Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday 29 February 2024

Mantegna’s ‘Triumph of Caesar’

The website of Antiques and The Arts Weekly has an article about one of the many glories of the Royal Collection, Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar. Six of the nine paintings are currently on display in the National Gallery until next year whilst their usual home at Hampton Court is renovated.

The author does not point out as clearly as he might have the fact that the Rubens Roman Triumph from the National Gallery collection very clearly derives from Mantegna’s great cycle. Presumably Rubens saw the paintings in England when they were bought by King Charles I in 1629.

I believe I am correct in saying that the nine paintings were not amongst those sold in 1649 but were retained and decorated the court of the Cromwellian Protectorate. Their size may have militated against a quick sale. As it was they remained here and were saved for King Charles II and his successors.

The loss of the Ovetari Chapel is indeed grievous, and, let’s be honest, inexcusable. As I understand it the fragments of the frescos were gathered up and restorers are still trying to piece them together with a view to a restoration. Wikipedia has an account of the chapel and what survives at Ovetari Chapel

Mantegna is noteable for his research into classical architecture and settings for his commissions as the author mentions. He participated in the burgeoning antiquarian spirit of a number of scholars in mid-fifteenth century Italy, such as Cyriacus of Ancona, and anticipated research into discoveries in sixteenth century Rome. Such a tradition was by no means new and can be seen in various parts of Italy in the thirteenth century under the Emperor Frederick II, the Pisan sculptural tradition and in the Rome of the 1280s in respect of painting.  

Wikipedia discusses the sculptural background of this painting in a substantial article about the artist at Andrea Mantegna.

Wednesday 28 February 2024

Recreating the face of Dante

The Mail Online website has an article about a new reconstruction that has been made of the face of Dante. It is based on details of his skull as recorded in 1921 during an examination of his remains as well as a more recent study in 2007.

The illustrated article can be seen at Meet the architect of hell: True face of Dante revealed

The article is of course wrong to state that Dante was the first to write about the state of being and topography of the afterlife. That theme was a not infrequent subject for medieval writers, but Dante’s skill led him to create what has become the definitive literary account, as well as codifying literary Italian in the process.

Whilst reading it do look at the linked article reconstructing the horrendous accident which befell Phineas Gage in Vermont in 1848. I came across his story some years ago and it stayed in my memory. That someone  could survive that at all is quite amazing. That subsection can also be seen directly at Meet the man who was shot in the head with an iron rod - and SURVIVED

Pesellino reassessed

As the exhibition celebrating his surviving work at the National Gallery approaches its end next month Pesellino receives another profile in the arts press, this time from Apollo.

The intention of the exhibition was to create a greater awareness of Pesellino as an artist and restore him to his proper place in the history of Florentine art. The article gives a good summary of his life and works, and seeks to makes its positive assessment of his contribution. It can be seen at Pesellino is restored to his rightful place in art history 

Monday 26 February 2024

Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine

I have a few years ago linked to a website which has offered facial reconstructions of the Roman Emperors from Augustus through to Constantine the Great. This has now been reissued or revised.

The portraits are based on surviving busts of the Enperors. For the few for whom there are no known surviving sculptures the site includes excellent coinage portraits.

The complete website can be viewed at The Faces of Roman Emperors-Augustus to Constantine

As the comments on it point out some of the more degenerate, depraved or bizarre manage to look amongst the more normal or indeed attractive of this decidedly mixed bunch. As a group they could be candidates for any forthcoming election, or colleagues, or neighbours. With just one portrait it does not allow for aging, although Augustus was never shown to have aged in his images over a very long reign. Some of the others were, by contrast, hardly in power long enough to be commemorated in sculpture.

That said for several of the more well known Augusti the view of later centuries does often reflect the prejudices of those who successfully recorded their lives and reigns, and who thereby determined the judgment of future ages. These are matters which today are legitimate points of discussion amongst historians. That is also true of political leases of later centuries. It is also true that judging leaders on the basis of notions such as “handsome is as handsome does” and “judging a book by its cover” or, indeed, of their inverse, is not usually the best way of assessing character or achievement.

Preserving the patois of Sark

The Daily Telegraph reports on a successful initiative by a Czech academic to record, and thereby preserve, the distinctive Norman French dialect of the island of Sark. This originated with the speech of those who were brought in to the island by the first Seigneur in 1565 and up to at least the eighteenth century English was not spoken. Today however there are only three surviving speakers of the dialect, all of whom are elderly. The hope is that by recording it the tradition can be not only recorded but handed on and maintained by succeeding generations. 

I have read that in Jersey the local language has been in decline since the nineteenth century, and survives in formal rather than ordinary use.

I will add in passing that terming it ‘British’ seems rather odd - it is a French based language, the Channel Isles are not part of the British Isles, are not constitutionally part of Great Britain, and nor is ‘British’ a recognised contemporary language, unlike English. However sub-editors are increasingly a law unto themselves these days.

I could not help but think that the Telegraph reports this but that the paper never, to my knowledge, reported on the wicked campaign to undermine the traditional constitution of Sark by the Barclay brothers when they also owned the Daily Telegraph. Funny that. Unless of course, if you will pardon the pun, you think I am being sarky….

