Whether you believe in the spiritual power of religious relics or not, the British Museum's exhibition of Catholic antiquities contains some wonderful art, says Adrian Hamilton
To hold an exhibition of sacred Roman Catholic relics in a country with quite so secular and Protestant a history as Britain's was always going to be a delicate affair. The reliquaries themselves are glorious enough, many of them masterpieces of craftsmanship. Relics were big business in the Middle Ages. Armed troops were sent to seize them, emperors vied with each other to amass great collections, and the churches that claimed them drew huge crowds of pilgrims to worship them.
Which was the problem, of course, for the Protestants. As Martin Luther wryly observed of the remains of Saint Barbara's skull: "If anyone counts up the pieces, she will have seven heads." John Calvin went further, writing a whole treatise against relics, asking: "How do we know we are venerating the ring and comb of the Virgin rather than the baubles of a harlot?"
The answer to that is one of faith. If you believe you are viewing a real saint, as 100,000 people did in queuing over four days for a sight of Saint Therese of Lisieux's relics at Westminster Cathedral only two years ago, then there is something profoundly moving in this act of veneration. If you don't believe, then these are empty and even ridiculous expressions of ancient beliefs.
Which poses the question for any museum: do you present them as art objects, things of beauty and fascination in their own right, or do you display them as spiritual vessels helping us to understand and feel what the thousands who once pressed to view them believed?
It's a quandary that was acknowledged from the beginning of this magnificent exhibition's journey, which started in Cleveland and Baltimore in the US, and is now ending in London. Is it, the organisers kept being asked, going to be too religious? "I think it's fair to say that in America the display veered towards the artistic side," says the British Museum's curator, James Robinson. "Here we're trying to be more balanced in both directions - art and devotion."
That may owe something to the personality of the British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor, a Roman Catholic with a long-held interest in religious art. It was he who held the Seeing Salvation exhibition at the National Gallery to mark the millennium, and it was its extraordinary success last winter (nearly 360,000 people went to see it over 10 weeks) that helped the National Gallery do what I thought no British gallery would ever do: hold an exhibition of full-on Spanish Catholic statuary in its The Sacred Made Real exhibition.
It was right to try. Over a century of progressive secularisation, we have lost much of the understanding of not just the beliefs but the spirit behind objects of veneration. The great altarpieces of the Renaissance have become separated from the altar itself, and what it and they represent. This especially applies to reliquaries, for virtually all religions have the veneration of saints and relic pilgrimage as a tenet of their faith. Yet go to any exhibition of Buddhist, Jainist or Islamic art, let alone Christian objects, and it is as if what they represented and still represent in spiritual terms is now devoid of meaning. It is art for art's sake.
The art in this exhibition, is very good. As you ascend the stairs to the show in the old Reading Room, you encounter the near- lifesize Reliquary Bust of St Baudime from Saint-Nectaire in the Auvergne. …