Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Sacred and the Profane: There Was an Arms Race in Relics in the Middle Ages Writes Jonathan Derbyshire

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Sacred and the Profane: There Was an Arms Race in Relics in the Middle Ages Writes Jonathan Derbyshire

Article excerpt

Treasures of Heaven

British Museum, London WC1

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In his Apologia, written some time in the first half of the 12th century, St Bernard of Clairvaux, then abbot of a Cistercian monastery in north-eastern France, issued a ferocious broadside against the practice of relic veneration at the Benedictine abbey at Cluny. "Eyes are fixed on relics covered in gold and purses are opened," he wrote. "People rush to kiss [the image of the saint], they are invited to donate and they admire the beautiful more than they venerate the sacred." "Treasures of Heaven; Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe", the British Museum's principal summer exhibition, demonstrates just how closely entwined the cult of saints and the cult of beauty became in the Middle Ages.

Nowhere was the collecting of sacred relics and the art of reliquary pursued more assiduously and extravagantly than at All-Saints Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. There, Prince Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, assembled a collection of relics that, by 1518, comprised an astonishing 17,443 fragments. Pilgrims who venerated the relics were rewarded with indulgences, a practice excoriated by Martin Luther, in terms that recalled St Bernard's complaints, in the 95 theses he nailed to the door of the church in 1517.

The accumulation of relics and reliquaries (which, as this exhibition shows, were, by the late medieval period, often of extraordinary lavishness) was not just a means of asserting clerical power over the laity. It was also a way of projecting national pride; there was an arms race in reliquary between England and France in the Middle Ages, though the ravages of the Reformation in this country mean that much less of that ecclesiastical heritage survives here than across the Channel. …

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