Dictionary of Art and Artists


that Changed the World


  Lascaux Caves Manesse illuminated Massys Callot Friedrich Picasso
  Tutankhamen's tomb Lorenzetti Grunewald Rembrandt Constable Matisse
  Europa and Minotaur Karlstein Castle Baldung Claude Lorrain Delacroix Marc
  Banquet Tomb Limbourg brothers Altdorfer Velazquez Turner Kandinsky
  Pompeii Van Eyck Cranach Vermeer Ingres Monet
  Birth of Christianity Della Francesca Holbein Rigaud Manet Chirico
  Hagia Sophia Uccello Titian Watteau Burne-Jones Modigliani
  Book of Kells Mantegna Bruegel Canaletto Seurat Chagall
  St Benedict Botticelli Vicentino Boucher Van Gogh Kahlo
  Bayeux Tapestry Anonymous Arcimboldo Fragonard Toulouse-Lautrec Dali
  Donizo manuscript Durer El Greco Gainsborough Munch Ernst
  Liber Scivias Bosch Theodore de Bry John Trumbull Cezanne Hopper
  Carmina Burana Da Vinci Caravaggio David Gauguin Bacon
  Falcon Book Michelangelo Rubens Gros Degas Warhol
  Giotto Raphael Brouwer Goya Klimt  

From Lascaux to Warhol

Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truth,
passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius,
but never abandoned.

William Butler Yeats




God Moves in Mysterious Ways

Karlstein Castle and the medieval cult of relics



When the body of the dead Saint was lying on the bier, many of the faithful came to do it reverence. And, they cut off her fingernails and the nails of her feet, the tips of her breasts and even her thumbs to keep all these things as relics.

Caesarius of Heisterbach, Notes on St Elizabeth, с. 1231


Karlstein Castle near Prague, built in 1348-1357

Imperial Jewels

Sacred treasures from the Middle Ages: Reliquaries from across the Continent




Christians fought over them, for to many these relics were more valuable than gold or precious stones. Relics were earthly remains or objects and scraps of cloth which had come into contact with the living or dead body of a saint. Above all, the bones were the most precious. Since ancient times, it was believed that through them God very often continued to work in mysterious ways, and those who venerated them received special graces. Some medieval Christians, however, saw them as possessing magical powers, and so an illegal trade in relics grew up. Traders would do almost anything to get hold of these sacred objects. They robbed graves, skeletons were taken apart or stolen and limbs hacked off; the head of a saint was particularly sought after. The trade was so grotesque that St Francis gave Perugia a wide berth on his last journey from Siena to Assisi; he was afraid the traders would tear him apart. And it is said, though we cannot know for certain, that Bishop Hugh of Lincoln shocked the monks at Fecamp monastery in France by gnawing "like a dog" on a bone, reputedly that of Mary Magdalene's arm, in order to ensure protection from all harm.

The monasteries and secular princes were the chief collectors of relics, as well as the precious reliquaries which housed them. Assembled between 1347 and 1378, the most important collection of this kind was owned by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. The relics and reliquaries amassed by this inveterate collector represented all the countries he ruled. His collection included bones from the skeletons of St Palmatius (Italy), St Sigismund (Burgundy) and Wenceslas (Bohemia). The Emperor never tired of praising the "empire-preserving powers" inherent in his relics.

He also owned treasures which signified his omnipotence: crown, sceptre, orb and the Imperial sword. These symbols of the temporal power of the Holy Roman Empire were regarded as relics of Charlemagne, who was then venerated as a saint, and who, according to legend, commissioned and first used these objects. Even more sacred were the sacred lance and nails thought to be from the True Cross. The lance itself was believed to be the very one with which the soldier Longinus pierced the side of Christ on Mount Calvary.

Utterly convinced that his relics were genuine, Charles IV had Karlstein Castle built near Prague to house these sacred treasures. It became a gathering place for knights of the Grail and was the spiritual centre of his reign. Today, the Imperial Jewels are kept in Vienna. However, Karlstein Castle is still a delight to visit due to its magnificent frescoes, and it is the Bohemian national monument.


The Emperor Charles IV Consigning Relics to a Reliquary
Chapel of Our Lady, Karlstein Castle, Prague


Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy