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Holy Nail

Created under Archbishop Egbert, this “speaking” reliquary contains under its precious cover one of the four nails with which Christ was crucified.

Relic veneration became increasingly significant in the High Middle Ages. The material remains of saints were kept in reliquaries, in valuable works of art decorated with gold and gemstones. Primarily in the countries on the Rhine and the Meuse, an entire series of masterpieces was created in the Romanesque period. The most well-known are the magnificent shrines, richly bejeweled architecture cases in which lay the entire bodies of saints.

Speaking reliquaries are receptacles for relics which hold only parts of a saint and reflect their content through their exterior form, for example, head, foot, finger or arm reliquaries.

According to legend, Trier Cathedral has possessed one of the nails with which Christ was crucified since the 4th century, donated to the Trier church by Empress Helena.

Trier was a flourishing center of sacred art of European standing under Archbishop Egbert (977 to 993). The goldsmith was to create a precious casing to reflect the form of the nail, which fit exactly inside and which permitted the casing to be opened and display the relic or permit it to be touched.

To satisfy this requirement, the goldsmith created a square, tapering shaft with four gemstones on each side and decorated with three enamel strips. The hinged head of the nail reliquary is also decorated with gemstones and small enamel plates, many of which have been lost over the course of the centuries.

The reliquary, 8.5 in/21.4 cm long, with the Holy Nail was kept in the St. Andrew portable altar. It was carried in processions, used for the swearing of oaths, and displayed outside the church during special repentance services, during which several blind people are said to have been healed.

Such evidence permits us to assess the status of relics in the life of the Middle Ages and to recognize their extremely great significance for the Church and piety as well as for sovereignty and politics. Possessing a relic from Christ’s Passion underlined permanently the status of the Trier Church.

Author: Dr. Wolfgang Schmid, Professor