Religion and Beliefs

Welcome to the Religions and Beliefs exhibition from the Maastricht Collection. To illustrate the variety of Limburg’s religious practices and beliefs through the ages, we will introduce you to several relevant historical items through three subthemes: mythology, burial goods and witchcraft. Religions and beliefs are closely interconnected to a region’s unique history, geographical location and cultural influences, and Maastricht is no exception. By observing the region’s religious development, we can see the evolution it underwent from paganism to Catholicism. Before the arrival of the Roman Empire, Limburg’s inhabitants held onto folk beliefs. The Romans, after taking over the region, introduced their own polytheistic religion, which was closely inspired by Roman mythology. Later on, after fighting with the Franks and adopting religious influences from them, the Romans and thus the lands they ruled became catholic (Kennedy, 2017). This new religion demanded the construction of worship sites: churches. As such, this was an important milestone for Maastricht, as the oldest church of the Netherlands, the Basilica of Saint Servatius, was built here. 

After that, Catholicism continued to gain importance and be fundamental for the organization of Limburg, controlling the economy and the education while monastic orders were established in Maastricht. The city kept its important religious status, remaining catholic during the Reformation period the Netherlands went through during the 16th century (Koopmans, 2016). Right now, while Catholicism doesn’t hold as much importance as it did then, remnants of catholicism’s strong hold over the region are still visible in the heart of the city. For example, the Dominican church which was part of the Dominican monastery is now used as a bookstore.

Image from Wikimedia Commons – The southeastern corner of Vrijthof square in Maastricht, Netherlands, situation in December 1670. To the left: St.-Servatius guest house. In the middle: the tower of St.-James chapel. To the right: so-called Spanish Government building

27 BCE


Many different religious practices existed in Maastricht from early on.

27 BCE – 476 CE

Roman Period

The Roman Empire imported mythological beliefs into Maastricht.

387 CE


The construction of the St Servatius Basillica marks Maastricht entering Christianity.

A short overview of some of the stories about Maastricht’s most famous churches
Short interviews about people’s relation to Religion in Maastricht today


While being part of the Roman Empire, Limburg, was not only influenced by Roman habits and customs but also by Roman religion. The origin of this polytheistic religion is to be found in Greek mythology. The Roman Empire was introduced to Greek deities and myths after the Romans conquered Greece. This would explain the resemblances in representation which can be found between Greek and Roman deities. For instance, both mythologies have the same gods though with different names: Zeus in Greek mythology, the greatest of all deities, and Jupiter as its Roman counterpart (Dunstan, 2011). 

The huge influence the Greeks had on Roman religion explains why you can see Silenus, a wine satyr and deity from Greek mythology upon the ointment jar in our collection, even though this item was found in Limburg. The reason why one could see depictions of gods on daily items used by the Romans is simple: Roman mythology had the particularity to influence daily life in Roman society (Morales, 2007). For instance, Neptune was linked to earthquakes and the sea, Mars to wars, and Venus to love. However, gods were not only associated with elements and objects but also with localities (Kennedy, 2017).

Silenus Head
previous arrowprevious arrow
Add caption
wor Alpheus_and_Arethusa_-_Roman_School-min
next arrownext arrow

These deities had the status of rulers and protectors, which was mostly legitimized through myths. The symbolism of myths is often related to morals that give people valuable insights into how they should behave. It is also meant to help them better understand their surroundings and their purpose in life (Graf, 2007). An example of this is represented in this digital collection through the amber distaff. This object relates to the myth of the Parcae, three goddesses who rule the fate of the living, which is objectified by a thread, and thus an explanation of how deities interfere in Romans’ life cycle (March, 2014).

In this sense, Roman myths also stressed the importance of perpetuating a peaceful relation between the gods and them, as consequences of their behaviour were directly reflected in their present lives. While the Romans did believe in the afterlife, they saw it more as a second life, which was to be lived as departed souls in the underworld. These two lives were thus completely separated and not influencing each other. Therefore, this shows how rituals embedded in Roman religion through myths, gave Romans the framework on how to correctly honour deities and be rewarded in their present life (Morales, 2007).


Burial Goods

There were also rituals that dictated how the deceased should be buried, with one popular condition being the inclusion of burial goods. Burial goods, also known as grave goods, are a common part of these practices across the world. While today it’s not as usual to have items accompany the deceased into the grave, most ancient societies across the world have engaged in this practice.

