Relics and Reliquaries of São Roque

Relics and reliquaries at the Church of São Roque in Lisbon is
distinguished by an unparalleled collection of relics and reliquaries most of
them donated to the society of Jesus in the 16th and the 18th centuries. These
precious objects of art and devotion can be visited in loco in the church
itself and in the museum 

Altar of the Saints and Holy Martyrs maleMuseu de São Roque


The tradition of preserving relics dates back to the origin of Christianism and was initially related to the public cult to the first martyrs. The first relics were the remains of their bodies, the tombs or the burial grounds; later on the altars and buildings edified upon them.

Altar of the Saints and Holy Martyrs femaleMuseu de São Roque


Reliquaries are cases of diverse shapes and materials, commonly precious and executed artistically in order to preserve and expose relics for veneration [reliquiae (from the Latin) – the human remains], generally the body remains of one or several saints; but they can also be objects or materials related to them, like outfits or the instruments of martyrdom. 

D. Catarina of Austria, Queen of Portugal (16th century) by Cristóvão LopesMuseu de São Roque

The first relics

The first relics given to the Church of São Roque were donated by queen Catherine, widow of king John III of Portugal, in 1579. They were: a reliquary protecting the head of St. Etherius, a relic of Saint Helen, queen of Constantinople, one of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and one of the Apostle Mathias. 

Reliquaries niche at the Chapel of Our Lady of DoctrineMuseu de São Roque

The second wave of relics

The second wave of relics was the exceptional donation by D. Juan de Borja (1533-1606), together with their impressive reliquaries, varied in number as well as in shapes. The legacy of D.Juan de Borja would distinguish this church, making it the second largest collection after the Escorial, in Spain.

Reliquary of Pope John II (16th century)Museu de São Roque

Roman Catacombs of St. Calistus

At the end of the 16th century, the Church of São Roque would receive another important lot of relics coming from the Roman Catacombs of St. Calistus, mostly gifts from the superior general of the Jesuits, Fr. Claudio Aquaviva. So, in October 1594, came into this church, among others, two important relics: of Pope John I and another of St.Stephan I, Pope and Martyr.

Reliquaries niche at the Chapel of the Blessed SacramentMuseu de São Roque

A multiplicity of relics reached São Roque, in the 17th century, coming from the Catacombs of St. Calistus in Rome, offered to Portuguese Jesuit priests, who had been in Rome as participants in General Congregations.

Altar of the CribMuseu de São Roque

Altar of the Crib

Worth mentioning is the reliquary of the crib of Christ, whose fragments of wood were given by Pope Clement VIII to the Jesuits of São Roque. The silverwork, dating 1615, was offered by Maria Rolim da Gama, who donated a large sum of money for the execution of this reliquary. 

Reliquary of Saint Prosper (17th century)Museu de São Roque

Relics from the Chapel of St. John the Baptism

In the 18th century, the Roman relics of St. Valentine, St. Felix, St. Urban and St. Prosper in their sumptuous reliquaries in gilt bronze and gilt silver, which were part of the royal commission of king John V of Portugal (1742-1747) for the royal Chapel St. John the Baptist in the Church of São Roque. 

Authentication of Relic (1594)Museu de São Roque

Relics and their authentication 

If the medieval world often looked at relics as magic things with supernatural powers, after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) this understanding would be corrected and reinforced anew (Council de Trent, Session XXV, of 3 December 1563). Henceforth, the veneration of relics would be considered as a privileged way for the faithful Catholics to obtain salvation. 

Authentication of the Relic (16th century)Museu de São Roque

At the same time, the Catholic Hierarchy would establish “visitors” to verify the authenticity of the relics throughout the western world, and demand that all the relics received for veneration should be accompanied by documents testifying their authenticity. 

Authentication of Relic (1579)Museu de São Roque

Most relics received by the Jesuits in the Church of São Roque, starting with the great donation by D. Juan de Borja in 1587 were accompanied by their respective Documents of Authentication (vulgo, Autentics), whose originals can be consulted at the Historical Archives of Santa Casa da Misericordia de Lisboa.


