There is little doubt that the hands of Saint Pantaleon were his body part most worthy of veneration. Born in what is now Turkey in the 3rd century CE, Pantaleon was a renowned physician who, according to his hagiography, once healed a blind man by invoking the name of Jesus. His reputation for curing the incurable spread, and Pantaleon’s knowledge and practice of medicine was so renowned that he was called to serve the Roman Emperor Maximian. The invitation was undoubtedly a boon to Pantaleon’s career, but hazardous for his own health: Like many eventual saints, Pantaleon fell victim to Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.
Pantaleon’s story is a familiar one: a public commitment to the faith followed by blood, gore, and an inevitably miraculous death. Though it’s unclear exactly when Pantaleon was canonized, there are references to his veneration as the patron saint of physicians, in particular, as early as the 5th century. By the 14th century, Pantaleon was venerated as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of saints known for their particular ability to intercede on behalf of the sick, particularly those affected by the plague.
This arm reliquary, held by the Walters Museum in Baltimore, dates to the late 13th century. Made of gilded silver, the West German (Rhineland) reliquary depicts the arm of Saint Pantaleon, fingers bent into the blessing gesture, directed toward the worshiper. The ornate reliquary features embellishment with jewels as well as fine, detailed metalwork.
According to the Walters, some of the embellishments were added later in the 15th century, including the large crystal at the cuff of the sleeve and the glass door, which would have provided worshipers a better look at the reliquary’s contents, likely an arm bone said to have been once attached to Saint Pantaleon. The additions demonstrate the continued importance of Pantaleon and his earthly remains to later pilgrims seeking his intercession. As the reliquary continued to be an object of veneration long after its creation, it’s likely that it had particular relevance during the 14th century as Black Plague moved across Europe, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives.
Shaped reliquaries like Pantaleon’s arm were designated [PDF] by Germans as redende Reliquaire, translated simply as “speaking reliquary.” The term was specifically used for reliquaries that generally resembled the body part contained inside, like this one. Simply put, speaking reliquaries plainly and visibly communicated their contents. Such reliquaries were common in European churches by the 13th century, but there are examples that date as late as the 18th century. Numerous speaking reliquaries still survive, including a lavish gilt bust reliquary of Saint Baudime and a foot reliquary of Saint Blaise dating from the mid-13th century.
Arm reliquaries like Saint Pantaleon’s are, by far, the most common of the speaking reliquaries. Medieval art historian Cynthia Hahn suggests [PDF] that they were the most easy to preserve, and notes that they were probably the most produced of the speaking reliquaries because, unlike feet or busts, they could play a pivotal role in the spectacle of mass. The arm reliquary was a kind of “liturgical prop” that stood in for the saint; it could bless the pilgrim, giving the worshipper a recreation of a direct experience with a long-dead saint. Hahn notes that numerous medieval texts describe clergy using hand reliquaries to bless worshipers with the sign of the cross.
In this respect, Saint Pantaleon’s hand, which, centuries before, had supposedly healed a blind man and a paralytic, could mimic the gesture of those miracles for a worshiper seeking relief from the Black Plague. The hand of the saint, imbued as it was with mystical power, could touch and heal the faithful without the constraints of mere time. Speaking reliquaries were, no doubt, powerful visual representations of saints and their miracles.