British Museum blog

On medieval metalwork

Jamie Hall, contemporary and medieval metalworker

The majority of the objects on display in Treasures of Heaven are made from precious metals. In the modern age, the computer is the pinnacle of technological development, and during the Industrial Revolution it was vast machines that filled the role. But prior to that, during the middle ages, it was the products of the metalworker that represented the very best of human ingenuity. Popular culture gives the impression that arms and armour were the heart and soul of metallurgy, but work in the precious metals is no less inspiring, and in fact, the two branches go hand in hand, one feeding into the other.

As a jeweller, and a medievalist, the exhibition was a very exciting opportunity to see the labours of my predecessors first hand. It’s one thing to read about the methods they used, and another to behold these objects, and see the tool marks – remembering that each stroke of the engraving, and each strike of the hammer, had a human hand behind it, using tools that are not so different to the ones I use today. But these aren’t the works of a single artisan; rather, they represent a high level of social and economic organisation – the materials, like enamel and gemstones, would be purchased by, or given to, a particular religious order, and the work might be done within a monastic workshop, or perhaps by secular artisans in a nearby town.

Within that workshop would be masters and apprentices of various persuasions – experts in casting, forging and gilding, others who worked with the precious stones, others who would engrave and polish the metal. One such workshop is described in a 12th-century book called On Divers Arts by an artisan-monk calling himself Theophilus, where even the steel tools were produced in-house.

My favourite piece in the exhibition is the Bell Shrine of St. Cuileáin, which has an almost sci-fi quality to it. Aside from the excellent knotwork decoration, the piece is assembled from a mixture of cast and forged sections, and has a feeling of solidity that you can see across the room.

It isn’t often that we get a chance to see such a wide range of methods in one place – the exhibition is almost like a catalogue of techniques. Nor do we normally get to see objects that cover over a millenia of history, across so many different cultures, each with it’s own unique take on Christianity. From the post-classical styles of the Byzantine Empire, to the pagan-influenced works from the British Isles, and everything in between, the Treasures of Heaven exhibition is a stunning testament to the passion, inspiration and ingenuity of our ancestors, and their search for beauty in a world of tragedy and violence.

Jamie Hall (@primitivemethod) is a contemporary and medieval metalworker.

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe is open until 9 October 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

Perspectives on the world

Jonathan Williams, Keeper of Prehistory and Europe

The Museum’s latest exhibition exploring spiritual journeys closes in the next couple of weeks. Treasures of Heaven is all about what it was like to be human in medieval Europe, and an inherent part of medieval European life was religion. Whether you were a woman or a man, young or old, rich or poor, Christianity was part of everyday life and the exhibition explores the role of worship and the objects associated with it – and how these objects were thought to provide a bridge between heaven and Earth.

The way that Christianity permeated all elements of medieval European life is one of the big things that make medieval Europeans different from us, and that’s why we need to know about it. For better or worse, medieval people lavished their money and time, their art and their passion on their religion above all else, and made some extraordinarily beautiful and moving things along the way, many of which feature in the show.

It’s been an amazing opportunity to gain a new insight not just into the craftsmanship and sophistication of the middle ages but, more importantly, into the minds and hearts of people in a particular moment in time.

You can say something similar about the Museum’s next big show, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, about the great annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which will also give all of us a way into understanding a phenomenon that is central to the lives and imaginations of millions of people around the world, and millions of Britons too. The exhibition will explore the history of this famous pilgrimage through rarely-seen objects from across the world and will shed light on how the pilgrimage continues to be experienced today.

To explore human history is to explore human beliefs and experiences. This is what the British Museum is for – to enable us to see the world from different perspectives.

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe is open until 9 October 2011.
Book tickets now.
Sponsored by John Studzinski

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012. Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, Treasures of Heaven

Installing Treasures of Heaven

Morn Capper, British Museum

As Icelandic ash clouds threatened to delay the main shipments, my Treasures of Heaven installation with the Museum Assistant team began eventfully. I need not have worried. Customs delays merely allowed us to make an especially large mountain of tissue balls with which to safely pack objects. By the evening, our lorry finally arrived back at the Museum and the crates were safely unloaded and locked away until morning.

