Sat 19th Apr 2014 | Last updated: Sat 19th Apr 2014 at 07:48am

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Latest News

Archbishop urges Catholics to see ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ relics exhibition

By and on Thursday, 23 June 2011

Archbishop Nichols views relics on show at the British Museum (Photo: Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

Archbishop Nichols views relics on show at the British Museum (Photo: Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

All British Catholics should try to visit the new exhibition of relics and reliquaries at the British Museum in London, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster has said.

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opened in the historic Round Reading Room at the museum today.

“I think this is a very, very unique and remarkable exhibition. There are objects here, for example the Mandylion, the face of Christ, which will never leave the Vatican again,” the archbishop said.

“I would just urge Catholics in England and Wales and from further afield to make the effort to come to the British Museum some time between now and October to take up this very unique opportunity. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, and it’s well worth the journey.”

Many of the reliquaries – richly inlaid gold crosses and caskets – date from the 11th to 13th centuries, but some go back as early as the fourth and fifth centuries.

Most are of saints, but a few relate to Jesus himself. Included in the exhibition are three separate thorns from the Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, breast milk from the Virgin Mary and the Mandylion of Edessa, a cloth supposedly laid over the face of Jesus and bearing his image.

The importance of these relics lies in their spiritual and emotive power rather than whether they are historically genuine, Archbishop Nichols said.

“It’s perfectly clear that relics are a very important part of the expression of religious faith as well as of cultural importance in the way that people cling to a souvenir from a person they’ve loved or a place that they’ve been to. And what that conveys is the connecting of this moment with the treasured moment of the past. And if that connection is made through an object which maybe forensically won’t stand up to the test, that’s of secondary importance to the spiritual and emotive power that the object can contain, and does contain.

“I think that’s where the setting of the relic is as eloquent as the relic itself. If you look at a lot of these reliquaries you don’t actually see the relic. The relic is, as it were, at the end of an inner journey. So what they’re looking for is the viewer to really enter their own soul to understand how they enter into the value of the treasure of the relic that is before them.
“So it’s a spiritual dialogue that takes place between this object and the person themself.

“That’s why they’re called ‘Treasures of Heaven’, because it is through the spiritual that our hearts are raised to heaven.”

Preparation for the exhibition began in December 2008 following earlier discussions with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

“It’s been three years solid in the making,” said James Robinson, the exhibition’s curator. “It was a major achievement to get all of these objects here. Most of these objects have such significance in the institutions that they’re from that it’s very difficult to negotiate their loan.”

He said he was most proud of exhibiting the reliquary of the early 12th century True Cross from Zwiefalten in Germany.

“It has a provenance which goes right back to the First Crusade, so we’re fairly secure that that was collected in Jerusalem from the relic that was believed to have been discovered by St Helena.

“So it’s a really strong connection to that very early relic-collecting period of the fourth century.”

Mr Robinson said his favourite exhibit was the 12th-century reliquary of St Baudime. He said: “It’s a beautiful work of figural sculpture and artistry, and it still contains relics to this day. This piece was particularly difficult to obtain as the parishioners in the church of St Nectaire, Auvergne, in France did not want it to leave the church.”

The exhibition runs from June 23 to October 9 and admission is £12. The British Museum will also be holding talks, films and workshops linked to the exhibition.

  • http://twitter.com/LouiesGems Stephen Flanagan

    Beautiful

  • Hughes196

    Whaaaaaaaaat? Breast milk from the Virgin Mary?  With all due respect, but how did they manage to get that?

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    I don’t pretend to know a definitive answer, but if you think about the question, it’s not too difficult to surmise something.

    In Third World conditions, such as what would have obtained in first century Judea, relatives and neighbors rely heavily on one another’s assistance in very personal matters that may seem strange to us in the West. And so, it may have been, that when the Child Jesus was being weaned, a young mother, a neighbor of the Holy Family, was ill and had a large number of nursing children to care for. No formula available back then, and the milk from animals – if the family could afford to buy it – may or may not have been tolerated well. A free serving or two of mother’s milk from Jesus’ mother would have been a kind gift to such a neighbor, and might have been stored in a covered jar or flagon and set down carefully in a cool place in the neighbor’s home until it was needed . . .  many hands would have been on the scene to help out – sisters, cousins, aunties, neighbors, and in the confusion Mary’s gift might have been overlooked – forgotten, even, until sometime later. . .

  • Mags

    I realise the Archbishop is saying we don’t have to believe that the relics are authentic but who on earth would have kept the breast milk of Our Lady in the hope that it would mean something to the world many years in the future?

  • AgingPapist

    A mature Catholic faith does not rely upon relics, whether fabulous fakes or not, for religious guidance, a fruitful piety, or for inspiration.  Best to take all of them and burn them in St. Peter’s square.

