In his recently published book Holy Bones, Holy Dust, CHARLES FREEMAN presents a full-scale history of medieval relics. Here he pays a visit to the British Museum for its new exhibition Treasures of Heaven, which brings together for the first time some of the finest sacred treasures of the medieval age.
Article by Charles Freeman
Two moments stand out from a study tour I led to Tuscany last October. The first was in Lucca where I came across the gold tunic in which the city’s most important relic, the Volto Santo, a wooden cross with the face of Christ carved on it, was dressed up on feast days. Beyond its opulence, its workings were intricate and exquisite. A few days later we were in Prato, viewing the Girdle that the Virgin Mary threw down to the apostle Thomas at the moment she was assumed into heaven. The weathered pulpit from which this was displayed to the crowds is, now in the Cathedral museum, a wonderful frieze of exuberant children celebrating the event by the great fifteenth century sculptor Donatello. It moved me as much as anything I had seen on the tour.
Just as I was publishing my own book on the history of medieval relic cults, I was excited to hear that the British Museum was holding its own exhibition of reliquaries. Of course, taking any reliquary out of the shrine for which it was made risks losing some of its authenticity but the British Museum has done its best in the Reading Room with darkened light and polyphonic sound. Many shrines were broken up in the French Revolution or the Reformation in any case so we must treasure what survives.
The problem with dealing with such a vast (and much neglected) subject is getting hold of its many facets and sometimes one felt that no single one was explored in enough depth. Relics fulfilled so many different roles in the medieval world, as objects of piety, as political pawns, prestige objects and items to be looted that not of all of this could be presented here. This did not matter, however, if one concentrated on the objects themselves, the ivory (always a favourite of mine), the gold- I loved a fifteenth century German statuette of St George, in particular, and another of St. Lawrence with his rib -and the superb enamelling from Limoges. The more opulent objects were offset with reminders of the pilgrims, their badges and momentos from trips that must have been life-changing. I have a chapter in my book on the looting of relics from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade and I was fascinated to see examples of the loot here. I was disappointed, however, not to see Gentile da Fabriano’s portrayal of healing at the tomb of St. Nicholas of Bari (1425), now in Washington, as it was included in the US version of the exhibition but did not make it here. I recently visited the shrine in Barifor the first time and used this very picture in my book Holy Bones, Holy Dust.
In Holy Bones I cover the background to most of the sections of the exhibition, the shrines of Thomas Becket and Cuthbert, the Fourth Crusade, the Sainte-Chapelle of Louis XI, and the break-up of shrines at the Reformation, so my book fits naturally with the exhibits and I hope will illuminate them further with visitors.
Ten years ago, medieval miracles were almost a taboo academic subject (for fear that the Middle Ages might be seen as ‘dark’ and superstitious?). Now medieval piety in all its forms is being seen as a respectable and important subject and this exhibition will certainly help bring it to the forefront of medieval studies.
The exhibition Treasures of Heaven is on at the British Museum until October 9th. Charles Freeman’s, Holy Bones, Holy Dust, How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe was published by Yale in April. It is the only comprehensive history of relic cults, from their rise in the fourth century to the Reformation, in English.