Byzantine Cross Reliquary

SKU SP.505

5 th Century AD to 12 th Century AD


4.35″ (11.0cm) high x 2″ (5.1cm) wide





Gallery Location



A reliquary is a receptacle for keeping or displaying sacred relics. For Christians, relics were objects connected with saints or the actual physical remains of saints. The veneration of the sacred relics of martyrs is a practice known to date from at least as early as the 2nd century. The Crusades led to an influx of relics from the Middle East and reliquaries became popular items of adornment used for protection by crusaders and the wealthy elite who could afford such luxuries. Although the practice of veneration was defended both by the 13th century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas and by the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the veneration of icons has always had a greater importance in the Eastern Orthodoxy.

This beautiful Byzantine reliquary cross once housed the relics of a Christian martyr. The front and back halves of the object are still seated together by the hinges, having remained unopened through the ages. Perhaps traces of the martyr’s or saint’s remains, originally deposited inside are still contained there. The Latin-shaped cross has been incised with a representation of Mary on the front. The Virgin is shown with her arms outstretched in prayer, bent upward towards the heavens. This specific pose is known as the Virgin Orans, meaning “Praying Virgin.” The forms of the Virgin have been abstracted. This suggestive style heightens the spirituality of the work, for it is the idea of the holiness of the figure that is the focus, not her physicality. Above the Virgin’s head is inscribed in Greek letters the word “KOIENO,” the meaning of which is unclear. Often on other similar reliquaries, the name of the saint, or those of other religious figures, is inscribed here. On the reverse, incised lines outline the cruciform shape of the reliquary. Incised details of various shapes adorn the arms of the cross, and a circle accented with a focal point rests in the nexus of the cross. An early conservator of the artifact identified its date as 5th to 6th century A.D., though others bearing similar style have been dated as far forward as 8th to 12th century A.D. The sacred, protective energies of this spectacular reliquary cross continue to radiate outwards, still as potent and powerful as the day it was first worn.

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