June 28 (Bloomberg) -- “Treasures of Heaven,” an excellent new exhibition at the British Museum in London, is full of precious objects. Gold and jewels glitter in dramatic lighting.
To the original makers and owners, however, it wasn’t the value of these sumptuous containers that counted but what was within: dry bones, splinters of wood and sundry organic remains.
This is about the cult of relics, one of the strangest aspects of Christianity to those who are non-Christians (and to quite a few who are). Some of the exhibits, leaving aside the fact that they are masterpieces of medieval craft, are surreal.
A life-size silver gilt representation of a head, made around 1210 perhaps in Basel, contains nine pieces of human skull. Allegedly, these belonged to St. Eustace, a Roman general who converted to Christianity after seeing a crucifix between the antlers of a stag.
Stranger still is a “Reliquary of the Foot of St. Blaise” -- a 4th-century bishop from Armenia. It’s a highly realistic model from c. 1260 of what jazz pianist Fats Waller called “the pedal extremities” of the saint from the ankle down, fashioned from metals and rock crystal.
A few of the items on view go beyond mere oddity into the territory of Harry Potter. Toward the end of the show you come across the “Griffin’s Claw of St. Cuthbert.” A griffin is a mythological creature, half-eagle, half-lion. Its claws could only be obtained by a holy person in exchange for medical assistance. In 1385, St. Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham Cathedral had two of them, plus some griffin eggs. Disappointingly, the talon on display turns out to be the horn of an ibex.
Power of Relics
All of this -- from the point of view of the 21st century, or even of a 16th-century Protestant reformer -- can seem foreign to the point of being exotic. If you want to understand art and life in the Middle Ages, however, knowing about relics is important. They weren’t just an eccentric detail of medieval religion. The power of saintly bones was a driving force.
The great Gothic and Romanesque churches had, at their heart, almost always a shrine full of bones (or, perhaps, some other holy remnant such as a piece of the True Cross or the Crown of Thorns). These were the magnets for pilgrims, and a source of revenue as important as the modern tourist industry. The economy and political power of Rome from the late Roman Empire to the Counter-Reformation was partly derived from the fact that the city held the largest repositories of saintly bones in Christendom.
People traveled huge distances -- Kings Canute and Macbeth from Dark Age Britain, for example -- because these relics contained enormous spiritual power. They could work miracles or remove years from a posthumous sentence of suffering in Purgatory. The gold, silver, crystal and ivory shrines that contained them were merely symbols of the inner sacred splendor.
That was the official line. At the end of the Middle Ages, the wealthy were collecting relics with an avidity resembling the frenzy with which billionaires amass contemporary art today. By the 1520s, Frederick the Wise of Saxony owned 19,013 relics (all junked when the Saxon state adopted Luther’s Reformation).
The reverence of relics may appear distant. Is it? Perhaps we’ve just substituted fame for sainthood. The other day, a dress that once blew up to reveal Marilyn Monroe’s legs changed hands for $4.6 million. In comparison, valuing the bones of a martyr, or even St. Cuthbert’s griffin claw, doesn’t seem so bizarre.
“Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe” runs through Oct. 9 at the British Museum. The show is sponsored by John Studzinski, in association with William and Judith Bollinger, Singapore; Betsy and Jack Ryan; Howard and Roberta Ahmanson; and the Hintze Family Charitable Foundation. Information: http://tinyurl.com/3tb7rk5
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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