Treasures of Heaven, the summer exhibition at the British Museum, is worth seeing, if only to catch the echoes of a world that has passed. It’s not that people don’t value relics anymore. Quite the opposite. Rather, the heady mix of divine and political power, so dazzlingly displayed in this collection of medieval bling, has dissolved – in Europe, at least.
This is not to say that the sight of the reliquaries, and the devotion they represent, isn’t affecting. Only, not in the way perhaps expected.
It’s when I came to the objects associated with St Cuthbert that I personally felt a shiver. He’s from Durham where I’m from too, and it is that link – saint, place, me – that was charged. My friend pointed out that particular relics are supposed to be linked to particular places, are supposed to draw you to that place. A museum exhibition, where objects are gathered from all over the place, can dissolve that connection.
And then, after having viewed so much gold, so many jewels, it was very powerful suddenly to notice the splinter of bone or a fragment of dusty wood. Striking that stuff that had once lived, possibly in the body of a saint, is worth venerating more than all the elaborate treasure.