Saturday 24 February 2024

The Cappella Palatina in Palermo

The Liturgical Arts Journal this week had a splendid article about the twelfth century Capella Palatina in the Royal Palace of Palermo.

The wonderful photographs show much more than the standard images that are reproduced in general books that refer to the chapel and are a visual delight. It is a very un-Lenten feast for the eyes. 

Commissioned in 1132 by King Roger II the chapel was a lavish celebration of the Christian faith and of the place within it of the Sicilian monarchy. Like the slightly later cathedral at Monreale this was elite work for an elite patron.  Some of the photographs are reminiscent of Cosmati work in Papal Rome in the same era and the great Westminster Abbey pavement of the next century, created for King Henry III’s inspired vision for the shrine church of St Edward.

The chapel displays not only the vitality of twelfth century art and design but also of intellectual pursuits. This was of great significance in the Sicilian court and kingdom, but was by no means confined to the cultural crossroads with was Sicily.

As I have done before when writing about Sicily I would commend John Julius Norwich’s books The Normans in the South and The Kingdom in the Sun as a means of understanding and appreciating the extraordinary achievements of the Hauteville dynasty and their rule in their southern kingdom.

Wednesday 21 February 2024

The Catholic Church in Germany

Two online items came my way today about the mood in the Church in Germany, where the Synodical Way has dominated discussion for a long while. I read that under pressure from the Vatican the German Church has put off creating a new body to oversee its life, but, it should be noted, has not so far rejected the idea. The story is reported on today by Zenit at Pope Averts Schism in Germany: Full Text of Vatican Letter

The two items which I saw today refer not to governance but to the liturgy and do indicate the extent of the divide in German Catholicism in respect of the liturgy to say the very least.

The first is a video, which speaks - or should I say swarks - for itself, from a Mass in the diocese of Passau and which is linked to by Rorate Cæli at A Vatican II Moment: The Chicken Dance Mass

The second is from Life Site News and is a concise and forceful article by Fr Joachim Heimerl, which focuses on the place of the liturgy in the life and mission of the Church, both past and present. His conclusion may well confirm one’s worst fears. It can be seen at German priest: Pope Francis' fight against the Latin Mass is ‘a fight against the Church’

Monday 19 February 2024

Extreme weather

I recently wrote about the Thames Frost Fairs in The Thames Frost Fair 1683-84 - one of a kind

In that piece I drew attention to both previous eras of bad winters and frozen rivers, and of our somewhat varying knowledge and memory of them.

Subsequently I came upon an article published in 2015 in History Extra which looks at recorded historic instances of extreme weather conditions. Some of them make even extremes which have occurred relatively recently such as the winters of 1947,1963, and 1979 or the hot summers of 1975 and, even more, of 1976, and the record high temperatures of 2022 which have entered our immediate folk memory, look decidedly tame. In part that is because modern technology gives us the means to circumvent or mitigate situations which in previous centuries would have been far more difficult to deal with. Even more so than when the article was published are we aware of changes in our climate and equally to look at historical parallels. It may be that we shall become accustomed to the greater ranges in the weather that our ancestors experienced, and had to live with and adapt to.

Such events were not isolated but had a real impact on contemporary events. Christopher Duffy’s splendid history of the 1745-6 Jacobite rising Fight for a Throne: The Jacobite’45 Reconsiddred cites early meteorological records and points out that the Jacobites marching south through Cumberland to Lancashire and ultimately Derbyshire and their opponents the Hanoverian troops in Yorkshire did not engage with each other because snow in the Pennines literally prevented them reaching each other. The detachment of  Hanoverian troops who did manage to cross the Pennines via Blackstone Edge were seen as epic voyagers.

Saturday 17 February 2024

Supporting St Christopher at Salisbury

Amongst the treasures of the Museum in Salisbury are the guild parade figures of St - or Sir - Christopher and his horse Hob Nob. Survivors from late medieval guild processions in the city they are similar to Snap the dragon at Norwich - who has, however, lost his companion St George along the historical way. I posted about Snap and his recent revival in English Iconoclasm II - the fate of the cult of St George

They are a reminder of what was doubtless much more common in later medieval England and survives abroad in Mardi Gras figures and the saints day festivals of Italy.

The BBC News website reports on an appeal for volunteers to act as bearers of the replica figure of the Salisbury St Christopher or Giant which is now used for processions in the city. This is in an article which can be seen at Volunteers needed to carry giant medieval statue

I do rather like the idea that the statue would have been clothed with the products of local looms as a means of advertising fabrics to those watching the procession, piety on the medieval catwalk.

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Ash Wednesday and Lent - liturgy and vestments

Ash Wednesday sees each year a striking change in the outward expression of the Church’s devotion. Lent is visually as well as liturgically different, even after the anticipating weeks of Septuagesima. In the Novus Ordo the  change is all the more dramatic to the eye as green yields overnight to violet in vestments and hangings within churches.

