All British Catholics should try to visit the new exhibition of relics and reliquaries at the British Museum in London, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster has said.
Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opened in the historic Round Reading Room at the museum today.
“I think this is a very, very unique and remarkable exhibition. There are objects here, for example the Mandylion, the face of Christ, which will never leave the Vatican again,” the archbishop said.
“I would just urge Catholics in England and Wales and from further afield to make the effort to come to the British Museum some time between now and October to take up this very unique opportunity. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, and it’s well worth the journey.”
Many of the reliquaries – richly inlaid gold crosses and caskets – date from the 11th to 13th centuries, but some go back as early as the fourth and fifth centuries.
Most are of saints, but a few relate to Jesus himself. Included in the exhibition are three separate thorns from the Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, breast milk from the Virgin Mary and the Mandylion of Edessa, a cloth supposedly laid over the face of Jesus and bearing his image.
The importance of these relics lies in their spiritual and emotive power rather than whether they are historically genuine, Archbishop Nichols said.
“It’s perfectly clear that relics are a very important part of the expression of religious faith as well as of cultural importance in the way that people cling to a souvenir from a person they’ve loved or a place that they’ve been to. And what that conveys is the connecting of this moment with the treasured moment of the past. And if that connection is made through an object which maybe forensically won’t stand up to the test, that’s of secondary importance to the spiritual and emotive power that the object can contain, and does contain.
“I think that’s where the setting of the relic is as eloquent as the relic itself. If you look at a lot of these reliquaries you don’t actually see the relic. The relic is, as it were, at the end of an inner journey. So what they’re looking for is the viewer to really enter their own soul to understand how they enter into the value of the treasure of the relic that is before them.
“So it’s a spiritual dialogue that takes place between this object and the person themself.
“That’s why they’re called ‘Treasures of Heaven’, because it is through the spiritual that our hearts are raised to heaven.”
Preparation for the exhibition began in December 2008 following earlier discussions with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
“It’s been three years solid in the making,” said James Robinson, the exhibition’s curator. “It was a major achievement to get all of these objects here. Most of these objects have such significance in the institutions that they’re from that it’s very difficult to negotiate their loan.”
He said he was most proud of exhibiting the reliquary of the early 12th century True Cross from Zwiefalten in Germany.
“It has a provenance which goes right back to the First Crusade, so we’re fairly secure that that was collected in Jerusalem from the relic that was believed to have been discovered by St Helena.
“So it’s a really strong connection to that very early relic-collecting period of the fourth century.”
Mr Robinson said his favourite exhibit was the 12th-century reliquary of St Baudime. He said: “It’s a beautiful work of figural sculpture and artistry, and it still contains relics to this day. This piece was particularly difficult to obtain as the parishioners in the church of St Nectaire, Auvergne, in France did not want it to leave the church.”
The exhibition runs from June 23 to October 9 and admission is £12. The British Museum will also be holding talks, films and workshops linked to the exhibition.