Reliquary of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus (17th century)Museu de São Roque


The relic of St. Gregory Thaumaturg deserves a special highlight as it is the most important among all the relics in São Roque Church.

This relic actually placed inside a cubic base together with a sculpture-reliquary is regarded as an “ex libris” of Museum São Roque. These two pieces were put together, long time ago, for they have been considered the most significant pieces (Statuette and relic) donated by D. Juan de Borja to the Society of Jesus in late 16th century. 

Reliquary of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus 2Museu de São Roque

How did this relic come to São Roque Church? A “document of authentication” written in Castillian and signed by the Empress Maria, Mother of Rudolf II of Prague was included with this important relic, when it was dispatched from the Escorial in 1587 together with all the relics donated by D. Juam de Borja.  This document is a rich parchment illuminated and provided with the royal seal. It declares that Maria decided at the request of Juan de Borja to offer him the precious skull of St. Gregory, Bishop and Confessor, in reward for his important services during her stay in Prague. The document is conserved at the Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa Historical Archives. 

Reliquary of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus 1Museu de São Roque

The inside contains the famous relic of St. Gregory. In September 2007, this box was opened showing the skull of Saint Gregory Thaumaturg visible. A paper label placed on the surface has the following inscription in Latin: Calauaria Gregorii Thaumaturgi. I.[id est] mirifici. Galienia temporib[us] ep[iscop]us Neoceaesariensis od res. Miras in eccle[si]a gestas sic appelatu [Translation: Skull of Gregory Thaumaturgus, in other words, prodigious, at the time of Galieno Bishop of Neo-Caesarea, he was so called for his prodigious actions in the Church]. 

Our Lady with the Infant Jesus reliquary (1600)Museu de São Roque

The statuette of Our Lady and Child is a fine sculpture in chiselled silver, dating to the 16th century. It is likely that this sculpture in the base of which we can see the keys of Regensburg, a symbol of the Catholic city of Southern Germany, at the time a city of passage of ambassadors, has been acquired there by D. Juan de Borja, during his return trip to Madrid after his stay in Prague at the imperial court of Rudolf II.

The halo, an oval silver work in the shape of a radiant sun, did not belong originally to the sculpture. It would have been added in the 17th century, as this type of halo or splendour is characteristic of that time.

Architectonic Reliquary of Saint Donatus Martyr (1300)Museu de São Roque

Reliquary of St.
Donatus Martyr

This reliquary is distinguished from all the others by its shape and predominant Gothic lines. It is actually the oldest reliquary of the collection, dating from to the 14th century. The central section is a glass cylinder reinforced by three narrow bands in silver containing a relic of St. Donatus Martyr, who was a Bishop in Italy at the time of Diocletian emperor. He was arrested, jailed and beheaded in the year 361, for being a Christian. Some of his relics reached Germany and Hungary in the Middle Ages. The present relic is documented as having been taken from the Abbey of Saint Mary Magdalen in Pozsony, in Hungary and offered to D. Juan de Borja, in 1576.

Martyrs of Tebas reliquaries (17th century)Museu de São Roque


The variety of reliquaries existing in São Roque Church / Museum has essentially to do with their different shapes, which in turn depend on the relics they house. Accordingly, we can distinguish the following types

Reliquary-arm of St. Crysostom, detailMuseu de São Roque


They contain finger bones or arm bones

Arm Reliquary of Saint AmantiusMuseu de São Roque

Arm-reliquary of St. Amamtius

This piece in shape of an arm, in wood, has a wide application of silver leaf engraved with vegetal spirals. The glass display at the centre allows the relic of St. Amantius to be seen. It was mentioned in the "Inventory of the Relics kept in the Sanctuary of the Church of São Roque" dated from 1698.Saint Amantius was the first bishop of Rhodes in the 5th century when the bishop converted Honorato to Catholicism. He is the official Patron of Rhodes, where there is a Roman Church dedicated to his cult.