The austere beauty of the Lenten liturgy is expressed in the outward sign of the imposition of ashes and the inward call to repentance. The history of ashing is set out in my post from 2011 at Ashes and Ash Wednesday

The excellent Catholic website The Pillar has a discussion of the varieties of imposing ashes which I have linked to in the past, and can be seen at On Ash Wednesday, some ‘trace’ and some ‘sprinkle’ — But why?

Once we get into Lent the liturgy changes. One of the most notable changes in the traditional forms, and a delight to scholars and students of such matters, is the appearance of the folded chasuble and broad stole at Mass. There is a very good account of these features from Canticum Salomonis at The History of the Folded Chasuble (Part 1) and The History of the Folded Chasuble (Part 2)

There is also an illustrated 2009 account of the folded chasuble from the St Lawrence Press at Folded chasubles

It has been very good indeed in recent years to watch Masses online during this season where these ancient forms of vesture have reappeared in celebrations of the pre-1955 Triduum liturgy.

For most of us in the Roman tradition violet is the liturgical colour of Lent, but that is not uniformly so. Amongst the surviving historic Rites, as sanctioned by the Council of Trent and  St Pius V, Braga uses violet, but the Ambrosian Rite in Milan and the Lyonese Rite are quite distinct.

For the church of Milan Lent does not start today but on the Monday after next Sunday with ashing on those two days after the Mass of the Sunday forty days before Easter. For low Masses penitential black is worn and on Sundays the blueish violet known as morello, until red appears for Holy Week. This is set out on the New Litugical Movement at Liturgical Colours of Lent in the Ambrosian Rite, by the Liturgical Arts Journal at The Ambrosian Rite's Unique Liturgical Colour: Morello , and by the website of Duomo itself at Sunday at the beginning of Lent

The practice in Lyons was to wear ash-coloured vestments as can be seen from the New Liturgical Movement at The Ash Grey Lenten Vestments of the Rite of Lyon

The Rad Trad in a 2014 post on the Lyonese Missal points out that Lyons followed Roman useage more than other 2/Rites and that:

Green….is also used for the fourth Sunday of Lent….”Ash” colored vestments are utilised from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive. Where Ash is not available violet is used….black for ...Good Friday.

The Lyons useage appears to preserve early Roman approaches to the seasonal liturgy as opposed to the more clearly ancient but distinctive practice of Milan. There is a Wikipedia article about it at Rite of Lyon

The Archbishop of Lyons as Primate of Gaul enjoyed for many centuries oversight of the three Provinces of Tours, Rouen and Sens. This, and the tradition of Gallican autonomy as codified in 1438 and 1516, led to the survival of distinctive liturgical traditions and developments. These are often associated with Paris which in the late seventeenth century replaced Sens as the Provincial centre.
Rouen, which remained at least nominally under the supervision of Lyons until 1702, and the cathedral clearly followed very much virtually the same liturgy as Lyons into the eighteenth century. This is beautifully set out in a detailed post from Zephyrinus drawing upon an account published in 1718. This can be seen at Rouen, France. “Voyages Liturgiques De France: The Cathedral Chapter”.

If the Lenten colour of Rouen was indeed ashen, then this may explain the tradition of the Lenten array used by Sarum in medieval England. 

Unbleached linen hangings throughout Lent in churches and vestments to match are a distinctive feature of restored medieval use in Anglo-Catholic churches, including Westminster Abbey and Wakefield Cathedral as well as parishes, and occasionally in Catholic churches. They were very much associated with the ideas of writers such as Percy Dearmer. He has, however, been seen as codifying far too rigidly the varying practices of  medieval England as a kind of English exceptionalism. My doubts about such a schema derive from not, as I recall, ever seeing such vestments listed in the inventories from the plunder of the Henrician and Edwardian period of the 1540s abd early 1550s. Maybe I, or someone, out to look in a more detailed way at these accounts of robbery so carefully transcribed and published by past generations of antiquarian researchers.

The claims for Sarum Lenten array are set out in Lenten Array and by my Oxford acquaintance Fr Lawrence Lew OP on the New Liturgical Movement at Lenten Array in the Sarum Use

If the useage of Lyons was copied by the centralised diocese and Province of Rouen, that is the Duchy of Normandy, then Norman clergy coming, as we know so many did, after 1066 to England may well have introduced it or  adapted it on this side of the Channel. Ironically then the exceptionalism of Sarum may in fact derive from Rouen, and that in turn from Lyons.


Tuesday 13 February 2024

Lenten Fasting

As we are about to begin Lent we have, hopefully, thought about our observance and discipline for the coming weeks and we have doubtless make those choices as to what “to give up for Lent.”

I am now of an age when I am no longer required by the Church to fast or abstain, but I do nevertheless seek to observe a tolerably rigorous discipline. The problem is that having made my mental list of what to give up in terms of food and drink I realise that I am, in fact, ‘giving up’ things that I rarely consume …. Which is not, however, to say that my grocery shopping will not have to be adjusted to accommodate the temporary regime. Nor must one forget what one can still eat and drink on Saturday evenings after Vespers and on Sundays, as being a day exempt from the fast, or any major feasts or solemnities that occur ….

