Some Impressive Monumental Lipsanotheca and Relic Chapels

Throughout Europe, as well as the "old new-world" (i.e. the Spanish missions) one can find some impressive displays of relics (and of course their associated reliquaries) frequently called lipsanotheca.  The word lipsanotheca specifically comes with reference to the container box of a relic or relics but it has come to also be applied to these monumental displays of relics. In other instances we have relic chapels where the relics are simply displayed in various ways throughout the chapel, frequently within a reredos like structure. Whatever the case, the commonality between these methods of display is that they allow for an impressive display of the relics and open up greater opportunities for the devotion of the faithful. 

For our purposes today, I thought we would take a look at a few of the more grandiose displays and we begin with the reliquary altar of the Monasterio del Escorial near Madrid -- which is also sometimes referred to as the "reliquary monastery" because of the immense collection of relics found within the royal basilica. The site itself was a part of the great counter-reformation programme of Spain, seeking to emphasize Catholic doctrine and piety. The approximately 7400 relics of the monastery are kept within two altarpieces, one of which can be seen here, with the door panels painted by Federico Zuccaro (in this instance depicting the Annunciation). In this particular one, all of the relics are dedicated to female saints and martyrs. It's companion includes the relics of male saints.

Particularly appealing in this example are how the painted panels of the lipsanotecha frame the reliquaries within and, along with the face of the altar, frame the entire arrangement in a powerful explosion of colour. 

Next we have the equivalent structure, this time found in the Capuchin convent of Ss. Crocifisso in Sant'Anna in Castelvetrano, Sicily.  When not in view, the relics are covered by an ornamental red textile.

Photo credit: Nino Centonze

Photo credit: Nino Centonze

Photo credit: Nino Centonze

While the former example included an explosion of bright colour, this particular display is appealing for its rich and ornamentally carved woodwork, set off by gold leaf decoration and the forms and colours of the reliquaries themselves.  This particular display is impressive in keeping restrained and orderly what could easily become otherwise. A truly good example of noble beauty. 

Next we have the relic chapel of the basilica of San Petronio in Bologna. Normally these relics are covered by a canvas which forms the altarpiece, but here are the relics exposed:

As an interesting aside, there have been instances where such concealed lipsanotheca have been somehow forgotten, only to be discovered later by accident.

We now shift toward a more classic reredos that is used to display the relics in the "Capilla de las Reliquias" at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela:

Shifting to the new world, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City likewise contains an impressive relic chapel which was constructed in the early 17th century. Believe it or not, at one time this display was even more ostentatious, but it was toned down in the 19th century in the face of anti-cleriicalist governments -- but of course, the notion there can be a "toned down" Spanish baroque is almost a contradiction in terms. 

We will conclude our considerations with the stunning baroque relic chapel of the basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. This particular display is noteworthy both for its scale and for the sculptural details that frame it.  Electric lighting is frequently the bane of good taste where altars and displays such as these are concerned, but here it has been utilized to remarkably good effect.

The next time you are visiting churches in these locations, make certain to look out for impressive displays such as these. In Rome and many of the major centres of Italy one will frequently see a side altar chapel specifically dedicated to the display of relics. 

The plaque atop one of the many lipsanotheca found in Italy

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