The sacred and the profane

There was an arms race in relics in the Middle Ages, according to a new exhibition at the British Mu

Treasures of Heaven
British Museum, London WC1

In his Apologia, written some time in the first half of the 12th century, St Bernard of Clairvaux, then abbot of a Cistercian monastery in north-eastern France, issued a ferocious broadside against the practice of relic veneration at the Benedictine abbey at Cluny. "Eyes are fixed on relics covered in gold and purses are opened," he wrote. "People rush to kiss [the image of the saint], they are invited to donate and they admire the beautiful more than they venerate the sacred." "Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe", the British Museum's principal summer exhibition, demonstrates just how closely entwined the cult of saints and the cult of beauty became in the Middle Ages.

Nowhere was the collecting of sacred relics and the art of reliquary pursued more assiduously and extravagantly than at All-Saints Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. There, Prince Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, assembled a collection of relics that, by 1518, comprised an astonishing 17,443 fragments. Pilgrims who venerated the relics were rewarded with indulgences, a practice excoriated by Martin Luther, in terms that recalled St Bernard's complaints, in the 95 theses he nailed to the door of the church in 1517.

The accumulation of relics and reliquaries (which, as this exhibition shows, were, by the late medieval period, often of extraordinary lavishness) was not just a means of asserting clerical power over the laity. It was also a way of projecting national pride: there was an arms race in reliquary between England and France in the Middle Ages, though the ravages of the Reformation in this country mean that much less of that ecclesiastical heritage survives here than across the Channel.

Some of what does remain is on display at the British Museum, notably several artefacts of the cult of Thomas à Becket. These include a number of reliquary chasses (caskets) depicting Becket's martyrdom in 1170, and a gorgeously illustrated "book of hours", or prayer book, compiled for the Butler family in the 14th century, which contains a "suffrage", or prayer, to that "turbulent priest".

“Treasures of Heaven" covers the period from the dawn of Christianity to the beginning of the 16th century. Perhaps the most interesting story it tells - one that confirms St Bernard's worst fears - concerns the way the precious metals of the reliquary became almost as important as the sacred matter it allegedly contained. Indeed, the show's curator, James Robinson, says one of his aims was to show that the "medieval imagination knew no bounds" - aesthetically as much as theologically.

Robinson is ably abetted in that by Alan Farlie, the designer of the exhibition, who has exploited the ecclesiastical resonances of the domed Reading Room of the British Museum to great effect. The lighting is superbly subtle, appropriately sepulchral and suggestive of candlelight, while a series of mesh screens evokes the confessional. l

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.