What’s in a religious collection?

One of the fascinations of religious collections is the sheer variety of their contents, and how their carers classify those contents and how they regard them.

The latest Antiquaries Journal has a paper telling the story of the Sacristy of Westminster Abbey. Built by Henry III as a place for relics to rival Louis IX’s Sainte Chapelle, after the Reformation it became a house, to be demolished completely in 1740.

Sacristies and vestries hold or held many of the religious collections we are concerned with. I was struck in this paper, though, particularly by the inventory of its contents drawn up by Richard Cirencester and three other monks in 1388: ‘since experience informs us that many mishaps befell this monastery because items belonging to the vestry were not adequately recorded until now . . . we intend to draw up an accurate register.’ The four monks classified the Sacristy’s collection under seven headings:

  1. Vestments and adornments worn by the abbot, including a mitre given by Simon Langham, decorated with pearls, jewels and gold plates.
  2. Processional items: crosses, banners, aspergilla and censers.
  3. Furnishings of the altars: frontals, panels painted with saints, books and vessels for celebrating mass, chairs of state and veils for covering images during lent.
  4. The more valuable vestments, included some valued for their associations, like the seven albs worn by St. Dunstan which were regarded as relics.
  5. The less valuable vestments.
  6. The long tunics worn over the copes, chasubles and albs.
  7. Miscellaneous. The paper’s authors mention a long strip of carpet, perhaps used to lead the procession to the high altar.

It’s notable that by then the main relics at least were not stored in the Sacristy, but rather at the Shrine. When this shift took place is uncertain, and there may have been much overlap, but it is clear that by this date the care of the relics fell within the remit of the Shrine Keeper. Today the relics are (all?) gone, but what nowadays are seen as the Abbey’s treasures are displayed in the ‘Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries’.

Crispin Paine

Luxford, Julian (2019) Recording and curating relics at Westminster Abbey in the late Middle Ages, Journal of Medieval History 45:2, 204-230.

Payne, Matthew and Foster, Richard (2020) The Medieval Sacristy of Westminster Abbey. The Antiquaries Journal 100, 240-273.

Image from www.westminster-abbey.org


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