The Lost Art Of Old England

For a thousand years, until the Reformation swept away the cult of saints, relics were as English as roast beef, inspiring an entire artistic tradition

Features The Church of England

Faithful host: Reliquary statue for the umbilical cord of Christ (Trustees of the British Museum) 

In 1539 the future Protestant martyr, Hugh Latimer, arrived at Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire with instructions from Thomas Cromwell. He was to investigate the alleged vial of Christ’s blood that attracted pilgrims in their thousands. Latimer duly cracked open the rock crystal container and poked at its contents. “It has a certain unctuous moistness,” he reported to his master, but when exposed to air “it turns yellow and cleaves like glue.” Protestant propaganda had already claimed that the vial was regularly topped up with blood from a duck. Latimer’s investigation put paid to this particular theory, but the relic was nonetheless denounced as a fraud. The abbot voluntarily withdrew the Holy Blood from sight.  Not that this saved his abbey, which was dissolved with all of England’s other monasteries shortly thereafter.

The Holy Blood is long gone from Hailes but today a sample is still attracting pilgrims to the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek in Bruges. The burghers of the city parade the relic through the streets every Ascension Day to celebrate their deliverance from French occupation in 1302. There are plenty of other blood relics, although not all examples have enjoyed equal reverence. Henry III obtained some precious drops from Jerusalem and presented them to Westminster Abbey in 1347. But despite its royal patronage, this relic’s cult never caught on and when it disappeared during the Reformation, few cared.

The Protestant iconoclasm during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I destroyed a substantial proportion of England’s medieval inheritance. So the objects on display at the British Museum’s summer show Treasures of Heaven appear alien to English sensibilities. Nonetheless, we should not forget that this was once our culture too. 

Henry VIII began his reign as a devotee of traditional Catholic piety, even visiting the shrine of the Virgin at Walsingham Abbey in Norfolk. Although he never embraced Protestantism, Henry would later support the suppression of the relic cults and the monasteries that housed many of them. In 1541, the king ordered that all saints’ shrines should be destroyed. Their bodies were no longer to be venerated and instead buried in common graves. Soon afterwards, the remains of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral were extracted from their beautiful shrine.

Finding the body incorrupt 900 years after the saint had died, the king’s agents hesitated. They dumped the corpse in the cloister and sent to London for instructions. Word came back that the shrine should be levelled and the saint reburied under the floor of the cathedral in the same spot. By this time, the saint had been exposed to the elements for a few weeks and was incorrupt no longer. The bones were buried as instructed and St Cuthbert remains in his new grave to this day.

St Thomas Becket was less lucky. Henry had already ordered that the cult of this rebellious prelate be utterly expunged. The numerous altars and images in his honour in churches across the country were destroyed and his shrine at Canterbury smashed.  The location of his bones remains a mystery. A near-contemporary account claims that Henry’s men burnt them, so dangerous was the martyr’s cult considered to be. Today, of the English saints, only St Edward the Confessor still lies in his medieval tomb. Henry had him reburied but the tomb survived, perhaps due to an oversight. The Catholic Mary I replaced the royal corpse within it.

The devastation of the Reformation did not end with the shrines of saints. In the reign of Edward VI almost all remaining religious art in the country was lost. A few wall paintings and painted screens survive, but of the images of Christ crucified that were mounted in the chancel of every parish church, not a single one remains. The English destroyed almost their entire artistic tradition and then suppressed their memory of it. Today, medieval alabaster sculptures hold places of honour in museums across Europe and North America, but few of us recognise them as products of the Midlands.  A 15th-century example portraying St Thomas Becket’s murder is included in the British Museum’s show together with various Canterbury pilgrims’ accoutrements. 

The Treasures of Heaven exhibition is devoted to reliquaries, the bejewelled cases fashioned to hold relics within. The expense and time devoted to crafting these holy boxes gives some indication of how seriously relics were taken. Visitors expecting to see gruesome remains will be disappointed — there is hardly a bone in sight. Most of the relics are discreetly wrapped in cloth and, in any case, they are very small in comparison to the reliquaries built to house them. Instead of grisly bits of cadavers, we are treated to a very fine exhibition of medieval objets d’art. 

Some of the artefacts on display are stunningly beautiful and shown to maximum advantage. Many are mounted in well-lit freestanding cases rather than against the walls. This means, for example, that we can admire the intricate gold beadwork on all four sides of the 1,000-year-old portable altar of Countess Gertrude. Although some of the pieces, like the Franks Casket, will be familiar to devotees of the British Museum, there are plenty of treasures that have never before been seen in the UK. Magnified photographs and film show the microscopic detail on some of the smaller exhibits and allow us to see them both open and closed.

