ARTYFACTS: Baubles and bones at British Museum

Friday, July 08, 2011

Baubles and bones at British Museum

I’ve always been puzzled by miracles such as the virgin birth, water into wine, resurrection and raising the dead. That such miracles are performed by God and Jesus is one thing, but Saints? You need only read one essay on the subject to be clear on the issue, Hume On Miracles. His big argument is, 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....' But I prefer his more straightforward argument in the second half of the essay. 1) Wonder: People have a natural sense of wonder when they hear about miracles. 2) Witnesses: they have reason to believe as they are often religious believers.3) Gullible: People are gullible and credulous when they hear such stories 4) Barbarous: Miracles often arise in the distant past when nations are less educated.

So first up, these are objects of folly, gullibility and stupidity. Now miracles are stories and I can see how people can get carried away, but these are baubles and bones. What made people venerate bones? Christ’s relics I can understand as a visceral link with divinity but Saints are league division 2.

The openings section had a stab – Roman Christians had to hide and bury their dead in catacombs, here feast days were held. This led to a veneration for the bones of one’s ancestors and famous Christians. A visit to the catacombs south of Rome confirms this.

But it was Byzantium, and Constantine’s mother Helena, who turned relics into an international trade. She went to Jerusalem, and in what must have been a Time Team spectacular, found the True Cross (and alongside the other two!), crucifixion nails, his tunic, head of thorns and rope. This is 300 years after the events happened!

And so an industry was born, as Saints relics were found or collected after they died; fingers, hands, entire arms, heads, femurs, shins, toes and other bones came to be collected and shown in reliquaries. Some saints seem to have been preserved several times over. Thereafter Constantinople became relic central and Constantine and other Emperors used them as political gifts.

When the Christians sacked Christian Constantinople, in one of those christen v Christian wars, the world’s greatest concentration of relics was dispersed throughout Europe. Relics and reliquaries are now to be found throughout Europe.

Calvin, Luther and the reformation put an end to this in Northern Europe, but the counter-Reformation made relics even more venerated and associated with pilgrimage.

Of course, it’s not just Christianity that reveres relics. I’ve seen Buddha’s tooth carried on the back of an elephant through Candy, which was spectacular, been in a crowd of intense Muslims in a mosque outside Byzantium’s walls at the footprint of Mohammed, a tooth, hair, coat, sword and letter in the Topaki Palace in Istanbul. I’ve also seen Shia place their head in a casket that held Hussein’s head in Damascus. Which only goes to show that people of all nations are gullible and stupid.


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