Saturday 29 October 2011

Message from Shadowlands

I received the following message which will be of interest to all who follow the Shadowlands blog.

"I am not posting since the 22nd. Someone has compromised my blog address, I don't know how to fix this, would you please advise people to remove their link to me, re a post perhaps. I will try and start another blog but scared now because of this."

I hope Ros manages to sort it out and look forward to her return to Blogland!

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Forty Martyrs of England and Wales

When I was in Primary School we were joined briefly by a Scottish girl who was under the impression that we English Catholics sought the intercession of "four tomatoes"! I remember our teacher- who clearly had a better handle on her accent than many of us had- patiently explaining that we were not addressing fruit! This memory came to mind on account of the above image, a copy of which hung outside the classroom in which I spent the last two years of Junior School. A few years later some men landed on the moon and the following year saw Pope Paul VI canonise the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

At school we were occasionally reminded of the martyrs and that the literal meaning of the word was "witness". We were remined too that our Christian calling involved being "witnesses for Christ" and therefore, in a sense, "martyrs". This reminder was invariably qualified by "Of course it is most unlikely that we will be required to actually die for the faith" - a qualification naturally occasioning some relief! Forty years on I am not sure one could speak quite so confidently about the unlikelihood of real persecution if not in the immediate future then somewhere not so far away.

How must have things looked in the early years of Henry VIII's reign? Over three hundred years had passed since the exceptional martyrdom of St Thomas Becket while large scale persecution had belonged to the earliest days of the Churches history before Constantine. Who could have imagined the great deluge so soon to come? Yet come it did -like storms after a long dry summer.

Monday 24 October 2011


(Click to enlarge) Following our visit to St Denis we headed north on the first leg of our journey home, stopping near the banks of the Oise. The following morning we had gone only a couple of miles when we caught sight of the Chateau of Chantilly - an almost fairy-tale vision- through a break in the hedge. A convenient lay-by allowed a stop and a few moments to drink in the scene before going on to Senlis.

Saturday 22 October 2011

"Many"? Thoughts on the new translation 1

I gather that in some circles disquiet has been expressed regarding the word "many" in the new translation of the words of consecration of the chalice. The objection is generally based upon the argument that Our Blessed Lord died for all people.
True as that may be, it has seemed a poor argument to me since it is quite clear from St Matthew's Gospel that "many" is precisely the word Christ himself used. To suggest the Church should use a different expression does seem rather like saying "Look, Lord, what you really meant to say was...." which is not very different from making a god in our own image.
Returning to the Gospel account it seems not unreasonable to ask why Our Lord used that particular term.
Here context seems significant. The term "many" appears paired with "you". The "you" refers to the disciples present. The "many" refers to an unspecified number of additional others but I suspect that Our Lord was also thereby enlarging upon the significance of his sacrifice as seen in the passage about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.

"By his sufferings shall my servant justify many,
taking their faults upon himself.

Hence I will grant whole hordes for his tribute,
he shall divide the spoil with the mighty,
for surrendering himself to death
and letting himself be taken for a sinner,
while he was bearing the faults of many
and praying all the time for sinners." (my emphasis)

Those words from Isaiah (Ch.53) have long made a deep impression on me- coming, as they do, at the end of the first reading at the solemn liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday.

It is impossible, surely, to read Our Lord's words in the Gospels and not to be struck by their lapidary quality. There is nothing superfluous or wasted. There is at once an elegance, a richness and a depth about them, almost as if- one might say- he were incapable of speaking mere prose! As Blessed John Henry Newman wrote,
"In all his words most wonderful!
Most sure in all his ways!"

I think it was Saint Jerome who said "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ". The curious fact here is that he was referring neither to the Gospels nor to any other part of the New Testament but to the Prophecy of Isaiah.
Here as elsewhere the new translation is showing its worth and we are being led to a deeper appreciation of how intensely scriptural the mass is.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Saint Denis 10

(Click to enlarge) The Jesse Tree window. I think the actual window is being restored and that what we see here is some kind of transparent photographic reproduction in place for the duration of the restoration work. The original, if I am not mistaken, may well be the earliest representation in glass of this theme which graphically combines the imagery of Isaiah's prophecy with the depiction of the ancestors of Christ.

