Treasures of Heaven Saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe

Holy Thorn Reliquary. Paris, France. Late 14th century, British Museum exhibition, London
Holy Thorn Reliquary. Paris, France. Late 14th century, British Museum exhibition, London

This major exhibition brings together for the first time some of the finest sacred treasures of the medieval age.

It features over 150 objects drawn from more than 40 institutions including the Vatican, European church treasuries, museums from the USA and Europe and the British Museum’s own pre-eminent collection.

It was during the medieval period that the use of relics in devotional practice first developed and became a central part of Christian worship. For many, the relics of Christ and the saints – objects associated with them, such as body parts or possessions – continue to provide a bridge between heaven and earth today.

Relics were usually set into ornate containers of silver and gold known as reliquaries, opulently decorated by the finest craftsmen of the age. They had spiritual and symbolic value and reflected the importance of the sacred contents.

The earliest items on display date from the late Roman period and trace the evolution of the cult of the saints from the 4th century AD to the peak of relic veneration in late medieval Europe.

Relics featured in the exhibition include three thorns thought to be from the Crown of Thorns, fragments of the True Cross, the foot of St Blaise, the rib of St Peter, the breast milk of the Virgin Mary, the hair
of St John the Evangelist, and the Mandylion of Edessa (one of the earliest known likenesses
of Jesus).

Treasures such as these have not been seen in significant numbers in the UK since the Reformation, which saw the destruction of saints’ shrines. This exhibition offers the perfect opportunity to glimpse the heritage of beautiful medieval craftsmanship that was lost to this country for centuries.

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