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As much as human beings in all cultures cherish the mementos of their dead loved ones, the physical remains of holy men and women, and the objects associated with them, play a central role in a number of religions and belief systems. Such sacred remains, or relics, were especially important to the development of Christianity, where they served as tangible reminders of Christ’s presence on earth and were believed to establish a powerful and lasting bond between God and humankind, serving as conduits between heaven and earth.
From Late Antiquity through the Middle Ages and beyond, relics of Christ, his mother, certain biblical figures, and Christians who had distinguished themselves through an exemplary lifestyle or martyrdom were collected and treasured by Christian communities in the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Europe, and they continue to be venerated today (see map). Christian devotion to relics brought forth new forms of monumental architecture, supported extensive pilgrimage networks, and prompted revolutionary developments in the visual arts. Reliquaries, the special containers made for these objects, affirmed the extraordinary status of the seemingly mundane bits of bone and other substances they held and helped to make their power visible. Because the religious and artistic practices associated with relics touch on many facets of medieval life, this exhibition presents the Middle Ages as a period in which art expressed deeply held beliefs, connected human beings with the holy, and forged tangible connections between past and present.
Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe was organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum, and the British Museum. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. Support for the exhibition has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Education program support is provided in part by Giant Eagle and by Mr. and Mrs. Edward C. Smith and Tom and Sandy Sullivan. The Cleveland Museum of Art is generously funded by Cuyahoga County residents through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. The Ohio Arts Council helped fund this exhibition with state tax dollars to encourage economic growth, educational excellence, and cultural enrichment for all Ohioans.