>Thoughts for the Memorial of St. Henry of Finland

>Today is St. Henry of Finland’s Day, which is celebrated particularly by the faithful in Sweden and Finland. According to medieval legend Henry was born in England, later became bishop of Uppsala in Sweden, and subsequently became the first bishop of Finland in the 12th century; he was later martyred in Finland. The problem is, Henry was locally recognized as a saint long before the formal process of canonization as we understand it was put in place. As a result, it is very difficult to prove much if anything about Henry’s life, other than the fact that the first documentation of him dates from about a century after he was killed, and there is no official declaration of his sanctity from Rome, other than a tacit acknowledgment by Pope Boniface IX in a letter written more than 200 years after his martyrdom. Yet the story of his life has proven intensely important to the development of Finland as a nation, even apart from its adoption of Christianity.

So does it matter when, as a culture, we forget these legends, and St. Henry means nothing more than, for example, an excuse for celebrating a name day party? This question has been in my mind for some time, but came back into the front of my thinking last evening as I was researching the history of a rather obscure church in Barcelona for CatholicBarcelona.com, and continued subsequently when I listened to the most recent episode of Catholic In A Small Town [N.B. Thank you to Mac and Katherine Barron for both their kind remarks about this blog and in directing their listeners to visit it.] When do we fall into the mere estoteric curiosity in our understanding the meaning of the things around us?

Later this week I will be posting a new entry in my ongoing project to catalogue the interesting religious sites in Barcelona, which in this case will be about the church dedicated to Sant Cugat in that city. Sant Cugat – or Saint Cucuphas as he is known outside of Catalonia – was martyred under the Emperor Diocletian during the last Roman persecution of the Christians in about 304 A.D. According to ancient legend, he was heavily tortured by his captors, including being roasted in an oven. Admittedly some of the tales of the early saints have what our scientific-skeptical minds in the present age seem to regard as improbable, but oftentimes these stories have bases in facts that come to light through contemporary research. Saint Henry and Sant Cugat, in this respect, have certain aspects in common, despite living many centuries apart.

Whatever the case, the church dedicated to Sant Cugat in Barcelona has gone by several appellations, among them that of “Sant Cugat del Forn” or “Saint Cucuphas of the Oven”. In researching the history of the building, newer sources I consulted stated that this was likely a reference to the old city bakery which stood nearby in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the interest of fact-checking however, I dove deeper and discovered earlier sources, which indicated that the “of the Oven” reference was not to medieval commercial ventures, but rather the long-preserved belief that the oven in which the Romans burned Sant Cugat stood on or near the spot where the church was built, just outside the old Roman walls of the city. As the first document naming a church dedicated to Sant Cugat on the site dates from close to 1000 A.D., it would appear to my (admittedly amateur) mind that the earlier sources were correct, as the church predated the bakeries.

In further discussion with a friend – and a Protestant one at that – he pointed out the fact that it was probably appropriate to have the city bakeries built nearby the church, rather than have the church named for the bakeries. This makes perfect sense given the well-known medieval practice of placing trade guilds under the protection of a saint whose life had some connection to the trade which was being practiced. Nearby Sant Cugat for example, the ancient Romanesque chapel of En Marcús was dedicated to Our Lady the Guide, because it was located on the main Roman road out of the city, and beginning in the 12th century it became the chapel for the Guild of Mounted Couriers – the medieval equivalent of the Pony Express.

Why did present-day writers miss this connection between Sant Cugat’s church and the site of his torture, which was clearly understood in earlier sources dating from less than 100 years ago? Part of this has to do with secularization, of course, since once cannot expect Catholics who do not know Church history to understand these things. Yet on a wider level, it is also because those who are supposedly educated individuals and put in charge of researching and preserving our history, or in a broader context those who take it upon themselves to do so, are from a West that has become culturally lazy. Even on the average person level, far from the supposedly lofty heights of academic research, cultural laziness remains a problem.

In last evening’s Catholic In A Small Town episode for example, Mac and Katherine questioned the recent practice of young men in their school district wearing rosary beads around the neck. Those of us who grew up in the 1980′s are familiar with this practice among women, for Madonna made this sort of sacrilege fashionable back in the day. Apparently the wearing of a rosary as a necklace is considered in some instances to be symbolic of a gang affiliation, and it is why an 8th grader in Texas was recently suspended for wearing one to school. In this case, the teen complained that her recently-deceased grandmother was a devout Catholic and that she was wearing them to remember her; of course as a devout Catholic her late grandmother would have told her that a rosary is not a necklace and is not meant to be worn as such.

