Tennis stars Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray throw their (sweat-soaked) wrist-bands into the crowd after winning a match at Wimbledon. To me this is rather bizarre. What on earth would I do if one of them landed in my lap? But the Romans would have understood, and I would not be surprised if victorious gladiators did something quite similar. The latest exhibition at the British Museum looks at another variation of this behaviour, on a massive scale, that overtook Christianity for over 1,000 years, up to the Reformation in the 1500s. This was the collection of relics associated with saints (usually body parts) and with Jesus Christ (pieces of the cross, thorns from the crown of thorns, etc.).
This is the Treasures of Heaven exhibition. At one level it is a showcase for many wonderful artefacts of exquisite craftsmanship. But the exhibition also explains the practices of this aspect of medieval faith, and gives us an opportunity to reflect on it. There are three aspects in particular that are interesting. First is the obsession with relics – seeing, possessing, touching physical objects that have been associated with somebody holy, in the belief that some of the holiness will be passed on. Second, the importance of saints acting as intermediaries between the faithful and God after their death. Third, the dismemberment of saints’ bodies for use as relics.
The general idea of relics does have a strong resonance in our culture, which persist still – witness the tennis stars’ wrist bands, the obsession with original artworks over copies, and so on. The interest is in their use in this religious context, as that is much less common. It wasn’t part of the Jewish faith from which Christianity grew. This looks like a pagan inheritance from the Romans. An obsession with sacred places, to which pilgrimages are made, was also an important part of medieval devotion, but this is unremarkable by comparison; pretty much all faiths have something similar.
The practice of worshipping saints looks like an inheritance from pagan polytheism. The jump to monotheism from animism and polytheism is a huge one. In the Jewish faith this seems to have taken quite a long period of time; in the Far East it doesn’t seem to have happened at all, with polytheism evolving directly in atheistic faiths such as Buddhism. Worshipping saints looks like an intermediate step; a similar thing seems to be the case in Shia Islam.
The dismemberment of bodies really is strange though. According to the British Museum, this doesn’t seem to have pagan roots. There is a strong human instinct that bodies should be kept whole. Perhaps it started because so often martyrs’ bodies where dismembered in early Roman persecution.
Once the cult of relics got going, it is very difficult not to be cynical. Most of the relics were clearly forgeries. The practice suited clerical and secular authorities and was exploited by them. Eventually there was a backlash, started by Martin Luther and flowing on through the Reformation. Many relics were destroyed, including virtually all those in Britain. A number have ended up in museums, and so to this exhibition. The Catholic church persists with the practice, but somehow I think most of the power has gone. Saints are seen as examples, and sainthood a sort of posthumous honour – and not as active intermediaries. Relics might be seen as objects for meditation, and not much more.
Meanwhile in popular culture, we have reverted to the idea that dead bodies should be kept whole. A huge fuss was created when a hospital was found to have retained some children’s body parts for research. We expend a lot of effort trying to find bodies after a catastrophe, to act as a focus for memorial and “closure”. As people in Britain drift away from Christianity, they drift back into to a pagan, pre-Christian outlook. Sports and entertainment stars take up the role of deities; people collect and worship their possessions and even sweat; they conduct pilgrimages to their holy sites. But we don’t dismember their bodies after death.