One of the most frequent explanations as to the reason why, connects burial goods to religion. They were supposed to either be of use to the dead in their afterlife or were there to serve as a gift to the gods. Other possible reasons for that though might be psychological. Burying items might have been a way to cope with the loss, as well remember and honour the deceased. On the other hand, it also might have been a way  to dispose of their earthly possessions so that they don’t serve as a reminder and prolong grief (Harris and Kaiser, 2020). 

Image from Wikimedia Commons- Goods from grave
found in the princely burial at Łęg Piekarski
Image from Wikimedia Commons- A pitcher from the Roman Period, Giebułtów grave goods from the princely grave
previous arrowprevious arrow
Add caption
roman_pot no back 3000x3000
next arrownext arrow

The reason for such a wealth of possible explanations is the variations of burial rituals across different societies and religions, as well as the specifics under which the deceased lived in (Härke, 2014). Grave good practices in Early Medieval Europe and their differences according to time and region, also support that. For example in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg fewer items were buried along with the deceased compared to the rest of Europe. Furthermore, in the mid-700s onwards this ritual seemed to have stopped. This was done to bring “funerary practice in line with that in the rest of north-western Europe” (Brownlee, 2021, Discussion section, para. 4). This is an explanation as to why none of the burial goods in our collection date later than the 7th century. 

While variations indeed do exist across different regions, the common explanation as to why you can find grave goods in most European burial sites, states that they are an indication of the deceased’s age, gender, social status and others (Barzun et al., 2023). Both the Frankish beads and antler amulet affirm that. Found in the Basilica of Saint Servatius and the Derlon hotel respectively, they indicated the social status and wealth of the women they were buried along with. Similar reasoning brings the Roman pot into the grave: it can be considered an indication of status, but also an offering to the gods. The antler pick by contrast, is mainly indicative of the profession of the deceased as a miner.



Beyond different conceptions of the afterlife and what is needed for it, humankind has long held strong beliefs in the supernatural, from house spirits to witches. Though today witchcraft is gaining popularity and is not regarded as something taboo that was not always the case (Bosker, 2020).

The concept of witches seems to have originated in Europe. They were women who were thought to The concept of witches seems to have originated in Europe. They were women who were thought to be able to use magic to cast spells and summon spirits. Rather than having malicious intent, they mostly used their power for healing, or in order to help others, but were sadly misunderstood. The reason for that lies within the fact that, in the Middle Ages, Christianity was taking over Europe and condemning all kinds of folk religions or pagan beliefs, amongst which witchcraft also finds its place (Mark, 2023). The fear of heresy and the Devil that came with the proliferation of Christianity also created a connection between witches and the Devil, accusing them of malevolent sorcery or maleficium. Thus witches came to be understood as devil worshippers, who could summon demons. Most of the popular ideas we hold about witches nowadays: their ability to fly through the air, to shapeshift, to have animal familiars, as well as to feed on children, also seem to stem from the early pre-conceptions Medieval Europeans had (Witchcraft | Definition, History, Varieties, & Facts, 1999).

Image from Smithsonian – Illustration of the “Hanging of Witches”, 1930
Image from the MET – A man puts his head through a trap-door at left, holding up a lantern and pitchfork. He gapes in horror at the sight before him of two witches sitting next to a fire, ca. 1807
previous arrowprevious arrow
Image from Wikimedia Commons - Illustration of a witch holding a plant, ca. 1700-1720.
next arrownext arrow

Witch hysteria first took over Europe in the mid-1400s and by the late 1600s more than 80,000 women were killed under the accusation of practicing witchcraft (Trevor-Roper, 1990). One of the main motivators for such fervent pursue was the book “Malleus Maleficarum”, which came out in 1486 and was written by two German Dominicans. The book’s title translates to “Hammer of Witches” and it was a guide meant to help with identifying, as well as interrogating witches. Its popularity can be testified by the fact that after its release, it was the most sought-after book for more than 100 years, coming second only to the Bible (Broedel, 2013).

One of the testimonies of the strong hostility exhibited towards witches are the various charms, symbols and items used to ward them or their “evil” spells off. One of these symbols was the five-pointed star, also known as pentangle. It’s mostly connected to Christian numerology, as the number five represents the five wounds of Christ. Other commonly found symbols are circles, mesh patterns and chequerboards (Wright, n.d.). An example of an item associated with anti-witchcraft would be the Bartman jug exhibited in our collection. Though it had multiple more mundane uses such as being a storage or transportation vessel for food and drink, it later came to be used as a “witch bottle” (Shakespeare in 100 Objects: “Bartmann” Jug, 2011).