Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Treasures of Heaven", the exhibition.

The British saint, Ursula, used to headline this exhibition.

                      Link to the official British Museum introduction to the exhibition

The history of relics and their import to understanding the religious beliefs and faiths cannot be understated, not least as demonstrated by this recent exhibition "Treasures of Heaven" held at the British Museum; demonstrating through the objects on display the extraordinary reverence and belief that was instilled in these objects.  Whether the objects are supposed fragments of the True Cross, thorns from the Crown of Thorns, or the bones of various saints, some of whom the exact reasoning for their veneration has been lost to us over the centuries. It might seem peculiar in the contemporary age to consider the enormous sums of money that were paid out in the Mediaeval age by important noble families, kings and dignitaries to possess such objects.  And once in the ownership of such individuals and families, the immense talent, skill, and cost to house them, be it in a comparatively simple reliquary to the extreme of the construction of buildings and shrines across Europe.  From a modern standpoint, except possibly amongst the deeply devout, one might not fully understand the appreciation and veneration afforded to such relics, however one simply has to look at the furor caused whenever suggestions are made in regard to the Shroud of Turin.  This zealous protection of what is considered a sacred object which might well not be what it pertains to be, might possibly provide some insight into the mindset of our ancestors five or more centuries ago.

Monarchs and princes amassed immense collections of these sacred relics, testimony to their devotion and faith, and to act as protection for themselves, their kingdoms or principalities, as well as for their subjects.  But they also were to play the role of demonstrating to other monarchs their personal wealth and prestige; and this could be an important role or factor in the forging of alliances, and in trading with other nations and/or city states.  Owing to their demand, more relics became available, as well as prices paid upon the receipt of such objects.  Availability of such items, be they bones, hair, splinters, etc became magnified during the Crusades after the taking of Byzantium and the Holy Land.  Objects from both Old and New Testament would surface and be sold to wealthy patrons.  These items ranged from the comparatively 'routine' (i.e. items such the skull of Saint Peter, and fragments of the cross), to the obscure and extraordinary; wood from the tree in the Garden of Eden to the foreskin from Jesus' circumcision (!). 

The bust reliquary of St. Baudime, previously unseen out of France
Despite the duplication and plentiful nature of such 'relics', this does not seem to have caused concern to those buying the objects nor the veneration thereof. It would be easy for a modern cynical mind to dismiss so many of these 'relics' as fraudulent.  However a degree of respect should be given when understanding the import and relevance of the apparent sanctity these objects held, and the effect which they would have made to the lives and standing of those believers, many centuries ago.  The objects themselves were held to be imbued with healing powers, and their locations would often be an important stopping point for pilgrims and visitors, seeking divine intervention in their lives through such relics.  Eventually this outlook changed; as Protestant reformers and iconoclasts set about causing the destruction of many of these objects in the late sixteenth century onwards, and it is at this point in history, the exhibition draws to a close, having commemorated twelve to thirteen centuries of devotion. 

Even to contemporary non-believers, the beauty of such objects created to house the relics and supposed mortal remains of saints or of Christ cannot be denied, and will surely provide testimony to that belief and creed of those who fashioned them, not to the duplicity of those who venerated them.  Yes, attitudes and outlooks since the years in which these objects were fashioned have changed, considerably and dramatically.  In the 21st century, atheism is no longer a cardinal sin, and having ideas defiant to what were considered orthodox beliefs found in the works of Scripture, such as evolution, are no longer punishable by death, nor condemnation as heresy.

The reliquary containing part of the arm of St George,
on loan from the Basilica of San Marco, Venice.
The great faith generated by and instilled in these objects and remains of long dead individuals, central to the teachings and providing a restored belief, appears to have been unique to the Christians of this era, simultaneously  providing something tangible from which divine inspiration could be drawn from. However, in marked contrast, contemporary non-Christians might well have looked upon such piety for such objects with curiosity or contempt. 

A visitor to the “Treasures of Heaven” exhibition was taken on a journey into the past, and in the understanding thereof. It was held at the British Museum between June and October 2011.   Over 120 different objects, linked by a common theme, that of veneration and devotion, made up this exhibition covering over a thousand years of history.  These objects have come from far and wide to form part of this exhibition including some of which have never been seen nor on display in the United Kingdom before.  These included an ornate, enameled ninth century cross-shaped reliquary, on loan from the Vatican; a reliquary which once contained the blood of St. Baudime which has previously never left France; and the Mandylion of Edessa,  believed to be one of the earliest representations of the likeness of Jesus Christ.  To the modern eye and mindset, the actual relic itself might seem rather uninspiring, or even appear to be of a rather grisly and gruesome nature; however to medieval mind, these were the true treasures, holy objects of veneration, and the reliquaries designed to amplify and exalt the status of the object, not detract from it.

The display in which the collection was presented in a structured manner, divided into sections, which allowed for the spectator to fully appreciate the beauty of the objects on display.  Sacred music was played softly throughout the exhibition area which complimented the ambiance and bathed the objects with a sense of piety within the secular environment of a museum, not detracting from the beauty of what is on display.  Equally the reliquaries, etc were well spaced out, so that even in the presence of a fair sized crowd of other visitors to the exhibition; the pleasure of viewing such objects was not affected.  Despite the presence of others, one could shut out the outside world, and just focus, contemplate, respect, appreciate, without feeling intrusion nor invasion from others around you.  Indeed, housing the exhibition within the former Reading Room with its impressive dome did add an extraordinary ecclesiastical dimension to the complete exhibition as a whole.

A casket fashioned to house a relic of Thomas Becket, dating from the 14th century.
The catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, is filled with beautiful photographs of the all objects on display, alongside informed essays and detailed notes, is an excellent, never mind essential, purchase for those who were fortunate enough to visit this exhibition.  That said, it won’t just serve as an aide memoire, nor as a pretty coffee table book, but can be used as an important reference for those readers fascinated by Medieval craftsmanship and work, as much as those of sacred art, and of course the actual relics themselves.  On the cover of the catalogue, as well as on the posters and all the publicity surrounding the exhibition is depicted a bust of St. Ursula.  She is a comparatively unknown saint these days, allegedly a British princess, who was martyred together 11,000 handmaidens, whilst undertaking a pilgrimage prior to her marrying to a pagan governor.  Her representation has been used, not just because of her presumed British origins, but because the work shown has a comparatively modern simplicity and beauty to it.

Relics might seem outdated and unpopular in this day and age, but, an interesting comparison might be in seeing the high prices paid for objects once owned or worn by, or photographs, movie props, etc, "touched" by a celebrity.  To collectors and enthusiasts, these objects still inspire awe, and inspiration, yet contain none of the supposed mysticism nor powers once believed to have been contained within a fragment of bone, hair, or cloth all those centuries ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment