Reflections on the British Museum exhibition ‘Treasures of Heaven’

Stonyhurst Mary Queen of Scots reliquary (Copyright Stonyhurst College)

Seeing is believing! Calvinism on display at the British Museum

Until 9 October 2011 visitors to London have the opportunity to view what is probably the richest display of objects – pound for pound in gold and jewels alone – seen at the Museum since the Tutankhamun exhibition there of 1972.  The selection of what must be a little under 150 objects (of which 139 are discussed in the scholarly catalogue), which are laid out tastefully, dare I say reverentially, in the former round reading room of the old British Library, ranges chronologically from the mid-fourth century CE (a column sarcophagus with Christ and the Apostles excavated from near the Vatican) to the sixteenth (a crystal vial containing a relic of the Holy Thorn given to Mary Queen of Scots by her father-in-law, Henry II of France entwined with a string of pearls which were believed to belong to her and possibly worn at her execution). An image of the latter, which is unfortunately not in the catalogue, may be found at the head of this review.

Mounted together with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum, the exhibition includes some absolutely stunning objects sourced from 40 institutions. For some reason, the British Museum website does not direct you to the excellent one about the exhibition which was put together, apparently by Holger A. Klein, for visitors to the US shows at:

Tiny pilgrim flasks from sixth-century Egypt (cat. 21-22), which most likely contained holy oil that had come into contact with relics of a saint and an exquisite pectoral reliquary cross originating from ninth-century Byzantine Bulgaria (cat. 32), are to be found just yards away from the early sixth-century stone front panel of a full-sized altar (101 x 169.5 x 25.5 cm) in Proconnesian marble inlaid with Rosso di Verona (cat. 17), which probably came from Ravenna. Almost next door is the portable altar of Countess Gertrude (ca. 1045, cat. 42): a gorgeous oak box cased in gold and decorated with enamel, porphyry, gems and pearls, which doubled as a reliquary (and which measuring just 10.5 x 27.5 x 21 cm could easily have fitted into my backpack). Although aficionados of goldsmithery will undoubtedly stand open-mouthed before such masterpieces as the Holy Thorn Reliquary (made for the fabulously wealthy, Jean, duc de Berry in Paris in 1390-97, cat. 54) – which was featured by the British Museum’s director, Neil McGregor in his recent History of the World in 100 objects radio podcast:

the really haunting objects for this, and I suspect for other visitors less well-versed in the decorative arts or familiar with the material culture of Roman Catholicism, were the reliquaries which mimicked the body part they contained. My favourite here, though there was strong competition, is perhaps the reliquary arm of St Luke holding the quill that he used to write his gospel, which was made for Sancha of Majorca, second wife of Robert II of Anjou, King of Naples before 1338. (cat. 109). The decision to use for the catalogue front cover and posters the (undoubtedly photogenic) reliquary bust of an unknown female saint, probably a companion of St Ursula, from the early sixteenth-century S. Netherlands (cat. 108) was a missed opportunity and is somehow indicative of a conceptual problem which underlies the whole exhibition. She engages your glance (with more than a hint of coquetry) from the relevant section of the British Museum website at:

This problem consists of an apparent inability on the part of the curators to view these objects as anything other than beautiful expressions of artistic skill. On one level, I suppose, this is wholly appropriate, given that for the middle-class, educated public of the developed world, museum- and exhibition-going has become a quasi-religious or at least ritualistic activity. Moreover, museum curators are experts in their relevant fields of material culture and the decorative arts, and not primarily historians, let alone priests (in the conventional sense of the term at least). Although, as is perhaps inevitable given the restrictions placed on the length of information boards and even of podcast commentaries available for visitors to hire at the exhibition, the generally excellent catalogue provides a more satisfying historical context, there is little in the exhibition itself that draws attention to the fact that relics and their frequently gorgeous containers were not only trophy objects proudly displayed by their wealthy owners but also inherently mobile objects of intense devotion (carried in procession or even on their owner’s own breast) and, crucially, of (not infrequently violent) contestation; precisely owing to the power and prestige they conferred on their possessors. It is now over twenty years since Patrick Geary’s Furta sacra: thefts of relics in the central middle ages (1990) alerted us to the need to track and study the circumstances in which successive owners of relics sought to authenticate and legitimise their recent possession of these holy objects.

