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.
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).
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?
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).
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.
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.
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?