Reliquary arm of Saint Crysostom (1500)Museu de São Roque

Reliquary of St. John Chrysostom

This piece is one of the finest the arm type of reliquary, containing a relic of Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople. The body of the arm, in copper gilt, is decorated by vegetal spirals in low relief of the mannerist type. It is finished with an open hand of great perfection and impressive realism. 

Arm-Reliquary of Saint Nympha Virgen and Martyr, and Arm-Reliquary of The Innocent SaintsMuseu de São Roque

Pair of arm-reliquary of St. Nympha and martyr, and Arm-Reliquary of the Innocent Saints

Pair of reliquaries of identical shape, each one constituted by a small cylindrical arm in silver with a rounded base. This has the shape of a convex body with engraved decoration of flowers volutes and leaves. At the centre there is a rectangular glass case, with a frame ornamented with pearls. The piece is topped by a hand, in polychrome wood, of fine proportions

Monstrance reliquary of St. Sebastian, detail (1700)Museu de São Roque


They contain a variety of small fragments.

Monstrance reliquary (1600)Museu de São Roque


This reliquary features as one of the most interesting and uncommon pieces of oriental art. In fact its structure is markedly European, characterised by a truncated square base, and aureole made up of forty one rays, which surround ten oval receptacles for relics.

The exoticism of the decoration is evident particularly in the irregular rays, in the shape of scales, and in the spheres of identical shape situated on the base and on the knuckle.

Reliquary Monstrance of San Sebastian Martyr (1700) by Silversmith António GigliMuseu de São Roque

Monstrance-reliquary of St. Sebastian     

Reliquary of monstrance type, in silver leaf over a wooden framework, with a base of gilt wood. The relic is inserted in a glass oval case, surrounded by baroque decoration of repeated garlands, volutes and cherubim. Saint Sebastian was born in Narbonne Galia, and was a Roman Centurion. During the persecution at the time of Diocletian, he was arrested and condemned on account of his Christian faith. Riddled with arrows and given up as dead he was taken to be buried by Saint Irene. Understanding, however that he was alive, she looked after him and healed his multiple wounds. Afterwards, he returned to the presence of the Emperor. He was once again martyred and buried in the Catacombs of Rome.      

Monstrance reliquary of the wood of the cross (16th century)Museu de São Roque

Monstrance-reliquary of

the Wood of the Cross      

This piece is representative of the reliquaries with a rounded wooden base, a structure which is repeated in many other pieces made during the mannerist period. The only original part that remains of the primitive reliquary is the receptacle in glass and gold.

The relic came from Madrid on the 2nd October 1587, by the hands of Jesuit Father Francisco António. 

Cross reliquary, detailMuseu de São Roque


They contain a variety of fragments, mostly related to the True Cross - Vera Crux.

Reliquary cross (1751) by Silversmith Giuseppe BorgianiMuseu de São Roque


This piece is representative of one of the dominant typologies in the context of the baroque reliquaries of Italian production. In fact, the reliquary-monstrances and the reliquary-crosses are the most frequent morphological options in the context of such production. Technically, the piece shows the usual solution of application of a plate of smooth and relief silver over a wooden structure, privileging the front view.

Reliquary cross, Portugal (1600)Museu de São Roque


This is a piece of big dimensions composed of various sections. The base in quadrangular shape is a box sitting upon four wooden spheres. The inside contains relics which can be seen through glassed windows. Above this, a second section rises in the shape of a box similar to the lower one. It also shows relics as well as a small sculpture representing the patriarch Jesse sleeping. To finish off this body two cylindrical pinnacles in wood and gilt metal stand on each side. Both contain relics protected by glass.

Over this body a large cross emerges in black wood and inlays of gilt bronze. The sculpture of Christ of great expressiveness is in alabaster. Heads of cherubim, rosaries and a halo of flaming rays decorate de cross bar, whose ends are completed by gilt metal outfits. The cross is topped by a rectangular frame showing the inscription “INRI” [Iesus Nazarenum Rex Iudeorum] in engraved letters. 

