Maev KennedyThe Guardian, Tuesday 24 March 2009
(Photos from the NLM)
The new medieval gallery at the British Museum is full of beautiful images of saints in ivory, stone, gold and wood - but invisible to visitors, it also holds the bones of 39 real saints, whose discovery came as a shock to their curator.
The relics, packed in tiny bundles of cloth including one scrap of fabric over 1,000 years old, were found when a 12th-century German portable altar was opened for the first time since it came into the British Museum collection in 1902.
It was in for a condition check and cleaning, before going on display in the gallery that opens tomorrow - but to the amazement of James Robinson, curator of medieval antiquities, when it was opened a linen cloth was revealed, and inside it dozens of tiny bundles of cloth, each neatly labelled on little pieces of vellum.
The most precious was the relic of St Benedict, an Italian who in the early 6th century was credited as the father of the western monastic tradition, founding monasteries and establishing guiding principles still followed at many monasteries. The relic was wrapped in cloth that was itself an extraordinary object, a piece of silk from 8th or 9th century Byzantium.
Each Roman Catholic altar-stone is supposed to contain at least one relic of a saint, usually in the form of minute flakes of bone. There was a clue on the back of the museum's altar in a list of names beginning slightly implausibly with John the Baptist, and including saints James, John and Mary Magdalene.
There are many reliquaries in the gallery, in the form of crosses, pendants and rings, including one owned by a saint, the Georgian queen Kethevan who was executed by Shah Abbas in 1624 for refusing to convert to Islam. Almost all have long since lost their contents in the centuries of religious and political upheaval which scattered them from palaces and monasteries and eventually brought them to the British Museum. A relic of bone fragments was discovered almost 30 years ago in a spectacular lifesize head of St Eustace, but the relic was sent back to Basle cathedral in Switzerland which was forced to sell the golden reliquary in 1830.
The newly discovered saints will remain in Bloomsbury. Robinson said they were cared for and rearranged into the 19th century, the date of the most recent piece of fabric, but at some point one was lost as there are 40 engraved names but only 39 saintly bundles.