British Museum blog

Holy hand-bells: the endless histories of Irish relics

hand-bell
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

Several weeks ago I broke a green glass tumbler when emptying the dishwasher. The vessel wasn’t rare or expensive; in fact, it was a free gift that I’d received when buying a meal at a fast food restaurant. But that restaurant happened to be on a stretch of the autobahn in Bavaria, Germany, to where I’d driven from London to attend a friend’s wedding. To me, the glass embodied cherished memories of a very special holiday; putting it into the recycling bin with ordinary rubbish made me pretty sad!

This idea, that the objects we own, use and wear become infused with meaning through our interactions with them, is one of the things I find most fascinating about archaeology. Some of my favourite objects in the British Museum’s collections are those which show clear evidence of human use: patches of wear, repairs, or modifications to their original form. I see these as the fingerprints of real people in the past: their choices, their very hands brought about these changes. This brings those people back to life in my imagination.

A group of objects under my curatorial care illustrate this particularly well: hand-bells from early medieval Ireland. Made around the AD 500s–900s, hand-bells were used to call monks to prayer in Irish (and north and west British) monasteries. Clues indicate that their significance exceeded this simple function. The earliest bells were made from wrought iron sheets that were folded and riveted into shape, then brazed with copper alloy (as recent discoveries in Clonfad, County Westmeath confirm).

Experiments have shown that this process was incredibly labour-intensive, requiring plenty of time, raw materials and technological skill: in other words, the type of effort afforded to very special artefacts. Contemporary carvings show figures with croziers – the symbolic hooked staffs of holy office – also carrying hand-bells, suggesting that the latter too were symbols of high standing in the Irish church.

Display of hand-bells in Room 41. Saint Cuileáin’s bell is on the left.

Display of hand-bells in Room 41. Saint Cuileáin’s bell is on the left.

Bell (1889,0902.22)

Hand-bell of Saint Conall Cael with later brass mount (1889,0902.22)

The special nature of some hand-bells became, quite literally, enshrined. Tradition has linked a number of bells, including several in the British Museum’s collections, with early Irish saints. Some became relics and were embellished with ornate mounts or glittering shrines centuries after the bells themselves were made. Two such bells are now displayed in Room 41, the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300–1100, which reopened last month after a major refurbishment. One, associated with Saint Cuileáin of Glankeen, County Tipperary (subject of a recent post), was fitted with a lavish ‘crest’ writhing with interlaced designs and human faces. The other, said to have belonged to Saint Conall Cael of Inishkeel, County Donegal, was later fitted with a brass plate engraved with Irish and Viking ornament.

Shrine made for Saint Conall Cael's bell in the AD 1400s (1889,0902.23)

Bell-shrine (1889,0902.23)

In the 1400s a gem-encrusted shrine (displayed in Room 40) was made to house it. These were not just objects of veneration: they were also thought capable of miraculous actions, such as healing the sick or bringing success in battle. As late as the 1600s Saint Cuileáin’s bell was being used as a lie-detector in the local community, its life-history already a millennium long and counting.

Each object displayed in Room 41 is infused with history, of course; but the hand-bells of Saints Cuileáin and Conall Cael wear it on their sleeves more than most. Objects like these set my imagination off and running, and perhaps I’m not the only one. Since I joined the Museum, I’ve found that hand-bells are second only to the Sutton Hoo ship burial in terms of the number of public enquiries that I receive. The colourful histories, sacred associations and local connections acquired over their long lives must be partly responsible for their popularity. Now newly installed in Room 41, the bells have just begun the next chapter of their extraordinary biographies.

The newly re-opened Room 41

The newly re-opened Room 41


The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 is now open in Room 41. Admission is free.
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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.

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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.

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