Treasures of Heaven British Museum exhibition - relics of Christ and saints amassed in a rare display
"It is tragic that the assailants, who set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their brothers in the faith..."
- John Paul II on Fourth Crusade 800 years after the event
It is said that during the Fourth Crusade, of the over 33,000 Crusaders promised, only 12,000 turned up at Venice, which was the gathering point where a great Venetian navy had been prepared at the cost of the maritime powerhouse's economy. In order to repay their debt, the Crusaders were persuaded by the Doge to attack the Byzantine capital of Constantinople where untold riches were hidden from view.
Pope Innocent III (1160 - 1216) threatened to excommunicate the Crusaders for attacking their fellow Christians but promptly changed his mind when the Crusaders offered to share their loot with Rome. Among the horde of treasures hauled from the Sack of Constantinople were religious relics collected through time by the Byzantine empire. In fact, some believe that the concentration of important and priceless relics in Constantinople led to its eventual downfall. Treasures of Heaven (Saint, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe) exhibition at the British Museum showcases an extensive display of these relics including their reliquaries made from the finest material and the most precious stones available.
Throughout the history of Christianity, medieval devotees replied on the relics of Christ and the saints to strengthen their faith. In fact, the 2nd Council of Nicaea 787AD decreed that all alters must have had a saint relic before consecration could tale place. Those relics include bone fragments or even everyday items that the religious figure had come into contact with.
Treasures of Heaven also provides a enlightening historical walkthrough of how these relics were amassed by medieval European rulers only to be given away as diplomatic gifts to further extend their influence. The Protestant Reformation that saw the desecration of many relics and churches in Northern Europe only intensified Rome's efforts to disperse more relics in other to rally the faithfuls.
The extensive exhibition, split into nine sections housed in British Museum Round Reading Room, provides some interesting historical tidbits as well. There is an Etruscan urn shaped like a house on display in The Classical Past section. Guarding the door to this urn is a winged guardian, which apparently is how the Christian depiction of winged angels come about. Notably, when it was believed that the True Cross had been uncovered, craftsmen ran out of precious stones for reliquaries and relied on non-precious stones to satisfy the ever growing number of pilgrims. When King Charles I was beheaded in 1649, some among the spectators dipped their handkerchiefs into his blood for blessing. His son, King Charles II did eventually declared him a saint (the only one declared by the Church of England) only to have it overturned by Queen Victoria.
Treasures of Heaven displays over 150 objects gathered from all over the world including Vatican, European church treasuries and museums in both Europe and USA. Well worth a visit even for those who have the remotest interest in religious artifacts. For the students of Christianity, this is not to be missed. Set aside at least two hours for this one. Book your tickets now.