    Luther, Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell and other reformers who rejected relic worship and ripped them out of the churches were right to do so.  They were way ahead of their time.

  • Kennyinliverpool

    I know some people say that Catholicism has never changed (substantially) throughout history, but I think most English / western Catholics struggle with the notion of relics. This might be because the living tradition has died out, or because people stopped believing in them… but it does seem that modern Catholicism has very little to do with Mediaeval Catholicism – they seem to be like two different religions. Possibly it’s because Mediaeval Catholicism was a form of popular religion, which modern Catholicism isn’t, due to it being confined to less than 10% of the British population….?

  • Hughes196

    Thank you for your kind hypothesis. Yes, If we choose to believe in miracles your gentle answer might be possible. The cynic in me asks: How come it didn’t decompose in such a hot climate? Did it dehydrate? How did they know it was Mary’s? As I said, miracles, miracles.

  • Tiggy

    Well some are obvious tosh like breastmilk from Our Lady.But I think relics like sacramentals can be an aid to prayer.
     Agingpapist. Would you have our Churches as sterile as Calvin wished? Is you own home devoid of the past? With no old pictures or ornaments. Thought not.

  • Mr Grumpy

    @6e8b762f55c8437374403352736283e9:disqus 

    Having long let the cynic in me have the last word, I now take the view that I just might miss out by not keeping an open mind. Why should God waste a good miracle on someone who’s decided in advance that they don’t happen?

  • Amfortas

    It’s a fabulous exhibition. I saw it this afternoon. Unfortunately many of the liturgical and theological references made in descriptions of objects are innaccurate or confused. There’s little sign that the British Museum consulted a church historian or theologian when drawing up the descriptions. A shame but it’s still a fabulous exhibition.

  • Amfortas

    I used to take this view (most probably the product of a Heythrop College education!) until I visited the basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi. I found myself in a chapel gazing at some relics of the saint. I stared at a lock of her hair for a few minutes and had what I can only describe as a mystical experience. It was as though someone pushed me to my knees in a volient fashion. I could feel the hands on my shoulders pushing me down. There was, of course, no one behind me. It just happened. The relic was a point of contact with the divine or a channel for prayer. I don’t understand this but it happened.

  • Anonymous

    And you’re way behind yours . . .

  • Iainw9

    Agingpapist

    The only relic that should be thrown out is you Mr Grumpy!

  • Adam Thomson

     In response to Marion, and Hughes196 –
    Aren’t you both, from opposite perspectives, missing something important that the Archbishop said? He said, ‘The importance of these relics lies in their spiritual and emotive power rather then whether they are historically genuine.’ What matters is ‘the connecting of this moment with the treasured moment of the past. And if that connection is made through an object which maybe forensically won’t stand up to the test, that’s of secondary importance …’.

    So – what does it matter whether the milk is really from Mary? Or whether it is actually milk at all? Or indeed, whether there is even anything there? (‘If you look at a lot of these reliquaries you don’t actually see the relic. The relic is, as it were, at the end of an inner journey.’)

    That leads me, at least, to this question. How can an object connect my moment in time to a past moment with which the object itself has no authentic connection? Maybe the Archbishop could explain.

  • Adamgthomson

    Does your own description of your experience not cause you concern? You say, ‘It was as though someone pushed me to my knees IN A VIOLENT FASHION. I could feel the hands on my shoulders pushing me down.’ Does the Holy Spirit really compel us to worship in that way? Does not your experience seem to have something in common with that of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ and being ‘slain in the Spirit’ – both of which some of us strongly suspect to be demonic? 

  • Parasum

    I’m all for relics – but exhibiting them sounds horribly secular. Relics are for venerating, not gawping at. Curiosity =////////= devotion.  This “exhibition” erases the difference between King Tut, Elvis, & St.John Southworth: only the last is a Saint, & the Abp. is in some danger of blurring the distinction :( Holy things have no place in a museum.

    How did people who thought certain things were relics, explain why they should have kept to begin with ? Did Out Lady put some of her milk in a thermos or something ? And how did she stop it evaporating ? For sheer weirdness, the relic of the plague of darkness in Egypt is impossible to better. Apparently, it’s a bottle of the darkness.

    “Mr Robinson said his favourite exhibit was the 12th-century reliquary of
    St Baudime. He said: “It’s a beautiful work of figural sculpture and
    artistry, and it still contains relics to this day. This piece was
    particularly difficult to obtain as the parishioners in the church of St
    Nectaire, Auvergne, in France did not want it to leave the church.””

    Then it should have stayed.

