History of enshrining relics
The history of medieval reliquaries begins with the 62nd decree of the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 where the issue of enshrining holy relics was raised. They were supposed to be enshrined and presented only in protective reliquaries. It was the reason why reliquaries took various forms throughout the centuries.
A reliquary cross made of precious metal and with precious stones inlaid became most popular. Architectural forms resembling richly decorated miniature cases, small houses, or shrines were also common.
Reliquaries also started to take on a more anthropomorphic form in the shape of human body parts as well as herms. The origin of herms is very interesting as their history dates back to ancient times. A herm – from Greek ἕρμα – initially referred to representations of a bust or the head of Hermes which crowned a quadrangular column, narrowed at the bottom. In Greece until the 5th century BC, there was also a representation of a phallus placed in a herm. Subsequent herms depicted also other gods and heroes. In the Roman Empire, sculptured or cast bronze heads and busts constituted a common item in the houses of the rich Patrician class as well as being carried in funeral processions. Busts were also placed along roads and at street corners.
In 14th century Cologne, the most popular medieval type of herm that was produced is known as Ursulabüste; it was made of wood in the form of a young woman’s bust, with an open-work oculus which made it possible for the faithful to see relics. Its name derives from Saint Ursula who, according to one of the medieval legends, was a Breton princess slain together with the Eleven Thousand Virgins by the Huns in Cologne. It was the turning point during the siege of the city, which survived thanks to their sacrifice. The Saint and the rest of the virgin martyrs were buried in Cologne from where her cult started to spread. The relics of Ursula and her partners began to be sold or sent to different religious centres in Europe, which increased the demand for reliquary herms.
According to 14th-century tradition, herms were located on altars. They could constitute the completion of predella retabulum, as separate forms or groups consisting of several representations. Very often special altarpieces were made which also performed the role of a shelter for reliquaries. In time this solution was recognised as canonical for all reliquaries placed in altarpieces. Reliquaries connected to altars were supposed to remind one about saint martyrs and also gave weight to the creation of the human body “in His image, after His likeness“ as well as the emphasised faith in the resurrection of the body and everlasting life.
At first, herm reliquaries contained skull relics but later constituted a framing for various fragments of saints’ bodies. Nowadays, herms usually do not contain relics any more but are still part of the tradition of veneration of saints.
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