Friday 28 August 2009

Liberal Loins

My father(RIP), having seen action in World War 2 and being a reflective reader of newspapers, would frequently pass interesting comments upon human mortality. "There are," he would sagely remark upon looking up from the paper, "people dying today who never died before." He never ceased to be amused by the way in which people's reputations could be transformed by death. He was most amused at the sudden virtual canonisations of individuals who, until recently, had been reviled by the same journalists. Yesterday I saw the "Times" headline regarding the youngest brother of USA President Kennedy. He was, it said, "the lion of the liberals"- a phrase I had read only for the first time on a blog the other day. It struck me as rather silly because "liberal" means something rather different here than in America. But I digress. Perhaps he was significant in internal US politics but here his chief fame lies in being the brother of the assassinated pair and the irresponsible driver who let his passenger drown.

Things may change of course. There may be more to the man. In time he may appear as the worthy successor of the noble earl who did so much for fast food. To put ham or cheese between slices of bread was of great benefit to humanity. Who knows? In time the inventor of the waitress sandwich may be similarly honoured.

Sunday 23 August 2009

"If you don't mind, dear...."

It fell to me to do the second reading at Mass today beginning with St Paul's memorable words, "Wives be obedient to your husbands". Having enjoined obedience upon wives he subsequently spends a greater time admonishing husbands upon their duty of self-sacrifice towards their wives so I suppose it balances out. Nevertheless I was struck afterwards by the thought that here was proof, were it needed, that St Paul was not married for no married man would have dared ordering wives to be obedient.

I mention this thought because I recall not so long ago a priest, doubtless full of some modern scripture scholarship, asserting in a sermon (or homily- I've never figured out the difference) that, before his conversion, St Paul was very likely married. Well, I think that a very shaky hypothesis.

Sunday 16 August 2009

The Assumption

The Assumption by Titian (click to enlarge).

Wednesday 12 August 2009

More of Vezelay

On Sunday I heard an appeal on behalf of Aid to the Church in Need and was astounded at the large numbers of Catholics suffering persecution for the faith in many parts of the world today.
There are no prizes for guessing who the biggest culprits are. I found myself recalling my visit to Vezelay last year. The picture above shows part of the hill of Vezelay where, famously, St Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Monday 10 August 2009

St Laurence

St Laurence Distributing Alms- Fra Angelico (click image to enlarge)

Thursday 6 August 2009

The Transfiguration

Raphael's famous last painting, unfinished at his death and now in the Vatican Picture Gallery, was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici as an altarpiece for his cathedral in Narbonne in southern France. The narrative of the Transfiguration in the upper part of the painting is combined with that of the disciples' unsuccessful attempt to cure the epileptic demoniac and which follows the account in St Matthew's Gospel in the lower half of the painting. Interestingly, two figures shown on the top left hand side seen witnessing the event are identified as the martyrs Ss. Felicissimus and Agapitus whose commemoration coincided with that of the feast of the Transfiguration on 6th August- an item that should alert us to the fact that we are presented with something more than a mere sub-photographic illustration of the scriptural story.

Giulio Romano, Raphael's assistant and heir, is believed to have completed it after the master's early death,( aged thirty-seven) in 1520, being paid for it three years later when, instead of the painting's being sent to France, it went to the Cardinal's titular church in Rome, San Pietro in Montorio. Nevertheless the painting did go subsequently to France, looted by Napoleon in 1797 - before being returned to Rome in the settlement following Bonaparte's defeat at Waterloo. Why Cardinal de Medici had originally intended the painting for Narbonne is mysterious since he might easily, had he so wished, destined it for one of his other cathedrals. He was simultaneously Archbishop of Florence and Bishop of Worcester both of which have cathedrals of iconic status - in the latter case since it featured on the back of the Elgar £20 note. This was, however, before his career really took off!

If I seem to be rambling, please bear with me, for the most eminent and most reverend Lord Julius, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church became, in the fulness of time, Pope Clement VII and, as far as I am aware, the only former bishop of Worcester to become Pope. Had he ever visited his cathedral of Worcester he would have been able to admire the beautiful chantry chapel housing the tomb of Arthur Prince of Wales, elder brother of Henry VIII and, of course, it was to be Henry's demand for an annulment of his marriage to Queen Catherine that Clement VII famously turned down. After that things were pretty grim in England for about three hundred years as is well known. Instead of bishops who were potential popes and patrons of the arts, monstrous iconoclausts like Hugh Latimer, who had the statue of Our Lady of Worcester stripped of its jewels and burnt, took their place.

In 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation, the Jesuits in Worcester opened what was the basis of the present St George's church. Thanks to the patronage of the Earl of Shrewsbury a near lifesize copy of Raphael's painting of the "Transfiguration" by an English artist named Furse was acquired in Rome in 1837 and placed over the high altar where it may be seen to this day.

Like Leonardo's "Last Supper", Raphael's "Transfiguration" has a peculiar status. Once seen it is hard to imagine the subject any other way. In this sense one might call it "iconic"- or even "canonic". It has a special place in my affections in part because it is the first painting I recall seeing. Appropriate, perhaps, since I was born on the Second Sunday in Lent - which is like the 6th August- except it was in March!

Sunday 2 August 2009

The Scrap Gloria

In response to the following in the "Tablet", reported by Damian Thompson and others,

"UK music publisher Kevin Mayhew said his firm would be commissioning many new Masses, but said worshippers would take months to learn new settings, and felt sure that favourites such as the “Clap-Hands Gloria” and the “Israeli Mass” would remain in use."

someone should send the message, loud and clear that these are NOT favourites. I did not coin the name "C**p Gloria" but I have heard it more than once.

I think we have a cultural problem. The Clap Gloria is a classic example of someone trying to dress up a text about which they have little understanding or insight. Rather than trying to make it "fun" and "cool" for the kiddies they would do well to immerse themselves in the text until they are completely saturated in it, understand it for themselves, and mean it.

I have some sympathy with those who point out the difficulties of adapting English to Gregorian melodies. True, English is different. This is particularly noticeable with regard to rhythm where English involves a vastly greater proportion of single syllable words but English has its own musical characteristics. I submit that, instead of simply copying the musical forms of Gregorian chant, composers need to do for the English liturgical texts what the Gregorian composers did for the Latin texts. Above all they should not be afraid of setting for the naked (unaccompanied) human voice. It is the instrument we all have and for which there is no better use than the praise of God. Would it be really so difficult?