Reliquary of one of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, detailMuseu de São Roque


They have a clear devotional purpose

Bust Reliquary of St.Romuald (18th century)Museu de São Roque

Bust-reliquary of St.

Bust of Saint Romuald which sits upon a red book with golden decoration. The Saint is wearing a tunic and cape. On the chest, both hands show an oval capsule in crystal, which encloses the relic. On the back of the book a drawer enclosed the Authentication of the relic. Saint Romuald was born in Ravenna in 952. At the age of twenty he joined the Benedictine order to expiate for a crime committed by his father, but he had to resign some years later. He then travelled through France, Italy and Hungary in pilgrimage. When he returned to Italy, he founded the hermitage of Campus Maldoni, close to Florence. This would be the embryo of a new religious order, the Camaldolese, which still exists today.

Bust reliquary of one martyr of the Theban Legian (17th century)Museu de São Roque

Bust-reliquary of one martyr of the Theban Legian 

This piece is a sculpture reliquary richly ornamented with gilt and polychrome wood. The hands and face are well shaped. The figure shows a Roman soldier dressed with a gown and a cope, holding a palm in the right hand, the symbol of martyrdom. This is one of seven reliquary sculptures of equal size representing the holy martyrs of the Legian Theban, who became famous in the early Middle Ages, after their martyrdom in Switzerland, in the 4th century. All the Theban Legian reliquaries were donated by D. Juan de Borja.

Bust reliquary of Saint Francis Borgia (17th-18th century)Museu de São Roque

Reliquary bust of St. Francis

Reliquary-bust representing St. Francis Borja or Borgia (1510-1572). A native of Gandia, in Spain, he was a nobleman and Duke of Gandia during the reign of the Emperor Charles V. Later on he joined the Jesuit order and died in Rome as the third General Superior of the Society of Jesus. This reliquary represents the Jesuit saint dressed with the typical cassock or sotaine of the early Jesuits. His face shows a mature man, with beard face and a inexpressive look. The relic is housed inside a circular case with silver frame placed on the chest.  

Reliquary of one of the Eleven Thousand Virgins (1500)Museu de São Roque

Reliquary of one of the Eleven Thousand Virgins

On a wooden platform with four feet, stands a female bust of one of the Eleven Thousand Virgins. The sculpture is in gilt wood, showing a fine head, with curled fair hair. The figure presents a dress richly elaborate on the chest. The relic itself is found inside a capsule protected by glass with the inscription “XI MILLE VIRG.”

Reliquary bust of Saint Dorothea (1500)Museu de São Roque

Reliquary  bust of Saint Dorothea

On a wooden platform with four feet, stands a female bust of Saint Dorothea. The sculpture is in gilt wood and copper showing a fine head, with elaborate hair. The figure has a dress richly ornamented on the shoulders and chest. The relic is found inside an oval compartment protected by glass. On the back there is a door through which the relic can be seen.

Reliquary Ark of Saint John de Brito, detailMuseu de São Roque


Their shapesn have clear devotional purposes.

Ad Tabula Reliquary (1650 - 1700) by UnknownMuseu de São Roque

Reliquary AD TABULA

Reliquary structured in the shape of a portico with two distinct bodies, the top one being crowned by a broken façade where the monogram of the Society of Jesus features (IHS). From the base emerges the central body with the representation of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani painted on copper. Over a smooth frame, there are various applications in bronze which protect relics. The painting is flanked by two pseudo-Solomonic columns and two side curved wings suggesting volutes.

Reliquary of the Crib (1600)Museu de São Roque

Reliquary of the Crib

This elegant silver piece has the form of a temple. It contains fragments of wood (shown in the manger) from the historical crib of Jesus in Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome. These fragments were given by Pope Clement VIII (1592–1605) to Fr. João Álvares, Assistant of the Society of Jesus in Portugal. This elegant silverwork piece, dating 1615, was offered by D.ª Maria Rolim da Gama, wife of Luís da Gama, who bequeathed a large sum of money to the Jesuits for the creation of the reliquary.  

