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date: 25 March 2023

Relics and Reliquaries in Colonial Mexicolocked

Relics and Reliquaries in Colonial Mexicolocked

  • Gabriela Sánchez ReyesGabriela Sánchez ReyesCoordinación Nacional de Monumentos Históricos, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia


The cult of saints, through their relics in colonial Mexico, is related to the importation of relics from the great centers of pilgrimage in Europe and the Holy Land. Reliquaries were artifacts made to preserve the relics, avoid their fragmentation, and expose them to the faithful. Since the Middle Ages, different types were created with different forms whose function was to protect and exhibit the content. These designs passed to American territories, where it is still possible to admire some European reliquaries as well as some of local manufacture.

The circulation of relics began in 1521, after the consolidation of the evangelization and the inauguration of the new viceroyalty government. The circulation and donation of relics should be understood as a long process. They were imported objects that were difficult to acquire, as their sale was prohibited by law. Typically, it was necessary to have contacts in the high clergy abroad. Acquiring relics also required a significant investment of funds to cover both the relic’s purchase and the costs of its transfer from abroad.

Despite these difficulties, little by little, the relics of various saints and martyrs made their way to the Americas, some in carton boxes, others in gold urns or even in small paper envelopes. Reliquaries were soon manufactured to house these relics. Their design generally depended on two factors: the quantity of the relics obtained, and the shape of the relics.

The collections of reliquaries with their respective relics were displayed both in the cathedral headquarters and in the temples of the religious orders. Because they were incorporated at different times, they were made in different styles using different materials, and so it is possible to find a great variety in their manufacture. Various types of reliquaries can be classified from this time, from the reliquary chapels to the altarpiece reliquaries, anthropomorphic reliquaries, and medallion reliquaries, and they stand as a testament to the cult of saints in colonial Mexico.


  • Religion and Art

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