“Treasures of Heaven,” an excellent new exhibition at the British Museum in London, is full of precious objects. Gold and jewels glitter in dramatic lighting.
To the original makers and owners, however, it wasn’t the value of these sumptuous containers that counted but what was within: dry bones, splinters of wood and sundry organic remains.
This is about the cult of relics, one of the strangest aspects of Christianity to those who are non-Christians (and to quite a few who are). Some of the exhibits, leaving aside the fact that they are masterpieces of medieval craft, are surreal.
A life-size silver gilt representation of a head, made around 1210 perhaps in Basel, contains nine pieces of human skull. Allegedly, these belonged to St. Eustace, a Roman general who converted to Christianity after seeing a crucifix between the antlers of a stag.
Stranger still is a “Reliquary of the Foot of St. Blaise” — a 4th-century bishop from Armenia. It’s a highly realistic model from c. 1260 of what jazz pianist Fats Waller called “the pedal extremities” of the saint from the ankle down, fashioned from metals and rock crystal.
A few of the items on view go beyond mere oddity into the territory of Harry Potter. Toward the end of the show you come across the “Griffin’s Claw of St. Cuthbert.” A griffin is a mythological creature, half-eagle, half-lion. Its claws could only be obtained by a holy person in exchange for medical assistance. In 1385, St. Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham Cathedral had two of them, plus some griffin eggs. Disappointingly, the talon on display turns out to be the horn of an ibex.