The Sacred Made Tangible: "Treasures of Heaven" at the British Museum

>cross the pond the cousins have announced a new exhibition at the British Museum entitled “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe”, which opens June 23rd and runs through October 9th. It will examine the pious customs of collecting religious relics and going on pilgrimage, considering these practices not only in the wider context of Christendom during the Middle Ages, but also looking at the narrower aspect of their expression in the United Kingdom. The Vatican has lent a number of pieces for the exhibition, as have many churches, museums and private collectors, meaning it will be quite an opportunity for the interested visitor.

In particular, while not intended to be a tool for evangelization, the organizers are hoping that visitors will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of both the religious piety and high level of artistic craftsmanship that characterized Britain before Henry VIII and all the nonsense that followed:

Treasures such as these have not been seen in significant numbers in the UK since the Reformation in the 16th century, which saw the wholesale destruction of saints’ shrines. The exhibition offers a rare opportunity to glimpse the heritage of beautiful medieval craftsmanship that was lost to this country for centuries.

Although the Daily Telegraph rather breathlessly declares that the museum “is bringing together the world’s largest collection of Christian relics,” for the show, this is a gross exaggeration. True, the museum will be displaying somewhere around 150 relics, many of them contained in reliquaries of great historical and artistic significance, but this is hardly the largest assemblage of Christian relics in the world. Beyond the obvious example of St. Peter’s, many important churches around the world have far more than 150 relics in their keeping.

If you were to visit the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame, for example, you would be astonished to see the enormous number of relics in the care of that church. Apart from the relics of St. Marcellus, St. Stephen, and Saint Sebastian placed inside the high altar, Notre Dame points out that in its Reliquary Chapel are relics of each of the 12 Apostles, a piece from the manger at Bethlehem, a piece from both the veil and the belt of the Virgin Mary, relics of all the saints in the pre-Vatican II Church calendar (you can do the math), part of the True Cross, and the bones of Saint Severa, martyred in the 3rd century A.D. In terms of sheer numbers alone, Notre Dame’s collection alone easily eclipses that which will be on display at the British Museum.

That being said, the British Museum’s exhibition will nevertheless be an important follow-up to Pope Benedict XVI’s watershed visit to Britain last year, the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman, and the historic creation of the Anglican Ordinariate. In the press and in the pews, many of the British people took time to look back at their history, as well as where they are going socially and spiritually. An examination of that history can bring about quite a change in perspective, if approached with an open mind. Newman himself famously stated, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant”: we could, in present-day Britain, extend that thesis to include the pagan and the unbelieving, as well.

While the less-favorably inclined will no doubt poke fun at the relics on display at this exhibition, questioning not only whether they are genuine but also the expense that was laid out to preserve them, it is not so much the authenticity of the relics nor the cost of the materials to house them which we ought to focus on. Rather the real story here is the significance of personal devotion to Christ and His saints, which Christians from the time of the Romans to the present day have expressed in numerous ways through the arts, literature, music, and so on. The relic is an example of the faithful, recognizing that they are not pure spirit but both flesh and spirit, wanting to keep close to them some tangible connection to those who have gone before them in the Faith.

This is not, as some would have it, a type of ancestor worship, for the Faith does not depend on the existence of these objects. They are an expression of piety which dates back to the earliest days of the Church, when obscure symbols and secret meetings in private homes and hidden places were the only ways Catholics could practice their faith. I continue to believe that we are headed back to those days once more, and given recent legal and policy decisions in Britain, perhaps this display is in fact a kind of foreshadowing of events to come.

Be that as it may, not unlike some recent, previous exhibitions in London which, much to the surprise of regular readers of The Guardian, attracted enormous numbers of visitors – such as “The Sacred Made Real” and “Seeing Salvation”, both at the National Gallery – it would not surprise me if this ticketed show becomes extremely popular both with locals and with those visiting the British capital this summer. The scaled-down version of “The Sacred Made Real” which crossed the pond to Washington was very well-received, but of course there is a much larger Catholic presence hereabouts, with larger overall regular church attendance. That these types of exhibitions can find good audiences in Britain means that there is at least some desire, however deadened by secularism it may be, for the richness and beauty of the Catholic faith, still alive in the hearts of the British people.

The high altar at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart,
University of Notre Dame du Lac

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