Personal Devotion at the British Museum

Posted April 29, 2016 11:24 am by Rosie Weetch under Collections Impact Project updates

The handling session in full swing!

The handling session in full swing!

On Friday 22nd April we had the privilege of leading one of the regular medieval handling sessions hosted by the British Museum and the Medieval Touch research group from the Courtauld Institute. We used the session to introduce the Bearers of the Cross project, and to explore two of the key themes that underpin our research: lived religion and material religion.

Lived religion is the term used to describe the everyday practices that make up an individual’s experience of being religious. Instead of looking at doctrine, ideas, or ecclesiastical organisation, the study of lived religion is concerned with how individuals participate in their beliefs on an everyday level. For the medieval period getting access to this kind of information is tricky. Texts and documents are only rarely concerned with the detail of lay religious practices. This means that some of our best information about how individuals practiced Christianity at this time comes from material culture: the objects they owned, used, commissioned, and wore. But this should not be seen as a stumbling block to exploring the lived religion of the medieval period because lived religion is often about how people link the material aspects of their lives with the spiritual. Personal prayer, study, and meditation is a central part of many people’s engagement with Christianity, and these activities are often guided by physical objects, including books, images, icons, rosaries, and other personal items. It is these personal objects, that may have been actively used in prayer, or as reminders or affirmations of faith, that we wanted to explore at the British Museum.

Holy Thorn pendant reliquary. (c) British Museum

Holy Thorn pendant reliquary, c.1340. Open to show the relic inside, one of the enamelled scenes, and the removed rock crystal lid with vellum insert. 1902,0210.1 © British Museum

With that in mind, Rosie headed to the British Museum to meet curator Lloyd de Beer to have a rummage through the drawers and select some interesting objects related to personal devotion to help spark some interesting discussions during the handling session. We were keen to get a range of objects, from the most high status down to the more ordinary and affordable, and we were able to select some old favourites and objects we were less familiar with.

Some of the most exquisite objects we were able to handle were personal reliquaries that purport to contain the relics of particular saints or holy people. We were very lucky to be able to get out one of the most famous reliquaries in the British Museum’s collection for the session. Currently on display in the Medieval Gallery, it is a pendant formed from a large kidney-shaped amethyst, split in two to create a locket. Inside are delicate enamelled scenes from the life of Christ and images of a king and queen, presumed to be French king Philip VI and his wife, Jeanne de Bourgogne. A central leaf contains a fragment of painted vellum depicting the Nativity and Annunciation below a thin sheet of rock crystal. This central panel can be carefully lifted to reveal the sacred relic: a single thorn from the Crown of Thorns behind another rock crystal cover and topped with a gold crown. This thorn may have come from the Crown of Thorns that was purchased by King Louis IX of France (St. Louis) in 1238 from the Latin emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II.

The act of using and wearing objects like this was part of a performative ritual. This example is particularly interactive and one can imagine its (probably royal) owner opening the pendant, studying and contemplating the scenes depicted during personal prayer before revealing the relic. It was believed that in using such relics individuals acquired the protection and intercession of the saint or holy person.

The St Demetrius reliquary. Showing the front, back, and opened. 11th century. © British Museum

The St Demetrios reliquary. Showing the front, back, and opened. 11th century. © British Museum

We looked at other examples of high-end pendant reliquaries, including the St Demetrios reliquary, an enamelled pendant made in Greece in the 11th century. Like the Holy Thorn pendant reliquary above, it can be opened in layers: first to reveal the relics, and then a door with an enamelled scene of a body in a tomb further opens to show a gold relief image of the entombed figure. Its many inscriptions name this recumbent man as St Demetrios and the bust on the front as St George. Additional inscriptions in Greek tell us that the relics are not the bones of the saint, but oil, probably from his tomb, and blood, probably soil from the site of St Demetrios’ martyrdom. St Demetrios was a popular figure among the military classes, and the inscription around the front announces that this pendant was to be used in a military context: [The wearer] prays to have you as his ardent protector in battle. It has been argued that the lamp or censer suspended over the tomb is a reflection of crusader influence. Similar iconography was used in crusader art, such as on the seals of the Order of St John and lead ampullae from Jerusalem that also sometimes depict St Demetrios and St George.


Middle Byzantine reliquary cross. 11th century. 1929,0713.7. © British Museum.

Wearing pendants containing relics is a practice that can be traced back to the late Roman period. One of the earliest records of the use of such pendants comes from St Gregory of Nyssa who reported (between AD 380 and 383) that his sister Makrina was wearing a necklace with an iron cross and ring containing a fragment of the True Cross. It is said that the pendant was “fastened by a slender thread and rested continually on [her] heart”. The proximity between relic and the body that pendants created was presumably one of the factors that made them popular, despite such lay practices often being frowned upon by the Church. One could have personal, bodily, and continual contact with the saints.

At the handling session we were keen to explore how this practice of personal relic veneration filtered down through society. What options were there for medieval people who were not wealthy or powerful enough to obtain such high-status objects as the two pendant reliquaries discussed above?

