The British Museum‘s new exhibition focuses on medieval Christian relics and it’s genuinely fascinating. For the uninitiated, relics are bits of saints’ bodies, or their personal items, that were revered throughout the Middle Ages (and are still important in modern Catholicism) for their healing and protective powers. Christians went on pilgrimages across Europe to see these bits of finger or wood − or, more likely, to see a gloriously decorated and bejewelled casket holding a bit of finger or wood.
A large portion of Treasures of Heaven is taken up with astonishing reliquaries, beautiful objects that made us wonder whether, had medieval Europeans put their technology into science rather than goldsmithing, we would have had our jetpack by now. The exhibition skirts the issue of whether relics are genuine − anyone who’s seen The History Boys will know the story of there being 14 foreskins of Christ in circulation − but highlights the murky beginnings and distribution of many of them and leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
What’s more enlightening is seeing the Roman origins of imagery so familiar to us, like how angels got their wings and why shrines tend to be that ‘house’ shape. There are also a few weird moments (a reliquary containing the Virgin Mary’s breast milk? A piece of skull that has a pretty good chance of being from Thomas Becket’s head?) and you’re faced with a tough choice of whether to get the Derek Jacobi-narrated audio guide or wander round to the accompaniment of haunting monastic chants.
We liked the exhibition’s final flourish, carrying the practice of venerating relics beyond the Reformation with a couple of cabinets of relic-like objects from the beheaded Charles I. Relics aren’t really a relic of history: how many of us treasure autographs or items that once belonged to a celebrity? Though hopefully no teenager is expecting The Used Hanky of Justin Bieber to cure their acne, modern celebrity culture is only a hop and a skip away from practices many of us would choose to sneer at.
Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe runs from today at the British Museum until 9 October, 10am-5.30pm and until 8.30pm on Fridays, tickets £12 / £10 / various discounts available. We saw this exhibition at a press preview.
Photo: Holy thorn reliquary, Paris, France, About 1309–97, Gold, enamel, rock crystal, pearls, rubies, sapphires © The Trustees of the British Museum