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Last Saturday, after moving into the new apartment, Michael and I walked over to the British Museum.  We managed to get into their special exhibit, Treasures from Heaven, an exhibit about the collection of relics during the Middle Ages, which closed on Sunday. This special exhibit has already been to the Cleveland Museum of Art (Yay, Cleveland!!! :D) and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

The Great Court of the British Museum

Beginning with a general history of Christianity, the exhibit explored the collection and veneration of relics during the Middle Ages.  Relics related to Christ, as well as saints, were collected as devotional objects, but they also inspired the faithful to undertake pilgrimages to various shrines which showcased these relics.  Elaborate gold and jeweled containers were constructed to hold these collectibles, and chapels such as Sainte Chapelle were built just to house them.

After Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in 313 AD, his mother, St. Helena, was said to have found many important relics, including the true cross, the nails from the crucifixion, and Christ’s robe.  As a result of her visits to the Holy Land, shrines were established at the places that were closely connected to the life of Christ.  As Constantinople became more powerful, relics were collected in the hope of protecting that power.

Relics can be part of a saint’s body or an object associated with that saint.  For example, a glass beaker used by St. Hedwig became a relic because when she drank from this beaker, water turned to wine.  “Speaking” reliquaries were constructed to take the shape of the part of the body from which the relic came.  In this exhibit, one reliquary was in the shape of an arm; another was in the shape of a foot.  I found it rather gruesome thinking about saints’ bodies being chopped up, and parts being passed around and collected.

St. Eustace Reliquary, British Museum: from wikimedia commons, by JMiall