Relics witness to hope as well as torture

Jan Graffius shows Andrew Graham-Dixon the Campion rope at Stonyhurst
Jan Graffius shows Andrew Graham-Dixon the Campion rope at Stonyhurst

The Collections of Stonyhurst College featured prominently in a documentary broadcast on BBC Four at the weekend. In the programme, Treasures of Heaven, Andrew Graham-Dixon explored the ancient Christian practice of preserving Christian relics and the largely forgotten art form that went with it - the reliquary. His research took him from the Crown of Thorns venerated at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket – and even to more recent events in El Salvador with the cause of Blessed Oscar Romero. But it was in Stonyhurst that he was confronted with some of the most gruesome relics.

“The Reformation ushered in a bleak and bitter period for those adhering to the old Catholic traditions of worship,” he said, approaching the college. “If you want to understand that (largely concealed) history, there’s no better place to come than this.”

The most revealing treasure in the Stonyhurst Collection, according to Graham-Dixon, is also the most unassuming: found in the 19th century, behind a wall in a nearby Catholic home, it had lain undiscovered for more than 200 years. But it is the only one of its kind in the world. The chest, disguised as a travelling salesman’s trunk, contained everything needed for a Jesuit to say Mass. Beneath a ladies bonnet was concealed the altar stone, a chalice, corporal and an early 17th century chasuble. Jan Graffius, Curator at Stonyhurst, went on to explain how ministry had to be carried out clandestinely at this time, since anyone caught celebrating Mass would be tried for treason, for which the sentence would be death.

A pledge for the future

Moving on to the rope that tied St Edmund Campion SJ onto the hurdle prior to his execution at Tyburn, Jan described in the programme the process of being hung, drawn and quartered - in gory detail, before revealing another of the relics held at Stonyhurst: the right eye of Blessed Edward Oldcorne SJ. Graham-Dixon describes it as “one of the most disconcerting body parts to have been passed down to the museum”. Kept in a small silver reliquary, the eye (pictured right) was collected by a local Catholic after Oldcorne’s execution in Worcester in 1606. “I have never seen anyone look at this,” said Jan, “without being moved, shocked: there is always a human reaction” to this relic of torture.The right eye of Blessed Edward Oldcorne SJ

But according to Jan Graffius, the relics are more than just grisly mementos of past events. “I think that the real comfort that Catholics derived from holding, looking at, being near these objects, is a sense of affinity with the sacrifice of the priests who were trying to bring their faith to them, and hope for the future: keep these safe until such a time when this cruelty and persecution is no longer in England. So it’s a pledge for the future, as much as a contact with the past.”

Working for a more just and peaceful world

Jan Graffius has also been involved in preserving relics from a more recent martyr: Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot dead while celebrating Mass in San Salvador in March 1980. Stonyhurst now has a preserved section of the bloodied alb he was wearing on that day. “The main relics are the contents of his tiny, three-roomed house in the grounds of the hospice where he lived,” she explains. “And in the little back room are the clothes he was wearing when he was shot … [The alb] is now in a position where it should be safer from the point of view from the environment, but at the end of my work – I was there for over three years – the Sisters presented me with a tiny piece of the blood-soaked alb to take back to Stonyhurst.”

The Romero relic has since been installed in a reliquary, which was displayed at Farm Street Church to coincide with the Beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero. “I want people to understand that working for truth and justice and peace has a terrible cost,” said Jan in Treasures of Heaven. “But that the end of your life is not the end of the struggle. In Stonyhurst College where it will be displayed, we have many young people who are beginning to learn that the world has much injustice; and I want them to go and find out more and maybe, in their own small ways, work to promote a more just and peaceful world.”

Treasures in Heaven is available on BBC iPlayer until the end of January 2016.