An altar containing the relics of nearly 40 saints was opened for the first time in years before going on display in a new medieval gallery in the British Museum.
Opened for the first time in the Eighties for scientific study, the 12th-century altar contained 39 relics, carefully folded into a piece of linen. Each individual relic is wrapped in fabric and bears a 13th-century vellum label with the respective saint’s name on it. Among the saints represented by relics are St John, St James and St Mary Magdalene, but the treasure of the collection is what is believed to be a relic of St Benedict of Nursia. The presence of the relics was not made public until this week.
The news was met with excitement. Mgr Keith Barltrop, who has been organising the visit of St Thérèse of Lisieux’s relics to Britain this year, said: “I think it’s rather exciting. Relics are as relevant today as they always have been. They serve as a reminder of our incarnational faith, that it inhabits the physical world, that there are bodies. I think that the bodies of holy people help us draw closer to God and the communion of saints.”
Mgr Barltrop said: “What is exciting is that the relic they seem most definite about is that of St Benedict. I think that it is important to venerate St Benedict, who after all is a saint for Europe. Even if Europe has forgotten its Christian roots, it was the monasteries that helped rebuild Europe. St Benedict played a pivotal role in this with his monastic rule.”
St Benedict is one of the patron saints of Europe. The sixth-century saint was the founder of western monasticism, which helped spread Christianity and stabilise Europe.
Dom Antony Sutch, the former headmaster of Downside, a school run by Benedictines, said: “I think there’s no doubt in the fact that having a relic contributes a great deal. It has real devotional value. To know that somebody really existed, to come into contact with that, makes that person more real and the example they set more tangible.”
James Robinson , the curator of the British Museum’s new medieval gallery, said they had opened the portable altar from Hildesheim in Germany while they were conserving the piece to display it in the gallery which opened to the public on Wednesday.
Mr Robinson said: “It’s difficult to say for certain whether these are the relics of the actual saints. All we could really ascertain was the age of the textiles, which could themselves be relics.” The fabric encasing the relic of St Benedict is ninth to 10th-century Byzantine silk, and Mr Robinson said it would have been highly prized by a high-placed ecclesiastic.
A dedicatory inscription to Abbot Theoderic III on the back of the portable altar dates it to somewhere between 1180 and 1200. The altar has a wooden core, with a central cavity for the relics covered by a Purbeck stone slab. from Dorset. The front is typical of the area of modern day Saxony, with gilt and copper panels showing the evangelists and saints, as well as two crafted from walrus ivory and two manuscript illuminations.
He said: “The altar would have been used to celebrate Mass in a space that had not been consecrated yet. I believe it was the Council of Nicea which pronounced on the criteria for celebrating Mass.
A relic of a saint needed to be in the altar and the stone itself is the right size for the footprint of a chalice.” Hildesheim is still an active place of pilgrimage dedicated to St Gotthard, who is featured with three other bishop-saints including St Bernard on the altar.
The British Museum acquired the altar in 1902 and will keep it on display in Bloomsbury. There are other relics on display in the new gallery.
By Anna Arco and Olivia Sayers