The Crucifix and the Reliquary

The Crucifix and the Reliquary

Gail Romano, Associate Curator, War History

Small and easy to miss in a display niche on the Museum’s second floor lies a pocket-sized Catholic devotional collection, no bigger than the palm of a woman’s hand. The mother-of-pearl and silver crucifix that had been tucked into a brown leather purse and the folded, domed reliquary that was its companion were retrieved by a British soldier from the ruins of a shelled abbey in the vicinity of Ypres / Messines in West Flanders, sometime between August - November 1914 during the first fierce struggles for control of Belgium.  

The reliquary is handmade, light, and easy to carry, a two-layered faux leather and fabric folder on the inside of which are attached devotional aids. Several relate to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, including the largest image and the medal. The medal is flanked by two textile badges, one gold with a red crochet border which may contain a second class relic such as a piece of fabric that has been placed on the tomb of a saint. The second badge is circular with blanket-stitched edge and features what seems to be The Cross surrounded by crown of thorns. Two other textile pieces include the printed motto, ‘Cease! The S. Heart of Jesus is with me’ and a painted image of the Sacred Heart within a crown of thorns. The oval image on the left appears to be Our Lady of Lourdes, and that on the right St Thérèse of Lisieux. But all this is very small. The entire folder is only about 2/3 the height of an iPhone mini when opened, and narrower! The included objects are tiny.

Religious communities were not necessarily safe refuges during the war and a number suffered shell damage or were destroyed during the German invasion of Belgium, while others such as the Ursuline convent and school in Tildonk, northern Belgium were occupied. But the soldier who picked up the pouch and the reliquary is identified in the sketchy acquisition record as a corporal in the 5th (Princess Charlotte of Wales’s) Dragoon Guards, a cavalry unit of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and this makes it possible to suggest a likely abbey or convent.  

The 5th Dragoon Guards arrived in the vicinity of Mons in Belgium on 23 August, the same day the city was lost. The regiment initially retreated south with the rest of the BEF and French forces in what is known as the Race to the Sea, seeing action along the way. But by later in October the 5th Dragoon Guards were back in Belgium with other cavalry units preparing to defend Mesen (Messines).  

A sketch map from the Dragoon’s war diary shows the regiments’ locations, arrayed in trenches, houses and a farm around the town and clearly indicates the location of the church and the  town’s large ‘monastery’ in relation to the defenders’ positions. The ‘monastery’ was the Institution Royale, a former Benedictine Abbey that had become a school initially for orphans and later for daughters of Belgian army officers. A letter written home by a Trooper with the 11th Hussars describes the experience these units had in Mesen as the town was heavily bombarded. Trooper Minton wrote, ‘My squadron was retired into the great courtyard of the monastery. The immense howitzer shells fell here again. A wall collapsed, burying two more men. Our number was now reduced to about 40. We dashed across the courtyard, one at a time, into the street beyond. Here we crouched under the wall, awaiting orders.’ 

Sketch of Messines from the war diary of the 5th Dragoon Guards, October 1914, showing British army positions. © Crown Copyright

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New Zealand’s second official war artist (appointed towards the end of the war) George Butler painted the site of the Institute in 1918, at that time virtually obliterated as was the rest of the town. 

Although there are other candidates in the Mesen-Ypres area, it seems possible that given the days spent near and around this convent that the crucifix and reliquary were found here, the lost devotional aid of a nun or a child at the Institution Royale. The good condition suggests they had not long been abandoned. The size and stitchcraft of the reliquary are also strong clues which perhaps point more towards a child owner. Although the gold badge with red crochet shows skill and is similar to devotional badges still made by nuns in some orders for sale or as gifts or school prizes, the folder’s stitched border, the work on the circular badge, and the object attachments suggest a hand still developing finesse with needle and silk, or perhaps even not entirely engaged by such small-sized, disciplined needlecraft. The white crucifix itself adds additional weight to the idea of a child as a common gift for First Communions and most likely for young girls. 

Messines, The Institute Royale George Edmund Butler, 1918

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Most importantly though, regardless of its actual source, this small collection is a reminder that those who are thrust directly into the trauma of battle, those who witness some of the worst horror imaginable and who may be responsible for some of it, don't automatically lose their own values and empathy for the experience of others. Many soldiers found some solace and relief in small acts of kindness and humaneness.  

In the gallery it is easy to walk past the niche in which the crucifix pouch and reliquary lie without noticing them. So what would be their chances of being seen, brown and mute as they are when closed, in the rubble of a destroyed compound amidst the trauma described by Trooper Minton? Although we cannot know what was in the mind of the soldier who picked them up, noticing and saving two small devotional objects that otherwise would be lost in a sea of devastation could be an example of such compassion, even when he knew they could never be reunited with their owner.  

The crucifix can be found in a niche in the wall of the walk-through western front trench in the Scars on the Heart First World War gallery on Level 2. 

Collection connection

The 1914 Star commemorates the August-November experience of those who served in France and Belgium and were under fire during those early months. The medal is popularly known as the Mons Star although that action and subsequent withdrawal did not define the entire period. It is also interesting to know that the Messines Ridge British Cemetery and the Messines Ridge (New Zealand) Memorial that stands within it are on ground that belonged to the Institution Royale.  

This taonga is currently on display in Pou Maumahara. View it in person, or digitally via Collections Online.