I’ve just got back from seeing a fascinating exhibition at the British Museum in London. Called ‘Treasures of Heaven’ it’s an exhibition of Christian holy relics and reliquaries. It traces the genesis of what, in the Middle Ages became a big business, to early classical examples of votive offerings placed on tombs. At the end of the exhibition the whole caboodle is tied together with a short film about the place of relics in the modern secular world with examples from Elvis Presley’s Graceland estate and our own Princess Diana.
But it was the mediaeval reliquaries, covered in gold, silver and precious stones, fashioned by the most eminent craftsmen of the age, that really bewitched. Bones, blood, even breast milk thought to have come from saints are still just visible behind windows of rock crystal and wrapped in lovingly folded linen or cloth of gold. So called ‘Speaking’ reliquaries where the head or the whole figure of a Holy Person is fashioned around a tiny piece of bone or vial of blood can and do look spookily alive. Pieces of the ‘true’ cross and thorns from Jesus’ famous Crown of Thorns sit amongst gold and gems so dazzling it makes your head spin. Massive disputes between individuals and even nations have raged over the ownership and/or the veracity of things like this. It’s a terrible thought and is one that is made no easier by the fact that it’s all still going on.
As I wandered amongst the bones, blood and ancient gold covered wood of the past I thought about the current situation in the Middle East, about the Arab Spring and about Israel. It occurred to me that the city of Jerusalem is probably one of the worlds biggest and most potent relics. If one views a relic as something in which a believer invests supernatural and awesome power, then Jerusalem is just that. Not only is it the ultimate monotheistic pilgrimage destination (in terms of numbers of pilgrims from Christianity, Islam and Judaism) it is also a city that encompasses thousands of other relics connected to the Jewish people, Jesus, Muhammad, countless saints and Holy Men. It’s one enormous reliquary and that just on its own, means that the outlook for that poor, battered city has to be, to my way of thinking, bleak.
However ‘secular’ one may be, there is a need inside all humans to hold on to something that is meaningful, if not divine. Many pilgrims to the French town of Lourdes are not religious at all. They visit because the Marian shrine in that town has a reputation for healing. People want to be cured of illnesses that make their lives miserable, that threaten their existences. In times of trouble, whatever that may be, we all seek to hang on to what is familiar, what looks divine, what could be magic. And there isn’t much wrong with that. I carry talismen myself. They are very personal to me and I would be very upset if I lost them. And as an individual if I did lose or have them stolen there is little I could do about it.
As usual it is when politicians and Religion (with a capital R) get involved that the simple pleasure of having faith in what may or may not be magic goes astray. Not only do ‘Holy’ thorns proliferate on a gargantuan scale they also have to be covered in gold and jewels, given into the ‘care’ of some power crazed leader and then fought over with hideous ferocity. People want the essence of these things and it doesn’t just stop at religious artefacts. Over the years the mummified body of Lenin in Moscow’s Red Square has been worshipped and fought over, preserved at great cost and held up as a symbol of everything that is corrupt by those opposed to the old Soviet regime. Poor Eva Peron’s mummified body was used as a bargaining chip by both pro and anti Peronist forces in Argentina right up into the 1970s. Powerful people retain their magic even after death and however rational we might think we are, we all, somewhere deep inside feel that might be true.
When I finally came out of the exhibition and into the grey light of a London afternoon, I must say that as well as feeling as if I had re-entered the ‘real’ world again, I did feel somewhat bereft. As well as possibly containing some ‘power of God’ the things I had seen had dazzled me with their intimations of immortality, of the truth of a good and beautiful after-life beyond the clouds. Although I would never do so myself, I can see why people could and continue to die for that. Doesn’t make it right, it isn’t, but it does make it understandable.