Friday 14 October 2011

Saint Denis 9

(Click to enlarge) The renaissance tombs of St Denis are quite elaborate structures and are believed to be based upon the funeray decorations with which the monarchs were honoured. In the example above the canopy over the tomb proper is surmounted by the king and queen shown kneeling at prie-dieux crowned in full costume. Underneath these figures and inside the architectural canopy they are shown lying nude - although modestly draped and largely masked from view by virtue of their height and the architectural features. Nevertheless their bare feet are detailed with a remarkable and appealing realism- a striking reminder of the common humanity under the trppings of royalty.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Saint Denis 8

(Click to enlarge) A selection of royal tombs in Saint Denis. No. 4 is the tomb of King Dagobert, the left-hand or eastern corner of which can be clearly seen in the painting of "The Mass of St Giles" by the Master of St Giles (National Gallery). In no.3 may be seen the tombs of several early Frankish monarchs which were commisioned by Saint Louis IX in the thirteenth century .

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Saint Denis 7

(Click to enlarge images) A selection of altars and retables from the ambulatory chapels of Saint Denis. Most of these appear medieval. Unfortunately I cannot say with certainty. Abbot Suger wrote of a "symphony of masses" following the consecration and it is not difficult to imagine these altars being used, however, much restoration is said to have taken place under Viollet le duc in the nineteenth century.
I am always delighted to see the altar stone set into the mensa as in the above examples. Marked with five crosses recalling the five wounds they serve to seal in the relics. The tradition of setting the relics of martyrs in the altar is very ancient, recalling the passage in the Apocalypse where the voices of the martyrs are heard from beneath the altar.
At the recent exhibition about relics and reliquaries (at the British Museum) I learned that the Second Council of Nicaea (787) decreed that no altar should be consecrated without relics.

The other interesting feature in each of these pictures is the retable. The retable, reredos or, elsewhere, altarpiece painting are the varied forms of what appears to be a twelfth century development.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Saint Denis 6

(click to enlarge) The reliquary of St Denis viewed from the ambulatory.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Saint Denis 5

(Click to enlarge) The reliquary of St Denis and his companion martyrs above the altar in the chevet. Behind may be seen some of the windows of the ambulatory chapels which are the great achievement of Abbot Suger .

Saturday 8 October 2011

Saint Denis 4

(Click to enlarge) Here we see the present arrangement of the sanctuary of St Denis. Traditionalists will no doubt be pleased to see altar rails in place and, given the perverse French predilection for asymmetry in these matters the arrangement of the six tall candles behind the high altar is impressive but, sadly, all is not well- and I am not referring to the small size of the altar. Behind the altar on the step where an altar formerly stood is a row of chairs clearly in the place of honour. By contrast the tabernacle is placed over on the left hand side of the sanctuary- as if Our Lord were to take His place among the assisting clergy or altar servers. I am not joking! The tall white rectangular structure with a smaller dark panel in it directly to the left of the altar and between the red-upholstered stools is in fact the tabernacle. They have obligingly placed a red lamp before it but that is as far as it goes. Evidently, the Lord here plays second fiddle to the bishop or "presiding" celebrant! How else can one understand this?

Thursday 6 October 2011

And also with you...r spirit!

Yes! I am afraid that was me.

Yesterday at mass I was asked to read. I did so taking great care at the end to omit the words "This is"which still appear in the Lectionary before "the Word of the Lord". The Responsorial Psalm over, I sang the Alleluia being careful not to push my voice, which can be a bit croaky these days, and then descended from the sanctuary mindful of every step so as to avoid tripping and got safely back to my seat. Job done! Phew!

At this point the priest at the lectern declared "The Lord be with you". Before I knew what was happening I found myself responding, "And also with yooour spirit." and managing just to correct myself at the very end.

