Posted by: michaeldaybath | September 28, 2011

Treasures of Heaven

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe, British Museum, London, 23 June – 9 October 2011

Treasures of Heaven exhibition catalogue

The Treasures of Heaven exhibition catalogue

In the first series of the BBC situation comedy Blackadder, Prince Edmund (The Black Adder), having unexpectedly been made Archbishop of Canterbury, is discussing potential money making opportunities with his acquaintances Lord Percy Percy and Baldrick [1]. After covering pardons and curses, Baldrick – now in the guise of a monk – provides an update on relics: “we’ve got shrouds, from Turin; wine from the wedding at Cana; splinters from the cross; and, of course, there’s stuff made by Jesus in his days in the carpentry shop.” An inappropriate list of such items is appended. Lord Percy is outraged. The resulting conversation goes something like this:

Percy: But this is disgraceful, My Lord! All of these are obviously fake!

Edmund: Hah, yes!

Percy: But, but how will people be able to tell the difference between these and the real relics?

Edmund: Well, they won’t! That’s the point!

Percy: Well, you won’t be able to fool everyone! Look! I have here a true relic.

Edmund: What is it?

Percy: It is a bone from the finger of Our Lord. It cost me 31 pieces of silver.

Edmund: Good lord. Is it real?

Percy: It is, My Lord. Baldrick, you stand amazed.

Baldrick: I am – I thought they only came in boxes of ten.

In its own amusing way, this exchange reflects a view of devotional relics made popular in the sixteenth century by renaissance humanists and reformers. For example, one of the characters in Erasmus’s Collquia commented that there were enough surviving pieces of the True Cross to load a large ship [2].

And they tell us the same Stories about our Lord’s Cross, that is shown up and down, both publickly and privately, in so many Places, that if all the Fragments were laid together, they would seem to be sufficient Loading for a good large Ship; and yet our Lord himself carried the whole Cross upon his Shoulders.

Jean Calvin said pretty much the same thing in his Traité des reliques (1543) [3], and it is this largely “protestant” attitude that has come to dominate post-enlightenment consideration of religious relics. Thus the consternation in some secular quarters when the touring relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux visited the UK in 2009 [4].

While visiting London last week, I had an opportunity to visit the British Museum’s current exhibition of medieval reliquaries, held in the iconic British Museum Reading Room. The exhibition’s full title – Treasures of Heaven – saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe – demonstrated its ambition to explore the deeper significance of saints and relics in the middle ages. The exhibition had already visited Cleveland (Cleveland Museum of Art) and Baltimore (The Walters Art Museum), although it seemed that a large proportion of the objects on display in London were from the British Museum’s own collections.

The exhibition took a broadly historical approach to its subject. However, by way of introduction, the first room contained a fantastic twelfth-century copper gilt French reliquary bust of St Baudime, from Saint-Nectaire (Auvergne). Still extremely striking – despite now missing all of its embedded gemstones – the bust represents a bearded man in the dress of a priest with his right hand outstretched in blessing. As with many reliquaries, the relics themselves would most likely have been concealed somewhere inside the bust. As Eamon Duffy has pointed out, the beauty of reliquaries shielded observers from the reality of death and decay, and helped to directtheir attention towards heaven [5].

And so the lavish display of the reliquary was a glimpse of heaven: the concealment of the dust of death served to reveal a higher truth. Relics, like the bread and wine of the Eucharist, sheltered mortal eyes from the bloody and cruel events which had occasioned them, and pointed to the glory those events had earned.

The first part of the exhibition focused mainly on the Roman period. Exhibits included sarcophagi, whose house-like form influenced the design of some later reliquaries.  Also included were epitaphs from Christian tombs, of the type one frequently encounters in major churches in Rome (and the catacombs). Particularly interesting was the epitaph  of a woman named Severa, now in the Vatican Museums (Museo Lapidario Cristiano). This originally came from a tomb in the Catacombs of Priscilla and includes one of the earliest artistic depictions of the Adoration of the Magi. Also, as a native of Dorset, I was particularly pleased to find the central roundel from the Hinton St Mary mosaic on display in this room. This is part an extensive fourth-century mosaic floor discovered in Dorset in the early 1960s, the roundel depicting a clean-shaven man (looking very much like a Roman emperor) superimposed on a Christian chi-rho symbol . Although the function of the Hinton St Mary building complex is still unclear, most scholars think that this figure is one of the very earliest visual representations of Christ [6].

Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

The present Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

The cult of relics grew out of the veneration that the Christian Church had for the remains of saints and martyrs. A martyrium at the reputed burial place of St Peter in Rome most likely existed by the second century, while others emerged after later persecutions, e.g. those of the Emperors Decius and Diocletian [7]. After the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the fourth century, things began to change very rapidly. The Edict of Milan (Edictum Mediolanense) in 313 granted religious freedom throughout the Empire and Constantine’s support of Christianity saw the emergence of new styles of church building, including specific places where martyrs could be venerated. Richard Krautheimer cites the example of the burial place of St Lawrence on the Via Tiburtina, just outside Rome [8].

The tomb […] was isolated from the rock of the catacomb wall; a sizeable tomb chamber was created around it to form an underground martyrium. A ring enclosing a hollow tube (cataract) was placed over the grave, allowing the faithful to peer down, to offer libations of oil and wine, and to lower linen strips, which would acquire the power of a relic through contact with the martyr.

Constantine’s mother Helena (Helen) provided another impetus to the veneration of relics. During a lengthy trip to Palestine in the 320s, she sent portions of the True Cross and other relics back to Constantinople, the new capital. In time, the city began to acquire substantial numbers of relics, including the bodies of apostles (Timothy, Andrew and Luke) and other Biblical figures. The exhibition catalogue records that from the ninth century until the Fourth Crusade in 1204, “Constantinople amassed the largest and most extensive collection of relics in the Christian world” [9]. In turn, these were used as a form of patronage. helping to diffuse relics across the Empire. After the Fourth Crusade, many of these relics made their way to Venice and other parts of western Europe.

The exhibition contained a number of early Byzantine objects. Particularly interesting was the Trier Ivory, an extremely detailed sixth-century Byzantine ivory plaque – now in Trier Cathedral – illustrating the reception of the relics of a saint in Constantinople. Of approximately the same date was the crisp front panel of a marble Byzantine altar (from the Cleveland Museum of Art) with a central opening providing visual and physical access to the relics of a saint. At the other end of the scale were a number of modestly-sized reliquary pendants that would have been owned (and worn) by individuals. The richness of the materials used (gold, silver) as well as the detailed decoration (enamel, repoussé, niello) show that these were probably items designed to enhance social status in addition to fulfilling their religious function.

The size and shape of reliquaries varied widely. Some were simple boxes or house-shaped caskets, others took the form of a cross, triptych or portable altar (an Ecumenical Church Council at Nicaea in 787 had declared that an altar could not be consecrated if it did not not contain relics). Particularly interesting were “speaking reliquaries,” where the decorative exterior takes the form of the relic that it contains. Significant examples in the exhibition included an tenth-century Ottonian Reliquary of the Holy Nail (from Trier Cathedral), an twelfth-century Arm Reliquary from Lower Saxony (from the Cleveland Museum of Art), and a Reliquary of the Arm of St George (from the Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice), where an elaborate Venetian container concealed an earlier Byzantine silver reliquary. Some of the most impressive objects on display were the reliquary heads; apart from St Baudime, the exhibition included a thirteenth-century Upper Rhenish head of St Eustace (from the British Museum) and sixteenth century South Netherlandish busts of St Balibina and – perhaps most remarkable of all – an unknown companion of St Ursula (both from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Stained-glass window in La Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Stained-glass window in La Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

One of the items that left Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade was the Crown of Thorns, purchased in 1239 by King Louis IX of France for 135,000 livres – a substantial sum of money at that time. Louis then built a royal chapel in Paris to host his Passion Relics, the Sainte-Chapelle. The Byzantine custom of distributing relics as diplomatic gifts was continued by the French kings, and the exhibition contained two fourteenth-century reliquaries specifically designed to contain individual thorns (both now in the British Museum). The first was a reliquary pendant (the Salting Reliquary), where the thorn was hidden inside a small gold container decorated with enamel and amethyst. The second was the far more substantial Holy Thorn Reliquary, an extremely ornate devotional object originally made for Jean, duke of Berry in the fourteenth century [10]. This eventually made its way to Vienna, was exchanged for a forgery (which is still in the Kunsthistorisches Museum), while the original was acquired by the Rothschild family and eventually made its way into the British Museum as part of the Waddesdon Bequest in 1898.

