Treasures of Heaven, at the British Museum. By Andrew Graham-Dixon.
"Treasures of Heaven”, the British Museum’s principal summer exhibition, is a brave and unusual show which sets out to explore the ancient Christian cult of relics and the rich and enthralling works of art created to house them. Often the preserve of church or cathedral treasuries, the art of the reliquary is an art of boxes and caskets, housing mysteries; an art of amulets and pendants; of elaborate goldsmiths’ and jewellers creations made to hold, and to hold up to veneration, sacred matter itself: the mortal remnants of the saints or objects once believed to have touched Jesus Christ himself. It is an art of rich things formed to house the poorest and most poignant memorials of men and women remembered as holy: bones, locks of hair, scraps of the bloodstained garments they once wore during the torments of their martyrdom. Yet more perhaps than any other Christian art form, the reliquary is neglected and underappreciated – because it has traditionally been regarded, both in Protestant circles and across broad swathes of the modern secular world, with fastidious and morbid distrust.
The light has been kept deliberately low in the galleries chosen for the show, within the central reading room of the old British Library and beneath its gilded dome. This is presumably to simulate the light of candles by which relics and reliquaries were once most commonly viewed. Piped medieval music, which may not be to everyone’s taste, adds a sanctifying soundtrack. The exhibition opens with a display of early Christian sarcophagi excavated from various sites within the catacombs of Rome, tombs reflecting Roman practices of venerating the dead but lent an additional poignancy by their status as the rare and subterranean remnants of a persecuted people. The bodies and bones of the martyrs were especially precious to the early Christians, because they had so little else on which to found and spread their faith. Long into the Middle Ages many reliquaries would continue to resemble miniaturised tombs, into which the devout might reach to touch the container housing the saint’s relic. Such objects served not only as a focus for worship, but were also held to possess miraculous and often healing powers.
Portable altars, which enabled the bearer to celebrate the Mass outdoors – at the scene of an impending battle, or the site of an outbreak of plague – became “stones of power”, themselves the repositories of bundled saints’ remains. When conservators at the BM opened the so-called Hildesheim Portable Altar, a tablet of stone decorated with ivory and gilt images of the Crucifixion, angels and saints, first consecrated in the late twelfth century, they discovered that it still contained more than forty saints’ relics, packed into its core and each one wrapped in a tiny bright bundle of medieval – and sometimes Byzantine – cloth. The object is displayed together with a selection of its innards, including a scrap of flaxen pale hair said to be that of St John the Evangelist.
Towards the end of the tenth century so-called “speaking reliquaries” were developed to express, all the more compellingly, the belief that long-dead saints might still, through their mortal remains, reach into the present and salve the woes of the faithful. Reliquaries took on mortal form, shaped themselves like the faces or the bodies of those whose relics they contained. Many of the most haunting objects on display at the British Museum form part of this development. A mid-twelfth-century Reliquary Bust of St Baudime, from the modest church of Marie de Saint-Nectaire, in the Auvergne, emanates an almost hypnotic sense of appeal. The saint’s golden face, beaten from gilt copper, punched and moulded to evoke a neat beard and elegantly ringleted hair, stares out with a fierce intensity. His eyes, formed from white ivory and circlets of black horn, are almost disconcertingly vivid. His hands mime the promise of eternal benediction. His golden tunic is full of holes where jewels once gleamed; they were plucked from him by looters during the French Revolution.
Reliquaries with their full complement of original jewels are relatively rare, but two of the finest examples have been included. Each houses a holy thorn said to be from Christ’s crown of thorns; and each, in its different way, is a masterpiece. The first is a Holy Thorn Reliquary created in Paris at the end of the fourteenth century, for the Duc de Berry, by a group of the most talented goldsmiths ever to have lived. A case to house a relic of Christ has here been elaborated into a miniature narrative of eternal salvation and damnation, played out by figures of doll’s-house scale including God the Father, Christ as Judge, a host of angels and a group of tiny porcelain figures emerging from minute golden tombs as the last trumpet sounds. It is the reliquary equivalent of Duccio’s Maesta or Giotto’s Arena Chapel fresco cycle.
Far smaller, but no less powerful, is a tiny pendant of purple amethyst, enclosing enamelled scenes of the Nativity and Crucifixion and, at its heart, a single thorn from the crown of thorns. Designed to fit snugly into the palm of the hand, this tactile bead of a finely worked jewel was once the birth amulet of a Valois Princess. Like a solidified drop of Christ’s blood, containing a thorn held to have drawn that sacred blood, it was an object to which immense power was once attributed – the power to save a princess’s blood, as she went into the throes of childbirth.
It might be thought that an exhibition of relics and reliquaries would be of limited interest. But the opposite is true. Relics may have been designed to appeal to a very specifically Christian audience, but the emotions of which these often deeply affecting objects and images speak are universal human feelings: the fear of dying; the desire for health, and release from pain and danger; sorrow at the loss of those who were loved, and who now are gone.