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