Holy blingbling

Some of the most fascinating medieval textiles survived time because they were kept in church treasuries as relic pouches, church vestments ect.  
You see them in museums, admire the gorgeous craftsmanship - but why bother to recreate them, normaly they are of no use at a living history event...

Lid of a communion wafer box from Bayrisches Nationalmuseum

Really? Piety was an important part of everyday live throughout the middle ages, so we thought about explainig a bit of that to the public at museum events for a change. And besides being a very interesting aspect of live (ecspecially if you grew up in a family of agnostics like me...), it is a wonderful reason to recreate rather unusual stuff :-)
We already had the little Totentanz I made last year, some pilgrim badges, a rosary - kind of normal stuff... So why not go for something fancy, something the medieval pilgrim would have seen at a "Heiltumsweisung" (presentation of holy artefacts to the public, sometimes with a procesion): a relic. Or two, or maybe even three...
Andi and I began to research on interesting relics covered in textiles (yes, there are those incorporated in big vessels made of precious metals - I'll go for them after I won the lottery...). I started to play around with bits of silk fabric, silk and gold thread, small gold bezans, glass beads, pearls, pen and paper. Andi took care of what was going to be inside the textile covering: skulls and bones. And after ten months of research and handiwork, we finally had this: 

Display of our relic replicas at Marienstiftskirche Lich

The first thing I finished was a box for communion wafers - these were often used later on to house relics.

A round splint box of apr. 10cm diameter, covered and lined with fine linen fabric. On the outside the linen is covered by a 13th century silk fabric (replica). A fingerloop braid made from silk and goldthread covers the brim of the lid and forms a closure over a rock crystal bead. Small blue and white glass beads are sewn to the braid and over the area where the silk is fixed to the linen at the lower part of the boxes body.

Examples of this type of Pyxis ("box") are now in Basel (Historisches Museum), Munich (Bayrisches Nationalmuseum) and Regensburg (Historisches Museum).

Pyxis with silk covering

And then the "Bone-box" arrived - a parcel full of ribs, finger bones and skulls. No real human bones of course, but high class anatomical 100% scale models, really hard to tell from the real thing...

A lot of the relic busts you can see in churches and museums today have been altered (some of them even more than once) since the middle ages, so we looked for the rather rare examples without baroque additions. Not very successful until Isis from Medieval Silkwork visited us and brought a book with her called "Stof Uit de Kist. de Middeleeuwse Textielschat Uit de Abdij Van St.-Truiden " (thanks Isis!). And in there was what we were looking for: A relic bust covered in silk showing the cranium of a saints skull. Thanks to the photos and detailed description it was possible to build a bust just like the original.

Andi altered the colour of the part of the skull that would be visible so that it looked old and like it was touched rather often. Then he build an understructure out of wood to put the cranium onto. I made a linen cover for it stuffed with leftover bits of wool fabric and attached the visible silk covering to it. Just like the original, the bust is only meant to be seen from this side - the other side is not even covered at all, you can still see the wooden structure.

relic bust replica covered in 11th century silk

Besides the relic bust they also have skulls wrapped in silk fabrics in Sint-Truiden abby, so we also replicated those. The originals supposedly belonged to some of the 11.000 virginal handmaidens of St. Ursula... Relics of the 11.000 maidens can be found all over europe today - there literally was a "maiden export trade" in Cologne in the middle ages:  Outside the city gates a burial ground was found in the 12th century (then called ager Ursulanus) containing the remains of the maidens. Today there is a widespread belief that it was just one of the many roman or early medieval grave fields in and around Cologne ;-)       

Anyway, medieval people believed in the 11.000 handmaidens, so we replicated two of them: To the left a skull wrapped in red silk tafetta with a headband and bands crossing at the top of the head made from gold brocaded "Kölner Borte" (bands from Cologne woven with gold thread). I was lucky enough to buy one meter of it from a church vestment workshop - they sold some leftovers from around 1920 and older...

To the right a skull covered in silk gauze with a tabletwoven silk headband I made with little flower shaped gold bezans. The warp of the headband appears to be striped because the tablets alternated s and z in groups...

skulls of less important saint were often just sewn into fabric
instead of incorporating them into a precious metal vessel 

Looking for other types of relics we came across some put inside a glass or crystal vessel, so we had to build one of those. Here is a bone fragment put inside a 13th century glass replica sealed with wax. The cedula (piece of parchment or paper stating from which Saint the relic is) inside the glass is a copy of a paper cedula from Bad Gandersheim from the 14th century - something rather common in a lot of church treasuries: Older relics were occasionaly repacked and labled with a new cedula when their vessel was to worn or considered not grand enough anymore...  

relic in a glass vessel

And finally we got into mass production ;-)
Bad Gandersheim has a vast number of relics from different Saints wrapped or sewn into little pieces of costly fabric, some labled with a cedula. So we used a lot of the silk fabric cut-offs I had kept from different projects over the last years. Most of the relic packs are really small, so a little wood turned pyxis can house a lot of them... There is one in Quedlinburg Domschatz where the lid is stuck nowadays - maybe its content looks like this: 

Pyxis filled with relic bundles
First time Andi took all the relics with him was to a rather small, but very nice event in Lichs gothic Marienstiftskirche - the perfect room for his presentation :-)

As it was so much fun to research and recreate all this, we will keep up "the relic industry", so look out for updates...


  1. I just wanted to write a comment and say that you have a wonderful blog. I love the entry on your reenactment weekend. It looks like a lot of fun, and you must be very skilled to make those beautiful books. :)

  2. Thank you very much :-) Now I have really pink ears ;-)

  3. I really like the glass vessel relics and was wondering how you went about sealing them with wax...I mean, is it JUST wax covering the top? Or is there something under the wax, but covering the lid? Thanks!

  4. Hi Raymond,
    it ist just wax - fresh beeswax taken from the hive. The wax is warmed to about body temperature, then kneaded into a flat disk a little bigger in diameter than the glasses opening. Then the glas vessel is put onto that wax lid upside down, the wax is kneaded around the rim to seal the glass and then it's left to cool. This way the wax lid does not sink in in the middle while it is still warm :-)

  5. What does the cedula say on your reproduction?