As pointed out in the podcast discussion, in this instance the practice is almost certainly not one of deliberately mocking the Church or the Blessed Virgin, for it is a reasonably safe assumption to state that the wearers are merely following a fashion, and they clearly do not know what they are doing. In fact, as suggested in the discussion, it might even be an opportunity for proselytization – or at the very least a discussion about the Church. Perhaps, the legend that the rosary was given to St. Dominic by the Virgin Mary could also be introduced. In other words, one should realize that a door has been opened, and thereafter take the other person by the hand and walk them through it. Part of that process, it seems to me, can involve the use of pious legends.

One of the wonderful things about being a Catholic is this ongoing celebration throughout the year of the communion of saints: that community that has gone before us and made it to Heaven. Every day the liturgical calendar gives us the opportunity to reflect on and learn about saints whose lives are well-known to us through their own writings and that of their contemporaries, such as St. Teresa of Avila or St. Thomas More, but also to learn about more obscure individuals such as Saint Henry of Finland or Sant Cugat, who never went through the formal process of canonization, but whom the Church entrusts to God and to the devotion of the local populace. These are great opportunities not only for the faithful to educate themselves, but also to reach out to those who do not know the Faith, as a way to discuss and learn about the Church in the context of the physical world – its place names, objects, holidays, and so on – that are already around us, but whose significance in many cases continues to be forgotten.

The Martyrdom of St. Henry of Finland by C.A. Eckman (1854)

>Rebuilding Russia’s Capital

>There is a wonderful article in the Torygraph today about the restoration of an 18th century manor house in Sweden by art historian Lars Sjöberg, curator emeritus of the National Museum of Stockholm and a specialist in 18th century Swedish decorative arts. Frequent visitors to these pages know that I usually do not need much prompting to write about things Swedish, as Scandinavia is an ongoing pet interest of mine – my review of Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick being the most recent example. However as interesting as Mr. Sjöberg’s article is, in this instance it serves as a jumping-off point for something occurring further east which has probably escaped your attention, gentle reader, for it certainly did mine.

Many important Northern European cities are marked by exuberant Baroque, Roccoco, Neoclassical, and fantastical Victorian structures, as a result of their respective countries coming into international prominence beginning in the 17th century and continuing up into the First World War. St. Petersburg is probably the most obvious example, since it was a purpose-built capital and was lavished upon by successive generations of Romanovs. Yet even though St. Petersburg was the political capital of the Russian Empire during the imperial period, Moscow was still the spiritual center of the country, as indeed it remains today.

Since 1992 the Mayor of Moscow has been Yuri Luzhkov, a man who has placed an indelible stamp on the architecture of the Russian capital – and an often questionable one. I for one was very pleased when Mr. Luzhkov helped to bring about the reconstruction of several iconic Muscovite buildings completely destroyed by the Communists, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, the Resurrection Gateway that marked the ceremonial entrance into Red Square, and the Cathedral of Our Savior. Mr. Luzhkov had the good taste to tear down some of the appalling Soviet-era buildings that marred many parts of the city, though truthfully I for one would love to see even more of this rot cut away from the urban fabric.

Unfortunately he also had the bad taste to erect the hideously ridiculous monument to Peter the Great which now dominates the waterfront along the Moskva River, and this was a preview of things to come. Despite the laudable efforts to bring back the historic core of the city, the burning desire to restore, demolish or build has become something of an obsession for Mr. Luzhkov and his wife, generally considered the wealthiest woman in Russia, who is the owner of a number of construction companies. Dozens of new high-rises are appearing in a haphazard fashion all over the city, rather than following the example of city planners in capitals like London and Paris, who try to keep modern skyscrapers in a centralized location away from historic districts whenever possible. Architects, preservationists and historians have become increasingly disturbed by projects over the past ten years which have seen the demolition of historic buildings in Moscow, which are sometimes replaced with poorly-executed copies in contemporary materials.

An example of this is the project to restore and finish Catherine the Great’s Tsaritsyno Palace, a curious 18th century interpretation of Gothic architecture which was never completed. By the late 19th century the structure had become, in essence, a roofless ruin, and the park surrounding it a popular excursion site for Muscovites. The Luzhkovs decided to restore the complex, even though they did not have planning approval when they began work, and only received it long after demolition and construction began. Not only does the structure now have a roof, but it has seen a number of additions, both to the interior and exterior of the building, as well as a great deal of re-landscaping of the site. The hope is that the completed structure will house an art museum to challenge the pre-eminence of the Hermitage, by collecting in one place all of the scattered collections of state-owned art in Moscow.

I do not hold to the school of thought that says all ruined buildings ought to be left as ruins – this strikes me as both very English and very Protestant. Wordsworth for example, may have found the ruins of Tintern Abbey to be romantic; I find them appalling. However, while it may have been a stroke of genius to seek the restoration and rehabilitation of the never-inhabited Tsaritsnyo Palace as a location for a grand new art museum, there does seem to be something of a Disney-like falseness about what is being done to the place (a similar fear for architectural heritage I have for when Castro finally dies and American businesses move back into Cuba.)

