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.
18th-19th century Peruvian
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
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
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.
Late 18th century Altoperuvian
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 Santa
See Relicarios: Devotional Miniatures from the America by
Martha Egan, published by Museum of New Mexico Press, 1994.
Photos © Anthony Richardson, Albuquerque; courtesy
Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume
RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT
September 24, 2007