Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Treasures of Heaven

Yesterday I went with a party from the Oxford Oratory to visit the exhibition Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum. The exhibition looks at relics, reliquaries and pilgrimage from the end of the Western Empire until the reformation and beyond. In addition to the Museum's own holdings there are items from the Vatican collections, from elsewhere in Britain, together with France, Germany and Belgium, as well as museum collections in the USA.

The exhibition is housed in the former Reading Room of the Museum, and is a wondrous display of treasures and a record of devotion. Here are reviews from the Guardian (by Eamonn Duffy) and the Daily Telegraph ( complete with predictable mad anti-Papal rant in the appended comments). Both reviews have illustrations of some of the items on display, so do follow the links.

It is an exhibition to take one's time over, and the objcts repay careful study. Accompanying the exhibition is handsome catalogue, available at a special price of a third off to visitors, and a fine array of souvenirs and related books.

Reliquary of St Baudime
Mid-twelfth century

Image: British Museum exhibition website

The relics and relquaries on show are but a fraction of what still survives on the continent, and infinitely less than once existed. In that sense one might be depressed at the greed and stupidity which destroyed so much that was expressive of faith, love and beauty, but one marvels all the more at the skill of medieval craftsmen - just how did they manage to see to produce such miniscule and exquisite detail? - and the joyful vitality of the pieces they created - there are two absolutely delightful figures of a pair of saintly Belgian bishops peering up from the base of their reliquary chasse, rather as if responding to a polite request to put in an appearance or perform some act of intercession.

Reliquary thought to be of one of the companions of St Ursula.
Netherlandish 1520-30

Image: British Museum exhibition website

As always it is invidious to pick out individual objects, but in addition to the episcipal figures I mentioned above, I was particularly interested to see St Cuthbert's portable altar - a sliver of wood used by the great monk-Bishop of Lindisfarne who died in 687 - as well as a fine late medieval Irish bell reliquary, relics of the Crown of Thorns distributed by St Louis, including the reliquary for one thorn made for the Duke of Berry in the late fourteenth century, other exquisite reliquaries of a a few years earlier associated with the court at Prague of the Emperor Charles IV (well it was the feast of St Wenceslaus), and relics and jewellery associated with Mary Queen of Scots and her grandson King Charles I.

In addition to the fine weather the day was all the more pleasant for being a visit with friends, and I appreciated the fact that I was able to spend much of my time with Dr Robert Beddard, formerly my college advisor at Oriel, and with whom I could swap historical observations on the objects we were looking at.

If you have not already been to the exhibition do try to find the time before it closes on October 9th.

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