British Museum blog

Treasures of Heaven

James Robinson, Exhibition Curator

Next month, over 120 sacred relics (the physical remains or belongings of saints) will begin arriving at the British Museum from across Europe and the USA for the forthcoming exhibition Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe. As curator of the exhibition, I will be one of the first to see these amazing objects coming out of their travelling cases – and I can’t wait.

But why am I so excited about seeing a bunch of old bones? In the medieval period the relics of saints were enshrined in the most precious and valuable materials. These containers, known as reliquaries, were made by the finest craftsman of the age. Gleaming gemstones and luminous enamels were placed in sublime combinations with precious metals to speak to the viewer of the reliquaries sacred contents. It is these containers that will be showcased in the exhibition.

Medieval Christians believed that the physical remains of saints provided a tangible link to the divine. Saints sat beside God in heaven and could be petitioned to ask God for help. If I were suffering from plague in the Middle Ages I would want to pray to and venerate the relics of St Blaise, an expert in healing the plague. St Blaise might then ask God to help me and I might be miraculously healed. Some Christians hold similar beliefs today. In 2009 over 90,000 pilgrims came to Westminster Cathedral in London to venerate the travelling relics of French nun St Thérese of Lisieux.

Reliquary bust of an unknown female saint, probably a companion
of St Ursula. South Netherlandish, c. 1520–1530.
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In researching this exhibition we have discovered some extraordinary medieval legends. One is the story of the English princess Ursula who before her marriage went on pilgrimage to venerate relics in the Holy Land. She never got there and was captured and martyred along with her 11,000 virgin travelling companions by pagans in Cologne. This captivating reliquary made from delicately painted wood would once have contained the skull of one her companions.

We still have a lot of work to do before the exhibition opens but I couldn’t resist giving a sneak peak at these unusual stories and astounding objects.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opens on 23 June 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Treasures of Heaven, , ,

4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Hi James,

    I already have photographed this one at The Cloisters. It’s wonderful!


  2. Karim Shah says:

    Kindly consider me the member of the British Musemeu !


  3. Mark says:

    This is a must see. Can’t wait


  4. naomi says:

    This looks like it will be a great exhibition, I can’t wait to see all of these amazing obejcts brought together in the round reading room!


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Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together the incredible Iron Age, Roman and early medieval collections of the British Museum and @nationalmuseumsscotland.
Roman control of southern Britain broke down around AD 410. New leaders established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, and Roman towns and cities were largely abandoned. Neighbouring communities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales continued to develop their own unique identities. Monasteries in these areas stood out as European centres of art, learning and literacy, perpetuating and reinventing local traditions. Communities here spoke languages that we now call Celtic, and practiced a distinctive form of Christianity.
Striking stone crosses, such as this one found in Monifieth, Scotland, combined ancient Celtic curves with Anglo-Saxon knotwork and interlace designs to express these distinctive Celtic identities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This sculpture may have been a personal memorial or grave-slab.
Slab of grey sandstone with a cross on one side. From Monifieth, Angus, Scotland, c. AD 800–900. National Museums Scotland.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together stunning objects from the British and Irish Isles as well spectacular loans from across Europe.
This magnificent cauldron is one of the most important and intriguing finds from ancient Europe. It reveals connections between communities thousands of miles apart. Although it depicts objects used in central and western Europe,
it was found in a bog near Gundestrup in Denmark, beyond the northern edge of the Celtic regions. The style of the designs suggests that it was made further east, in Bulgaria or Romania. The strange animals and cross-legged pose of
the antlered figure hint at even wider influences, from as far afield as Asia. The scenes on the panels give a glimpse into a world of ancient myths, and the stories of gods and heroes whose names are now lost.
The Gundestrup cauldron was probably reserved for important rituals. It is likely that most people would have viewed it from a distance, seeing only the forbidding faces of gods and goddesses on the outer panels. The fantastical scenes on the inside would have been revealed to those allowed to experience the cauldron close up.
Gundestrup cauldron. Iron Age, c. 100 BC–AD 1. Found in Gundestrup, northern Jutland, Denmark. @nationalmuseet, #Denmark.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at Our major new #Celts exhibition is now open! Come on a 2,500-year journey tracing what it means to be Celtic...
The peoples first referred to as Celts lived across much of Europe north of the Alps, in villages or fortified hilltop settlements. Although not a single distinct group, they were interconnected, sharing cultural ideas across the continent. The objects they made for feasting, religious ceremonies, adornment and warfare were both stunning works of art and powerful ways to convey shared values and beliefs. Their unique abstract style set them apart from the classical world, but their technological accomplishments stand on par with the finest achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
2,000 years ago valuable objects like this were cast into rivers. This magnificent shield was found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge. It was not made for serious warfare as it is too short to provide sensible protection. Instead, it was probably made for flamboyant display. The highly polished bronze and glinting red glass would have made for a great spectacle.
The Battersea shield. Iron Age, c. 350–50 BC. Found in the River Thames, London, England.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at This 7th-century coin may be the earliest known depiction of a Muslim, the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik. The Umayyad dynasty were the first Muslim rulers to govern Egypt. This coin shows Abd al-Malik holding a sword and surrounded by the shahada, meaning ‘the testimony’ – a statement of faith in the Oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad as God’s Prophet.
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Discover how Egypt’s religious and political landscape was transformed over 12 centuries in our #EgyptExhibition. In 4th-century Egypt many people of different faiths wore amulets, which were believed to provide protection. The menorah – a seven-branched lampstand – is one of the few ways of identifying Jewish material in Egypt. In time, it became the most common symbol of Jewish identity. Judaism never became a state religion in Egypt, but it had a thriving Jewish population from the Roman through to the Islamic periods. 
Find out more about Jews in Egypt in our forthcoming #EgyptExhibition

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