Urban planning, when handled well, can yield superb results. My beloved Barcelona’s rehabilitation in the lead-up to the 1992 Olympics is an often-garlanded example among architects and city planners, and here in Washington the re-development of our formerly blighted central city has been a remarkable transformation to observe. Yet at the same time as one demolishes in order to build, there has to be some sensitivity to the past, not only in the preservation but expansion of our cities, particularly in such an historic capital as Moscow. Stalin did his best to destroy and mar the Moscow skyline, but some of the new construction taking place there today is, arguably, just as deplorable as what Uncle Joe wrought.

Construction work on the Tsaritsyno Palace, Moscow

>Review: Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick

>Now that the home computer appears – APPEARS – to be back in working order, and my brief summer vacation is at an end, it is time to get back into the swing of things. For some of my readers, it is back-to-school, but even for those of us who are long out of school, September brings its own rewards with more pleasant weather than in the previous two months. It is time to turn back to serious books and films, if we have put those aside for the summer, and challenge ourselves once again.

A fit challenge for the changing of the seasons is the 2008 Swedish film “Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick”, entitled “Everlasting Moments” in the U.S. Maria Larsson is a working-class woman with a large and growing family, married to Mikael, an often drunk, philandering and violent man who, while physically strong, is temperamentally rather weak and unable to control himself or hold a job for more than a short stretch of time. Maria both cares for their brood and works as a seamstress and cleaning lady, in order to help put food on the table. Their lives have moments of joy and fun, but are often marked by episodes of betrayal and brutal violence. Her life is changed permanently as she discovers the world of photography, via a camera won in a raffle.

Director Jan Troell has examined the drama of everyday life at the turn of the previous century several times, and his understanding of the period gives great depth to the look of the film. In a different context admittedly, the palette and tonalities of the cinematography are very reminiscent of the work of Andrew Wyeth, particularly his Helga paintings. The images are often steeped in a mixture of wheat-like and gray tones, not unlike the early sepia and black-and-white pictures which Maria takes. The world created through these shades and hues is so complete that we often do not notice the absence of other colors during the filming. For example, although Mikael is a former sailor and significant portions of the film take place in the dockyards, the only noticeable elements of the color blue come not from the water or from the sky, but from the eyes of the actors.

Ostensibly “Everlasting Moments” is a film about a woman discovering new aspects to herself through the self-expression she is able to develop via the practice of photography. Based on a true story, we can see how Maria has an “eye” for the composition of an image and for capturing things which an average, amateur photographer might miss. A stunning example is the photograph we are shown of a dead girl, laid out on her bed, with her schoolmates peering through the windows in the background.

Interestingly however, for a film which intends to show us about the power of photography to bring about self-discovery, “Everlasting Moments” is not really a film about photography. We see some of the photos which Maria takes, during the course of the film, and they are lovely. But what we are really drawn to is an unanswered question, raised by the narrator (Maria’s eldest daughter): why does Maria stay with a perennially abusive and unfaithful husband? The viewer at first assumes that it is because we are seeing a different age and time, and that women simply did not leave their husbands no matter how abusive.

Yet as the film develops, even as her husband’s abuse takes sometimes horrific turns and Maria comes very close to the edge of total despair, she never completely goes over the edge. Finnish actress Maria Heiskanan, who plays Maria in the film, is something of a sphinx. The audience is not rewarded with a neat and tidy, all-wrapped-up-with-a-bow, explanation as to why this marriage does not disintegrate. Maria has the power to have it do so, as becomes clear, and yet for reasons which are left to the audience to decide, she never makes the final break with Mikael.

Many of the elements which regular viewers of Swedish cinema have come to expect are present in this film: i.e. long-buried family resentment and suicidal acts wrapped in sexual and physical violence. This is not a film for the kiddies, by any means, but unusually for a contemporary filmmaker, Troell has the restraint not to show such graphic images on screen – only hint at them. We know what has happened or is about to happen, but he does not need for us to see it, as Ingmar Bergman often did. Whether this is good taste on the part of a director telling an already difficult and painful story, or whether this is to allow the audience to imagine the worst, who is to say.

The end result is a film which takes advantage of light and shadow, both literal and figurative, as a great photographer does. The dramas of family life are sometimes very black-and-white, but sometimes they are middling shades, and no real distinction is possible to lead to a permanent resolution. In leaving the central question of his heroine’s life unanswered, Troell pays the audience the great compliment of allowing each member of it to draw his own conclusions.

Maria Heiskanan as Maria Larsson in “Everlasting Moments”