Treasures of Heaven

Limoges Reliquary of St Valerie

Saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe

(British Museum, London (23 June – 9 October 2011)

I have a feeling that, while this exhibition was being prepared, I read an article about concerns expressed by some of the lenders – monasteries, abbeys, great Catholic churches – about whether their precious relics would be treated with the respect they deserved in Protestant England.  If I am right, then it shows that awareness of the Reformation remains strong even today.  However, they needn’t have worried.  The exhibition setting is a triumph of simplicity and the objects are left to work their extraordinary power.

Medieval choral music plays in the background throughout the exhibition, conjuring up the sensation of being in a sacred place, and as far as I could see the visitors reacted accordingly.  People hardly spoke; when they did, it was in whispers.  Everyone seemed to be utterly entranced, and rightly so.  Even if (like me) you don’t personally believe in the holiness of relics, the caskets and reliquaries gathered here are as sumptuous and dazzling an example of medieval craftsmanship as you are ever likely to see.  The intricacy of carved ivory, the glitter of gold and rock crystal, porphyry, pearls, silver and gems is all set beneath the gold-and-blue dome of the Reading Room.  Usually I’m a little ambivalent about the use of the Reading Room for exhibitions, but in this case I could think of no more appropriate setting.  It felt like being in some vast cathedral.

The exhibition itself was very clear and well organised, taking you through the history of relics from the earliest examples of Christian sarcophagi, through the glittering examples of medieval goldsmiths’ work, up to the mid-15th century, with a room at the end of the exhibition considering how the cult of relics extended to those considered martyrs for their faith, such as Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.  Naturally I can’t expect to do justice to any of these treasures in words – these are things that absolutely have to be seen.

Among my favourite objects was the central roundel from the Hinton St Mary mosaic, which is the earliest known representation of Christ from England.  Found in a Romano-British villa, it’s a wonderful example of the religious symbiosis between the pagan and early Christian faiths.  Christ is presented beardless and in a toga, flanked by pomegranates (a symbol of resurrection, possibly due to their connection with Persephone?); the only sign that we’re not looking at a young emperor is the ‘chi-rho’ behind his head.  What is really fascinating is that, in its original state, this roundel was surrounded by four further roundels showing examples of good triumphing over evil – all drawn from pagan legend; so, for example, one showed Bellerophon overcoming the chimera.  Of course, this isn’t in itself a reliquary, but similar images of Christ were used by early Christians on the bases of expensive glass drinking bowls, which were often then recycled as grave markers.

Hinton St Mary Mosaic

Detail from the centre of the Hinton St Mary Mosaic, showing a beardless Christ with the chi-ro symbol and two pomegranates representing resurrection

Other objects that stand out are the 6th-century ivory pyxis (cosmetic box) showing the martyrdom of St Menas and perhaps therefore adapted for use as a reliquary.  This immensely fragile thing is 1,400 years old and the carvings on the outside still retain all their detail and charm.  St Menas is often shown with camels, because after his martyrdom his body was transported by camels; when they stopped and refused to go any further, it was decided that this was where the saint wished to be buried.  Those of us of a more sceptical turn of mind might consider whether the camels – not the most tractable of animals – were simply tired and wanted to rest.

This ivory, for all the skill of its carving, pales beside the reliquary of the arm of St George, from the treasury of San Marco in Venice.  It’s perhaps even more amazing that the fragile inner silver sheath of this reliquary has survived, when you consider that it was made in Byzantium and then captured by the Venetians in 1204 in the midst of battle and slaughter, when Byzantium was despoiled by the knights of the Fourth Crusade.  Carried back to Venice, it was then placed inside a much more elaborate golden Venetian reliquary made some time around 1300 and studded with golden figures of apostles, enamels and glass, topped off with a golden figure of St George on horseback spearing the dragon (St George is a 16th-century replacement; the dragon’s original).

It’s all very well shuffling around the cases and gawping at the sheer brilliance of these reliquaries, but the danger is that you forget what the purpose of these things was.  That purpose is brought profoundly home by the 13th-century Man of Sorrows from S. Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome, where the central icon is presented in the midst of more than 200 tiny compartments.  Each contains the relic of a saint, carefully wrapped in silk and tied with thread, the saint’s name written on a slip of parchment placed at the front so that the faithful knew who to pray to.  Almost all the compartments still contain their relics.

For me, this was a powerful reminder that whatever the splendour of the casket, it was these tiny bundles which were considered to have the greatest value and importance.  It’s intensely moving to see them still all carefully assembled here and you can still make out some of the names on the slips.  And, lest you get distracted from the icon – this is not a painting but a micro-mosaic and it’s said to be the very icon before which St Gregory the Great had his vision while celebrating Mass (a subject which crops up in a fair amount of later medieval painting).  Even though this is unlikely (Gregory lived around 600 AD, while the icon was probably made in around 1300), it adds an extra charge to the object.

Relics were given such costly settings to emphasise the worth of the fragment contained within.  But possessing large numbers of relics, and being able to pay them the honour they deserved, was also a way to prove your political and wordly importance.  The exhibition touches on the great late medieval collectors of relics – Charles IV, the Duc de Berry, Louis IX of France (who somehow managed to acquire the entire Crown of Thorns, for which he built the most splendid reliquary ever constructed: the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris).  And it does well to acknowledge the continuing veneration of relics today.  It includes the Holy Thorn from Stoneyhurst, its 16th-century casket now encased in a rather less beautiful 1960s glass-and-metal reliquary.  There are also a pair of gloves said to have been worn on the scaffold by Charles I (venerated as a martyr), from the collection at Lambeth Palace, although the curators do admit that two other pairs of gloves are known to have a similar claim.  The audio guide (more on that in a mo’) threatens to veer into a comparison between relics and modern celebrity culture, but fortunately manages to rein itself in.

Franks Casket

The Franks Casket: an early 8th century ivory reliquary probably made in Northumbria, carved from whale ivory, with runic inscriptions, telling the stories of Romulus and Remus (other side) and the Three Magi (this side)

After all the gold and gems and gorgeousness, the final item makes an effort to recall us to the heart of the matter.  Within a Baroque frame, complete with Bernini-esque angels, is the Mandylion.  According to the catalogue (this wasn’t made clear in the exhibition), this is an early copy after the original Mandylion, which was the most prized relic in Byzantium.  Like the Turin Shroud, it was thought to show an impression of Christ’s face, recorded not through any artistic ability – the legend makes it quite clear the artist was incapable of showing Christ’s radiance – but through direct transferral from his body.  In this case, the Mandylion was a towel on which Christ wiped his face, transferring his image to it.  Whatever the legend, this is a stark and sombre image; but utterly compelling.

The first conclusion is: you must go.  If you have the slightest interest in medieval history, in religion, in the driving forces behind almost two thousand years of European civilization, then you must go.  And, if you do go, I thoroughly recommend the multimedia guide.  Voiced by Derek Jacobi, it adds a wealth of information, atmospheric music and comparative images.  I haven’t had a chance to read the catalogue properly yet, but it looks thorough, with interesting essays (although the curators do feel the need to relate the relics to the works of some contemporary artists at the end, as if trying to prove that the show still has relevance.  This angers me.  These gorgeous objects do not need to have their significance justified). It’s probably the only chance we will ever get to see such treasures together, and it makes me rather sad to think of all the similar examples of workmanship that must have once been in English churches, and then destroyed either during the Reformation or Civil War.

Buy the catalogue

This post was written before I began working at the British Museum.

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