  • Amfortas

    I’ve struggled to analyse my experience. My Catholic faith is pretty sober – with a spirituality rooted in the Divine Office and scripture – but on this one occasion something out of the ordinary happened. It wasn’t in the context of a liturgy. I was on my own taking a couple of days out of a holiday to visit Assisi. I’ve simply tried to describe my experience. I’m not making any great claims about its significance but I’m puzzled by Adamgthomason’s rather sniffy response. I’ve no idea whether the Toronto blessing is demonic. It’s not a form of expression I feel any sympathy towards. I make no claims to have been ‘slain in the spirit’. I was simply trying to describe – in inadequate language – an experience I had when contemplating the relic of a saint.

  • Amfortas

    It’s an exhibition of reliquaries rather than relics.

  • Adam Thomson

    I’m sorry you found my response ‘rather sniffy’. It wasn’t meant to be, and I apologise that it came over that way. It was meant to be an expression of genuine concern about the nature of your experience. St. John tells us, ‘It is not every spirit, my dear people, that you can trust; test them, to see if they come from God’ (1 John 4.1). If the Holy Spirit so impresses some spiritual truth upon our minds that we feel compelled to fall to our knees and worship, I have no problem with that. But does the Holy Spirit ever exert physical pressure upon our bodies to compel us to worship? That’s what I’m questioning. Again, my sincere apologies if I have put it badly either in my first post or in this one. 

  • Amfortas

    No offence taken. I make no great claims about my experience. As for violence, I can only say that it felt as though someone was pushing me to my knees forcefully. Perhaps violence is an overly emotive word to use. A poor descriptor.

  • Anonymous

    ALL RELIC ITEMS MAY NOT ME AUTHENTIC; THAT DOES NOT MATTER. BUT THESE  AS A WHOLE CAN HELP THOSE WHO HAVE FAITH TO GROW MORE AND MORE BECAUSE OF THE DIVINE CONNECTION AND THE ENVIRONMENT.

    Thomas Poovathinkal

  • Anonymous

    A HEART PURIFIED BY REPENTANCE AND FORGIVENESS MEDITATING  REGULARLY ON THE GOSPEL OF ST. JOHN  AND ON THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES WILL PROFIT MORE THAN ONE SURROUNDED BY THE RELICS OF ALL SAINTS DOWN THE AGES. THIS DOES NOT MEAN RELICS CANNOT INSPIRE FAITH IN GOOD PEOPLE.

    Thomas Poovathinkal

  • Anonymous

    O U A POOR MATURE CATHOLIC, GOOD CATHOLICS DO NOT WORSHIP RELICS; THEY MAY VENERATE THEM.

    Thomas Poovathinkal

  • Parasum

    The article seems to be saying it’s an exhibition of both. And aren’t reliquaries also sacred ? They don’t belong in museums, any more than relics do;or any other such paraphernalia.  This detail in the article was especially striking: “It’s a beautiful work of figural sculpture and artistry, and it still contains relics to this day.” If a reliquary is still in a church, with relics in it, an exhibition is no place for it.

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    “”The importance of these relics lies in their spiritual and emotive power rather then whether they are historically genuine.’ What matters is ‘the connecting of this moment with the treasured moment of the past. And if that connection is made through an object which maybe forensically won’t stand up to the test, that’s of secondary importance.’”
     

    I’m not sure the Archbishop intended to communicate that the faithful should discount utterly the results of forensic examination of venerated objects; rather, that when such findings contradict pious tradition concerning an object, that Catholics ought to use their common sense as well as their own personal preference to formulate their response to the object, while respecting the fact that the Universal Church does treasure these sorts of objects in general.

    People who laugh at relics remind me of the line from Shakespeare, “he jests at scars who never felt a wound.” Anyone who has had to say farewell, perhaps forever, to someone for whom one bore not only great love, but also great admiration, will understand what a treasure a keepsake of the departed one can become. Such a keepsake may be among the first things one would try to rescue in case of a fire.

    I think of these objects not as specimens to be tested and measured, but as repositories of the tears and kisses of those long-ago faithul who knew and loved the saint in question, of those who may have been tempted to feel that they could not live without them once they had departed this life, and who, in their near-despair at their loss, clung to and treasured some artifact that connected them . . . and which connects us to them as well as to this well-loved, very human, very vulnerable, very flesh-and-blood saint.

    Connections. Heartstrings. Treasured memories. Tears and prayers and sighs. Most Civilized non-Catholic Westerners (TM)  no longer understand these things. They find them ridiculous, embarassing.  They respect angstroms and wavelengths and computer findings.

    But poets, artists, and philosophers – even Western ones, not to mention Catholics, as well as the very young, the very old - and ordinary people of all faiths who know how to love throughout the rest of the World – do understand the value and the importance of human connections, of the way a sigh can leave its mark on a treasured keepsake that is a reminder of one to whom you have had to say a bittersweet and heart-breaking “good-bye.”