By contrast life in the past was much more strict, and also much more structured, as it still is for the Orthodox. It was not a case of what I am going to give up, but rather, what am I permitted to eat today?

Changing dietary habits also affect these matters. Fasting on one main meal and two small snacks might have been for many, if not all, quite a hardship a century ago with colder houses, fewer cars and more manual labour, as well as very different working patterns. Today eating more than one main meal and two light snacks any day is liable to bring down upon one the wrath of the healthy eating lobby. Cutting out meat is less challenging when vegetarian and vegan ideas hold so much sway.

Indeed the age dispensation at 60 is in modern conditions of rising life expectancy and better health probably in need of an increase like the pensionable age - “70 is the new 60” and such like.

G.K.Chesterton - and that is someone who could have fasted with profit to both his girth and his health no doubt - famously opined   

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.
Maybe that can be varied to

The Christian ideal of fasting has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.

My thoughts on these ideas, with various online links, from 2016 can be read at Traditional Rule of Fasting and Abstinence

My reflections from two years ago, again including various links to relevant websites, also seem worth sharing again and can be seen at Fasting and Abstinence in Lent

I have posted in past years about exemptions to fasting being purchased by the late medieval population of the archdioceses of Rouen and Bourges and the diversion of funds to spectacular building projects in those two great cathedrals. These and related themes are set out in 2015 in The Tour de Beurre and in 2021 in Medieval Lenten and Easter cookery

Despite citing these medieval precedents it is I think fair to say that Lent is a discipline which has been hollowed out both officially by the Church and unofficially by the congregation certainly over time, but most notably in the last sixty to seventy years. We seem very far removed from Evelyn Waugh going to stay with Ian Fleming in the 1950s and arriving with a set of scales to weigh his reduced portions for Lent.

This is not therefore to say we should ignore fasting and abstinence - far from it. We need to rediscover its history and intention.

Peter Kwasniewski recently had an article on the New Liturgical Movement website about the discipline and history of fasting in the life of the Church, and especially in respect of Lenten observance. As with all his articles it is well researched and worth reading. It can be seen at In the Approach to Lent: Fasting Matters

A Holy, happy, spiritually reinvigorating and abstemious Lenten Fast to all my readers.

Shrove Tuesday fun and games

There still survive - happily - a number of customs associated with Shrove Tuesday that are part of an older ritual year in which the local community actively participated. These events are linked to the liturgical calendar yet are by no means a well conducted religious procession and prayers, but much more an opportunity for the parishioners to ‘let off stream’ before the rigours of Lent. These events were a collective - dare I say ‘Integralist’ - celebration and in that sense did, of course, celebrate community, but without the artificiality of so many modern attempts to “celebrate community” - still worse to “empower” it ….

Last year I wrote about such traditional events in The Olney Pancake Race and in The Shrove Tuesday Atherstone Ball Gamewhich includes other such games which are held at Ashbourne, Alnwick and Corfe. It is suggestive that these four examples which survive are scattered across the realm from north Northumberland to Purbeck in Dorset, which may well suggest such boisterous games, as with the Haxey Hood at Epiphany, were once much more common. There are similar events on the continent, pointing to a shared European folk tradition. 

Sunday 11 February 2024

A medieval gold talisman brooch from Norfolk

The BBC News website has an article about a thirteenth or fourteenth century gold brooch which was found by a detectorist in 2022 at the village of Cawston in north Norfolk. The village is described on Wikipedia at Cawston, Norfolk

The annular brooch has a pair of hands clasped in prayer hanging from a ring inscribed with letters in with some esoteric or caballistic meaning that is now, unfortunately, lost to us. Such magical formulae were popular and often mixed the mainstream of devotion with more parareligious concepts.

It seems a pity that no local museum wished to acquire such an intriguing and charming piece for its collection.

The illustrated report about the find and speculation about its cultural context can be seen at 'Magical' medieval gold brooch found by detectorist

The Oxford Oratory Pippet Murals

The appeal by the Oxford Oratory for funds to restore the murals by Gabriel Pippet in the sanctuary which I wrote about only ten days ago has already raised over £12,000, which is well on the way to the total required sum of £20,000. As a result the restoration work on the paintings will commence on Monday February 19th and is expected to take about three weeks to complete.

The Oratory website has a feature about the project which can be seen at Phase 1: Uncovering the Sanctuary Murals

An artistic resurrection well in time for Easter and a augury of more good things to come in terms of restoring the interior of St Aloysius’.

Saturday 10 February 2024

Medieval French coin hoards

Medievalists.com has an article which reports on two separate coin hoards from the same archaeological excavation in Guérande in France. The history of this southern Breton coastal town is set out by Wikipedia at Guérande

Of the two hoards one is from the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the other, divided into three portions, has been assigned to 1341-42. On the basis of the date and the recorded attack and consequent sack of the town in 1343 ( not mentioned in the article ) the presumption must be that the hiding of the coins was related to the events of the Breton civil war.

