Archive for February, 2011

Paper Topics

For my paper, I would like to investigate the iconography and architecture of the Marienschrein at Aachen Cathedral. We have read Lisa Victoria Ciresi’s essay on the Karlsschrein and Marienschrein in class, and her doctoral dissertation is an extremely helpful resource that touches in detail upon numerous aspects of the Marienschrein. While Ciresi focuses on the role of these shrines in coronation ritual, this was not the only function of the Marienschrein. The Aachen Cathedral became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations of the Middle Ages because of the relics housed in the Marienschrein, and it functioned to manifest the presence of the Virgin in the service of her cult. The Marienschrien is significant in relation to the category of textile relics since it contains four highly prized textile relics: the tunic of the Virgin, the swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus, the loincloth Christ wore on the cross, and the cloth that preserved the head of John the Baptist. The relation between the relics in the shrine is interesting, because, although relics of Christ are present, the relics of the Virgin are the most venerated. Christ’s presence at Aachen is recalled both through relics of his birth and relics of his death, echoing the relief carvings along the roof that depict the Nativity and Passion of Christ in sequential order. Also, both John the Baptist and the Virgin are traditional symbols of spiritual purity, and the combination of their relics suggests some sort of emphasis on spiritual purity. The fact that none of the relics are body parts may underline the fact that both the Virgin and John the Baptist were without sin.

After the Karlsschrein was finished, there was an attempt to popularize the cult of Charlemagne, and this seems to have been done by linking his cult to that of the Virgin. All of the relics in the Marienschrein were supposedly procured by Charlemagne, and this fact is underscored by the inclusion of his figure on the side of the shrine opposite that of the Virgin and Child figures and by the visual similarity between the Karlsschrein and the Marienschrein, and by painting cycles in the Cathedral. The cult of Charlemagne was augmented by visually linking him to the cult of the Virgin through the iconography of the Marienschrein.

The architecture of the shrine is interesting as well. It broke with the styles used for earlier architectural shrines, and shows marked similarities to the architecture of Chartres Cathedral. Chartres holds another very important textile relic, the sancta camisia, or Veil of the Virgin. The similarity in form shared between Chartres and the Marienschrein at Aachen, both of which are dedicated to textile relics of the Virgin, suggest a link of some sort.

These are the main issues I have been interested in or have come across during my research into the Marienschrein at Aachen. I do not know yet which of these I would like to focus on or whether to tie them together somehow.

Another unusual thing about the Marienschrein is that there is evidence that it was displayed on a rotating platform.

The Four Great Relics of the Marienschrein

The Marienkleid, or tunic of the Virgin

The Lindentuch, or Loin cloth of Christ, worn during the Crucifixion

The Windel Jesu, swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus

The Johannestuch, the cloth that preserved the head of John the Baptist

Marienschrein Images

Marienschrein Bibliography

Becker, Karl. “Zur kirchlichen Feier der Aachener Heiligtumsfahrt wahrend der Mittelalters.” Zeitschrift des Aachener Geshichtsvereins 31 (1909): 169-174.

Ciresi, Lisa Victoria. Manifestations of the Holy as Instruments of Propaganda: The Cologne Dreikönigenschrein and the Aachen Karlsschrein and Marienschrein in Late Medieval Ritual. 2003, Graduate School-Rutgers University.

Ciresi, Lisa Victoria. “ Of Offerings and Kings: The Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne and the Aachen Karlsschrein and Marienschrein.” Reliquaire im Mittelalter. Berlin: Academie Verlag, 2005. 165-185.

Crumbach, J. and P. Lentz. “The box ‘Do not touch me!’ in the Aachen Cathedral. Aachen: The Episcopal Diocesan Archive Publications, 1937.

Fitshcen, Jurgen. Die Goldshiedeplastik des Marienschreins in Aachener Dom.

Gunther, Ernst. Grimme Der Karlschrein und der Marienschrein in Aachener Dom

Ludwig. P. “The Aachen Cathedral.” Aachener Works on Paper 42 (1972): 7-5-76.

Rickard, Marcia R. “The Iconography of the Virgin Portal at Amiens.” Gesta 22.2 (1983): 147-157.

