Treasures of Heaven as seen from earth

Term in Oxford started early this year, and as a consequence is now over. (If you work anywhere else in higher education, I’m sorry to dangle that in front of you.) This term has been energising but also frantic, and I’ve not been coping well with the to-do lists outside of teaching because various bits of my family have needed a lot of attention in the background, as well my general disorganisation. To stay afloat in my seven to eight hours contact time a week across six different courses, it does rather seem as if I had to sacrifice blogging, and indeed social e-mail. Well, I’m now sort of caught up on sleep and so I’m going to try and get some posts up. I have loads part-written, so hopefully this isn’t a vain promise, because after all I have a heck of a backlog. And first in it, chronologically, is the fact that I went to see the British Museum’s exhibition about saints’ relics in the Middle Ages, Treasures of Heaven on the 8th October last year, narrowly before it closed, and I wanted to say a few things about it.

Cover of the catalogue of the British Museum's exhibition Treasures of Heaven

Cover of the catalogue of the exhibition, showing the reliquary of an unknown female saint who became the face of the exhibition, and whose actual picture is firmly copyrighted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she now once more resides

I thought this was a very good exhibition, actually—and I suppose I should mention that one of my best friends helped set it up, so I may be biased, but they had no control over what went in or how it was displayed—but not everyone I’ve spoken has agreed. There’s no question that explaining the cult of relics, or even the cult of saints more broadly, to a modern secular audience is problematic; the beatification of Cardinal Henry Newman a few years ago put this in front of the journalists and it’s still true. This is an affair mainly of belief, of ideas and notions that are largely intangible – an identifiable person in Heaven with whom the believer has some basis to feel a connection, and whom they can therefore use or conceive of as a conduit to Heaven that has special personal relevance and personal effectiveness.1 I can say that, but if you don’t believe in Heaven or worry about your salvation, then it’s still not going to be easy to take on board. Some people I’ve spoken to don’t seem to think that the British Museum tried hard enough to get the ideas across. My immediate reaction to that, as an ex-museum person, is to bluster about how hard it is to represent ideas with objects, but actually, for a start that’s exactly what these objects were for, and secondly, on reflection, I think the BM did a pretty darn good job of it, actually (and my museums experience has not always inclined me to speak kindly of the BM, so it costs me something to admit this).

A Roman votive plaque on show at the Musée du Louvre

A Roman votive plaque on show at the Musée du Louvre; not so many of the actual objects from the BM exhibition are online, and this one actually makes my point better as it's not Christian. It's also from Wikimedia Commons. The guy had problems with his eyes and a foot, it seems.

Reliquary of the Holy Thorn of Jean, Duc de Berry

Reliquary of the Holy Thorn of Jean, Duc de Berry, from Wikimedia Commons; click through for a British Museum video presentation of it

So they started with burial customs in the Roman world, and included as well as the ornamental sarcophagi that help give some idea of an Antique afterlife to the viewer, some votive plaques that open up the idea of communicating with it. Now after that, I will admit, it all went maps for a bit and I’m not sure the average viewer will have understood why they were important; I suppose that the idea was quite literally to put Christianity on the map and thus explain how ideas born in the Middle East came to be of such relevance in the areas that the exhibition largely featured, which were substantially Germany and the Low Countries although many other places too. But the context was set quite early, and after that it became much more of an art-historical progress than a religious-historical progress. I thought this was fair enough, because most of the objects were amazingly beautiful, and the mere fact that people had put that much effort and feeling into creating treasure houses for tiny bits of dead people was itself pretty religious, and there were changes in the way people worshipped revealed in the way the relics were housed, displayed and set up for use, not least because the objects displayed deliberately overlapped the Reformation and printing, and the captioning brought those out.

It’s not that I had no problems with the exhibition at all, obviously, this is me. I would have liked a few more instances of relics that weren’t body parts or bits of the True Cross, but instead things like dust and stones from the Holy Land, and so forth. There were some of these, but they were easily missed, especially as there was a number of containers for such things on display from which the actual relics had long been removed. Of course, such objects were kept bagged and even if displayed the viewer wouldn’t be able to see what they were, so I can see why not, but they were, it seems, by far the commonest sort of relic, so I thought that could have been further up front.2 There were also some issues with actual display I had. In particular I kept finding myself crouching at the edges of cases, because the lighting from above seemed to work best if one viewed the objects from below – that presumably can’t have been the intent. I know how hard this is to do, of course, especially when one’s objects are so damn shiny, but also not least when there are fabrics and perishables involved that you mustn’t subject to bright light. All the same, I expect the BM to get these things right, and I personally felt that these were only nearly right. Is the answer perhaps small lights at the corners of the cases, sometimes?

