trade

Although a regulation in the Codex Theodosianus dated February 26, 386 already prohibited the sale of martyrs' bones, relics were traded in the following centuries. Even a passage introduced into canon law by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, stating that venerable items should neither be taken out of their containers nor put up for sale, could not prevent the relic trade.

The canon law forbids Catholics to trade in relics. Catholics are allowed to acquire, own and worship such objects, but not to resell them. Only giving away relics to other believers and returning them to the church are permitted. On December 8, 2017, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints issued a detailed instruction The Relics in the Church: Authenticity and Custody .

See also

Reliquary containers from abandoned altars in the east choir in Essen Minster , dated 1054


  • Urs Amacher: Holy Bodies: The eleven catacomb saints of the Canton of Solothurn. Knapp Verlag, Olten 2016, ISBN 978-3-906311-29-6 .
  • Arnold Angenendt : Saints and Relics. The history of their cult from early Christianity to the present day . Beck, Munich 1994 and 1997, ISBN 3-406-42867-3 .
  • Kristian Bosselmann-Cyran: Relic. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin and New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 1231 f.
  • Joseph Braun : The reliquaries of the Christian cult and their development . Herder, Freiburg 1940
  • Philippe Cordez: The relics, a field of research. Lines of tradition and new explorations , in: Kunstchronik, 2007/7, pp. 271–282.
  • Jean-Luc Deuffic (éd.): Reliques et sainteté dans l'espace médiéval [1]
  • Harrie Hamer (Ed.): Holy Memory. Relics and reliquary containers from the Harrie Hamers collection . Völcker, Goch 2003
  • Horst Herrmann : Lexicon of the most curious relics. From the breath of Jesus to the tooth of Mohammed . Rütten & Loening, Berlin 2003, ISBN 3-352-00644-X .
  • Michael Hesemann : The silent witnesses of Golgotha. The fascinating story of Christ's passion relics . Hugendubel, Munich 2000, ISBN 3-7205-2139-7 .
  • Walter Kasper (Hrsg.): Lexicon for theology and church. 3rd edition. Herder, Freiburg 1993
  • Karl-Heinz Kohl : The Power of Things. History and theory of sacred objects. Beck, Munich 2003, ISBN 3-406-50967-3 .
  • Anton Legner (Ed.): Relics. Adoration and transfiguration, sketches and notes on the subject and catalog for the exhibition of the Louis Peters collection in Cologne in the Schnütgen Museum . Schnütgen Museum, City of Cologne, Cologne 1989, without ISBN
  • Markus Mayr: Money, Power and Relics. The economic effects of the cult of relics in the Middle Ages , Studienverlag, Innsbruck 2000
  • Ernst Alfred Stückelberg : History of the relics in Switzerland , 2 volumes, Basel 1902, 1908

Web links

Commons : Relics  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Belief from the Nicano-Constantinopolitanum .
  2. Detectable for fear of epidemics. This is also the reason why all cemeteries by official ordinance (see Kötting) were in front of a city and almost all early Christian churches were built in front of the city walls, because there was usually a cemetery around them.
  3. Wolfgang Kinzig : Persecution of Christians in antiquity , CH Beck, Munich 2019, p. 78.
  4. John of Damascus: Explanation of the Orthodox Faith. About the veneration of saints and their relics .
  5. Johannes Gottfried Mayer : Integrity of the body. For the body-soul conception in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. In: Würzburg medical history reports. Volume 18, 1999, pp. 75-85; here: p. 82.
  6. ^ Nancy G. Siraisi : Medieval & Early Renaissance Medicine. An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice, Chicago 1990, p. 11.
  7. See for example: August Franzen : Kleine Kirchengeschichte , Freiburg 9 1980, p. 244.
  8. "That those who claim that the relics of the saints deserve no veneration and honor [...] are to be condemned entirely." Quoted from: The holy, universal and general Council of Trent. Resolutions and all. Canons and the bulls in question faithfully translated by Jodoc Egli ; Verlag Xaver Meyer, Luzern 1832, 2nd edition, pp. 274-332.
  9. ^ Charles Rohault de Fleury: Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion de N.-SJ-C. Paris 1870, pp. 79-89, addition on p. 89.
  10. Desiderius Erasmus: Enchiridion militis Christiani , Fifth Rule, chap. 13; in the English translation The Manual of the Christian Knight , published by Methuen and Co., London 1905, p. 157.
  11. Proclusions of the Holy See No. 160, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Order of the Sacraments (ed.), Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy , 2001
  12. ^ Arnold Angenendt: History of Religiosity in the Middle Ages . Primus-Verlag, Darmstadt, 2nd, revised. Edition 2000, ISBN 3-89678-172-3 , p. 693.
  13. Herbers / Bauer: Der Jakobuskult in Süddeutschland , p. 307, ISBN 3-8233-4007-7 online , accessed on February 26, 2009.
  14. Cf. Codex Iuris Canonici can. 1190.
  15. The relics in the church: authenticity and safekeeping (