What makes these discover of greater interest is the fact that they still include wrappings put around the coins - care was taken to keep the coins safe in their box or in the later cases, their earthenware pots . With all such finds there is the sense of sadness that whoever hid their savings failed to return and reclaim them. Each instance is an individual human tragedy that is otherwise unrecorded.

The article about the discoveries can be read at 2000 medieval coins discovered in France

The psalter of King Harold II’s sister rediscovered?

Newsweek has an article about the Alkmaar -and other - fragments of a mid-eleventh century psalter with Old English glosses - that might be, might be the remains of the psalter last recorded in Bruges in 1561 which had been given to the city’s cathedral of St Donatus by Gunhild, the exiled sister of King Harold II, when she died in 1087. Cut up and reused to assist in book binding around 1600 the fragments lay hidden until they were noticed by a keen-eyed researcher.

The article, with photographs of the fragments, and narrating how they survived by chance, can be read at Refugee princess's lost Book of Psalms believed found after centuries 

More on the reconstruction of the Colossus of Constantine

My internet algorithm has turned up several more items about the recreated figure of the Emperor Constantine which has been installed on the Capitoline in Rome.

One is a piece from France 24 which describes the replica, and can be seen at Towering Colossus of Constantine reconstructed in Rome
There is also a report from Associated Press
which outlines the history of the original statue and also something of the ideas behind the reconstruction, funded by the charitable arm of Prada, and it can be seen at A giant statue of Emperor Constantine looks out over Rome again with help from 3D technology

There is a third, more technical account given its origin, about the material used to simulate the marble elements which can be seen at A giant statue of Emperor Constantine looks out over Rome again with help from 3D technology

Finally here, as an afterword, there is the link to the website of the Yorkshire Museum in York and their entry about the head of a statue of the Emperor which once adorned the centre of that city when it was Eboracum and where he was first acclaimed as Augustus after the death of his father on July 25th 306. The marble head is now somewhat battered and weathered but it links where he began his reign to the rest of the Empire and his extraordinary, world changing reign. The marble head can be seen at Bust of Constantine the Great

Friday 9 February 2024

Thornborough Henges

It was reported earlier today today that English Heritage has purchased the northernmost of the three henges at Thornborough in lower Wensleydale to add to the other parts of the monument which they were given last year.

The BBC News website reports on the development at Yorkshire's 'Stonehenge of the North' reunited 

English Heritage statement about their acquisition of the northern part of the complex can be read at Thornborough Henges, the 'Stonehenge of the north', reunited.

Thursday 8 February 2024

More evidence of pre-Alfredan London

Work in the basement of the National Gallery has revealed more evidence of the western spread of the trading centre that was Anglo-Saxon London - Lundenwic - stretching along the foreshore represented by The Strand, and centred on Aldwych - the Old Wick or place. The Roman walled city appears to have been largely abandoned other than by the Church with the cathedral and some other churches. To the clergy the Roman association doubtless made the city attractive whereas the trading community preferred the open spaces to the west. A similar pattern has been argued from the evidence for York at least amongst ancient English cities.

The decisive change came with King Alfred’s occupation of London in 886 and with what is understood to have been his fairly dramatic approach to urban redevelopment - to force the trading community into the safety of the walled city he burned down their extra-mural habitation.

The discoveries at the National Gallery tie in with the evidence found nearby at St Martin-in-the-Fields in excavations in 2006 which clearly suggested continuity from a late Roman or post Roman church, dedicated to a fourth century saint, through to the Anglo-Saxon era.
These discoveries were reported upon by Current Archaeology at London - Current Archaeology and, in a somewhat quirky article, by the Mail Online at Have they found Saint Martin in the fields?

There is an impressive and extensive illustrated file online about London between the Roman and Norman periods from Gresham College which can be perused at greshamlec

The report by Heritage Daily on the new discoveries at the Sainsbury Wing can be seen at Traces of Saxon town found beneath London’s National Gallery

A Roman bed burial found in London

The discovery near Holborn Viaduct off Fleet Street of a Roman ‘bed burial’ has caught the attention of several online sites. The objects found near it belong to the first phase of Roman civic life in the period 43 to 80.

The BBC News website reports on it at Roman dig reveals flatpack bed ready for afterlife 

The discovery is also covered by the Evening Standard at 1st-ever complete Roman 'bed burial' recovered from under London

The Mail Online has a similarly detailed account at Britain's first Roman funerary bed is discovered in central London

Live Science has another detailed account of the burial and finds at Last resting place of first Roman Londoners - complete with a bed - found in Holborn

Given all that has happened in and around the former Londinium over two millenia it is really amazing how it still continues to reveal itself to modern archaeological investigation.

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Recreating the statue of Constantine the Great in Rome

In my recent post The Imperial Cult under Constantine I considered the reconstruction that had been made of the marble and bronze composite statue the Colossus of Constantine that once was at the centre of the civic-religious cult in Rome of the Emperor and his family.

The Daily Telegraph has now reported on the unveiling of a full-size reproduction of the original complete statue which has been created and installed near the Capitoline on the Campidoglio. Another copy of the statue is planned for Binchester in the north-east of England. Maybe the Angel of the North is going to get his wings clipped?

The element of what today we might recycling to create the superhuman image of the Emperor by altering an already damaged monumental figure of Jupiter reveals something more of Constantine’s complex relationship with the pagan gods and with Rome’s hitherto official religion. It also reveals something of Constantine’s personal idea of self and of his function as Emperor. Being termed ‘Equal of the Apostles’ seems almost restrained when he had taken over not just the iconography but the very image of the head of the Olympian pantheon - whilst re-cutting the marble head of Jove as his own.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

St Thurstan

Today should be, it would appear, be the feast day of St Thurstan, Archbishop of York 1114-1140, who, having just resigned his see, died on this day in 1140. Thurstan is usually, and rightly, remembered as a great Archbishop but not as a saint. That may be about to change.

Thurstan was born about 1070 in Bayeux and came to England early in the reign of King Henry I. Promoted from being a royal clerk to the Archbishopric of York at the King’s behest in 1114 it was not until 1119, after a dispute with the Archbishop of Canterbury over their respective rights, and in consequence falling out of the King’s favour, that he occupied the see of York. There he proved himself a conscientios leader in both ecclesiastical and secular matters. This is set out in the Wikipedia biography at Thurstan 

In addition to the extensive bibliography attached to that there is a useful 1960s biography of the Archbishop by Donald Nicoll.

As a young man Thurstan had vowed to become a Cluniac monk when that extended commune as at the height of its influence. Finally in old age he felt able to relinquish his responsibilities as Archbishop and entered the Clunic house at Pontefract, one of the two priories of the Order in his diocese. 

Towards the end of the year 1139 the aged Archbishop Thurstan, who in his youth had made a vow that he would ally himself to the Cluniac order of monks, decided to fulfil his vow. In extreme old age he bade solemn farewell to the clergy at York, and entered Pontefract Priory, taking the monastic vows there on 25 January 1140. He did not, however, long outlive this step. On 5 February he died. Just before his death he recited the office of the dead, and chanted the Dies irae, and then, 'whilst the rest were kneeling and praying around him, he passed away to await in the land of silence the coming of that Day of Wrath, so terrible to all, of which he had just spoken.' When, some years afterwards, his grave was opened, the archbishop's remains were said [ by John of Hexham ]to be found 'sweet-smelling and undecayed.

Thurstan was buried in a place of honour before the high altar of the priory church.

Last week the Guardian reported that a fifteenth century calendar from Pontefract Priory now at King’s College Cambridge listed  today as Thurstan’s feast day as a saint. The account of the discovery can be read at ‘Unambiguous proof’: medieval archbishop revealed as lost English saint

The Mail Online and the Daily Telegraph also have shorter and very similar accounts of the volume at New evidence shows 12th century archbishop did achieve sainthood

The last recognised non-Papal canonisation was in 1153, and in the privilege of declaring saints was in 1170 reserved by the great canonist Pope Alexander III to the Holy See. Popular devotion of course led to others being esteemed as saints and led to not a few medieval pilgrimages but this was not of itself the formal approbation of a cultus. 

That said it is perhaps surprising that the cult of St Thurstan did not spread beyond the priory which held his bones. The troubles of the Ansrchy might account for that but the return of political stability in 1154 might have provided a suitable context for its dissemination. Indeed the evidence we have at present does rather suggest it did not extend beyond the priory and perhaps the churches in its patronage.

The priory buildings at Pontefract were damaged in the fighting during the Anarchy and in 1153 many of the community appear to have been based at Broughton near Skipton. However by 1159 the priory was again occupied and was consecrated by Thurstan’s successor but two, Archbishop Roger of Pont l’Evêque.

Thurstan’s tomb may well have remained in situ but the entire presbytery was to be rebuilt twice around it - once apparently in the later twelfth century and again in the fourteenth century. There is no tradition of a shrine or pilgrimages for St Thurstan; such a feature did not appear at Pontefract until the spectacular rise of the cult of St Thomas of Lancaster at the priory after 1322.

The excavations of the monastic site from 1957 onwards until the 1970s did not, so far as I am aware, identify the Archbishop’s grave.

Monday 5 February 2024

Early Christian Liturgical arrangements

The Liturgical Arts Journal recently had a pair of interesting and insightful articles by Shawn Tribe about early Christian basilicas and their liturgical arrangements. 

This was followed with a second article, which is splendidly illustrated, and it can be seen at 
Some of the points made tie in with the central argument in respect of the orientation - both literal and practical - of early basilican plan churches as an expression of the theological and liturgical requirement for the eastward position as set out by Fr. Uwe Michael Lang of the London Oratory in his Turning Towards the Lord.

In this country such liturgical arrangements have influenced a few nineteenth century church buildings. The best known if these is, of course, Bentley’s Westminster Cathedral, but the designer of the great Anglo-Catholic church of St Barnabas in Jericho in Oxford conciously sought to replicate on the banks of the Oxford Canal the style of early medieval churches of this type on the islands of the Venetian lagoon. 

