On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 535

The cult of relics was an integral part of Catholic devotion from early in the Christian era. Relics of the Passion of Christ (the events leading up to the Crucifixion), as well as those associated with numerous saints and martyrs, were prized by churches and pious individuals throughout western Europe and Byzantium. Believers in the miraculous power of relics promoted a sumptuous form of artwork by commissioning resplendent cases to surround the often miniscule fragments. Sometimes the framework would echo the source of the relic (an arm, a foot, a head). In other instances, relics were preserved in containers of more traditional form.

Jewels containing relics served as gestures of piety as well as displays of personal wealth. Such devotional ornaments became especially popular in early-seventeenth-century Spain, where sumptuary laws restricted most nonreligious personal adornment. Many of the most elaborate works produced by goldsmiths and jewelers were rosaries, crucifixes, and other Catholic emblems, which enabled their wearers to evade royal prohibitions. Extraordinary jewels were also donated to churches for the embellishment of revered devotional images.

This reliquary takes the architectural form of a two-story altar, with a shell niche in the upper story framing enameled figures of the Crucifixion. In the lower story, a rock-crystal cylinder displays a cross that was believed to incorporate a fragment of the true cross, and the capsule below contains a supposed relic of the sponge held to Christ's mouth when he was on the cross. The upper mount of the cylinder is engraved "LIGNVM.CRVCIS.SPONGIA.SAL[UTA]RIS" (The wood of the cross; the alleviating sponge).

Reliquary, Gold, rock crystal, enamel, Spanish

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