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I finally saw the medieval reliquaries show at the British Museum this weekend. It was the last weekend, but same-time tickets were still available. Even so, it was, as usual, crowded enough to require negotiation to see most given objects up close.

After reading other peoples' reactions to the shows, I was expecting lots of body parts. That's what reliquaries are for, right? Well, that and other remnants of holy things. There were plenty of bits of the true cross on display, a couple of thorns from the Crown of Thorns and... well, that was it, in terms of visible relics.

There were reliquaries galore, but the focus was very much on the vessels, the craftmanship, the forms as a focus of worship, and more generally belief in the intercession of saints. But with very, very few exceptions, every one of those reliquaries were ones which *used to* house sainted body parts. They didn't currently.

Those few exceptions were, on the whole, ones at the other extreme: large collections of lots of very tiny bits of saints, tidily parceled up and labeled, visually sanitized. If there were any other body bits in that show, the labels omitted them and they were not visible.

It's not as if I'm habitually obsessed with seeing bits of long-dead corpses, but it is a rather normal part of seeing reliquaries. That's what they were made for, in effect, although tidily wrapping and labeling the small bits is good form too. So their absence in this show really struck me. Either the choice of objects was delibrately designed to sanitize reliquaries for the general public; or those with visible bone bits were too sanctified to loan for the show; or it was a very strange accident that it just all happened to work out that way.

One of the highlights of the show was having a good look at Erhardum Reuwich's 1486 map which accompanies Bernhard von Breydenbach's Journey to the Holy Land. The focus of the caption and the map was Jerusalem, but I was fascinated by the edges. The map has east at the top (it's well-oriented), Syria/north on the left and Egypt/south on the right.

In Egypt, in addition to all those Christian churches and tombs on top of the burial or death places of Christian saints and martyrs, Breydenbach visited the pyramids, which were, as the map label helpfully tells us, built "over the tombs of the rulers of Egypt". I know they're all tombs, but I never mentally structured pilgrimage to the pyramids as par for the course with pilgrimages to the Holy Land. No reason they shouldn't be, as ancient Egypt is certainly implicated in the Old Testament. The walking route across the Red Sea is also marked on the map, for example.

The pyramids engraved by Reuwich are cute. He clearly just knew they were "pyramids" and made them all really tall, sharp, and pointy.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 11th, 2011 10:01 pm (UTC)
When I die? You may build a Reuwich pyramid above me.

This could be a trend...
Oct. 11th, 2011 10:17 pm (UTC)
We visited the exhibition on Sunday; it's very relevant to F's dissertation, which was on Mary Magdalen. I was struck by the number of visitors who were clearly having a spiritual experience, or sequence of them, who were crossing themselves, touching their feet, crossing themselves again. I noticed that there were no suggestions that any of the exhibits might be fake, even Helena's discovery of the True Cross.

Mary Queen of Scot's personal Thorn, from the Crown of, was interesting, and the double reliquary with the twist of pearls around the thorn itself was interesting too - Mary as a semi-saint herself. Despite the efforts of the executioners to destroy all potential relics, plenty survived. We have a fair number of recusant great houses round here, and quite a few things of hers revered, including a chemise with some of her blood on it.

I agree about the paucity of actual bits of dead people; very limited compared to Italian cathedrals, so many of which have at least one saint or bishop in a box on display.
Oct. 12th, 2011 09:05 am (UTC)
I'm sorry I couldn't get to see this, as I'm interested in medieval jewellers and goldsmiths work. I certainly wouldn't expect to see bits of bodies in a display of reliquaries, so am surprised that you would. (Now a display of relics would be a different matter.)
Oct. 13th, 2011 12:19 am (UTC)
I loved the exhibit, both from a jeweller's and historian's POV. Must admit I was oversaturated by the end of it though! Truly an amazing collection.
Oct. 13th, 2011 04:39 am (UTC)
It would be interesting to know how a given reliquary got from church to museum. For the church, St Jerome's left thumb was presumably more valuable than the thing that housed it, so if a british collector offered good money for the reliquary they might be willing to sell it provided they could keep the thumb. Or was a housing bought with relic included, which latter was then thrown out because it was yucky?
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )