(Correction: Because of a reporting error, the 16th-century Jesuit priest Edmund Campion was misnamed in a review of the College of Holy Cross show ''Catholic Collecting" in Sunday's Arts & Entertainment section.)
WORCESTER -- In 1547, England's Edward VI commanded his citizens to ''destroy all shrines . . . pictures, painting and all other monuments to feigned miracles . . . so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass-windows, or elsewhere within their church or houses."
''They" were Catholics. Edward's father, Henry VIII, had broken with the Catholic Church in 1538, after the pope refused to grant him a divorce. Henry outlawed Catholicism within his realm, and for the better part of three centuries, English Catholics worshiped in secret.
Yet Catholicism is a religion built on the idea of God made flesh. Material expressions of the faith, such as embroidered vestments and painted celebrations of martyrs, were vivid and colorful.
''Catholic Collecting, Catholic Reflection 1538-1850," a fascinating exhibit at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross, uses sacred objects, vestments, and centuries-old texts to tell tales of intrigue, hidden worship, and outlaw faith. While not bodice rippers -- priests not being prone to ripping bodices -- these stories are passionate.
The Jesuit priest Edward Campion penned a tract, ''Ten Reasons for Being a Catholic," and published it in secret in 1581. He had 400 copies smuggled into Oxford University and left on chairs before the celebration of the school's Commemoration Day. Campion was hunted down; caught hiding in a grange, he was tortured and ultimately hanged, drawn, and quartered.
One of the five remaining original copies of Campion's book is on view, a precious relic. So is Campion's Agnus Dei, a wax medallion issued to him by Pope Gregory XIII in 1578. That such an object didn't melt in more than four centuries is astounding; this one was only discovered in 1959, in the rafters of the grange where Campion was apprehended. You can still make out its impression of a lamb, symbolizing Christ.
Curator Virginia C. Raguin, an art historian, has paid special attention to the way recusant Catholics -- Englishmen who refused to stop practicing their religion -- plied their faith through their artistry.
Thomas Lusher was one of many Britons educated at St. Omers, an English-speaking Jesuit school in the Spanish Netherlands. (St. Omers eventually relocated to England and became what is now Stonyhurst College, which owns many of the objects on display.) In 1623, Lusher carved a delicate, 2 1/2-inch-tall wooden shrine containing several minute renderings of the Instruments of the Passion -- cross, crown of thorns, hammer, nails, etc. Daring to proclaim his faith, the artist carved his name in the base, writing in Latin: ''Pray for Thomas Lusher who made this in 1623." He probably carried the shrine in his pocket and used it for personal devotion.
The Catholics did not just suffer in silence. There were uprisings. Guy Fawkes, a Catholic soldier, attempted to assassinate King James I and blow up Parliament in 1605, but his plan was squelched, and he and his conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot were executed.
Helena Wintour was the daughter and niece of some of those conspirators. She devoted her life to charity, prayer, and needlework, spending years crafting spectacular jewel-encrusted vestments, including a chasuble and a chalice veil on exhibit. They are lush, regal-looking, and scarlet, featuring imagery of the Pentecost and her own family crest.
Like Wintour, many Catholics were gentry. Perhaps that helps account for the survival of the green vestments once worn by Edmund Arrowsmith, a priest who was captured and hanged in 1628. His robes were found in a cranny in the wall of Samlesbury Hall, owned by the Southworth family. They were packed in a wooden box covered with horse skin and wallpaper. When it was first opened, it revealed a woman's bonnet sitting atop bolts of cloth -- suggesting that its carrier was an itinerant fabric salesman. But the fabric turned out to be altar coverings and vestments, including the robes on display and a fragile-looking corporal, a linen cloth over which the priest consecrates and consumes the host during Mass. This one, embroidered with pomegranates and roses, has been lovingly repaired with fine stitching; it was handled with great reverence.
''Catholic Collecting" evinces the passion of the faithful and demonstrates that oppression of religion merely fuels that fire. The exhibition concludes with an account of the Catholic settlement of the colony of Maryland and the role that Catholics, weary of religious tyranny, played in igniting the American Revolution. Americans may take freedom of religion and freedom of expression for granted now. But when they were written into the Bill of Rights, the memory of oppression, of shattered stained glass and executed priests, was still tender.