Relic shroud of St Amandus from Salzburg Cathedral

Relic shroud of St Amandus from Salzburg Cathedral; this was on display, but the image is borrowed from Columbia University, whose zoomable version is linked through. The actual fabric, unlike St Amand, is Middle Eastern

The other thing that niggled was the persistent recurrence of the phrase, “It was thought…” to explain the beliefs behind the pieces. This became especially tricky as we approached the Reformation but it also made absolutely everyone implied by the phrase as credulous as each other. Now, when students try and tell me, Terry Jones style, that medieval Christianity was basically a massive scam dream up by the Church to feather its own nest by encouraging fearful donations, those students do not fare well, but nonetheless, saints’ cults were huge earners sometimes, and people involved in them did do things to maximise their cults’ popularity and saleability.3 And if you read, for example, Chaucer, you can find people mocking this, well before Calvin’s bit about there being enough fragments of the True Cross in Europe to build a warship. Not everyone, even if Christian, reckoned all this stuff to be genuine. So, sometimes I’d have been happier to see, “It was claimed that…” or even “Some claimed that…” in these labels, just to put a bit of an edge on this `Age of Faith’ interpretation. But, mainly, I thought this exhibition was an amazing treasure house, and one that (unlike some others) it was just about possible to tour in one go. Also, the exhibition catalogue, which I caught on half price (and so can you), is absolutely gorgeous, and even if it does contain another piece on saints’ cults by Arnold Angenendt—which I’m sure many people think is a good thing—there is lots of interesting writing alongside the amazing objects.4 So I’ll finish this with a selection of some of the objects I was most struck by (where images of them are legitimately available on the open web, at least).

Bell shrine of St Conall Cael, Abbot of Inishkeel

Bell shrine of St Conall Cael, Abbot of Inishkeel, fifteenth-century shrine round a seventh-to-eighth-century bell; again, from Columbia Art Museum's Treasures of Heaven pages

Chapel of St MacDara, St MacDara's Island

Chapel of St MacDara, St MacDara's Island

I liked this one so much not because it is individually special, though it is, but because the label in the case with it stuck it next to the church I’ve shown it with here, in the same kind of juxtaposition, and the similarity of form did more than words could have done to put the intentional echoes actually before one and in a quite literally founded way. I would have been well pleased with coming up with that idea.

Reliquary shrine of St Gondulph

Reliquary shrine of St Gondulph, image at Columbia University

Reliquary shrine of St Monulph

Reliquary shrine of St Monulph, likewise from Columbia University, full zoomable version linked through

These, which are twelfth-century reliquaries of two bishops of Maastricht, I just loved because, as the catalogue says, each of the dead bishops is, “twisting energetically as if ready to leap from his tomb”.5 As the resurrected Saved would presumably be pleased to do! Full of personality, these.

Man of Sorrows reliquary cabinet from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome

Man of Sorrows reliquary cabinet from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome, here from Columbia University and therefore again linked through to a zoomable version which is totally worth the time you'll spend goggling at it

And this because it has so many things going on: papal sponsorship, robbing of Byzantium (because the icon—which is a mosaic!—is Byzantine but the case is Italian from decades later), non-physical relics (not that you can tell, as I admitted above) and immense artistry for a fairly small audience. If this was shared, it was shared among a very select group of people. The best of this exhibition for me was, thus, a way to step harmlessly into the private devotions of a great many people to whom these objects were more than just treasure.


1. The entry text for this whole phenomenon is undoubtedly Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: its rise and function in Latin Christianity (London 1981), which is one of those books that decides students on an academic career, so brilliant is it.

2. I make that assertion based largely on a couple of papers I’ve seen Julia Smith give about such objects, but as yet I think the only part of that research that’s published is “Rulers and Relics c.750-c.950: Treasure on Earth, Treasure in Heaven” in Andrew Walsham (ed.), Relics and Remains, Past and Present Supplement 5 (Oxford 2010), pp. 73-96, so what this means is that I might have got this fact wrong as I can’t look it up where I think I got it yet.

3. For that sort of shenanigan, your book of reference should be Patrick Geary’s Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca 1994), which is kind of a bumper resource for weird-seeming medieval customs involving dead people.

4. To give it its full citation, Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann & James Robinson (edd.), Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion on medieval Europe (London 2011), including Arnold Angenendt, “Relics and their Veneration”, pp. 19-28, which I will up and admit might be excellent as I haven’t yet read it.

5. Martina Bagnoli, “Reliquary of St. Gondulph” and “Reliquary of St. Monulph”, ibid. p. 177. They abbreviate “St.” thus throughout, even though it’s not a suspension so shouldn’t carry the stop. Is this a concession to American usage?

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25 responses to “Treasures of Heaven as seen from earth

  1. David Hillman

    Did people really bring dust and stones from the holy land then? Last time I was in Bethlehem you could buy a three for one deal of holy earth, holy water, and holy air.( And much else of real interest. )

    • They certainly did: at the beginning of last century a reliquary cabinet in the Pope’s private chapel was opened and found to contain almost only that kind of material, nicely labelled to say what it was. Of course the popes probably had special connections, but in the Julia Smith paper I heard that factoid in there were other stories of people scraping up bits of floor in stables in Bethlehem and so on.