The copper-alloy cross pendants (Enkolpia) found throughout the Byzantine Empire, but also beyond in eastern and southeastern Europe, and other parts of the Mediterranean, were popular and affordable accessories. Suspended from a chain and worn around the neck, these pendants are hinged to allow them to be opened and the cavity inside filled with relics. Unlike the sumptuous gold and enamelled pendants above, these are simple in form, made of base metal, and have awkwardly drawn decoration, all a symptom of their mass production. But this lack of splendour would not have hindered the power of the relics within that, when combined with the cross-shaped form of the pendants and the holy images of the Virgin and Christ which usually adorned them, would have been perceived as bearing apotropaic qualities that would have protected their wearers.

But personal objects did not have to contain relics to be important to an individual’s lived religion. We also looked at a range of possessions that gained their power not from the inclusion of sacred matter, but from the images and words that decorated their surfaces. Like the pendant reliquaries, these were all objects to be worn on the body.

The Coventry Ring. Late 15th Century. AF.897. British Museum

The Coventry Ring. Late 15th Century. AF.897. British Museum

Known as the Coventry Ring this engraved gold finger ring depicts Christ emerging from his tomb alongside images of his five wounds weeping with blood. The five wounds of Christ were believed to have protective qualities and are here supported by an Latin inscription that runs inside the ring reading: The five wounds of God are my medicine, the holy cross and passion of Christ are my medicine. Added to this are the names of the three Magi ‘Caspar, Melchior, and Baltazar‘, which when recited were thought to protect against sickness. The final part of the internal inscription are the two magical words ‘ananyzapta‘ (a talisman against sudden death) and  ‘tetragrammaton‘ (the name given to the four Hebrew letters that form the name of God). Accompanying the imagery on the outside of the ring is an English prayer to the five wounds of Christ, probably to be read whilst the ring was turned on the finger. This act may have been seen as binding the words, focusing their protective powers onto the individual. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of another object we looked at: a small copper-alloy ring in the shape of a buckled-belt, inscribed with a call to the Virgin – the form of the ring being a visual representation of the binding or wrapping of the prayer, and thus its power, to the body.

Annular brooch. 13th century. 1868,0318.11. © British Museum

Annular brooch. 13th century. 1868,0318.11. © British Museum

We also looked at other items of jewellery that incorporated religious inscriptions into their design. This silver annular brooch (its pin now missing), with engraved inscriptions to the Virgin and Christ, is a type that was produced in large numbers, in various materials, across Europe. That this type of brooch was so popular, and available to a wide section of society, speaks of the desire for individuals to make physical their abstract beliefs. These objects would have secured garments and cloaks, and their inscriptions would have acted as statements of their belief and offer protection against evil. They allowed individuals to negotiate the links between their material and spiritual lives. This serves to remind us that there is no clear distinction between the functional and the ritual.

It is not surprising that jewellery became such an important vehicle for personal devotion in the medieval period. We have already noted how such objects allowed direct contact with the body, thereby allowing the power of the relic, inscription, and imagery to be activated when worn, and bestowed directly onto the owner. These jewellery items would also have been part of an individual’s dress, and created a visible public statement about their commitment to Christianity. But these brooches, pendants, and rings are not merely passive badges proclaiming a person’s belief. Instead we should recognise that they were part of wider embodied devotional practices, that constructed religious identities, reinforced faith, and made relevant Christian ideas allowing them to be incorporated into the everyday world of the medieval person.

It was great to be able to explore these themes with the Courtauld study group using the unparalleled medieval collection at the British Museum. The resulting discussions have certainly given the Bearers of the Cross project lots to think about. Thanks for having us!

British Museum curator Lloyd de Beer shows us the intricate workings of one of the pendant reliquaries.

British Museum curator Lloyd de Beer shows us the intricate workings of one of the pendant reliquaries.

Further reading:

Bagnoli, M., Klein, H., Griffith Mann, C., & Robinson, J. (eds.) 2011. Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe. London: British Museum Press.

Also see the online catalogue and essays from the exhibition.

Robinson, J., De Beer, L., & Harnden, A. (eds.). 2014. Matter of Faith: An Interdisciplinary Study of Relics and Relic Veneration in the Medieval Period. Research publication, no. 195. London: The British Museum.

Pitarakis, B. 2006. Les croix-reliquaires pectorales byzantines en bronze (Paris, Picard)

Full list of objects studied in the session:

Lead ampulla with image of the Holy Sepulchre, 12th-13th century

Coventry Ring, late 15th century

Buckle ring, 14th century

Gold lozenge-shaped pendant, early 14th Century

Gold reliquary pendant with St Catherine, 15th century

Late Byzantine cross-shaped pendant, 13th-15th Century

Byzantine reliquary cross, 10th-11th century

Silver cross-shaped pendant, 13th-early 14th century

Silver annular brooch, 14th century

Copper-alloy annular brooch, 14th century

Saint brooch

Enamelled brooch

Thomas Becket pilgrim badge, 13th Century

Thomas Becket ampulla

St Ninian reliquary, around 1200

Reliquary pendant of the Holy Thorn, around 1340

St Demetrius reliquary pendant, 11th Century

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