Relicarios: The Forgotten Jewels of Latin America


Publisher: Fresco Books
Printed in Italy
Pub Date: September 1, 2020
Cloth: ISBN: 978-1934491744
Pages: 176 pages
Photos: 200+
Cover Photo: Victor Chacón Villar
Book Design: Nancy Stem /SF Design
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Relicarios are finely crafted, bi-faced lockets of gold or silver artifacts of the Spanish Colonial era in Latin America. These sometimes, exquisite jewels are bi-faced pendants that contain devotional imagery protected by glass. The images may be miniature paintings on vellum, nacre, alabaster, copper, or ivory; prints; tiny sculptures of boxwood, ivory, alabaster, or tagua; or molded imagery in pastas of corn pith, a potato and plaster mixture, or clay. Although tons of relics were imported from Europe, particularly by Jesuits, in general only high-status individuals or Spaniards wore relicarios containing relics. These religious-themed jewels attest to colonists’ dedication to their favorite Virgins and saints as well as fealty to church and crown. Considered powerful amulets and talismans, wearers believed that relicarios could protect them in a precarious world. Egan’s book reflects forty years of the author’s research and interviews with relicarieros, art historians, museum curators, collectors, silversmiths, anticuarios, and clergy. She has also assembled and exhibited her collection of several hundred examples. The two-hundred photos commissioned for this book from leading art photographers in the Americas have mostly not been previously published.

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Relicarios: The Forgotten Jewels of Latin America won two first place prizes in Art and Photography and History from The New Mexico Book Association’s, Southwest Book Design Awards and was Book of the Year runner up.

Relicarios: The Forgotten Jewels of Latin America, published by Fresco Books, won the Silver Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award for 2020 in the art category.


“Martha’s writing is clear and scholarly but never pedantic, and she has organized the contents intelligently. The object photographs are consistently superb and show sensitivity to the inherent beauty of each piece. The book’s contextual/historical photographs nicely complement the object plates and text. Finally, Martha Egan’s books are always a pleasure to have and to read, and this rich volume is no exception. Furthermore, it represents an important addition to the oft-lacking literature on religious devotional jewelry in Latin America.”
–Marion Oettinger, Jr., PhD. Author and Curator Emeritus of Latin American Art, San Antonio Museum of Art.

“El trabajo de investigación y recopilación que ha realizado Martha Egan en el magnífico libro “Relicarios” es sobresaliente. En una recorrida por toda América ha registrado excelentes ejemplos de objetos que, quizás, no habían sido suficientemente valorados.”

“The research work and compilation carried out by Martha J. Egan in her magnificent book, Relicarios, is outstanding. In this tour of Latin America, she documents excellent examples of devotional objects that have in all probability been undervalued. This book itself will be an invaluable source for research.”
–Sergio Barbieri, Art Historian and Author, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“El trabajo de Marta Egan sobre el importante tema de los relicarios localizados en hispanoamérica, constituye un aporte indispensable para el cabal entendimiento de sus significados y significantes bajo la exégesis americana.”  

“Martha J. Egan’s work on the important theme of relicarios from Latin America (considered personal devotional objects) constitutes an indispensable contribution for the complete understanding of both meaning and significance of this Latin American interpretation.”
–Nancy Morán Proaño, MA. Author and Independent Researcher and Author, in Quito, Ecuador.

“Egan’s (book) is the definitive study of relicarios. Painted or sculpted and encased in gold or silver, relicarios are devotional jewelry worn to elicit the blessing of a saint, or fulfill a vow, and sometimes even to show off, as sumptuary laws often limited what adornments could be worn by the not so rich.”
–Rev. Juan MC Oliver, PhD. Author and Episcopalian Priest, Santa Fe, NM.

“Martha J. Egan’s Relicarios. The Forgotten Jewels of Latin America …bien merece considerarse como un aporte definitivo. Aparte de testimoniar las advocaciones favoritas de su poseedor, los relicarios constituían en la práctica una suerte de amuletos o ‘talismanes sacros.’ Estamos, en suma, ante un fascinante recorrido histórico, pulcramente editado e ilustrado con profusión, que rescata y revela una faceta clave para la comprensión de la cultura visual en América Latina.”
–Luis Eduardo Wuffarden, Author and Independent Art Historian, Lima, Peru.

“If ever there was a book that was a museum in itself, this is it. (Egan’s book) is a remarkable and beautifully composed presentation of history, cultures and art that holds your attention throughout. It is though you are discovering a new art form, a new sense of the special contributions of regions and cities all over Latin America, even a new view of history – a view through beauty.”
–Bill Matuszeski has spent extensive time in Latin America, including as a Peace Corps volunteer in Venezuela with Martha Egan.  Most recently, he has been active in Sustainable Villages Honduras, a non-profit in the Washington DC area that supports expert agricultural and development assistance.

“Erudite, scholarly, and lucidly explicated, Martha J. Egan’s Relicarios: The Forgotten Jewels of Latin America, a labor of love and commitment to her material, serves as a monumental example of what ex-Peace Corps volunteers can contribute to the history of the areas in which they served.”
–Marnie Mueller, Winner of Maria Thomas Prize for Fiction, an American Book Award. Author of three novels (Curbstone Press), in-print with Northwestern University Press.