Tresor d’Aix-la-Chapelle ou court description des saintes reliques. Aix-la-Chapelle: Vlieckx, 1825.

Weynands, Dieter P.J. Der Aachener Marienschrein : eine Festschrift. Aachen: Einhard, 2000.

Weynands, Dieter P.J. The history of Aachen Pilgrimage; Einhard, 2000.


Textile relics are contact relics that gain their sanctity from touching the bodies of the saints. The body was an extremely important site for devotion to the saints in the cult of relics, and if the body itself could not be had, then objects that came into close contact with it would offer the next best way to gain access to the patronage of the saint. Clothing was the type of object that maintained the greatest proximity to the bodies of the holy, and so offered one of the best ways to access the power of the saints

Textile relics are of high importance to the practices of devotion to Jesus and Mary. Both mother and son were assumed into heaven at the end of their lives, leaving behind no tomb or bodily remains. The veneration of Jesus and Mary through relics gained prominence relatively late in the development of the cult of relics. Their relics became popular in the 10th-12th centuries as people began to seek the help of more powerful, universal mediators in place of their local saints. Jesus and Mary were not the only figures to be venerated through textile relics, but they have by far the largest number of textile relics devoted to them and are unique in that most of their relics are textiles. Because, Jesus and Mary were such important mediators between human beings and God, textile relics were thus some of the holiest, most ancient, and most precious of all relics.

A proliferation of textile relics surrounding a saint signals very strongly the absence of their physical body. As objects intimate to the corporeal life of Jesus and Mary, clothing both recalls their bodies and makes their absence more apparent. The emphasis on the body calls to mind the humanity of Christ and the role of Mary as a mother. The empty clothing also serves to remind of their divinity and place in heaven.

Textile relics can take forms other than clothing. Strips of linen, or brandea, could be used to create new and portable contact relics by collecting and absorbing oil, blood, or other fluids from the body that could then be taken back with the pilgrim, allowing him or her to acquire a personal relic and bring some of the saint’s power home. Especially in the case of Christ and the Virgin, textiles could serve as a method for maintaining traces of the bodily fluids of a body that was no longer on earth. Textiles containing the blood of Christ or the breast milk of the Virgin preserve their corporeal presence on earth and remind of their one-time humanity.

Marian Relics

Mary’s assumption into heaven meant that she left behind no physical body on earth. Her cult developed slowly in late antiquity and the early middles ages because there were no bodily remains for her cult to focus around. In the Christian East, her cult centered on images and clothing relics, but these had not yet made their way into Western Europe. Mary’s relics gained prominence in the twelfth century. Clothing relics,such as veils, shrouds, and tunics, as well as cloth carrying traces of breast milk and birth fluids were the primary relics attributed to Mary. Mary is often associated with clothing and sewing, both in these relics and in symbolic descriptions of her role in the Bible.

In a Hymn of Paradise, Mary is described as weaving a new garment for fallen Adam, and in this way undoing the harm caused by the first woman, Eve. The image of the Virgin sewing is symbolic of her clothing her son Jesus in flesh. Mary gave the divine a bodily form in which to cloth itself on earth. The story of the garment Mary made for Jesus as an infant that miraculously grew as he did, and which he wore his entire life, is reminiscent of this clothing-as-flesh symbolism that surrounds Mary. A statue of Mary sewing is included in Chartres Cathedral where her veil is venerated.

The Virgin sewing at Chartres

The Veil of the Virgin, or Sancta camisia in Chartres

This silk relic kept at Chartres is believed to have been worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. Byzantine Empress Irene of Constantinople sent it as a gift to Charlemagne, whose grandson Charles the Bald donated it t Chartres Cathedral in 876. The presence of the Holy Cloak began the cult of the Virgin at that site, although Chartres was reportedly originally a site dedicated to a pregnant pagan virgin. The Veil of the Virgin is associated with many medieval miracles at Chartres. Through the sancta camisia, Mary is said to have spared Chartres from the invasion of Rollo army. The miracles affected by the holy tunic are often associated with protection of her believers.

During a fire in 1145 the church burnt down. A few clerics fled from the flames carrying the shroud into the crypt. They emerged safely after three days, having been sustained miraculously by the intercession of the Virgin. This was declared a miracle by a papal legate, and interpreted as a sign that the Virgin wished for a new and grander church to built for her veneration, and so the cathedral as it currently stands was built. The cathedral now has stained glass and sculpture that heavily emphasizes the life of the Virgin, and the Sancta camisia now is housed in a reliquary.

