Treasures of Heaven

Eamon Duffy on relics, occasioned by an exhibition at the British Museum.

some of the central themes of the British Museum‘s magnificent new exhibition. St Hugh’s startling behaviour reflected these themes: the universal medieval belief that relics, the fragmented bodies of the saints, were charged with holiness and power, worth journeying great distances to see; the prestige which ownership of such relics brought (the Burgundian abbey of Vézelay was a rival claimant to Mary Magdalene’s relics); ambiguity over whether the power of the relic could be tapped through its appearance – concealed in this instance by its silken cover – or by brute physical contact with its sanctified matter; the comparison between the holiness of the relics of the saints, and the holiness of the body and blood of Christ in the Mass; and finally the lengths to which some would go to secure even tiny fragments of the relic for their own church or community.

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