You probably have seen them around. Those unusual looking vintage pendants that have something inside them- some are flat while some are bulky with glass-encased designs in the middle. They are called reliquaries or locally known as “relikaryo”. In simplest terms, these are containers for holy relics made popular during the medieval times.
Reliquaries were made to hold sacred items such as the bones or hair of a saint or a religious figure. Yep, you read that right. It may also contain a piece of material that the saint used or touched such as a piece of clothing. Older versions of reliquaries kept the relic hidden but later on, glass was added on the pendants to show what was inside.
Similarly, the “relikaryo” pendants that usually accompanied the old traditional Filipino tamborin necklaces were originally hidden inside the garment. Later on, these necklaces were worn in full display.
These relikaryo pendants are ornate and meticulously handcrafted. The quality of the antique ones are especially breathtaking. They are usually oval-shaped. Older versions of the relikaryo contained only religious relics or themes like a crucifix, monstrance or chalice, a prayer or a fabric but by the 19th century, nature-inspired themes such as flowers and leaves were introduced. They were made to be opened so you can put the relic inside but nowadays, a lot of these relikaryo are glued shut not just to keep whatever is inside but also to prevent the glass frame from falling off. Some were made of gold while others were in silver or gilt copper.
These heirloom pieces are becoming harder to find, with the bigger-sized reliquaries in even higher demand as they are quite rare.
Interestingly, the more popular locket traces its roots back to the reliquary.