The Veil of the Virgin gained its sanctity through touching Mary’s body. It was not necessary for there to be any residual breast milk for the tunic to have such power. There were even stories of shirts gaining protective power by touching the chasse of the tunic of the Virgin.


The Veil of the Virgin in its Reliquary

The church at Autun also claimed to have the Veil of the Virgin in the twelfth century, and featured a walnut statue of the Virgin enthroned with a back aperture that might have been intended to hold this relic.

The Shrine to the Virgin at Aachen

Aachen Cathedral also claims to have a shroud of the Virgin, as well as the swaddling clothes worn by Jesus as an infant, the loincloth worn by him on the cross, and the cloth on which John the Baptist’s head was laid after his beheading. These Four Great Relics of Aachen are housed in one collective reliquary, the Shrine to the Virgin. This gold reliquary was completed in 1238 and has architectural forms including gables and a roof. In the mid-14th century it became custom to show the Four Relics every seven years, and this is still practiced.

The Marian Robe at Aachen

The Shrine of the Virgin at Aachen, 1238

The Holy Girdle, Sacra cintola

The Holy Girdle is a camel hair belt believed to have been made and worn by Mary. She supposedly dropped it as a gift for the apostles to remind of her earthly presence as she ascended into heaven. Mary’s Girdle was originally believed to be held in the chuch of Chalcoprateia in Constantinople, but by the late Middle Ages had been translated to Westminster Abbey, where it became a popular object of veneration. It is supposedly held now in Prato, where Angiolo Gaddid painted a fresco cycle depicting the history of the girdle.

The Holy Belt Reliquary, open

The Pope with Holy Belt at Prato

Textile Relics Associated with Jesus

Because Jesus was assumed into heaven after his death, he left behind no body on earth. Textile relics were thus important objects in the worship of Jesus. Like the relics of the Virgin, the relics associated with the body of Jesus gained popularity between the tenth and twelfth centuries, when people began adopting cults of universal saints rather than focusing on the relics held in local shrines. It was at this time that Christ regained his prominent role as a personal mediator between God and Christians that had been previously eclipsed by local saints. This relatively late development in interest in Christ’s relics corresponds with the appearance and proliferation of textile relics claimed to be clothes or shrouds that Jesus had worn or touched during his life.

As with the Virgin, the relics of Christ demonstrated the absence of the holy body, but also recall to mind Jesus’s humanity, suffering, and self-sacrifice. Relics of Jesus often contain some sort of trace left by the physical body, such as the imprint of an image or blood stains, and this emphasis on the trace of the physical body of Jesus both recalls his exalted position and suggests that his physical form, not just his place in heaven, is important to Christian doctrine.

Relic of the Holy Blood

The Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium houses a rock crystal vial containing a piece of cloth stained with Christ’s blood. The blood was collected from Christ’s body by Joseph of Arimathea and brought to Bruges during the Second Crusade by Dirk Van de Elzas, the Duke of Flanders. It arrived in Bruges in 1149. The vial has its own reliquary.  Beginning in 1303, an annual procession is conducted in which the relic is carried through the city.

Read more:

The Relic of the Holy Blood

The Holy Blood Reliquary

The Holy Coat

There are two competing claims for the Holy Coat, or Seamless Robe of Jesus. This robe was supposedly worn by Jesus at his crucifixion. After he died, the Roman legionaries divided up his belongings amongst themselves, but since this robe had no seams they cast lots for it rather than cutting it into pieces.

Trier, Germany

The robe kept at the cathedral in Trier was traditionally found by Saint Helena, along with various other relics from the crucifixion, in Jerusalem around the year 327.

In 1196 the Holy Coat of Trier was moved onto the High Altar. But it was not until 1512 when it was displayed for 23 consecutive days under the orders of Maximilian I that it gained a large pilgrimage.

The veneration of the Holy Coat is depicted in a c. 1512 woodcut made by Albrecht Dürer and also in one by Hans Burgkmair.