Today I was very determined I wasn't going to fall at that hurdle!
I didn't!
No indeed! All went well until just before the blessing! And this time it was all out before I could correct it.
It's not that easy to change the habit of some forty years or so- even when one is as enthusiastic about the new translation as I am. And I am grateful. I have started to notice how the proper prayers such as the Collect actually sound like prayers- there is a mindfulness about Who is being addressed.

Now. If only I could be a bit more mindful!

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Saint Denis 3

Views of the Chancel and chevet.
It was not as the shrine of France's patron saint nor, still less, as the burial place of the kings of France that St Denis drew me but as the reputed birthplace of the Gothic and, as such, as arguably one of the most influential buildings in the history of the world- nevertheless all these facts are related.

Interestingly the term "gothic", slanderously associating the style with a race of barbarians, was coined during the renaissance and replaced the original "
Opus Francigenum" - French Work. While various features of the gothic style- pointed arches, flying buttresses, clustered columns and rib vaulting- appear to have disparate sources all were brought together here at St Denis under Abbot Suger in the service of a light-filled interior during the 1140s. The dissolution of solid walls in favour of pointed arches framing expansive stained glass windows is particularly striking as one walks around the ambulatory with its radiating "glass-walled" chapels. Indeed, until this visit I had regarded talk of the gothic "dissolution of solid walls" as mere hyperbole. Here it is real.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Saint Denis 2

Interior view.
The abbey church of Saint Denis was raised over the Gallo-Roman cemetery which included the tombs of St Denis and his companions. St Denis, the third century bishop of Paris, who was martyred in the Decian persecution of c250A.D. at Montmartre where he was beheaded. He was said to have carried his head the six miles or so to the site of his burial! It is likely that there is some confusion here as later French writers also claimed that he was the author of texts now ascribed to the Pseudo-Dionysius who was mistaken for Dionysius the Areopagite.
The Abbey was greatly favoured by the kings of France for whom it became a necropolis. The nave and aisles are open to the public but a charge is made for admission to the east end, transepts and crypt which include the royal tombs and the most significant architecture.

Part of the Gallo-Roman burial ground has been exposed by archaeologists in the crypt but relics of St Denis and his companions are preserved in a reliquary behind the high altar in the chevet.

Monday 3 October 2011

Saint Denis 1

First impressions of the west front of Saint Denis are somewhat disappointing; some of the stonework, particularly around the three doorways, appears to need some serious cleaning. Nevertheless the model for subsequent French gothic churches is here in the threefold division of the facade and the twin towers. Here the northwestern tower has been removed but one may yet see the origin of the west fronts of the later cathedrals of Chartres, Laon, Paris and Rheims. Above the facade the crenellations are indeed suggestive of a fortified city gate... " an awesome place... the house of God and the gate of heaven...."

Saturday 1 October 2011


I have had an extraordinary couple of weeks with much travelling. Last week it was three days in France enabling me to make my delayed visit to the ancient abbey of St Denis on the northern edge of Paris while on Wednesday of this week I was in London.
The (now) Cathedral Basilica of St Denis is famed as the birthplace- in the 1140s- of the Gothic style under the celebrated Abbot Suger and, being the site of the burial of France's patron saint, was, for many years, the necropolis of the kings of France. I was also keen to visit owing to the church providing a realistic setting for the painting of "The Mass of St Giles" by the unknown "Master of St Giles" of around 1500 which is in the National Gallery in London, seen above. I hope to share some of my French snaps in the next week or so.

The painting also featured as part of my London visit this week. It was in the "Devotion by Design" exhibition at the National Gallery about Medieval and Renaissance altarpieces which closes this weekend. As will become clear, these two subjects are closely related. My London visit also enabled me to attend mass in the new translation at Westminster Cathedral- I only slipped up once!- and to see the British Museum exhibition about relics and reliquaries. This too is nearing the end of its run with just one week to go.

"For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green."