October 11th, 2011

Shiny Astrolabe

Cute little pyramids and not enough dead people

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.