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Swellboy on… Relics

Religious relics were the luxury goods of their day

Swellboy on… Relics

Image: Brijesh Patel

September 29 2011
Nick Foulkes

Before it closes, I am curious to try and catch an exhibition of reliquaries at the British Museum, which is supposed to feature, among other things, the breast milk of the Virgin Mary, the hair of John the Baptist and the inevitable pieces of the true cross.

Relics and reliquaries appeal to me not least because they seem so antithetical to the cult of simplicity that, from my distant knowledge of the Bible, appears to have been such a part of Christianity at its inception.

The Holy Thorn Reliquary of Jean, duc de Berry, which was one of the 100 objects with which the BBC recently recounted the history of the world, is so detailed and intricate in its sheer gorgeousness that I find it hard to make out the thorn, such is the dazzling profusion of gemstones, precious metals and stunning enamel work.

I suppose that reliquaries represent the most elaborate “packaging” for anything that mankind has ever wanted to gift wrap – if this was the wrapping, these objects themselves must have been valued beyond price. I suppose it all ties into the Byzantine way of doing things. Byzantium was where late imperial Rome’s love of splendour collided with the Christian faith. In its day, Constantinople must have been a cracking place to visit; while the rest of Europe wallowed in the Dark Ages, this was the glittering centre of cultural, spiritual and philosophical life – a piece of the ancient world that persisted well into the Middle Ages.

Visitors were awestruck by the glittering splendour of the place. St Sophia, built by the Emperor Justinian in the early sixth century, was, and remains, an architectural marvel which at the time was chock-a-block with paraphernalia that offered a taste of the sort of interior design one might expect to encounter in heaven. Moreover, much in the way that every waiter, janitor and cab driver in Los Angeles is an actor, screenwriter or director, so everyone in Byzantium was an armchair theologian, and some visitors were exasperated that if they wanted directions or stopped to ask a mundane question, they were instead engaged in arcane religious debate: “The people only emerged from their listlessness, when some theological subtlety or some chivalry in the chariot races, stimulated them to frantic riots” was the way that one rather stern 19th-century historian put it. Since then, however, the Eastern Empire of Rome has had a rather better press.

Like many people, I first came to know Byzantium through the poetry of WB Yeats (I also have the Irish poet to thank for introducing me to lapis lazuli), and while the poem is about the misery of growing old, as usual, I prefer to focus on the physical compensations that life in Byzantium appeared to offer, and Yeats gives a tantalising glimpse of the luxury goods market of the day:

‘such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium’

It was also awash with relics. Not just a few strands of hair, but the head of John the Baptist; not just the odd thorn, but the entire crown and the stone from the tomb for good measure. I suppose the high point of this gigantic religious souvenir hunt came in 629, when Heraclius, the 28th emperor of Byzantium, had come by the true cross and was magnanimous enough to restore it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

However, in later years, as the power of Byzantium waned, these relics were turned into hard cash, the crown of thorns was actually pawned, taken by Venetians as surety for a loan and then redeemed and given to the king of France in return for military aid. But in the end they ran out of cash and the last emperor, by coincidence also a Constantine, was so strapped for cash that, finding himself in Peloponnese at the time he inherited the throne, he could not afford the passage back home and had to cadge a lift on a passing Catalan vessel.

It is particularly humiliating because it would appear that there were still icons to be pawned – including, apparently, the gridiron on which St Lawrence was roasted alive and what one visitor described as “a large stone in the shape of a washstand, on which they say Abraham gave the angels food when they were going to destroy Sodom and Gomorra”. Now I know that a grisly but saintly kitchen utensil and a celestial bird table may not be quite the crown of thorns or the true cross, but I am sure they could have raised the price of a first-class cabin.