While I was in London last month, I went to the British Museum’s special exhibition, Treasures of Heaven, on medieval relics. If you’re not a medievalist, it’s probably a pretty weird exhibition: lots of jeweled boxes and intricately detailed statues holding things like a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, breast milk from the Virgin Mary, or my personal favourite, a piece of Thomas Becket’s skull. If you are a medievalist…well, it’s still pretty weird, but it’s also fascinating to see in person. Relics were such an integral part of medieval theology—the thinking was that by viewing or touching or praying over these things with physical connections to a saint, or Jesus, or whoever, you were growing closer to God yourself. And, unsurprisingly, having a really good relic or a collection of relics became big business for religious houses, since having a good enough draw would mean big bucks from pilgrims coming to your church, donating money to view the relic, staying in the area, etc, etc. There was an amazing cabinet on display that tried to make up in number for what it lacked in wow factor—it holds about two hundred different teensy relics.
A couple random thoughts: as always, a display on medieval religious history makes me spit on the ground at the thought of Henry VIII, who is responsible for the paucity of relics from Great Britain. (He is also why so many gorgeous statues and church decorations have been destroyed. NEVER TRUST A GINGER.) Also, I think the exhibition gets a bit weaker when it tries to draw in later “relics”—a ring holding a then-forbidden image of Charles I is interesting, but not really the same sort of piece as a knucklebone of John the Baptist, you know?
I think what I liked the most about seeing all these relics and reliquaries is how it brought home the physicality of medieval spirituality. It’s one thing to read about people making pilgrimages to Canterbury Cathedral—or even to have been there myself—but seeing a jeweled box with a piece of Becket’s skull that people would have gazed at in prayer is a whole different beast. For a culture that was very invested in the transience of this world, there’s a weird obsession with the importance of our bodies and the bits of them that are left behind that was really intriguing to see in person.
Anyway, irritatingly, there was no photography allowed, so I can show you NOTHING. So go see it yourself, or failing that, wait for the exhibition catalogue to go on further sale. I know I will. Maybe I’ll even craft a reliquary for it in the meantime. You can knit a reliquary, right?