British Museum blog

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.

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Showing treasures

St John Simpson, exhibition curator

Although the exhibition doesn’t open until March 2011, we had a briefing for members of the press last week that gave us an opportunity to introduce the incredible objects that will eventually go on show.

Exhibition curator, St John Simpson, discusses the objects at a press conference

In the exhibition title we describe Afghanistan as the crossroads of the ancient world and I think that the 200 objects spanning 3,000 years will show exactly why that’s an appropriate description.

Its geographical position, on the edge of central Asia with India and China beyond to the east and Iran, the Middle East and the numerous cultures of the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe to the west, it was criss-crossed by ancient trade routes. In many ways then as now it was a hub and meeting place for diverse cultures and neighbours, both near and distant, over thousands of years.

In the modern world it’s all too easy to think of Afghanistan solely as a place of conflict – and indeed the objects that will feature in the exhibition tell that story as well – but taking the long view we can see in the rich materials and ornate craftsmanship of these objects a far broader story.

Gold crown from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Gold crown from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Afghanistan has always been a part of a complex network of cultures that doesn’t really take account of contemporary political boundaries. Long-distance travel and globalisation may seem like relatively new inventions, but the ancient world was much more connected than many of us may think. I hope we can help bring this inter-connectedness out in the exhibition.

One of the pieces on loan from the National Museum in Kabul illustrates this point particularly well: a pendant from the Tillya Tepe hoard found in the north-west of the country. It features inlays of gold and turquoise. Two dragon-like beasts in the design suggest to some the influence of Chinese art but to others represent the heavenly horses of the Ferghana valley of neighbouring Central Asia.

Inlaid gold pendant from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Inlaid gold pendant from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

It also includes lapis lazuli, a type of blue stone only found in Afghanistan but coveted in the wider world for thousands of years. It crops up in the jewellery of ancient Egypt, the art of the ancient near east and as far afield as the art of the Italian Renaissance.

The fact we nearly lost many of these stunning objects and signposts to the past to the events of Afghanistan’s recent history underlines how precious they are as well as the fragility of cultural heritage.

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A magnificent collection comes to London

St John Simpson, exhibition curator

Years of quiet behind-the-scenes conversations and negotiations through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, accelerating as the months passed, are now about to come to fruition. On 4 November 2010 an official loan agreement was signed in Kabul by Dr Sayed Raheen, the Minister of Information and Culture, and Sir William Patey, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, followed by a second signing in London on 23 November by Neil MacGregor and witnessed by Mr Homayoun Tandar, the Afghan ambassador to Britain.

Signing of the official loan agreement in Kabul

The purpose of this is to enable the bringing to London of the magnificent collection of objects from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul which have been touring the world for the past four years. This is the first and only opportunity to see these pieces in Britain.

The objects number over 200 and come from four of the most important archaeological sites in Afghanistan: Tepe Fullol (also known as Khosh Tapa), Ai Khanum (meaning ‘Moon Lady’ in local Uzbek language), Begram and Tilla Tepe (‘Hill of Gold’, better known as Tillya Tepe). They were found between 1937 and 1978 and were previously exhibited in the National Museum in Kabul.

All were feared destroyed or lost during the decades of war and unrest following 1978, during which time the collections were regularly moved, the museum occupied by the military, its upper floors destroyed in a rocket strike, pagan wooden carvings from Nuristan burnt as firewood, and finally its surviving collection of ancient figural sculpture systematically destroyed by fundamentalist Taliban in 2001.

The destroyed state of the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul 2001

The whereabouts and safekeeping of these objects was only confirmed in 2003, after the fall of the Taliban government, when newly elected President Hamid Karzai announced they had been mostly hidden in unmarked safes in vaults beneath the presidential palace.

The objects were then inventoried the following year, partly conserved and re-exhibited in Paris in December 2006. Since then they have travelled to Turin, Amsterdam, Washington, San Francisco, Houston, New York, Ottawa and are currently exhibited in Bonn. The exhibition is a remarkable story of Afghans hiding their own culture in order to preserve it and now proudly displaying it to the world. I’m looking forward to working with the Afghans on this magnificent exhibition.

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