Review: Treasures of Heaven Exhibition at The British Museum

Review: Treasures of Heaven Exhibition at The British Museum


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So how was your Saturday?

My mother the psychonaut and I saw a piece of the True Cross, had some brunch, then pub-crawled down the Thames drinking Pimm’s and rosé.

The head is a bit sore this morning, to be honest.

In fact, I don’t think I’d get through the door of the exhibition today. You see, the British Museum can make you woozy at the best of times.

If you stack the reading room high with hundreds of holy body parts the effect is considerably compounded. You can feel your blood pressure drop as you walk up the stairs to begin the exhibit.

Don’t let the effect stop you. It’s definitely worth pushing through. Like the Warren Cup, there is something simultaneously grim and touching about intimate objects from an earlier age.

Trying to put yourself in the headspace of someone who carries around and prays to a bone fragment from a thirteen-year-old girl who was hacked to death by her own father because she refused to marry is something of a mental challenge.

It makes you think how odd and essentially arbitrary your own devotional map of the universe really is.

In fact, that might have been the abiding message of this fascinating exhibit. It begins by briefly -all to briefly, in fact- exploring the pre-Christian antecedents to the rise of relic veneration in the early Medieval period. This lack of context is the exhibition’s weakest point but it makes up for it by deftly exploring the decline of relic veneration toward the end. There are witty quotes from Martin Luther skewering what he -and what Central European society- saw as uneducated, backward idolatry. Of the popularity of Saint Barbara skull fragments, he said “if anyone counts up the pieces she will have seven heads.”

In between these two moments there is a frankly amazing collection of devotional objects from across European -some of them genuinely stunning in their artistry, some of them faintly nauseating in specificity. (A blood/breast milk/hair combo anyone?)

From a magical perspective it’s also quite interesting to track the rise, ubiquity and decline of the Law of Contagion as used by the Church over the centuries. In fact, following the Seventh Council of Nicea, every consecrated altar had to have a relic. And, as the article above indicates, from a very primal perspective, squatting the Catholic Church on top of the bones of the ‘best’ saint makes a very bold claim for its authenticity. (It’s also why the Venetians stole Saint Mark. The top cities have to squat on the top dead guys.)

There are also a few (again, too brief) diversions into monarchical and Protestant relics but for the most part it’s high camp, high Catholic medieval bling. (Sidebar: Even Belgium’s saints are boring.) Any attempted diversion from this falls quite flat. It’s probably the British Museum’s weakest summer blockbuster for the last few years. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, it just means that Hadrian, Babylon and especially The Book of The Dead were all much better.

Definitely go and see it if you’re in town -for magical folk you’re really seeing two simultaneous exhibitions for the (£13) price of one. In fact, may I suggest booking for first thing in the morning so it’s quieter, devising some kind of crystal trap -or similarly absorbent object- and racing through ahead of everyone else, soaking up Jesus juice? Don’t look at me like that. At least it’s more dignified than kissing the display cases. (Staff are having to clean kiss marks off the glass.)

If you’re not going to be in town, and you’re not going to be wherever it goes next (this is a US co-pro) watch the companion BBC documentary instead. Let’s end with a clip:

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