One can speculate about examples from the first millennium in the churches founded by St Augustine in Canterbury or the occasional splendid examples which survive at Brixworth in Northamptonshire and maybe also Wing in Buckinghamshire. One could perhaps add to them the church at Conisborough in Yorkshire. Although now replaced by later medieval structures the churches built by that great Romaniser St Wilfrid In Northumbria may well have been of this type.

Saturday 3 February 2024

Medieval English Peasant Life

The Collector has an article which is both readable and useful about the lives of the medieval English peasantry which seeks to dispel not a few modern misconceptions and prejudices. Certainly it should be of interest to the non-specialist enquirer. It can be seen at What Was a Peasant’s Life in Medieval England Like?

In a short article covering several centuries and  varying economic circumstances it is inevitable that there are many generalisations. There are occasional errors - London was not a member of the Hanseatic League but did have, along with several other English ports, a kontor as the place where the Hanse traded with local exporters and importers.

Nevertheless this is a useful correction to a lot of modern prejudices and “Presentism” about life in the past.

Medieval peasant life could certainly be hard - but that is the nature of winning a living from the land, and has been the fate of the bulk of humanity for most of human history. The writer of Genesis knew that. Pre-industrial society anywhere had its compensations, linked as it was to the rhythms of the seasons and to the rhythms of religious obligations. To understand it we need to enter in to its realities and not impose modern dogmas - academic work on the topic has in the past century too often reflected the Marxist or neo-Marxist ideas of many historians - or modern ideas of the necessity of every contemporary convenience.

Ideas in academic circles have, I think, become more open and much more evidence based in a range of local studies. What applied in one area was by no means necessarily replicated the other side of the county, let alone in the next county.

Although it is about France and looks at the tenth to twelfth centuries I realised when reading Constance Brittain Bouchard’s Negotiation and Resistance: Peasant Agency in High Medieval France ( Cornell UP. Available on kindle ) that much of what she says could be seen as analagous to English peasant life, with all the appropriate allowances and caveats.

Friday 2 February 2024

Oxford Oratory Paintings Restoration Appeal

The Oxford Oratory has launched an appeal to raise funds for the revealing and restoration of a set of mural paintings in the spandrils of the arches flanking the Sanctuary. The paintings were created in an Arts and Crafts style by the Midlands based Catholic artist Gabriel Pippet (1880-1962) in the years 1905-7 and show the life of St Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron of the church. Wikipedia has a short note about Pippet and some of his other commissions at Gabriel Pippet

The murals in St Aloysius were to be casualties of changing fashions in church decoration in the 1950s and disappeared along with much other such painted decoration behind a uniform layer of grey paint. A few years ago they were temporarily revealed during redecoration work which showed they were still in situ.

The Oratory has now produced a video, presented by Fr Benedict, about the paintings and with details of how to contribute to the appeal. It can be accessed at St Aloysius Revealed: Restoring the lost murals of Gabriel Pippet


"The Presentation in the Temple" (circa 1430) by Portuguese artist Alvaro Pirez (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Jack and Belle Linsky Collection)
The Presentation in the Temple
Painted by the Portuguese artist Alvaro Pirez circa 1430
Metropolitan Museum of Art - Jack and Belle Linsky Collection

Image: ncronline.org

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple and that of the Purification of Our Lady, recorded in the Gospel of St Luke. 

There is a useful analysis of what St Luke is saying, of what he is not saying and does not say in a post from the National Catholic Register at What’s Happening at the Presentation of the Lord?

Candlemas has long been one of my favourite feasts. Indeed the sort is depicted in a nineteenth century stained glass window by the font in which I was baptised in my home parish church of St Giles in Pontefract, a church in which I was to spend many happy hours as Parish Clerk

However it was when I went to Oxford that Candlemas became a major feature in my life, both religious and secular, through two, linked, associations.

My college, Oriel, the House of Blessed Mary the Virgin in Oxford, commonly called Oriel College, to give it its full designation, keeps Candlemas as its feast day with a Sung Evensong and Formal Hall - well I assume it still does - and this year it is approaching the 700th anniversary of its initial founding in 1324 by Adam de Brome, Rector of St Mary’s in the High. Less than two years later, in January 1326, Adam surrendered his foundation to King Edward II, who promptly refounded it in his own name and made Adam the first Provost. 

Five centuries later Oriel was about to become the epicentre of what we now call the Oxford Movement. Its most famous, and significant, leader was St John Henry Newman. After his reception as a Catholic in 1845 he looked to create a community life for his immediate circle, modelled on life as he had known it in Oriel. Having visited the Roman Oratory he had found the Catholic equivalent and 176 years ago, on Candlemas 1848, just as much of Europe was about to explode in revolt and revolution, he established the Oratory of St Philip Neri in England. Although St John Henry was unable to establish an Oratory in Oxford in his lifetime one was created in 1990-93, and it was there that this Orielensis was received into full peace and communion in 2005.

If the window by the font told the story of Candlemas and metaphorically accompanied me on the path of life so too did the events of the troubled reign of King Edward II as a historian and so did the figure of Newman as I entered ever more into the world of Anglo-Catholicism and then, like Newman - led maybe by Newman himself “o’er moor and fen” - to realise where I needed to be, in the Catholic Church.

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloomLead thou me onThe night is dark, and I am far from homeLead thou me onKeep thou my feet, I do not ask to seeThe distant scene, one step enough for me
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thouShouldst lead me onI loved to choose, and see my path but nowLead thou me onI loved the garish day, and spite of fearsPride ruled my will, remember not past years
So long thy power hath blest me, sure it stillWill lead me onO'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, tillThe night is goneAnd with the morn those angel faces smileWhich I have loved long since and lost a while
St John Henry Newman 1833

A happy Candlemas to all my readers.

Wyatt’s Rebellion 1554

Candlemas Day 1554, 470 years ago, was a key day in the rising known to history as Wyaytt’s Rebellion. Intended to frustrate the proposed marriage of Queen Mary I to Philip, heir to the Spanish dominions, the rebellion had had to be brought forward by a couple of months and only one part of it, the Kentish uprising, actually made any significant impact. There is a reasonable narrative account, with occasional errors and omissions of relevant detail, on Wikipedia at Wyatt's rebellion

There is a biography of Wyatt on the same site at Thomas Wyatt the Younger

Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1540-42

Image: Wikipedia 

February 2nd saw Sir Thomas Wyatt and his men occupy Southwark, but only to find London Bridge closed to them and the guns of the Tower of London trained on Southwark. Meanwhile in the City of London Queen Mary met at Guildhall with representatives of civic life and delivered a defiant and rousing speech which was very much in the style associated with her half-sister when she was Queen. The effect was to rally the Londoners to the monarch in the wake of the embarrassing desertion of the London militia to the rebels a few days earlier at Dartford. 

Queen Mary I

Queen Mary I
A portrait probably from 1554 which is discussed at Mary I (1516-1558) - Society of Antiquaries of London

Image: Society of Antiquaries

With the Crown’s troops outnumbering the rebels and unable to use London Bridge, and urged on by the authorities in Southwark, on February 6th Wyatt moved west to Kingston. This was the next bridge across the Thames, and had been partially broken. Having repaired it and crossing Wyatt then moved on London but his campaign collapsed when he was trapped on The Strand between Royalist forces from Whitehall and the closed entry to the city at Ludgate - a defeat similar to that of the Earl of Essex in 1601. His surrender sent him to the Tower and eventually to be beheaded on the scaffold Tower Hill on April 11th. Others who were to be executed as a direct or indirect consequence of their involvement were not just some of the London troops who had deserted but also Lady Jane and Guildford Dudley and her father the Duke of Suffolk and one of his brothers, Lord Thomas Grey. The uprising also placed in danger of a similar fate both the Lady Elizabeth and the Earl of Devon. How much either of them knew about the rebellion in advance remains unclear.

The standard academic account of the rebellion in David Loades’ Two Tudor Conspiracies. I recently read the second, somewhat revised, edition of this book, the first of many that Professor Loades wrote on the reign of Queen Mary, as well as wider topics. In his later years he was someone I encountered as a scholarly and amiable participant at seminars on Church history in Oxford.

Reading the book with its new introduction as well as having read others by Professor Loades I both enjoyed it and learned much from it about both of the conspiracies it covers. I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

I did however think that in respect of the Wyatt conspiracy the matter of religion was not given as much prominence as it might. This is no doubt due to the fact that Wyatt told his followers very clearly not to raise the matter, and he relied on appealing to an anti-Spanish, anti-foreign rule rhetoric. However the somewhat obscure religious views of Wyatt and his co-conspirators must have been significant. One of them, the Duke of Suffolk, father of Lady Jane Grey, had definitely ‘advanced’ evangelical beliefs and corresponded with continental reformers. I rather wonder if Professor Loades was a student in an Eltonian environment of 1960s Cambridge that put less emphasis on religion as a compelling commitment than would be done by historians these days. Kent was a county with varied ecclesiastical traditions in the sixteenth century, but Lollardy and early reformist and evangelical ideas had been and were well established there.

The other aspect of the book that left me wanting more was also in respect of the county of Kent. For a variety of reasons, not least perhaps its particular social and cultural traditions and demography, Kent was a county that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was prone to rise, or be roused, in rebellion. If the most famous instance was in 1381, there was also Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450, the campaign of the Bastard of Fauconberg in 1471 - which was very similar to Wyatt in its stalling at Southwark and attempt to cross the Thames at Kingston - and the attempt to raise support for Buckingham at Tonbridge in 1483. Add to that the use of Blackheath as a point of assembly by the Cornish rebels in 1497 and its continuing strategic significance in respect of both London and of the continent, and Kent with its turbulent social and religious background needed, I felt, more analysis than the book gives.

From this and other reading Wyatt emerges as a not untypical man of his age, notable as a daring military figure, able to motivate the men under him, but politically not very adept or adroit, one who could possibly have saved himself and others had he backed down in time.