V182: The Lovely Bones: Reliquary Busts of Female Saints

Last night a beautiful image popped up on my Pinterest feed … this one.

Her name is not known – a companion of, or a saint herself? What do you think her expression is saying?

I found her so striking, strange, expressive, and beautiful that I made her my profile pic on Facebook.  The Dreamstress then told me that this lady, and her matching sisters, house human remains…in their heads.
There are little doors in the tops of their heads through with the bones of the saints were taken in and out.  The Dreamstress wrote an article all about them here.

But are they not lovely?  Made c. 1520-30 in possibly Belgium, these busts are carved from oak, then painted and gilded.  Most of the time these gals were chillin’ in near the altar inside the church, but on important feast days the were paraded through the streets.

The Met has three that appear to all go together, and a fourth in the same style, but with an ornamental stand at the bottom of the bust.  They are all exquisitely beautiful and captivating…

Saint Balbina
Noted as a companion of Saint Ursula
Her name is not noted in the Met website

I also found this video on how to re-create the hairstyle of one of these busts, with the overlapping braids.  Quite interesting…


  • Anonymous

    July 1, 2012 at 1:44 AM

    That video is great! I don't have long enough (it's barely as long as the first attempt!), but I think I could fake the criss-cross with one of those inexpensive hair headbands and just pull my real braids through the sides.

  • Anonymous

    July 1, 2012 at 3:06 AM

    At first glance I though those little lines in the first bust were hairpins. Then surprise, her head opens and I realized they were the seams for the little door! I love the detailed carved hair.

  • Melissa

    July 1, 2012 at 4:22 AM

    Those are AWESOME! I can see why you are taken with them. I agree with the earlier commenter that they are a little creepy, but I love the macabre, so I find them creepy in a good way.

  • Anonymous

    July 1, 2012 at 3:51 PM

    They are lovely, the video is great and think I have enough hair to do it!

    The expression on the first bust looks like someone has told her something ridiculous and she is saying "Ha, yeah right". They are beautiful and creepy, I also love the macabre. Why did they take the bones in and out of he busts? and where are the rest of the bones? It doesn't look like a whole skeleton could fit in there.

    Speaking of macabre, I recently found a picture by national geographic of an 18th century mummy. He had a lovely red taffeta coat.

    • Fräulein Jabberwocky

      July 1, 2012 at 7:11 PM

      In Catholic church the veneration of saints was very important until the 18th century and is still a part of the belief. So people adored or worshipped relics (bones or fabrics of saints). Then these were were take out of their boxes. But the skeletons were split and kept in different parishes all over Europe (later over the world) – but it´s very uncertain, that these bones were really the bones of a saint. There are for example about hundred of fingers of Petrus – an I´m sure he also had just ten of them.

      and concerning the mummies: Could it be, that they lay in "Michaelergruft" in Vienna? I already saw them two times – it´s really amazing. They still even wear their wigs.


    • Adalee

      July 2, 2012 at 11:49 PM

      They are simply lovely! They look rather serene to me. Just want to add that veneration is simply honoring, never worship or adoration, in the Catholic Church. That is reserved for God alone! But it is always good for us to have reminders of people who lived holy lives, as examples to us.


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