Holy beauty of religious relics

The golden bust of the man with the curly beard and wide-open eyes is the first thing visitors notice when they enter the new exhibition, titled Treasures of Heaven, at the British Museum. The golden man doesn’t so much welcome arrivals as buttonhole them. This representation of St Baudime was intended to seize attention when it was made in the 12th century - and it still does, reports the Economist.

The statue was created to hold a holy relic, in this case a vial of St Baudime’s blood. Relics are not mementoes, aids to remembering loved ones. They are religious objects. Christians in the Middle Ages believed that the relics of a saint could be used to intercede with God just as the saint had done in life.

Treasures of Heaven begins in the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine legalised Christian worship, and goes on to explore the pilgrimages to churches that were built to house the reliquaries of saints. Pilgrim badges were souvenirs of these journeys and, if brought into contact with the church’s reliquary, holy objects themselves.

The show ends with the Protestant Reformation in the 15th century by which time Martin Luther, an uncompromising German priest and theologian, asserted that the veneration of saints through their relics had reached a point where it was drawing people away from the divine, not bringing them closer.

The exhibition, which has arrived in Britain from Cleveland and Baltimore, has brought together more than 100 reliquaries, almost all of them magnificent examples of medieval goldsmiths’ work.

Loans have come from the Vatican, as well as monasteries and museums in Europe and America. They contain fragments reputed to be from the Virgin Mary’s bed or tiny bits of saintly skeletons.

Holiest of all are relics associated with Jesus Christ. Reliquary crosses were made to conceal slivers of the “true cross” on which Jesus was crucified. Body-part reliquaries -in the shape of an arm, a foot, a head—are the boldest works.

It is easy to imagine that when the silver reliquary foot of St Blaise (pictured above), that dates back to the 13th century, was placed on an altar it gripped the congregation’s attention.

 FULL STORY Holy jewels (The Economist)



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