Wednesday, 24 July 2013


After my opus angicanum reading online, I decided to go to look at some actual Medieval objects and visited the British Museum.

Reliquary casket for Thomas Becket
Copper and enamel 1210 British Museum
Image from Wikimedia
This reliquary caught my eye. A reliquary was a box which held a relic of a saint - either a piece of their body, or something that had been close to them in life. A reliquary was designed to be carried with someone when they travelled, and was often thought to be able to perform miracles. There was a belief that the body parts of a saint were so pure that they would not rot.

This one claimed to contain a piece of St Thomas a Becket. He was born in Cheapside in London in the twelfth century (to Norman parents) and became a priest, eventually to become Archbishop of Canterbury. He was such a good friend of King Henry II that he was chosen to bring up his son Prince Henry.

He had to flee to France after disagreeing with the king about how much power the crown should have over the church. He returned 2 years  later after a compromise agreement, but then refused to sign the agreement, and he was killed, while at prayer in Canterbury Cathedral, by the king's men. King Henry II was supposed to have said 'Will no one will rid me of this turbulent priest?', and this was taken as an order. There is some doubt about this according to the sources I read.

His body was buried under the cathedral to protect it, and then dug up again to be moved to its final burial site in early 1200. At this time 45 reliquaries were made in France, with the story of his life and death painted on it, one of which is at the British Museum.

These two are reliquaries also kept in the British Museum.

This one contained a wooden box inside, with a lid, to put the relic into it.

Heads were often thought to contain the head of the saint, hands the hand etc.

On the left is the 'Arm Reliquary of the Apostles' which is known to contain an arm bone (The apostles are part of the decoration). Silver gilt over oak, 12th century.

The ornate carving below was also a reliquary from the BM, perhaps the base of a cross. The ivory symbolises purity. 

This one is an African reliquary that I found on the internet, on display at the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition 'Eternal Ancestors'. It looks lovely and delicate and fragile, with a mild character all its own.

Like all of these containers, the idea that they contain body parts of actual people makes them strangely beautiful-grotesque.

What appeals to me about this and the whole Medieval idea of reliquaries, is that it is an object that you can hold and carry around with you, that contains something lost for ever, but that somehow is still full of power. This is a great metaphor and worked in my head a lot after I visited the BM.

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