By Published by
. Views . Comments Comment . 10 Votes


By Nicole La Bay



Although there are breathtaking antique artifacts in every religion, what we mostly call "religious art" in antiques and collectibles today, is actually artifacts belonging to the Catholic liturgy, famous for its magnificence.
From intricate embroideries to precious crucifixes, decorative holy water fonts to popular rosaries, religious Art is very much in demand today.

For several decades after WWII, churches and convents have poured their antique treasures on the market to raise funding for their institutions.

These prodigal days are over, as the same institutions now seem to be buying them back, possibly following a trend started by Benedict XVI, who contrary to Pope John XXIII's simple white robe, is now seen wearing more traditional vestments with intricate lace, etc.

This shift should ensure that the market of religious artifacts not only remains stable, but very likely increases for the next few years.

Since the spectrum of cult objects is nearly infinite! I will only review here, artifacts I have been collecting, trading or closely watching.

There are 2 parts to this guide:





a. Crosses/Crucifixes

Crucifixes come in all forms and shapes with the most precious done in ivory and silver with abundance of extra characters. Walnut or darkened pear tree wood carvings from the Napoleon III period are also popular. Crucifixes can be standing pieces or wall pieces.

Micro Mosaic crucifixes made in Rome are also very much in demand. These micro mosaic pieces purchased by pilgrims to the Vatican, often have lovely representations of Roman monuments.

b. Holy water fonts

Very ornate, very decorative pieces made of various materials: embossed brass, marble, and even lucite during the Art Deco times.
They have a hollow shell at the front to hold the water brought back in bottles from the popular holy cities: Rome, Lourdes, Lisieux, etc.

c. Relics: Framed Reliquaries

These framed reliquaries are glass boxes which contain a genuine saint's relic at the back and are usually sealed with red wax.
The relic can be a small piece of parchment, hair, even coffin dust!

At the front, reliquaries show a white porcelain figurine, an embossed embroidery, a wax scene, etc. often caught in incredibly delicate paper lace ribbons called: paperolles, with the names of the saints and mottos.
The most popular of these mini shrines are Napoleon III black "bubble glass" oval frames. But reliquaries can be square, round, octogonal and also have a minuscule size.

d. Relics: Travelling Reliquaries

Usually pocket cylinders. with a mini statue of a saint or of the Madonna inside.

They can be silver plate etuis covered with fleur de lis or bone carvings that reveal a figurine by rotation.

Some pieces of jewelry were also travelling reliquaries, though these pieces are more ancient. For instance
17th C Knight of Malta crosses worn as pendants, contained a relic at the back in a glass compartment.

e. Rosaries & Medals

Rosaries have become hip bracelets for women and hip necklaces for men in the past couple of years.
They range from plastic beads and rhodium, to solid silver, ivory, mop, coral beads. 
Religious medals/charms are also in demand, particularly blue guilloche silver medals.

Often made in Lourdes, which right after the sightings of the Virgin by young shepherds in 1858, became a center of religious pilgrimage, a touristic rival of Rome, and a distribution center of cheap religious artifacts.

With time, even the kitschiest of the Lourdes tourists'production, and of course because of it!
has become a collectible category.



Though there was still intense creativity displayed in church textiles shortly after WWII, one can safely say that in the second part of the 20th Century, there is a steep decline in
all needlework done by hand, so the most prestigious collectibles are pre- 1950s European vestments, with a peak circa 1870-1900, times of obvious church and state wealth in Europe, and intense religious production.

There are still a number of 18th C pieces on the market, not necessarily in bad shape, as church embroideries were very heavy, with the metallic texture of fabrics, fringes and embroideries keeping vestments together, but these more ancient pieces are of course very faded and their gold and silver components quite tarnished. Still, they are among the most spectacular.

a. Vestments: Chasubles, Copes & Dalmatics

They are the colorful upper part of the priest garments. They are quite heavy fabrics assemblages, and are done in ritual colors: purple, black, etc.  to celebrate the religious seasons of the year: Lent, Assumption, Easter, Xmas, etc..

They are sheaths with no sleeves, worn a bit like a body armor for the chasuble, with horizontal bands for the dalmatics and a capelet at the back for the copes.

A complete set includes a manipule, a purse, a chalice veil and a stole.

All vestments are richly adorned with three dimensional satin stitch embroideries, embossed metallic thread motifs, trims and fringes.

Most pieces are made of silk, sometimes silk brocades  with gold thread, specially woven for the church.
Motifs can be religious symbols such as lambs, birds, the sacred heart of Jesus,
but also decorative representations of nature such as flowers, leaves, wheat ears, and of course grapes, which are both nature and symbol.
Small gold sequins and beads can be present.
18th C vestments may include other themes like the pelican.

Even small remnants of these rich garments have become hot collectibles,
as these metallic motifs are so precious, they can easily compare to jewelry.

b. Vestments: Albs

This is the under part of the priest garments, a very ample white cotton shirt,longer than the chasuble, and therefore showing at the bottom.
Sleeves also show, and are therefore often ending in elaborate cuffs.

The most sought after are made of fine batiste, with tall, ethereal lace bottoms.

Choir boys' albs are also collected, though their lace parts are shorter.  


c. Vestments: Maniples, Stoles & Chalice Veils

These are the smaller vestment parts, originally made in a set, but mostly scattered today.
They have the same richly embroidered motifs as the chasubles.

d. Altar Antependiums

These are the heavy valances hanging from the altar. Usually scalloped, they are rich with the same motifs as the priest vestments and often bordered with metallic fringes or tassels
e. Procession Banners

Highly decorative items, usually made of silk with sumptuous satin stitch embroideries and metallic thread enhancements.

Banners mostly display floral motifs and mottos, but some have characters.
These characters have the delightful portraits, realistically hand painted on fabric appliques, and which ieven if the silk around them has frayed, have retained all their freshness to this day.

f. Convents Needlework

Done by the young ladies of the time, with many pieces dated and signed with their names, they are mostly samplers and needlepoints which blend the sacred and the profane.

g. Religious Embroidered Folk Art

Though most church textiles are elaborate items done by expert professionals, there is also a very interesting category
of religious "soft" Art, a true Folk Art, done by the faithful themselves.

These personal reliquaries or ex votos, worn inside a garment or displayed on a writing desk or above the bed, are small pieces of fabric, with a theme and a personal line.

Naive and sentimental, these works are fairly rare as probably noone thought about preserving them. 
But as they offer a less formal, more personal expression of religious fervor, they have become collectibles in their own right.

(c) Nicole La Bay 2008

Explore More
Choose a template