Geary showed us just how hotly contested relics were during this period. (I was surprised to see no reference to this landmark study in either the abbreviated references or index.) As Lamin Sanneh, among others, has remarked,  (in Whose religion is Christianity: the gospel beyond the west, 2005): what distinguishes Christianity amongst the world’s major religions is its translatibility: both textually, (in the sense that bible took form over time in a succession of translations), and physically, (although pilgrimage has been encouraged at certain times, the Church is believed to be wherever worshippers are gathered together).

However, this sin of ommission pales into insignificance when compared to what I consider to be the main sin of commission on the part of the exhibition’s curators. This can be seen most clearly in the closing section of the exhibition: entitled revealingly: the Afterlife of the Reliquary. Rather than take the opportunity to make the point that the age of relics was far from over in the post-Reformation age (even within the boundaries of Protestant England, Wales and Scotland, as the inclusion in this section of the reliquary of the Holy Thorn given to Mary Queen of Scots and preserved to this day in the Jesuit run school of Stonyhurst, Lancashire clearly shows), the curators have committed the egregious error of encouraging visitors to believe that Luther and Calvin brought the whole practice of relic veneration to an end, with the consequent migration of reliquaries to princely collections and their appreciation as works of art by sophisticated connoisseurs. This error is compouned by the utterly crass installation near the exhibition’s exit of a film loop showing stills from the funeral of Lenin and graffiti inspired by the death of Elvis Presley: as if to say, relics are still with us, but just in a secular form!

I cannot believe that an institution as major as the British Museum, whose director is possessed of prodigious intelligence combined with outstanding skill and empathy at presenting religious subject matter to a wider audience, can have let this pass. However, the reader of the catalogue is not much better served, since the essay by Alexander Nagel does little to gainsay this hopelessly misleading view that post-Reformation the reliquary was transformed from an object of credulous devotion into a work of art. Just because relics formed part of ever larger collections, such as those of Luther’s own protector, Frederick ‘the Wise’ of Saxony and ‘works of art were raised to relic-status’ (214) it does not follow, as Nagel baldly asserts, that ‘relics were demoted’. As the work of Bob Scribner, Ulinka Rublack and Lyndal Roper has shown us, even Lutherans were not slow in generating relics of their iconic leader, let alone Roman Catholics, whose numbers continued to grow in the process of their religion going global in the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’.

Here, the final object in the exhibition says it all. It is a Mandylion image of Christ, which owes its origins allegedly to the miraculous transfer of the image to a piece of cloth as a result of Christ’s drying his face with it (cat 113). This version, (and there are several since it was believed to be capable of replicating itself when cloths were laid on top of it), is known to have been displayed in the church of S. Silvestro in Capite (now next to Rome’s central post office) at least since 1517 (when the nuns were forbidden to show it publicly for fear of its competing with the relic of the Veronica in St Peter’s) and has been in the Vatican since 1870. In 1623 it was given the luxuriously baroque frame we see today at the instance of the wealthy nun, Dionora Chiarucci – at a time when the reframing of relic images from the earliest period of Christian history was de rigeur in the confessionalised battle over which was the True Church. This can be seen, for example, in the case of the Madonna salus populi romano icon for which Pope Paul V (r. 1605-21) built the Borghese chapel in the basilica of S. Maria Maggiore. Thus this baroque reframing of a relic with links to the early Christian period represents not its museumification but another chapter in the history of its display and ongoing veneration.

Instead, given the absence of any contextual evidence to the contrary, the visitor is forced to draw the conclusion that after the Reformation relics became merely beautiful objects of connoisseurship. When even moderately curious visitors to any one of the thousands upon thousands of Roman Catholic churches distributed throughout the world today will notice that the cult of relics is alive and well. Indeed, it is still a canonical requirement that every new altar has to have a relic attached or integrated to it. What a shame then to have to report that the shadow of Calvin still haunts the halls of Bloomsbury!

P. S. For a thoughful discussion of the contemporary resonances that the ‘medieval’ cult of saints still has see the article by Karen Amstrong ‘These bones, hairs and drops of blood stretched pilgrims’ grasp of humanity’ (Guardian 1 July 2011)

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