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Final Farewell: The Culture of Death and the Afterlife

The Christian Afterlife

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Reliquary in the Form of a Bust of St. Reliquary in the Form of a Bust of St. Ambrose of MilanAmbrose of Milan

A reliquary is a container created to hold saints’ venerated remains, which were frequently bone fragments. Reliquaries were typically housed safely within shrines in easily accessible areas of churches that could accommodate large numbers of visitors. Though often shaped like chests or coffers, some reliquaries, like this example, took the form of heads or bust-length sculptures, which were meant to effectively communicate the continuing presence of the saint.

Saints were not always martyrs; many led exemplary lives that resulted in elevation to sainthood after death. This reliquary is dedicated to St. Ambrose, who was born into a noble Roman family around 337 C.E. and became a brilliant lawyer. Instead of being martyred like many other saints, he was elected as bishop of Milan. While serving as bishop, he devoted himself to theology and moral renewal. He is the patron saint for beekeepers and therefore is often featured with a beehive, which he holds here. In addition, this reliquary commemorates three other saints who were also early bishops: St. Nestorius, St. Victorius, and St. Honoratius. Their names are written on the labels that surround the internal, central medallion. Under each label, the actual relics are tightly bound in white cloth. The precise types of relics contained here are unknown.

Reliquary in the Form of a Bust of St. Ambrose of Milan
German School
ca. mid-eighteenth century
Polychrome and gilt wood, glass, velvet, gold wire, gemstones, wax medallion, and cloth-wrapped relics with paper labels with inked inscriptions
Gift of Mr. George A. Schriever


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