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‘Treasures of Heaven’ exhibition KAREN ARMSTRONG

Remains of a medieval day

The secular world and even some Catholics today are mystified by the cult of relics in the Middle Ages. But an exhibition opening next week at the British Museum in London shows how the veneration of the mortal reliquiae of the great saints linked the human to the divine

youthful naivety and vulnerability, while at the same time feeling protective towards our former self. Sometimes those moments of humiliation


and awkwardness may have been turning points that made us aware that things were not as we had hitherto assumed. We may remember these events precisely because they marked a moment of transition and helped to make us, for good or ill, what we are. I suspect that many Catholics feel a similar discomfiture about the medieval cult of relics. I well remember my perplexity as a very new postulant, when the whole community processed to the altar after Benediction one Sunday to kiss a reliquary which, I was told, contained a fragment of Jesus’ swaddling clothes. Even in the first flush of enthusiasm for convent life, I baulked at that. It was so disturbingly reminiscent of Chaucer’s Pardoner, who claimed to have in his bag a piece of the sail of St Peter’s boat and tried to pass off a pillowcase as Our Lady’s veil. But it is never healthy – in either personal or collective life – to disown or deny the past, because, whether we like it or not, it has shaped our identity. Scholars such as Peter Brown and Mircea Eliade have shown that, far being an unfortunate superstition, the cult of relics was developed by some of the most significant theologians of Late Antiquity and was a serious attempt to explore the human capacity for the divine. It coincided with cru- cial moments of transition in church history, with the emancipation of Christianity after centuries of persecution and with the turbu- lence following the collapse of Roman rule in Western Europe. The British Museum’s new exhibition,

“Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in Medieval Europe”, is a valuable opportunity for Catholics to reconnect with this important episode in their past, to

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ost of us have memories that occasionally cause us a pang of acute, involuntary embarrass- ment. We flinch from our

examine its symbolism, and, perhaps surpris- ingly, to find that the cult of relics throws light on some of our current predicaments. Pilgrimage is one of the oldest and most universal expressions of the religious impulse. Long before people began to map their world scientifically, they developed what has been called a “sacred geography”. Certain places were revered as centres that linked heaven and earth, and people of all cultures travelled long distances to encounter the sacred there. In the ancient world, it was usually things such as temples and holy mountains, groves or rivers. But in the fourth century, Christians began to locate the divine in a human being. This important shift in religious thought inspired the great Christological debates about the Incarnation of God in the man Jesus. Was it possible that a mere human being, who had died an agonising and disgraceful death, had embodied the divine? And, if so, what were the implications for Christians who were also “sons of God”? For St Athanasius, the answer was clear: “God became human so that humans could become divine.” No one seemed

A nun kisses the glass surrounding the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux at Westminster Cathedral. Photo: CNS

to have fulfilled this potential for the divine in human nature more perfectly than the mar- tyrs, who had followed Jesus to the death and were often revered as “other Christs”. People had long gathered at the grave of a local martyr but now these tombs became holy places. Because the souls of the martyrs were already with God, their physical remains (reliquiae) provided a new link with heaven. They could intercede with God on behalf of their devotees, in rather the same way as in late Roman society a patron mediated between the mighty and the powerless. By the sixth century, the landscape of Europe was dotted with a network of shrines, each containing a relic of a martyr. Sometimes the shrine housed the tomb that contained his or her entire body. More often, however, one of the martyr’s bones, a drop of his or her

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