Sunday, 24 July 2011

Review- Treasures of Heaven: saints, relic and devotion in medieval Europe

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Treasures of Heaven was the first special British Museum exhibition I'd been to since I received my free National Art pass which I was eager to make use of. The gory of the Middle Ages has fascinated many; the mysterious power of holy relics still summons incredible religious following and public interest. Watching CSI and knowledge of DNA testing have made me highly skeptical of the authenticity of famous examples such as The Shroud of Turin. This exhibition was something else.

The first thing that hits you when you enter the dark round reading room is the soothing choir hymn playing in the background. I felt immersed in a sacred presence as an urge to go to confession overwhelmed me, which was rather unsettling. All the visitors were over the age of 50, dead silent and serious. I wondered how many of them had came because they were true believers, or like me were simply intrigued.

5 Things I didn't know until I visited Treasures of Heaven

Before the LV logo and Chanel's interlocking Cs, Jesus  had his very own Christogram 'Chi Rho'- consisting of an X and P, the first 2 letters of Christ in Greek.

A reliquary was a container for relics, usually a box holding saint's relics, from bone to fragments of cloth. Exquisitely handcrafted in precious materials like gold, silver, gemstones and enamel- the sacredness of the relic was supposed reflected  by the high quality and  level of the skill needed to make the reliquary. They were in amazingly well preserved condition,gleaming and glistening as though endowed by a higher power. One imagined the power the spiritual faith of the craftsman, to create something so laborious and beautifully intricate.The Icon of the Man of Sorrows, (below) for example was a cabinet reliquary housing over 200 relics, its centre mosaic of Christ consisting of thousands of tiny stones.
Icon of the Man of Sorrows, 14th Century
The miraculous healing powers of relics were a recurring theme throughout the exhibition. Pilgrimage souvenirs were sold to people flocking to shrines to venerate the relic. It was believed upon contact you would inherit the power of the relic. Tiny pilgrimage flasks contained water allegedly mixed with blood of St Thomas Becket, the famously murdered Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170 A.D. The phenomenon is very much alive today- people willingly pay crazy amounts of money for locks of Justin Bieber's hair. Our fascination and insatiable appetite for a piece of celebrity is part of our human-ness, thus has never ceased throughout history.

The pinnacle of the exhibition is the relics of Jesus Christ himself, with the discovery of the True Cross by St Helen when she visited the Holy Land in 326-8 A.D. On display were reliquaries containing the relics of nails of the cross, crown of thorns, preserved blood, tears, breath and even the umbilical cord of baby Jesus! This was followed closely by the reliquaries housing the breast milk and hair of the Virgin Mary and the skull fragments of Thomas Becket.

Reliquary Pendant for the Holy Thorn, 14 century

My question with relics is there's no way of verifying whether they belonged to that saint. Even if they can be positively attributed as human, their magical powers cannot.

Yet does it matter if not everything is scientifically trialled and proven? The psychological effect of spiritual has certainly been proven to improve one's happiness and health.  We live in an era that hammers science down our throats as the answer to everything. But needing to be 99.99% sure all the time has also made us overly cynical and frankly, miserable. So leave your doubts at the door before you visit- you'll find yourself at peace and your blood pressure down a couple of notches.

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