Treasures of Heaven
saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe

23 June – 9 October 2011

Exhibition closed


Sponsored by John Studzinski

In association with
William and Judith Bollinger, Singapore
Betsy and Jack Ryan
Howard and Roberta Ahmanson
The Hintze Family
Charitable Foundation

Organised with
The Cleveland Museum of Art
The Walters Art Museum

★★★★★  ‘Glorious’  The Times
‘Magnificent’  The Guardian
‘Astonishing’  Evening Standard

This major exhibition brings together some of the finest sacred masterpieces of medieval art for the first time.

The exhibition features over 150 objects 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.

Where heaven and earth meet

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.

Sacred containers

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 that reflected the importance of their sacred contents.

Over a thousand years of history

The earliest items date from the late Roman period and trace the evolution of the cult of the saints from the 4th century 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 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).

Witness a lost heritage

Treasures such as these have not been seen in significant numbers in the UK since the Reformation in the 16th century, which saw the wholesale destruction of saints’ shrines. The exhibition offers a rare opportunity to glimpse the heritage of beautiful medieval craftsmanship that was lost to this country for centuries.

Highlight objects

  • St Ursula

    Discover the story of the English princess Ursula who before her marriage went on a pilgrimage to venerate relics in the Holy Land.

  • St Baudime reliquary

    According to legend St Baudime was a missionary sent from Rome by St Peter to bring Christianity to Gaul (modern-day France) during the early 3rd century AD. He travelled with St Auditeur and St Nectaire and settled in the Auvergne region of France where this reliquary is still held today.

  • Holy Thorn reliquary

    This reliquary was made to house a relic of the Crown of Thorns, the wreath of thorns placed on the head of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion.

  • Medieval goldsmiths

    Medieval goldsmiths were some of the most important craftsmen because they worked with precious metals. This video explores some of the techniques these craftsmen used and shows some of the extraordinary and beautiful objects of medieval craftsmanship that are on display in the exhibition.

  • Modern veneration

    An exploration of how veneration is still very much in evidence today – and not always in expected places. Celebrity bodies, for instance, are revered in the global cultures of the 21st century, similar in many ways to the veneration of holy individuals in medieval Europe.

More about St Ursula

This beautiful woman is most likely intended to represent one of the companions of St Ursula. According to legend St Ursula was an English princess who decided to go on a holy pilgrimage before her marriage. The legend also states that she took with her 11,000 virgin companions as company for the journey.

The troop of 11,000 virgins travelled to Cologne, Basle and Rome and made their way home back through Cologne. It was here that they met with a group of pagan Huns, whose leader wanted to marry Ursula. Ursula being already engaged and a virgin refused! This made the Huns so angry that they murdered all 11,000 of the girls by arrow fire.

11,000 virgins is certainly a large party – the legend of there being 11,000 virgins became fixed in the 10th century, but this was probably through a misunderstanding of a Latin numerical inscription which read 11 rather than 11,000! Once the legend took off it became incredibly popular and indeed provided much inspiration for medieval craftsmen to create objects such as this.

The ‘door’ in the centre of the head of this reliquary opens to reveal a cavity which once held a skull relic of this unknown female saint.

More about the St Baudime reliquary

This reliquary was made between 1146 and 1178 and may once have held a relic of St Baudime’s blood. The relic would have been held in a cavity at the back of the reliquary but it is no longer contained inside. There is no record of relics being contained inside the reliquary beyond 1871.

St Baudime’s reliquary has a turbulent history – the gemstones which were once studded all over his vestments were likely removed during the French Revolution in the 1790s. The reliquary was also stolen at the beginning of the 20th century by a notorious art thief. It was found soon after by police, apparently languishing in a wine cellar.

We might normally expect this type of reliquary (known as a ‘speaking reliquary’) to contain a skull – as the form of the reliquary would literally speak its contents. However, there is no record of this container ever having held a skull relic, which further adds to the object’s mystery.

This rare survival has never before left France and is one of the exhibition’s most astounding objects.