Well, I've been away all today, so missed this discussion of gruesome body
parts. In answer to the first part of the question, the earliest
reliquaries we have are quite uninformative about their erstwhile contents -
just nice boxes of more or less precious material(s), or "burse"
reliquaries, like nice handbags. The earliest "isomorphic" reliquaries -
shaped after the object inside - that I know of are around the seventh
century (assuming they are dated correctly). These are the staves of
saints, sort of walking sticks wrapped in sheet metal, filigree and gems,
with or without some of the wood showing - um, the Stave of Ste Julienne,
Auxerre comes to mind, but there are others. Then you get the St Andrew's
Sandal reliquary from Trier in the tenth century - a foot wearing the sandal
on an elevated box (inscription dated), and the reliquary of the Holy Nail,
also from Trier, also tenth century, which is shaped like the nail inside
The earliest isomorphic _body part_ reliquaries were, according to my
researches, full-body reliquaries, of which Ste Foie is the only example to
survive intact (although even she only contains a fragment of the cranium,
and that inside her chest). The busts and heads are somewhat later, the
arms and hands later still - but all well in place by the late twelfth
century. Ste Foie has been dated all over the place, but she is c.1000,
written about by Bernard of Angers in 1007 when he went on purpose to debunk
her as an idol, but changed his mind when he saw her. She had fewer gems
then, but was fully clothed.
Here's a link to the Treasury of Ste Foie, Conques - the top link will give
you a pic of Ste Foie herself, and others show various reliquaries,
including a lantern, a burse, and an arm.
http://www.conques.com/visite.tresor.uk.html SLOW site, but excellent pics.
Knock off the last bit of the url and you'll get to see the church too.
I think, but here I'm straying from my field, that the Byzantine reliquaries
were never isomorphic - all the head reliquaries I know of are shaped like
little circular, domed temples.
The body parts, too, for the record, show no puerile qualities - we don't
get crushed and splintered limbs, or depictions of blood, and as I said, the
full body reliquaries were fully clothed. The isomorphism is merely a
further development of an existing trend already in place for _objects_ and
now applied to the human figure to suggest the fulfilment of certain
prophetic conditions for The Millennium. That Millennium bit is my view,
but I Raoul Glaber will bear me out.
As to the use of rock crystal to show the relic, this is mostly later than
my field. It is extremely rare in the Early Middle Ages. But Peter Lasko,
Ars Sacra, Yale University Press, 1994, shows Charlemagne's Amulet (p 16,
fig 22), late eighth century, which has a large central rock crystal which
today shows fragments of the True Cross, but originally, apparently, showed
a lock of the Virgin's Hair ... Somewhere lurking in my memory is another
Carolingian rock crystal with a conical well drilled into it to show ?blood?
but I can't bring it to mind. After that, I know of none for centuries.
Then, the twelfth century Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne, has an open
grill through which you can see the enshrined crowns of the three kings (but
not the crowns themselves), and there is also a twelfth-century triptych
reliquary of the Holy Cross from Liege (see Hans Swarzenski, Monuments of
Romanesque Art, plate 170), which has a rock crystal which may, or may not,
show the relic. The inscription-dated twelfth-century Cross of Cong, in
Ireland, has a prominent rock crystal at the centre, which is usually
assumed to have shown the relic - but beware assumptions! The window in Ste
Foie's chest showing the cranium is clearly Gothic, and Lasko shows a
twelfth-century arm reliquary of St Lawrence (page 215, fig 293), which has
a crystal showing the relic. Lasko states that this was inserted in the
fourteenth century - on what grounds, he doesn't say. From there, some
Renaissance art historians can take over.
Well, is this more than you wanted? Shall I pass the question to the art
history list I subscribe to?
Pippin Michelli, Ph.D
Assistant Professor of Art History, St Olaf College