The Holy Coat of Trier

The Holy Coat of Trier Reliquary in its chapel

Argenteuil, France

The Holy Coat of Argentueil is first mentioned in 1156 in the Charta Hugonis. This record lists among the churches possessions a garment that Mary wove for Jesus as an infant, which then grew as he grew. He wore this garment his entire life. The Empress Irene of Constantinople gave this coat to Charlemagne around the year 800, who gave it to his daughter Theocrate. She was an abbess of Argenteuil. The coat displayed there now is made of wine-colored wool.

True Images of Christ on Textiles

An interesting category of textile relics associated with Jesus are those that are thought to bear the True Image of Christ. As early as the 6th century there are records of relics that supposedly were acheiropoietos, images of Christ not made by human hands. These are self-portraits by Christ left by the imprint of his face against the cloth. Over the Medieval period in Europe, there have been forty-three relics purporting to be the True Shroud of Christ that covered him after death and that bear his imprint. This number shows the particular power and attraction of the possibility of having a true picture of Jesus held for Christians in the Middle Ages. Besides the more famous examples listed below, the Holy Face of Genoa and the Holy Face of San Silvestro also still survive. The most famous textile claiming to be the True Image of Christ is the Shroud of Turin, which appeared in Lirey, France in the 1350s with no provenance information and which generated skepticism about its authenticity almost immediately. Much like photographs do for the people they depict, these traces left behind by the body of Jesus mark his corporeal absence. These relics both bring the body of Jesus closer to the beholder and also signal its absence; they serve to remind the pilgrims of his time on earth and his place in heaven.

The Veil of Veronica

Both the True Image of Saint Veronica and the graves clothes in which the body of Christ was wrapped for entombment were both held in the Church of the Blessed Virgin in Constantinople. In 1203 French crusader Robert de Clari gave an account of seeing a shroud with the features of Jesus imprinted upon it in Constantinople.  The second Holy Shroud of Constantinople was torn into pieces and distributed throughout France and Germany, one reaching the King of France in 1247. In the fifteenth century, Father John van Bollard and Saint Bridget advocated for the authenticity of the veil. The Veil of Veronica was seized from Rome in the raid of 1527 by the troops of Charles the V. When the reliquary holding the veil, was opened by John Wilpert in 1907, he saw only a small square of faint material with irregular brown stains on it. The veil is now housed in Saint Peter’s Basilica and not visible.

The Veil was represented often in artworks of the medieval period.

Hans Memling, 1470-74Austrian, c. 1490

(left) Hans Memling, Saint Veronica, 1470-1475, oil on panel, (right) A Family Group Adoring the Veil of Veronica, c. 1490, Austrian, oil on panel

Image of Edessa

The Image of Edessa is known in Eastern Orthodoxy as the Mandylion. The first record of the Image was written in the 6th century. The Image was associated with the tale told in the The Doctrine of Addai, a mid-fourth century manuscript describing how Jesus imprinted his image upon a washcloth and sent it to the King Agbar to cure his leprosy. In the 10th century it was moved to Constantinople. In 1204 it is recorded as a relic in Sainte Chapelle in Paris but vanished during the French Revolution.

In 544 it protected Edessa against a raid by the Persians.

Czechoslovakia, c. 1410Vienna, 15th century woodcut

(left) Vera Icon, 15th century, Czechoslovakia, tempera on parchment (right) The Sudarium, 15th century, Vienna, woodcut

Sudarium of Oviedo

The Sudarium, or sweat-cloth, of Oviedo is a cloth that supposedly covered the head of Jesus after his death. It has dark marks arranged on it, but they do not give a clear picture. The Sudarium is dirty and in very poor condition but believed to be stained with the blood of Christ. Cámara Santa of the Cathedral of San Salvador, Oviedo, Spain. The Sudarium is contained in the Arca Santa, a large gilt oak reliquary that depicts the twelve Apostles in the Romanesque style. This reliquary has been dated to 1075. Besides the Sudarium, the Arca Santa contains pieces of the True Cross, pieces of the Crown of Thorns, bread from the Last Supper, some of the Virgin’s breast milk, Moses’ rod, and the cloak the Virgin gave to Ildephonsus of Toledo.

Sudarium of Oviedo

gilt oak, 1075

Arca Santa, 1075, gilt oak


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