Station: [12] The Heiltumsbuch (Book of Relics)

As court painter to Elector Friedrich the Wise, Cranach had many responsibilities. He not only painted likenesses of Friedrich – like this large-scale portrait from 1532 – he also created a visual record of the elector’s sacred relics. At the time, it was quite common among nobles and electors to collect relics. These included physical remains, in other words, body parts from a holy person, items they had owned or pieces of clothing. 

Friedrich the Wise owned a very large collection of relics, known as the Heiltum. He kept his relics in gold and silver receptacles studded with precious stones. The elector displayed these reliquaries at Wittenberg Castle Church. Cranach meticulously recorded each of these valuable pieces in a catalogue – including its contents and location.

"A glass of Saint Elizabeth", also contained within it "a particle of her mantle, a particle of her dress, a particle of her hair, eight further particles of her sacred bones" .... 

... Cranach’s description of the Glass of Elisabeth, the first reliquary in the collection of Friedrich the Wise. The Glass of Elisabeth is now in the Coburg Art Collection. 

This priceless catalogue, known as the Heiltumsbuch, the Book of Relics, is on display in the form of a facsimile printed in 1884. There’s an original copy at the Research Library for the History of the Reformation here in Wittenberg. 

Friedrich the Wise’s predecessors had also collected relics. The first relic arrived in the collection in the 14th century. It’s a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns. A copy of that page from the Book of Relics shows the reliquary in which the thorn was kept. You can see the page in the frame on the right, in the penultimate row. It is the second image from the left.

As the Reformation progressed, many relic collections were broken up. The relics were buried in cemeteries, the reliquaries melted down and reworked. Luther’s 95 Theses included a reminder that the true treasure of the Church was not a relic, but the Gospel.


All depictions: © Dagmar Trüpschuch und Cranach Stiftung