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    “”The importance of these relics lies in their spiritual and emotive power rather then whether they are historically genuine.’ What matters is ‘the connecting of this moment with the treasured moment of the past. And if that connection is made through an object which maybe forensically won’t stand up to the test, that’s of secondary importance.’”
     

    I’m not sure the Archbishop intended to communicate that the faithful should discount utterly the results of forensic examination of venerated objects; rather, that when such findings contradict pious tradition concerning an object, that Catholics ought to use their common sense as well as their own personal preference to formulate their response to the object, while respecting the fact that the Universal Church does treasure these sorts of objects in general.

    People who laugh at relics remind me of the line from Shakespeare, “he jests at scars who never felt a wound.” Anyone who has had to say farewell, perhaps forever, to someone for whom one bore not only great love, but also great admiration, will understand what a treasure a keepsake of the departed one can become. Such a keepsake may be among the first things one would try to rescue in case of a fire.

    I think of these objects not as specimens to be tested and measured, but as repositories of the tears and kisses of those long-ago faithul who knew and loved the saint in question, of those who may have been tempted to feel that they could not live without them once they had departed this life, and who, in their near-despair at their loss, clung to and treasured some artifact that connected them . . . and which connects us to them as well as to this well-loved, very human, very vulnerable, very flesh-and-blood saint.

    Connections. Heartstrings. Treasured memories. Tears and prayers and sighs. Most Civilized non-Catholic Westerners (TM)  no longer understand these things. They find them ridiculous, embarassing.  They respect angstroms and wavelengths and computer findings.

    But poets, artists, and philosophers – even Western ones, not to mention Catholics, as well as the very young, the very old - and ordinary people of all faiths who know how to love throughout the rest of the World – do understand the value and the importance of human connections, of the way a sigh can leave its mark on a treasured keepsake that is a reminder of one to whom you have had to say a bittersweet and heart-breaking “good-bye.”

  • AgingPapist

    Orthodox venerate icons. Most Catholics WORSHIP relics and expect miracles and apparitions in the bargain. This is just pure superstition.   Just get rid of them.

  • AgingPapist

    Catholics treat relics with the expectation they’ll experience a miracle or some other phenomena. They appear to have overly active imaginations. Read about the saints if you wish, but there’s no need to treat relics as heirlooms, or treat them as little trophies from which one can expect some magic
    Such is the faith of a primitive people. 

  • Pastizzi56

    Breast milk from the Virgin Mary and highest ecclesiastical authority in England encouraging catholics to go and see it and may be also pray before it! Is this the true religion?
    This type of so called relics bring the catholic religion into disrepute when endorsed by such an authority. Many, I’m sure, would like to know how this kind of relic was authenticated.
    I believe it is also theologically unsound to say that no matter what the relics are and no matter how authentic they are, they have got their spiritual value-rubbish.

  • amfortas

    They may not belong in museums but many are owned by museums. If you want to see a large number then go to the exhibition.

  • Garret

    Relics in their proper context can literally provide a way of getting in contact with the Divine through physical objects which belonged to a Sainted person(s).  They can be an aid to contemplating the metaphysical realities beyond this life and getting in tune with the Will of the Lord.  Relics which are purported to be something that they are not such as the Crib of Jesus which was exhibited on Christmas eve in St Mary Major’s Basilica in Rome during the 19th century bring this form of spirituality into disrepute.  Modern day faithful not surprisingly have a guarded reaction about the display of relics which were so vehemently attacked by the 16th century reformers.  But we cannot completely disregard this great tradition which has been extant in both the Western and Eastern wings of the Church universal since the early centuries of Christianity.  The tremendous success of the exposure of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux around Ireland and GB in recent years reveal the enduring thirst that people have for touching physical reminders of the Divine.

  • Richard

    Is this how we derfer to Christianity with fakeries? 

  • Adrian

    Another collect for building Saint Peter? Will Teztel be present? Will both the skulls of St John the Baptist be displayed? (from when he was an infant and from when he was an adult)

  • Anonymous

    It says in Book 3 of the Baltimore catechism at Question 1208 on Relics  that the local ordinary must satisfy himself that the relics are genuine before they can be put on display for veneration.
    That is what the Church teaches and requires.
    It is a nonsense to talk about emotions and feeling good and having the right intentions.
    It is a disgrace for Archbishop Vincent Nichols to suggest that relics do not necessarily have to be authentic, and he should set aside any thoughts of being made a Cardinal representing bthe good Catholics in England and Wales until he has publically retracted this heretical statement.

  • Fightlikecrazy20

    I Am Suspicious of The Archbishop’s Comments,Relics are For VENERATION! NOT for WORSHIP or EXHIBITION! 

    P.S I Despise Forgeries Too!