Jesuits in Britain launch first online exhibition celebrating 50 years since the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs.
Prompted by the 50th anniversary of the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs, the Jesuits in Britain Archives has launched its first ever online exhibition in collaboration with Stonyhurst College Collections.
The virtual showcase, called ‘How bleedeth burning love’: British Jesuit Province’s Relics of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, presents treasured relics belonging to some of the priests and laypeople martyred for their Catholic faith in England and Wales in the 16th and 17th centuries – many of whom were canonised by Pope Paul VI on 25 October 1970. The online exhibition is at www.jesuitcollections.org.uk.
These relics shine a light on an extraordinary period of English history, when men and women were persecuted and executed for their religious beliefs. Some of the relics in the exhibition demonstrate vividly the barbaric nature of the penalties inflicted upon those who held fast to faith and conscience, while others tell very personal stories of individual spiritual journeys of historic figures such as Thomas More and Mary, Queen of Scots. These relics have been treasured for centuries, valued for the powerful stories they tell, which have been passed from generation to generation.
Dr Jan Graffius, curator of the Stonyhurst Collections, said: “The exhibition relates the stories of some of the many men and women whose bravery and resourcefulness helped to keep the Catholic faith alive in those days. It also explores the extraordinary, and often perilous, journeys of these relics before they came into the sanctuary of the possession of the British Jesuit Province.”
Among the relics in the exhibition are those of famous Jesuits St Edmund Campion, St Robert Southwell and Blessed Edward Oldcorne, who were all sent to be clandestine missionaries in Elizabethan England at a time when Catholics faced persecution.
Edmund Campion was arrested by priest hunters, convicted of high treason, and then hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1581. On display is the rope that tied him to the hurdle, on which he was dragged from the Tower to Tyburn.
St Robert Southwell was also executed at Tyburn, in 1595. He was famous for his literary works, including the 16th century poem ‘Christ’s bloody sweate’ which provided the quote for the title of the exhibition. On display is a bone.
Blessed Edward Oldcorne had been a school friend of Guy Fawkes and was tortured in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. Although no evidence was found to link him to the failed assassination attempt against King James I, Oldcome was hanged, drawn, and quartered in 1606. He was beatified in 1929. On display is his right eyeball.
The exhibition also includes the relics of some famous lay people. St Thomas More was executed on the orders of Henry VIII in 1535, and canonised in 1935. On display are two of his hats, a piece of his famous hair shirt and a gold crucifix.
Mary, Queen of Scots once possessed a remarkable relic of the Crown of Thorns. Its fascinating story is highlighted in the exhibition, spanning the Byzantine Empire, the Crusades, Mary’s own turbulent life, through the Rising of the Northern Earls until it found a safe home with an extraordinary Elizabethan Jesuit missionary, John Gerard. The thorn is housed in a beautiful gold 16th century reliquary, with Mary’s pearls wrapped around it.
One new discovery is the identity of a group of skulls and bones associated with Holywell Shrine in north Wales, which have now been identified, during the course of research for this exhibition, as those of the 17th century Saints Philip Evans and John Lloyd.
Dr Graffius describes the process of research and identification: “After years of speculation as to the identity of these two skulls, and the collection of associated bones, it is thrilling to be able to announce that we can finally put a name to the men whose bones they are. It’s an intriguing detective story involving forensic science, archival research and curatorial skill.
“The story of Evans and Lloyd is a powerful one: priestly dedication, betrayal, faithfulness to death, Welsh harp music and tennis. Their identification has been an extraordinary process, and one of the most rewarding in my curatorial career.”
The relics all form part of the British Jesuit Province’s collection. Much of the collection resides in the Jesuits in Britain Archives in London, and a significant part is on loan to, and cared for, by Stonyhurst College Collections in Lancashire.
Rebecca Somerset, Jesuits in Britain Archivist, said: “We could not put on a physical exhibition as originally planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Forty Martyrs, but by presenting the exhibition virtually, we are able to reach a much wider audience. We are always keen to make these artefacts more easily available to others, and we are looking forward to presenting a series of online exhibitions.
“In order to make the exhibition as accessible as possible, we are presenting the collection as a visual and audio experience, with images of the relics accompanied both by text as well as a recorded narrative.”
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Picture: St Thomas More’s Hat. Property of the British Jesuit Province. (Stonyhurst College).