Artefact of the Month

Amulet Cases from the Collections of the Museum of Ethnography

September, 2017



This collection of 19th-century amulet cases representing multiple religious traditions is currently on display at the Museum of Ethnography  as part of the series of programs offered for Budapest’s Ars Sacra Festival.  Objects of personal devotion, these ornately worked items were intended to inspire piety and observance on the part of their wearers both through the scriptures, icons, and artefacts they contained, and the motifs with which they were decorated.

In addition, tradition holds that – when used as an accessory to prayer or supplication – such articles have the power to protect those at hand from all variety of harm or evil, as well as provide healing from various illnesses.  On occasion, they might even be buried with the dead to offer protection in the afterlife.  Though it is not known how and by whom the examples shown here were used, their identification as amulets is affirmed both by information from their collectors, and through comparison to analogous artefacts.  Among Catholics, the demand for devotional objects of this type arose with the Counter-Reformation, spurred by the reform of the mass and rise in popularity of pilgramages to holy sites.  One type of amulet  sold to Europe’s more affluent and higher-ranking citizens consisted of a hinged or glass covered medallion or box with ornate edgework, which contained relics from the body or clothing of Rome’s “catacomb saints” – early Christians whose tombs had been discovered during the late Middle Ages.  The flowery filigree that framed this particular type of reliquary was made of densely arranged silk threads, wire, beads, and precious stones.  Produced in convents, it was often referred to as “nuns’ work”.
Simpler specimens could be obtained at pilgrimage sites and bazaars as late as the 19th century.  In 1917, the Museum of Ethnography acquired several empty “amulet cases” from the town of Sopronkeresztúr, each with an identifying design on its cover:  a cross with Christogram, a lone “IHS” monogram, and other assorted symbols of the Passion.

The cases presumably once contained tiny relics (primarily items touched by saints of the Church), icons, sacramentals, wax Agnus Dei medallions blessed by the Pope, prayer slips, or other pilgrimage mementoes.  A medallion containing a relic of Saint Philomena, the only piece in the collection to have survived with its contents intact, originates from Albania, an indication of the prevalence of this type of object throughout Europe.

Representing a separate range of forms are two “reliquaries” of the Romanian Orthodox Church of Transylvania, probably manufactured in northern Greece.   Designed to be hung, these small boxes feature front panels decorated in relief ornamentation depicting the heroic deeds of Saints George and Demetrius, whom the faithful of the region revere.  The reliquaries are likely to have contained tiny printed prayer slips or bits of textile considered relics by virtue of having once touched other, “first class” relics.

Similar objects have been used for the purposes of protection by the followers of other religions, as well.  Muslim amulet cases were decorated with the name of Allah and contained quotations from the Quran, along with letters, figures, or signs possessing magic powers, while Hindu amulets housed pieces of holy text and Buddhist amulets images of the Buddha.

Edit Katona

Amulet Cases
Sopronkeresztúr (now Deutschkreutz, Austria), 19th century
Roman Catholic
Inv. nos.: 117367-117371

Medallion with Relic of Saint Philomena
Albania, 19th century
Roman Catholic
Inv. No.: 97854

Reliquary with Images of Saints Demetrius and George
Orthodox Christian
Nagyenyed (now Aiud, Romania), mid-to-late 19th century
Inv. no.: 98147, 98148










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