Surprise! Richard III Was Catholic

Hearings before a panel of three judges continued today at the High Court in London, over what to do with the remains of King Richard III.  The re-discovery of his tomb has set off a fury of argument in the UK about where the king ought to be re-buried, which has led to the current court case.  Yet much of the legal wrangling underway over where to put him seems ridiculous, because it overlooks the fact that Richard was a Catholic.

One of England’s most important and famous historical figures, further immortalized by Shakespeare, Richard III was the last of the direct line of the Plantagenet family dynasty to rule England.  He was killed in 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth Field, by troops led by his cousin Henry Tudor.  Henry subsequently took the throne as King Henry VII, and established the Tudor dynasty.

Richard III was buried rather quietly in the church of the Franciscan friary located in the city of Leicester, rather than with pomp and ceremony with other English kings in Westminster Abbey; Henry VII himself paid for a carved alabaster tomb for the man whom he had dethroned.  Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry’s son Henry VIII during the Reformation, both the Franciscan church and friary were destroyed, and Richard’s tomb was lost to history for over 400 years.  Until recently, a parking lot stood over the site of his grave, but in 2012 excavations on the site led to the re-discovery of his remains.

Historians still debate whether Richard III was the villain portrayed by Shakespeare, or whether he was the victim of calumnies spread by his opponents that passed into the popular consciousness.  Yet wherever the truth lies, one question can be answered clearly and unequivocally: Richard was born, lived, and died a Catholic.  He endowed Catholic institutions, received the Catholic sacraments, and worshiped in the Catholic faith of his fathers.  Being a Catholic who was buried in a Catholic church in the charge of a Catholic religious order, we can reasonably assume that Richard also received a Catholic burial.

Nevertheless, court arguments currently underway are apparently in a different realm of thought altogether.  One group wants Richard III to be buried in York Minster; another group thinks that he should be buried at Leicester Cathedral; a third group is arguing that he should be interred in Westminster Abbey.  While all of these medieval buildings were originally Catholic of course, today none of them are.  And unfortunately the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Nottingham, where Richard’s remains were rediscovered, has simply left the debate entirely to others.

To re-bury Richard III in a Protestant church using some sort of cobbled-together, ecumenical banner-waving exercise, or mock-approximation of what a 15th century Catholic service for the dead *might* have looked like, would be ridiculous.  It would be like disinterring the Protestant Woodrow Wilson from his tomb at the Protestant National Cathedral here in Washington, and re-burying him in the Catholic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on the other side of town.  Unfortunately however, it appears fairly certain that whatever the High Court decides, Richard III’s remains are going to have to go through something like this.  It is a pity that he is being treated more as a political football and potential source of tourist revenue, rather than as an opportunity to show respect for the deceased.

Facial reconstruction of what Richard III may have looked like based on his remains

Facial reconstruction of what Richard III may have looked like based on his remains

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A Message from Mrs. Kennedy

Fifty years ago yesterday, First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy went on camera for the first time following the assassination and funeral of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, to thank the nation for the outpouring of support she and her children received.  This brief film was shown around the country in movie theatres as a newsreel, and exists in two different versions – one showing Mrs. Kennedy seated with Robert and Edward Kennedy, and the other of her shown from the side.  Both are worth watching, since the effect on the viewer, or at least on this viewer, changes based on the angle, the lighting, and the closeness of the camera lens.

Now the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts has announced that more of those very condolence messages which Mrs. Kennedy received will be made available to scholars and researchers.  Some items in the collection are quite remarkable indeed. For example, there is a letter from the mother of one of the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama only a few months before.

Whatever one thinks of the Kennedys, politically or otherwise, anyone who has experienced a great loss in their life can appreciate how these pieces of paper – cards, notes, letters, photographs – are simultaneously both hurtful and helpful.  They hurt, obviously, because the reader is reminded of their loss, and can be reminded of it again and again, should they choose to hold on to the documents.  Yet at the same time they can help, because they also remind the sufferer that they are not alone, whatever it is they may be going through.  It is then when humanity and decency are so important, in those moments when the widow or orphan is feeling they have nothing to hold on to as they attempt to go on with their lives.

Although JFK’s assassination was over 50 years ago, the images and words which Americans associate with that event continue to have an impact on the national consciousness. This message by Mrs. Kennedy was only about a minute long, and yet when one considers what had happened less than two months earlier – and the fact that she was only 34 years old at the time – her grace was truly remarkable.  It reinforced the public’s perception of her bravery as a young widow in overwhelming circumstances.  Yet it also showed that she really did appreciate the prayers and encouragement she received, and that she felt a duty to acknowledge that kindness publicly. It is quite a piece of history.

