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.