      I know I’m going to regret this question, but what makes the air holy? I know contact relics and so on are a thing, but surely given the way air works you could just breathe it…

  2. Thank you for a very lively review. I never got the chance to see the exhibition, but regretted it and bought the catalogue… Here are a couple of reflections on the question of “holy air” (and water and bones):

    Even today in Copenhagen protestant vicars are sometimes confronted with (grand)parents who have been to Jordan and brought “holy” water back i vials in order to get their child properly baptised…

    By the way, I wish to share a curious story: In the crypt of St. Canute (Protestant church) in Odense it is possible to see the skeletons of king Canute and his brother Benedict, who were murdered 10. july in front of the altar of the first church. A couple of years ago a scientific investigation was undertaken of the skeletal remains and especially the famous byzantine cloth, which was sent by his widow, Edel, in connection with his formal canonization. (On Wiki there is a picture of his open shrine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canute_IV_of_Denmark). During this investigation, the bishop of the Catholic Church in Denmark formally requested to be gifted with a small bone, tooth or fragment in order to be able to exhibit it in the Catholic cathedral in Copenhagen. Rumor had it, that even the Queen had given her permission (it is after all her ancestor – the royal family can trace their lineage back to Gorm the Old in Jelling!).

    Nothing came of this though, since – as rumor once again had it – the protestant church saw through the media stunt which the catholics were planning. (They naturally dreamed of carrying the bone on foot and thus obliging the state to close the major bridge, Storebæltsbroen, in Denmark…) And then the rules against unlawful handling of dead bodies are rather strict. Allowing for scientific investigations, but not – alas – for the catholics harvesting relics.

    By the way, the son of St. Canute was Charles the Good of Flandern…

  3. I’ve been diverting myself with trying to explain the cult of relics lately – my novel, The Bone Thief (Ebury Press), which came out last month has the translation of St Oswald’s relics from Bardney to Gloucester as its main plot. If you ever have time to read it, I would love to know how successful you think it is at conveying to a modern, secular audience the importance of relics.

  4. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the exhibition, but my partner did and she had the most interesting tale to tell about it: When she was in the exhibition, there also was a group of orthodox Christians, and that is “orthodox” in both senses of the word, i.e. they apparently belonged to one of the Eastern European branches of Christianity *and* were obviously fundamentalist believers. So they didn’t look at all those relics and reliquaries as historical (or art historical) objects, but were bowing and praying before them all the way through, and even went so far as to kiss some of the showcases. Well, so much for the use of the past tense in all those “It was thought…” captions…

    • This was also something that surprised the media with the Newman relics, and there was one particularly incredulous story in the UK press about it at the time… but I couldn’t get it to come to the top of my web-searches when linking up this post alas. There was some amusing worry on the part of the venue owners as to whether there would be grounds to sue them if someone fell ill from kissing the reliquaries…

      • I mayn’t, you know, that gives a 404 error.

        • Sorry – the Photo is from the national Czec pilgrimage to St. Weneceslas where attendance is growing every year. It shows the bishop carrying his skull through the streets as if it was a cake. The Czec sites, where you can find the photo all have broken links. I discovered it by accident googling: Wenceslas national tradition – like that. But you might unfortunately get another result because of the way google’s algorithm works nowadays. Anyway I found it – which is perhaps more interesting for you, because I saw the new – highly recommendable – exhibition in Prague with the treasury of St. Vitus in the chapel of the Holy Cross. And there was this sense of an odd mixture of an exhibition of relics and reliquaries playing triple roles – as beautiful art, as national treasures and as sacred relics. Unfortunately there are no photos from the exhibition on the net. (Nor was there a catalogue, which is why I started digging). I found the exhibition very peculiar because the Czech Republic is one of the most secularised nations in Europe and yet there was this official exhibition.

    • You remind me of an opportunity I had, many years ago now, to attend the service for the Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of Christ at St Sophia’s Cathedral in Veliki Novgorod. It was celebrated by the Archbishop, and the famous 12th century bronze ceremonial doors on the west entrance (which are normally locked) were thrown open for a full processional entry. The service was very long (more than 2hrs) and in Church Slavonic – so ‘all Greek to me’, although my other half knew all the words – but it was a most transporting experience, even for a non believer. It was all sung (by an absolutely angelic and completely invisible choir, the archbishop, and the various abbots and other senior ‘dudes’ of the church in attendance, of whom there were battalions), and conducted in semi darkness with only candlelight throughout. Notably, during the eucharist, everyone in the church made their way to the front to kiss or touch the icon of the Virgin which is among its prize possessions: so many, that one of the junior clerics was posted nearby to wipe it down every so often. Not a relic, but a similarly focal religious object, in use and very much embedded in real practice.
      So, I’ve never really paused to consider this, but yes: I suppose an exhibition as a space presents itself as a kind of formal and authorised decontextualisation of such things – moving them from their practical (should I say ‘organic’?), religious home into an ‘objective’ neutral (secular) territory, and in some ways presuming an observer with a self-consciously ‘objective’ and disinterested gaze – that might disguise the fact that they have a living and meaningful context to some people elsewhere in the big wild world…

  5. If I’m not mistaken, this exhibit first began at the Cleveland (OH) Museum of Art, and so the St. abbreviation may in fact be a concession to American style.

    I’m very sorry to have missed it both in OH and in the UK. But thanks for the review — I may go order the catalog now!

  6. Pingback: Heavenfield Round-up 4: A Golden Hoard of Links « Heavenfield

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