Mrs. Kennedy thanks the American people for their condolences

Mrs. Kennedy thanks the American people for their condolences

Art Theft: Why We All Lose

The reader may have caught a recent news story about a painting bought at a flea market near Washington, D.C., which must now be returned to the museum in Baltimore from which it was stolen many decades ago.  The small canvas, “On the Shore of the Seine”, by the famous French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, was supposedly purchased in a box of odds and ends for $50.00 back in 2009.  In 2012, when the alleged buyer consigned the piece for auction, it caused quite a stir in the art press, as such finds often do.  Full coverage of this fascinating story can be read in this excellent summary in the Washington Post, and indeed the BMA should be very grateful to the Post for tracking down information regarding the ownership and donation of the painting to the Museum back in 1937, records which the Museum itself was not able to locate.

Stolen art is a subject which fascinates our culture in a way which differs from other types of theft.  In film for example, the art thief is a character who usually falls into one of two types.  He is either a technically skilled expert, who steals to order for the purpose of making a profit, e.g., Sean Connery in “Entrapment”, or he is a collector who loves possessing beautiful things and enjoys the challenge of obtaining them, as did Pierce Brosnan in the (vastly superior) remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair”.  Either way, he is not a bull in a china shop, but someone who respects the fact that the property which he is stealing is to be treated as well as possible under the circumstances.

Yet just as the romanticization of figures like bank robbers or gangsters continues in popular culture without a real sense of the violence and lawlessness which surrounds the actions of such persons, the notion of the courtly art thief is an equally dangerous figment of the imagination.  In most cases, the art thief is not some suave, Cary Grant-like figure in a smoking jacket, admiring his recently-acquired Breughel the Elder hanging over the mantelpiece in his graciously appointed flat in Paris.  Rather, he is usually a low-level criminal, interested in quick access to cash, and not in the art which he has stolen.  And one of the biggest art thefts in recent years gives us just such an example.

In October 2012, two Romanian thugs stole seven paintings from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, as part of a wider conspiracy involving several others in their home town, thanks to appallingly lax security at the Museum.  The haul included works by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, which the gang subsequently attempted, unsuccessfully, to sell on the black market.  Unfortunately, it was later determined by investigators that at least three of the missing paintings – and possibly all of them – had probably been burned, in an attempt to hide evidence of the crime.

Not only did the thieves, or at least their accomplices, betray an appalling lack of appreciation for the beautiful and important things they had stolen, but this was hardly their first entanglement with the law. Ringleader Radu Dogaru for example, was already under investigation for human trafficking, pimping, and robbery at the time of his arrest last year, and several of his co-conspirators were described by locals as thugs who stole from their neighbors, and threatened them on a regular basis.  A friend of Radu allegedly involved in the heist, Adrian Procop, went on the run after the initial arrests, and was only captured in Britain a few weeks ago, when he attempted to enter the country using false documents.  Dogaru and one of the co-conspirators have already admitted guilt and were sentenced back in November, while the trial of others involved in the heist will be going forward this Spring.

As one might expect, someone has decided to make a movie about the exploits of this gang, which will hopefully portray what they did in the shameful light with which it deserves to be treated.  There is nothing adventurous, heroic, or laudable about destroying cultural artifacts: after all objects, unlike people, cannot fight back or defend themselves.  Whether it is the taking of a single, small work by an important Impressionist which somehow found its way to a suburban flea market, or art theft on the scale of the Nazis as will be recounted in the forthcoming “Monuments Men” film starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett (which I am very much looking forward to seeing), we need to condemn art theft, not celebrate it as some sort of forgivable luxury which hurts no one.

Western culture has always looked backward for instruction and inspiration as to how it should move forward.  It is why for example the Constitution – the original copy of which is lovingly preserved at the National Archives of course – continues to shape the path of the United States today, as lawmakers and jurists revisit the intent of the Founding Fathers, and debate how to adapt an 18th century document to 21st century needs.  Without actual touchstones of history such as this, be they documents or paintings or the like, which can outlast by many centuries the people who originally created them, we lose a vital, tangible link connecting us to the past.  And we are then, all of us, the poorer when such an irreversible loss occurs.

Art thieves Eugen Darie, center, and Radu Dogaru, right

Art thieves Eugen Darie, center, and Radu Dogaru, right