Receptacle for the preservation of relics, principally the physical remains (Lat. reliquiae) of a holy person or an object of particular veneration. The practice is most prevalent in Christianity (see Cult of relics) (although it has been rejected by Protestant denominations) and Buddhism (see §II below).
The belief that the destiny of the world and the existence of humanity were in the hands of God and depended on the protection and intercession of the Virgin and the saints was responsible for the development of the cult of saints and their relics. This practice of relic veneration was first documented in the second half of the 2nd century AD and its sources can be traced to Late Antiquity. In the 4th century a number of relics were miraculously discovered, the most precious of which were those that recalled the life, passion, and death of Christ. From this time, the cult and the exaltation of relics in Christian culture became important, in that they became indispensable in the rites and liturgy of the Church. At the outset the Eucharist took place before an altar placed directly over the tombs of the martyrs or an altar under which were buried relics placed in special receptacles known as reliquaries. Later, the relics in their reliquaries were set directly on the altar. Until the 9th century the Western Church rarely allowed the tombs of martyrs to be opened in order to extract the ...