A brief history of devotional items
brought by Spanish Colonists to the Americas

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When the Spaniards and Portuguese set out to explore and conquer the New World for Crown, Church and themselves, their meager personal possessions included devotional items to inspire and comfort them in their perilous journeys: Books of Hours, rosaries, crosses, medals, triptychs, and small lockets containing religious imagery that were known as relicarios. In the Americas and the Philippines during the colonial era these lockets evolved into a unique genre of devotional jewelry and artistic expression.

Relicarios emerged from the medieval Western European custom of treasuring relics and mementos of the saints in a variety of containers —from large sumptuous caskets of precious metals and jewels that graced cathedrals and castles, to the small, simple brass pendants worn by pilgrims and the devout. Reliquary lockets, with a chip of a saint's bone or tooth and perhaps the engraving of a favorite saint protected behind a crystal in a frame, were treasured by their owners as souvenirs of pilgrimages, used as amulets and talismans, and given to the images of favorite saints as votive offerings.

Alabaster relicario
18th-19th century Peruvian Relicario
San Francisco Javier
Bas-relief carved and polychromed alabaster
6.5 x 4.5 x 2 cm

In the New World, travelers and soldiers going into battle wore these precious devotional jewels for protection. Missionaries proselytizing Natives used them as teaching instruments, and gave them as special presents to converts. Relicarios comforted men and women religious in the solace of their cloisters and indicate their hagiographic affiliations. Lay persons of fashion wore bejeweled relicarios as displays of their piety as well as in an evasion of the Crown's Sumptuary Laws, which forbade the wearing of ostentatious jewelry.

From the earliest days of colonial life, relicarios were made by Native artisans. Hernan Cortes's chronicler, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, praised the skill of Mexican natives in making relicarios:

"In my judgment neither such a renowned painter as the ancient Apeles, nor the ones of our times known as Berruguete and Michelangelo, can create with their brushes works of ground pigments or relicarios such as those made by three Indian masters of that craft . . Diaz del Castillo, 1568."

In addition to Native craftsmen, the leading painters, sculptors and artisans of the Iberian colonies created exquisite relicarios for their clients in one of the most unique expressions of viceregal art. Yet whether they were made by professional artists, unknown village artisans, or by women and men religious, the work of these precious lockets was almost always anonymous and unsigned, because of their private devotional nature. A rare exception are the escudos de monjas of New Spain—present day Mexico--that were sometimes signed by their painters. These nuns' badges were circular or oval framed paintings on copper or vellum, that depicted the saints to whom a nun was particularly devoted, and which were worn by her on special occasions.

Although relics of the saints were exported to the Americas from Europe, and relics of New World saints were collected by the faithful from their crypts, most colonial period relicarios do not contain actual relics. The designation is largely symbolical. Sometimes relicarios contain personal mementos as well as items of sacred memory: a note, the lock of hair of a loved one, a pressed flower, and so forth.

Bone relicario
Late 18th century Altoperuvian Relicario
La Coronación de La Virgin de Copacabana
Oil and gilding on bone
7.5 x 4.7 x .9 cm

The relicarios of Latin America and the Philippines were created in a variety of styles, techniques and materials. In sixteenth century New Spain, Mexican apprentices to Jeronymite fathers carved tiny Flemish-style religious tableaux in boxwood that were then set against a backdrop of iridescent blue feathers and encased behind crystal in lantern style gold or silver pendants, some of which were smaller than a cubic inch. Artisans carved religious imagery for relicarios in such mediums as ivory, bone, native alabaster, wax and tagua nut. When such materials were not available, a home-made "pasta" of plaster, flour, potatoes and other ingredients might be used to fashion high and low reliefs. Miniatures of the saints for use as relicarios were painted on copper, vellum, ivory, tin, card, glass and other materials and set inside gold, brass or silver frames.

In the Lake Titicaca region of highland Peru, exquisite, gilded miniatures of the Virgin and saints were painted on mother-of-pearl by artisans who sometimes used a single horsehair as a brush. In Mexico, religious imagery for relicarios was created in the pre-Hispanic art of featherwork mosaics, amantecayotl.

The most typical religious imagery contained in relicarios however, were the religious prints, and later, colored lithographs, that were exported to the colonies from northern Europe in copious quantities. From remote Philippine islands, to Tierra del Fuego, to the villages of northern New Mexico, even the poorest of the devout obtained these estampitas in barter and trade. Homemade relicarios were fashioned of simple frames of tin, brass, wood or leather, with a loop at the top that provided for suspension from a cord, and an estampita within that was protected by crystal, sheets of mica or even the lenses of discarded eyeglasses. As crude as these relicarios often were, they nevertheless served their owners' special devotional purposes, and were much treasured by them.

In present-day Latin America, relicarios have been largely relegated to museum shelves or the dusty corners of grandmothers' jewelry boxes and antiquarians' showcases. For students of the past, however, these devotional jewels recall the sabor of a bygone era, when piety was public and artists were anonymous—the very essence of Latin America's rich artistic heritage. Today, particularly in New Mexico, relicarios often inspire contemporary artists cognizant of the timeless and universal sentiment of sacred memory and its appeal to all.

Thanks to Martha Egan, Pachamama pic Santa Fe.

See Relicarios: Devotional Miniatures from the America by Martha Egan, published by Museum of New Mexico Press, 1994. Photos © Anthony Richardson, Albuquerque; courtesy of Pachamama.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 8

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Traditional New Mexican Hispanic Crafts article
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