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Reliquary containing a thorn from the crown of thorns... supposedly
Treasures of heaven

Posted on 07 April 2011, 2:23

I went yesterday to the British Museum’s press launch for their major summer exhibition, Treasures of Heaven. The show promises to shine light on one of the most curious – not to say bizarre – aspects of the Christian faith: the devotion shown to relics.

Statues of saints and their relics were smashed or forcibly removed from British churches in the 16th century Reformation, and might seem like an obscure historical footnote now. But as Neil MacGregor, director of the BM, pointed out at the launch, relics were hugely significant objects in medieval Europe, bringing power, prestige and wealth to towns and cities, especially if they became the destination of pilgrims.

Talking about one of the exhibition’s star relics, a thorn said to be from Christ’s crown of thorns and housed in a kitschy gold reliquary (seen above), MacGregor quipped that ‘at the second coming, Christ would make a point of coming to Paris to collect his thorn.’ It was this kind of belief about relics which put medieval cities on the map.

The exhibition will bring together relics, reliquaries, manuscripts, prints and pilgrim badges from more than 40 institutions around the world, including the private chapel of the popes in the Vatican. The chapel is sending the Mandylion of Edessa (or a 5th century copy of it, at any rate) which is rarely seen in public, so that will be an event in itself.

I was told that staff at the museum are expecting some visitors to venerate the relics during the show.

Karen Armstrong, also at the launch, talked about the difficulty of relics for post-Reformation people. In fact, she said they were possibly ‘rebarbative’ (repellent) in modern culture, not a word you hear every day. The pilgrims who travelled to venerate the bones of saints and martyrs ‘confronted death but also discovered something which transcended death.’

She recalled the death of Princess Diana and how people lit candles and heaped up bouquets of flowers on the streets, ‘so that London seemed like India because of the smell of rotting vegetation!’ The cult of relics and the cult of celebrity may be a lot closer than we think.

Treasures of Heaven will run from 23 June to 9 October and tickets are now on sale.

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