A crate containing one of the objects is wheeled into the exhibition space.

A crate containing one of the objects is wheeled into the exhibition space.

Starting early on day two with British Museum objects, crates were opened and parcels unwrapped, as every object was examined to ensure it had survived the flight from the USA intact.

First paperwork: despite their apparently good condition, these irreplaceable treasures are hundreds of years old, and each has instructions for care and display. Relics and reliquaries also have an unusual mixture of materials. Precious metals like gold and silver prefer dry conditions, while organic materials like wood, bone and ivory need carefully conditioned humidity to stop them cracking.

Then the excitement: under the watchful eyes of the exhibition curator, James Robinson, I unwrapped the head of St Eustace – a British Museum object which has been on tour around the world – from the special intercept material which prevents him from tarnishing and carefully compared each gem, rivet, dent and scratch to the record photos to make sure he had returned safely. Satisfied, James signed St Eustace back into British Museum hands. Senior Museum Assistant, Jim Peters was given the nerve-wracking task of carrying the Holy Thorn Reliquary – a 700 year-old object made for the French royal family – across the Great Court and into the exhibition space.

Immediately, couriers from across the globe began to arrive, co-ordinated by Project Manager Rachel. Curators from Cleveland and Baltimore were joined by conservator Larry Becker from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, with the St Ursula companion: the face on every British Museum poster for the exhibition. Specialist British Museum conservators advised on their care.

Once these couriers leave site the display cases containing their objects cannot be reopened and with Museum Assistant Sam co-ordinating the effort the team had to work late into the night.

Morn Capper and Museum Assistant, Alex Garrett install one of the objects.

Morn Capper and Museum Assistant, Alex Garrett install one of the objects.

Each pin holding such relics as the sixth century necklace from Cleveland or the skull fragment of St Thomas Becket from Stonyhurst College, was expertly positioned, tested and sheathed in plastic.

While some of these relics have little known histories, others have fascinating stories up to the present day. The Man of Sorrows, a Byzantine Icon, has been in Santa Croce in Rome since at least the fourteenth century, where it was surrounded by the cabinet of relics it still holds today, each with an individual hand written label. Later in the exhibition, books from the Reformation hint towards a time when the printed word led to greater questioning of these strange and powerful objects of devotion. It has been a fascinating week.

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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

St Baudime reliquary arrives at the Museum

By James Robinson, Exhibition Curator

Today the installation began in earnest with the placing of one of the most significant and compelling reliquaries of the exhibition. The statue reliquary of St Baudime had never left France before its inclusion in the Treasures of Heaven exhibition. It’s normally kept in the church of St Nectaire deep in the Auvergne in the centre of France where, sadly, relatively few people have seen it.

Statue reliquary of St Baudime in the church of St Nectair, Auvergne, France

Imagine the excitement when the packing case was opened and the eyes of this exceptional figure were exposed again to the light. The eyes were designed to hold the gaze of the onlooker and still command attention today. Made of ivory, horn and wax, they are slightly mobile and move in their sockets – a miracle of medieval technology. The beautifully expressive hands were made to extend benediction and welcome. The right hand may have once held a phial of the saint’s blood. Despite its remarkable delicacy, its solid walnut core makes it extraordinarily heavy and it required concentrated effort to place it safely in its display case.

The reliquary arrives at the British Museum and is carefully removed from its crate and prepared for conservation work.

Although this reliquary of St Baudime has always remained in France and has stirred rarely from the church it was made to furnish, it has experienced its fair share of trauma. The settings for the jewels that once adorned the figure are now almost all empty, robbed of their riches at the time of the French Revolution. Later, the reliquary itself was stolen by the infamous Thomas brothers in May 1907 but was recovered in a wine cellar!

A slideshow showing every step of the installation is now online.

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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, , , , , , , ,

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, , ,

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Bust of Neilos. Canopus, AD 100–200. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
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