‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum

The statue reliquary of St Baudime had never left France before its inclusion in the exhibition. The British Museum

Yesterday, 9 October 2011, the British Museum’s exhibition ‘Treasures of Heaven’ finished. I was lucky enough to catch it before it finished, and though I appreciate a review after an exhibition has finished isn’t always the most useful, I hope this post can convey a flavour of the exhibition and some highlights from it.

The exhibition looks at the role of the relic in Christian worship in the medieval period (300 AD – early 1500 AD), and as the tag line suggests medieval saints and devotion, as well as relics, are strong themes throughout this exhibition. My interest in the relic comes from my recent research into collections of submarine telegraph cables, and I believe that sections of cable often became like relics for certain communities. From spending so much time studying these sections of cable I was almost surprised by the small number of relics themselves on display. Instead the majority of objects were the reliquaries, the receptacles that both protected and represented the relics.

These reliquaries could be stunningly beautiful, demonstrated by the object that greeted you at the exhibition entrance, the bust of St Baudime. This reliquary was made in France between 1146AD and 1178 AD, and was created to hold a relic of St Baudime’s blood. This object, like many others, was displayed in it’s own individual case, enabling the visitor to get a few of all sides of the object, to take in the craft and beauty of the object. St Baudime’s reliquary had clearly had a slightly turbulent life, the jewels that once adorned it had been removed, and so too had to the object’s heart, the relic itself. However these loses didn’t seem to take away the life of this object, and it is understandable why this type of reliquary is called a ‘speaking relic’, St Baudime does look to be in mid sermon.

The exhibition followed a chronological trail, after marvelling at St Baudime I was sent back in time to the classical period, and the very beginning of the Christian passion for relics. Early relics were closely associated with Christ and most famously Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, is associated with finding the relics of the cross Jesus died on. With this in mind it is interesting to think about the trajectory of these early objects, moving between centres of power, first to Constantinople and eventually to Western Europe. This trajectory not only highlights the changing world powers, but underlines the importance of these objects and the perceived power they held and projected on to their possessor.

St Conall Cael's bell. The British Museum

Not all reliquaries were gold or ornate objects, though these objects did get the longest pause from the exhibition visitors, and it was intriguing to witness the changing trends and adaptations the reliquaries undertook. There were some very small and personal objects, made to be worn, there was a recycled Walrus bone chair leg that was adapted to become a reliquaries, and an Irish fad for creating bell shrines. The bell shrines consisted of a metal cover for the simple bell which was said to have belonged to a local saint, the sample shown had belonged to St Conall Cael, and on close inspection you could see where the metal had been smoothed out by the many hands of pilgrims.  The biggest influence in one of these changes came from the Second Council of Nicea in 787AD which declared all altars must hold a relic. This clearly had an influence on the design of altars, but also made small travelling altars a sacred equivalent to a large church altar, though clearly the origin of a relic may have an impact on its popularity. With the cult of saints and the relic craze came the creation of celebrity saints, and the exhibition acknowledges this with a sample of the many relics circulated for some of these famous saints, such as Thomas Beckett.

After the succession of these objects of devotion I found one of the final sections particularly intriguing – relics beyond the medieval period. We are all familiar with the Reformation, the iconoclasm and exile of Catholics from the rising Protestant powers. However what I didn’t know much about was the creation of relics surrounding the execution of Charles I, or that upon his son’s coronation with the restoration of the English monarchy, that Charles I was made a saint. For several years Charles I was the only saint in the Church of England, however Queen Victoria did not approve and he was eventually decanonized! (I was honestly amazed by this by this nugget of information.)

The final section of the exhibition was a short film looking at related themes, ‘Remembering & Celebrating’, ‘Devotion’ and ‘Cult of Celebrity’. With images of Stalin and Mother Theresa the exhibition was brought up to the modern day, however it made me think about the value of an object. It felt we could only appreciate modern acts of devotion through media, and though I’m sure there are many objects that could represent these themes in the modern day the absence of them underlined the scale of the circulation of relics in the medieval period. In the dark hushed gallery, with the sound of church music helping to create a serene atmosphere, it is easy to forget that contact to relics was an integral part of life, part of the everyday as well as part of acts of devotion such as pilgrimage. They were familiar as well as sacred, and some were more important than others. Is there a modern day equivalent or does that even matter, what do I consider sacred – my mobile phone, a sentimental piece of jewellery or anything at all? Whatever your conclusions I certainly felt better off having seen the medieval treasures, and trying to come closer to an understanding of what they felt was sacred and powerful.

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