Treasures of Heaven

The exhibit consists of metal works, sculptures, paintings and illuminated manuscripts from late antiquity through the Reformation, including this reliquary bust of St. Balbina. (Handout courtesy The Walters Art Museum / February 11, 2011)

To understand the appeal of sacred relics, which have caused wars and attracted devout pilgrims for nearly a millennium, look no further than Babe Ruth's bat.

Baseball fans in Baltimore forked over $10 last week to hold the Sultan of Swat's 32-ounce club with seven notches on the handle. It was a similar impulse that guided a 12th century German worshipper to encase inside a small gold and silver box some twigs thought to be from the manger where Jesus Christ was born, plus a piece of the cross on which he was crucified.

The same desire for magical protection that impels some to carry a rabbit's foot inspired a Medieval Byzantine craftsman to fashion an elaborate gold and enamel pendant containing a few drops of St. Demetrios' blood and oil from his tomb.

And surely, the 14th century Italian who squirreled away what may have been Mary Magdalene's tooth inside a gilt and crystal egg is not so different from the modern-day mourners who keep grandma's ashes in an urn on the mantel.

The bejeweled box, pendant and egg are among the 133 objects to go on display today in "Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe," a major new traveling exhibit at the Walters Art Museum.

The exhibit, which consists of metal works, sculptures, paintings and illuminated manuscripts from late antiquity through the Reformation, was five years in the making and includes objects on loan from the Louvre, the Vatican and the Holy of Holies, the Pope's private reliquary chapel.

"Treasures of Heaven" initially opened last fall in Cleveland. After a three-month stay in Baltimore, the art show will cross the ocean to London's British Museum. Some artifacts have never before been seen outside their country of origin; others, will never again be allowed outside their native lands.

Collecting relics is the impulse to make imperishable that which is perishable," says The Walters' Martina Bagnoli, who co-curated the exhibit. "The idea is to flesh out something that is revolting and disgusting – human remains – into something precious that will proclaim the glory of God. Human flesh is transformed into gold and jewels."

From a logical standpoint, the comfort derived from inanimate objects can seem irrational. Why should swinging a stick previously owned by a long-deceased outfielder enhance the earned run average of a living batter? How can a few bits of dried hemoglobin worn around the neck protect against evil?

As Bagnoli puts it: "Relics are a way of recovering someone you've lost. You feel closer to the person if you can hold onto something physical that he once owned."

The belief that after people die, their souls, or spirits, remain in contact with their bodies — and by extension, with the objects they used during significant moments of their lives – has persisted throughout the centuries and across cultures.

Early Egyptians mummified their ancestors and surrounded them with household tools, and the ancient Greeks put the bones of their dead heroes on display.

But the notion that objects or bodily fragments can forge a relationship between a dead saint and a living, individual worshipper is a specifically Christian phenomenon, Bagnoli says.

The Egyptians were preparing the dead to move on to the next world. And the Greek heroes' bones were thought to protect an entire city-state against enemy attack, not heal the lame.

Relics became much more personal after 155 A.D., when a Smyrnan bishop named Polycarp was executed for refusing to worship a Roman emperor as a god. His followers not only gathered up the martyr's bones, they venerated them and held an annual feast day on the burial site. It was the beginning of the Christian cult of the saints.

"The relics of Christian saints, including their bones and ashes, were thought to be more valuable than the most precious gemstones," Bagnoli says. "They were believed to be a conduit for the power of the saints, and to provide a direct link between the living faithful and God."

The Walters, of course, is an art museum, not a church. When, for example, the wall text identifies some wooden scraps encased as fragments of the True Cross — and there are several examples in this exhibit — museum curators aren't stating their own religious views. Rather, they are referring to an authentication process undertaken by the Catholic Church.

The relics included in "Treasures of Heaven" were selected for both their aesthetic as well as historic importance. The intricately carved sarcophaguses and gem-encrusted chests are likely to enchant both Christians and non-Christians.

"I got most of the things I wanted for this show," Bagnoli says, "because I will not take no for an answer."