Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion at the British Museum

By Richard Moss | 22 June 2011
a photo of a medieval reliquary based on the face of an unknown medieval female saint in a display case
Reliquary Bust of an Unknown Female Saint, Probably a Companion of St Ursula. South Netherlandish (Brussels) (circa 1520-30) Copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York© Photo Richard Moss
Exhibition: Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, British Museum, London, until October 9 2011

The domed roof the British Museum’s Reading Room resonates with the gentle sounds of 11th century devotional music. Alleiya Dulce Lignam Dulces Calvos, (alleluia, sweet wood, sweet nails), written between 1150 and 1201 in France, is a fitting celestial accompaniment to the priceless golden relics on display in the glass cases as the British Museum explores the often complex world of medieval relic veneration.

It's one of the finest assemblages of Medieval Christian reliquary ever seen under one roof. And the space manages to approximate the setting you might get in St Paul's Cathedral or at one of Europe’s Cathedral pilgrimages such as the Treasury of St Mark’s in Venice. But, of course, it’s not quite the same.  

This is Medieval relic veneration en masse; carefully contextualised and viewed through the prism of our understanding of the medieval world and its beliefs, the patronage of the arts and the power play of kings and their collections.

It is also about the role and use of precious materials – thorns from Christ’s crown, relics of his crucifix, the blood of the Virgin Mary – as well as the magnificent gold, sliver, gilt and filigree creations made to display them.

Relics were usually human body parts, fragments of cloth, or in the case of Christ, wood or nails from the crucifix, sanctified through their contact with a holy person or place. 

a photo of a display case with a golden reliquary house-shaped object beneath a gilded and domed roof
The Abdinghof Altar beneath the dome of the British Museum Reading Room.© Photo Richard Moss
A belief that Christ physically ascended to heaven after the Resurrection meant that relics of his body could not have survived. But his cross and the nails that fixed him to it, together with the crown of thorns and even his blood, breath and his umbilical cord became divine objects of veneration and part of a cult of pilgrimage that lasted for centuries. For many Christians it still persists. 

There are fragments of bone or hair, carefully wrapped and concealed in exquisite boxes; bell shrines (bells with special powers enshrined as symbols of the saints); portable golden altars used to celebrate Mass outside in consecrated spaces and bejewelled shrines depicting Christ, Saints, Apostles and Evangelists.

The Medieval craftsmen who created these reliquaries utilised all the precious objects of the age from ivory and rock crystals to silver and gold to create objects rich with symbol and meaning which offered a kind of celestial bridge to the saints.

One of the most arresting is a reliquary bust of an unknown female saint thought to represent an unfortunate virgin companion of St Ursula, slaughtered by Huns in around 383. This poster girl of the exhibition is one of two examples of the ‘Speaking Reliquaries’ that became fashionable in Flanders in the 1500s.

Pilgrims who made the journey to the Golden Chapel at the Church of St Ursula in Cologne would have been rapt by the powerful eye contact and the belief that she was indeed conversing with the viewer. She was also designed to contain a skull fragment in her head and other relics in her breast.

By this time pilgrimage had developed what curators describe as a “sacred geography” that criss-crossed Europe in well trodden routes that had grown since the fourth century, when relics of the Christian Saints first began to emerge as objects of faith and veneration.

This “Medieval package tour” was big business, and it was therefore very important that the relics of the saints, and indeed of Christ, were represented in a suitably impressive way.

Hence, an impressive Triptych reliquary dating from between 1160-80 takes the form of an altarpiece with two hinged doors. It is thought to have once held the relic of the True Cross - fragments of Christ’s cross from the crucifixion - behind its rock crystal window. On its doors, two angels blow trumpets to awaken the dead.

Another Reliquary of the True Cross also contains small fragments of the manger recovered during the first Crusade (1095 – 1099). They are displayed in place of the body of Christ whose head, feet and hands are represented in enamel.

a photo of two arm-shaped decorated reliquaries in a display case
Arm reliquaries made to contain the arm bone of St. George.© Photo Richard Moss
Elsewhere, an absorbing section on England’s two great Saints, Cuthbert and Thomas Becket, includes books scribed by Bede, alabaster panels depicting Becket’s murder by King Henry II’s knights in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 and a fragment of his skull held by a small silver and gilt reliquary – one of many that were distributed to “great men and famous churches”. 

Fragments from the coffin of St Cuthbert – the patron Saint of Northern England – can be viewed next to an impressive Griffin Claw from his shrine (actually the horn of a mountain goat).
Two hand reliquaries that once held the arm of England’s adopted patron Saint, St George, introduce several examples of arm reliquaries, and there are wrappings from the reliquary of St Eustace.

This is a detailed, absorbing and at times overwhelming journey into a complex world of belief, politics and veneration. For some it will be a spiritual, devotional experience. For others the power of these beautiful and beguiling objects may be dissipated by the setting and the contextualisation – after all, it’s not the same as encountering a single devotional relic in a church or cathedral.

So this may not be a Tutankhamun moment for the BM. But whatever the public response and reaction, it is a unique opportunity to peer through a window into the world of medieval belief and art. The chance will not come along again for a long time.

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