Reliquary Ark of Saint John de Brito (1694-1698) by Silversmith Henrich MannlichMuseu de São Roque

Reliquary Ark of Saint John de Brito

Piece shaped as a rectangular ark, with a pyramidal lid on the top. Engraved low-reliefs feature scenes of Saint John de Brito life and martyrdom, in 1693. The bas-relief on the top presents the full body of this saint dressed in his Indian custom. Several winged cherubs frank the lid.

The main body of the ark presents two sculpted winged angels on each side, in great baroque expressions. Four elaborate feet in gilded silver support the main body of the chest. The Portuguese coat of arms in the centre testifies the royal provenance of the piece, which was commissioned by king Pedro II of Portugal, as a royal homage to the Jesuit saint, martyred in Orbyur, India, in 1693.

The presence of the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) on the top, may be a later addition, for the Jesuits used the piece as an Eucharistic tabernacle for the veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, on special occasions. The author of the piece was identified later in the 1990’s, after examination of the silver marks by Moitinho de Almeida, who attributed it to Henrich Mannlich, the German silversmith from Augsburg. 

Reliquary casket of St. Francis Xavier, detail (17th century)Museu de São Roque


Decorated boxes used for keeping jewellery, later destined to protect special relics used in private devotion. 

Reliquary-Casket (16-17th century)Museu de São Roque


This casket is wholly decorated with inlays of mother-of-pearl over black resin, unusually decorated with gold, thus creating a suggestive polychrome. It is an old donation to the Professed House of the Society of Jesus. The survival of a considerable number of small namban caskets in Portugal was essentially owed to their reutilisation for Christian devotion as a reliquary. The originality of this example essentially resides in its dimensions as a piece, which, on the other hand, came to justify its use as an object for keeping relics. 

Reliquary-Casket (16th century (last quarter)Museu de São Roque


Turtle shell casket in the shape of an urn with applications of silver with ferronerries and naturalist motifs, thereby giving originality to this small casket in its formal simplicity. These caskets or “turtle boxes” originally were used to guard jewels and valuables; later on became useful in churches to guard saint’s relics, such as in this case.

According to the documentation related to it, this is one of the oldest Indian objects exported from India to Portugal, having been received in the Church of São Roque in Lisbon before 1588, and it may have been offered to the Church of São Roque by a Jesuit or a donor who came from India

Reliquary of Saint Francis Xavier (1686)Museu de São Roque

Reliquary-casket of St. Francis Xavier

Made entirely from sheets of silver over a teak structure, the reliquary-casket of Saint Francis Xavier has the shape of an Indian temple. The surface of the silver sheets covering the piece is completely pierced.

All the panels on the sides can be removed, revealing panes of glass that make it possible to see the relics protected inside, functioning exactly like windows. These movable panels are completely decorated with multi-lobed reserves, forming chains of trellis work, with the central features consisting of birds, two-headed eagles, lions, deer, and other animals, very much in the Indian style.

A major piece for the cult of Saint Francis Xavier, it is simultaneously one of the most important silver works made in Goa to be found in Portugal which bears excellent witness to the association of different aesthetic styles.  It was only possible in such a culturally diversified centre as the former capital of the Portuguese State of India.

Its first owner was D. Rodrigo da Costa, the governor of the Portuguese State of India. Afterwards it was owned successively by the Costa, Almeida and Castro families. From the mid-19th century onwards, it was kept in Lisbon at the home of the Counts of Nova Goa, before it was finally handed over to Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa as a result of a generous donation made by  Teresa Maria de Mendia de Castro (Nova Goa).

Credits: Story

General Coordination: Margarida Montenegro

Executive Coordenator: Teresa Morna

Exhibition curators: Maria Lino; António Meira; Luísa Colen; Patrícia Lamas
Photo credits: Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa; Cintra & Castro Caldas e Júlio Marques

Credits: All media
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