Jaś Elsner and Stefanie Lenk are blogging from behind the scenes during the installation of the Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions, opening on October 19th.
Jaś Elsner, 09/10/17, installation day 6
What You Can’t See
We have many relics in the exhibition. And also their containers, which can be some of the grandest objects made during the Middle Ages. One thing that’s striking is that relics are shared across very different and distant religions – from the Buddhist Far East to the Christian West. A most famous example (not unfortunately in the show) are the Tang Chinese reliquaries at the Famen Temple, each smaller than the last which held a fragment of the bones of the Buddha’s finger, said originally to have been sent by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka from India to China.
Our show has a terrific steatite reliquary from Gandhara (roughly modern Pakistan or Afghanistan) in which were found some coins and a small silver box that itself contained beads, bone fragments, pieces of gold, and pearls. How can we display it? It would be unfortunate to put everything inside the box out of which it came and display only the outer casket – although that is certainly how the object was intended when it was buried beneath a stupa, or reliquary mound, between the second and fifth centuries CE. It would be nice to take the lids off these different boxes, to show them as a kind of line of open Russian dolls. But making mounts for tiny pieces (like the top of the tiny silver box in which the small tokens were stored) is complicated and could be confusing. So we have shown all the bits, but with the containers closed – a very odd procedure, given that if you were to take the relics out, you’d be unlikely to close the reliquaries!
Our British Isles section has some wonderful pieces: a replica of the famous Franks Casket, made of whalebone, from the British Museum, which may have been made to be a reliquary in the British Isles in the eighth century but almost certainly became one when it moved to France in the Middle Ages and was later outed from a church treasury during the French Revolution. Particularly intriguing is a wonderful eighth/ninth-century purse-shaped chrismatory for holy oil with images of the four Evangelists and a rather flamboyant Jesus in gilt copper on the top, and deer among vines growing emerging from a vase on the back. Underneath, there is a most interesting hollow in the bottom – was it cut out for a relic to be secretly placed there, blessing the holy oil? What a pity we can’t show this…