Most of the pilgrims flocking to the shrines of saints would never have got as close to the relics as we can today. But that did not mean they thought the trip was wasted. Their sacred journeys could reduce the time a soul had to spend in Purgatory after death. It was not fear of hellfire that motivated late medieval piety. Hell was for infidels and heretics, its horrors sending a righteous shiver down the spines of congregations as they admired the last judgment or “doom” painted on the walls of most churches. Purgatory, on the other hand, was a clear and present danger to almost all Christians who knew that they could not ascend straight to heaven. They had to be cleansed of their sins through a posthumous process that was at the least unpleasant and quite possibly very painful and drawn out. While the souls in Purgatory knew their salvation was guaranteed, it was well worth minimising how long they had to stay there. 

Of course, many invalids prayed to saints for miraculous healing. There was nothing irrational about this. Until the 19th century, professional physicians could do almost nothing for their patients. Treatments such as bleeding, emetics and purgatives were likely to do more harm than good. Supplications before a relic might have no physical effect at all, but neither would prayers make an illness worse. And for the faithful, what we now know as the placebo effect could very well lead to cures more impressive than anything contemporary doctors could manage. 

Miracles validated relics and drew healthy pilgrims looking for their tickets out of Purgatory. Pilgrims brought cash with them, so the curators of shrines had good reason to promote successful episodes of healing. It may have been the effectiveness of these marketing operations that determined whether the devout deemed the Holy Blood in Hailes more worthy of a visit than the example at Westminster Abbey. Authenticity was also helpful. England’s greatest pilgrimage centre was the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. No one doubted that the martyred archbishop’s body really did lie there. 

Margery Kempe, whose spiritual autobiography was rediscovered in 1934, was wealthy enough to go on many pilgrimages. The main routes were lined with inns, making them among the more comfortable itineraries for travellers during the Middle Ages, although not without their hazards. Innkeepers were especially notorious for robbing and murdering pilgrims. This is one of the reasons that Geoffrey Chaucer’s group of pilgrims to Canterbury found safety in numbers. Margery Kempe herself journeyed all the way to Jerusalem in 1414, although her ecstatic fits and weeping drove the rest of the company to distraction. Unperturbed, she also completed pilgrimages to Germany, Spain and the Baltic.

Relics do not necessarily have to be bones or bodies. Because both Jesus and his mother, the Virgin Mary, are supposed to have ascended bodily to heaven, remnants of their earthly lives could not consist of parts of their corpse. Fragments of the true cross, the crown of thorns and even the Virgin’s milk were all touted to pilgrims. Linking Christ to the Virgin directly, Treasures of Heaven even features a reliquary for Jesus’s umbilical cord. But the most interesting of these secondary relics are the various images of Christ or Mary. The Turin Shroud is well-known and still revered despite Carbon 14 techniques dating it to around 1300. If this is not the burial sheet of Jesus then it is, at least, a fine example of medieval art. 

Other images are almost as celebrated. The icon of the Virgin of Vladimir, now housed in Moscow, is one of many said to have been painted by St Luke. The prolific apostle’s artistic achievement is all the more remarkable for perfectly imitating an iconographic style dating from some 1,200 years after his death. Other pictures claim to have a miraculous origin. The legend of Veronica, who handed Jesus a cloth to wipe his brow and was rewarded with a likeness of his face imprinted on the fabric, is well known. Treasures of Heaven includes another icon allegedly not produced by human hands. The catalogue blandly states that its date and place of composition are unknown. This faint image is the Mandylion of Edessa. Or one of them.

Writing in the 4th century, Eusebius, the earliest historian of the Church, tells a story about Agbar, King of Edessa, a city now in the south-eastern corner of Turkey. The king desired the cure of an illness that afflicted him and so wrote a letter to Jesus. Jesus replied, promising to send a disciple to heal the king. Today, scholars do not think the letters, carefully transcribed by Eusebius, are genuine. But it is true that Edessa was one of the earliest Christian kingdoms. Agbar XIII, who reigned in the late 2nd century, was a Christian. Eusebius tells us that he had found the letters in Edessa and translated them into Greek himself. The legend may reflect the desire of Edessa to assert the origin of its church independent of Rome. 

In the century after Eusebius the story developed further. By this time Edessa boasted a portrait of Christ called the Mandylion (a word whose meaning is obscure). To provide a provenance for this icon, Agbar’s messenger was now said to have painted the picture when he caught up with Jesus. Later, it was ascribed a completely miraculous origin. The icon protected Edessa for centuries before it was carried to Constantinople in 944. It disappears from the historical record after the sack of the Byzantine capital during the Fourth Crusade of 1204, but it was likely to have been carried home by the triumphant crusaders. There are at least three candidates identified as the original version of this icon. The one in the show at the British Museum comes from the Pope’s private Matilda Chapel in the Vatican. The frame is baroque, but the picture within appears to be a 13th-century copy of a much older original.

Today, the Catholic Church has an ambivalent attitude towards relics. They are tolerated as an example of popular piety but have no special theological significance. A few attract continued veneration from the faithful, but this appears quaint to Protestants brought up to treat them as papist superstition. But we should remember that it was only an accident of history that expelled the cult of the saints from England. The strange and foreign objects in the British Museum’s exhibition represent customs that were once as English as roast beef and brown ale.