There were a number of items of more local interest. These included a French (Limoges) reliquary chasse including scenes of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Also there was a reliquary pendant with representations of Margaret of Navarre, queen consort of Sicily and Reginald Fitz-Jocelyn, Bishop of Bath (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).  The importance of bells in Celtic Christianity was reflected by the inclusion of two early Bell Shrines, that of St Cuileáin and St Conall Cael, both dating from the seventh or eighth century. The eighth-century carved whalebone “Franks Casket” combined Christian motifs (the Adoration of the Magi) with Germanic legend and the fall of Jerusalem, and is an amazing object to see up-close.

The final rooms contained a number of printed relic-books, broadsides and woodcuts, which could apparently be purchased as mementos by pilgrims. A final short video encouraged visitors to see potential parallels between the veneration of relics in the middle ages and modern “celebrity culture.”

As is becoming increasingly common, the exhibition catalogue is a vast 250 page illustrated volume combining narrative chapters with descriptions of the objects on display across all three locations. This will, doubtless, repay further study. The British Museum has also published a much smaller work focused mainly on its own collections [11], and there is also a Website hosted by Columbia University [12].


1. The Black Adder, Episode 3, “The Archbishop” (BBC Television, 1983)

2. Desiderius Erasmus, The Colloquies of Erasmus, tr. Nathan Bailey, ed. E. Johnson (London: Reeves & Turner, 1878), Vol. II, p. 13

3. Jean Calvin, Traité des reliques, ed. Irena Backus (Genève: Labor et Fides, 2000), pp. 32-33: “Ainsi, ou nous arguerons l’histoire de mensonge, ou ce qu’on tient aujourd’hui de la vraie crox est un opinion vaine et frivole. Or avisons d’autre part combien il y en a de pièces par tout le monde. Si je voulais réciter seulement ce que j’en pourrais dire, il y aurait un rôle pour remplir un livre entier. Il n’y a si petite ville où il n’y en ait, non seulment en l’église cathédrale, mais en quelques paroisses. Pareillement, il n’y a si méchante abbaye où on n’en montre. Et en quelques lieux, il y en a de bien gros éclats, comme à la Sainte-Chapelle de Paris, et à Poitiers, et à Rome où il y en a un crucifix assez grand qui en est fait, comme l’on dit. Bref, si on voulait ramasser tout ce qui s’en est trouvé, il y en aurait la charge d’un bon grand bateau.”

4. For a more balanced view, see: Simon Jenkins, “Let the credulous kiss their relics. It’s no weirder than idolising Beckham.” The Guardian, 17 September 2009. Retrieved from:

5. British Museum, The Hinton St Mary mosaic. Retrieved from:

6. Eamon Duffy, “Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum.” The Guardian,  24 June 2011. Retrieved from:

7. Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine architecture, 4th ed.  (New Haven, Ca.: Yale University Press, 1986), pp 32-33.

8. Ibid., p. 51.

9. Derek Krueger, “The religion of relics in late antiquity and Byzantium.” In: Treasures of heaven: saints, relics, and devotion in medieval Europe, ed. Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann and James Robinson (London: British Museum Press, 2011), pp. 5-17, here p. 13.

10. John Cherry, The Holy Thorn reliquary (London: British Museum Press, 2010).

11. James Robinson, Finer than gold: saints and relics in the middle ages (London: British Museum Press, 2011).

12. Columbia University, Treasures of Heaven (2011). Retrieved from:

Exhibition catalogue:

Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann and James Robinson, eds., Treasures of heaven: saints, relics, and devotion in medieval Europe (London: British Museum Press, 2011). ISBN 978-0-7141-2332-5

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