Treasures of Heaven

There’s been a lot of media attention about the new exhibition in the old reading room at the British Museum which opens on Thursday. It’s called ‘Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe’.

It’s a great opportunity to showcase a range of beautiful objects from the whole of the medieval period, from Late Antique sepulchres to early printed relic-books, and from across Europe and beyond, from a Syrian votive plaque to a Scottish pendant invoking Saints Andrew, Ninian and Margaret. Central to the exhibition are the stunning reliquaries, some of which still contain the neatly-labelled remains of saints. There are exquisite thirteenth-century caskets with intricate Limoges enamel and, strangest to modern eyes, reliquaries in the shape of the body parts they contain – a golden arm, foot or head inlaid with precious stones.

The exhibition clearly shows how international the business of devotion to saints was in the Middle Ages. The legends of the saints describe how St James ended up in northern Spain and Mary Magdalene was shipwrecked in southern France; the practice of ‘furta sacra‘, stealing relics to glorify your church or city, was rife; Crusaders brought back all manner of booty; pilgrims travelled to great centres like Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury as well as local shrines across Europe and took home souvenir badges and votive tokens.

There are several examples in the exhibition of precious objects from one place being incorporated into a devotional object elsewhere – a Byzantine icon in a Gothic frame from Aachen; the silver reliquary of the arm of St George which was taken from Constantinople to Venice after 1204 and given a whole new jewelled casing; and, the most fascinating, an Egyptian rock crystal flask, probably a perfume bottle, inscribed in Arabic, ‘Blessings to its owner’, which was converted into a reliquary for the Virgin Mary’s hair.

Among all these amazing objects are a few books, including one from the Parker Library, the second volume of Matthew Paris’ Chronica maiora (MS 16). Matthew’s chronicle shows how the public display of a holy relic was a significant event – and how medieval royals were keen to associate themselves with these symbols of divine power. He has two drawings, one depicting King Louis IX of France standing on a platform holding up a reliquary containing a fragment of the True Cross (f. 142v) and one depicting his contemporary Henry III of England carrying a vial of Christ’s blood in procession (f. 216r).

The exhibition is on at the British Museum from 23 June to 9 October 2011. Tickets cost £12 but 2 for 1 tickets are available on weekdays if you travel to London by train.

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