Scientists Discover A Saint’s Cell

I haven’t seen this story widely reported in the Catholic press, but it’s definitely worth sharing: scientists believe that they have found the scriptorium or “writing room” of St. Columba, one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity.

St. Columba (521-597 A.D.) is known as one of the “Apostles of Ireland”, and you can read a more thorough biography of him by following this link. He lived the second half of his life on the Scottish island of Iona, where he founded a hugely influential monastic community in which he served as Abbott. He spent a great deal of time during the day writing and praying in his scriptorium, which was really just a little wooden hut that he built on a rocky mound overlooking the Abbey.

Not everything on Iona was contemplative, however. St. Columba and his companions also worked actively to expand their community to become a training center for missionaries to the many pagan tribes that dominated much of the British Isles during this period. In addition, the monks at Iona not only chronicled much of early Irish history, and preserved ancient texts for their library that would otherwise have been lost to us, but they are believed by many historians to have created the famous Book of Kells, with its lavish and strange Celtic decorations.

After St. Columba’s death, the spot where his scriptorium was located was given the name “Tòrr an Aba” (“Abbot’s Mound”), but at some point the wooden building itself burned down. The aforementioned Vikings pillaged Iona multiple times in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, so it is probable that the humble hut was torched during one of those raids. Eventually the site was covered with pebbles taken from the beach, most likely as a way to deliberately mark the location.

As noted in this (very thorough) explanation of the discovery, while there is no way to be 100% sure that the archaeological remains are in fact those of St. Columba’s hut, this is just about as close to certainty as you can get. The combination of tradition, documentation, and now, carbon dating, all point to this being where St. Columba did his work. It may well be that some of the hymns written by or attributed to him, some of which are still sung today, were written here.

One such hymn with which you may be familiar comes from composer Benjamin Britten. For the 1400th anniversary of St. Columba’s arrival on Iona, Britten was commissioned to set one of the saint’s hymns to new music. While more commonly known as “A Hymn to Saint Columba”, the proper title of St. Columba’s composition is its first line in Latin, “Regis regum rectissimi”. You can read the text in both Latin and in an English translation of it by following this link – although with all due respect to St. John’s Cambridge, I find this translation slightly unsatisfactory in that it downplays the key phrase which is also the title of the hymn.

Be that as it may, given that we now know where St. Columba sat and wrote hymns such as these, I suspect that many choir directors and choral groups are going to want to perform some of these works, including Britten’s, at the very spot where they were first written, nearly 15 centuries ago.

Pooping on Paganism: A Remarkable Find in Ancient Israel

The ancient site of Tel Lachish is now a ruin, but in its day the city of Lachish was almost as large as Jerusalem. Lachish is mentioned throughout the Bible, including in the Books of Joshua, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Chronicles II, Kings II, Micah, and Nehemiah. Outside of the Hebrew Scriptures, Lachish was also a familiar place to other ancient cultures. The capture and destruction of the city is recounted on the walls of the palace of King Sennacherib, in the ancient Assyrian capital city of Nineveh. It also appears in the so-called “Amarna Letters”, a group of tablets containing diplomatic correspondence found at Amarna, which was briefly the capital city of Egypt under the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten. Lachish was destroyed and rebuilt many times, until it was finally abandoned sometime during the reign of Alexander the Great.

During the reign of King Hezekiah, we read in the Second Book of Kings that:

In the third year of Hoshea, son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah, became king…He did what was right in the LORD’s sight, just as David his father had done.  It was he who removed the high places, shattered the pillars, cut down the [pagan] sacred poles…He put his trust in the LORD, the God of Israel; and neither before nor after him was there anyone like him among all the kings of Judah.
(2 Kings 18:1, 3-4)

Archaeologists excavating at Tel Lachish have recently uncovered a gate-shrine in the ancient city, and you can see a video about the dig here. Inside of the city gate was a pagan shrine, containing two altars as well as numerous offering vessels. At some point in the ancient past, the pointed, horn-like corners of the altars were deliberately smashed off. In addition, a rather grand toilet had been installed smack in the middle of the space. This is a particularly interesting find, because it is very similar to what the Bible describes in 2 Kings 10:27.

About a century before King Hezekiah ruled in Judah, King Jehu of the northern kingdom of Israel, went after the cult of the pagan god Ba’al. He smashed the shrines to Ba’al, and then installed toilets in them so that these places would remain permanently unclean. This is the first time that archeological evidence of this practice has been found. It would not be surprising then that King Hezekiah, in his zeal to stamp out paganism in Judah, would take the same steps as King Jehu had taken in Israel.

In essence, these Jewish kings were telling the pagans: “I poop on your false god.”

Proving or disproving the historicity of events recounted in the Bible is a fruitless exercise. The Tel Lachish excavation simply indicates that the events recounted in the Bible have some basis in fact – they do not turn the Bible into a history textbook. More importantly, and this is the real takeaway here, the find paints a rather vivid picture of the ancient struggle between Judaism and paganism in the Holy Land as something palpable and quite real.

Beautiful, Old Things

When you try to keep current with subjects like archaeology, architecture, art history, or the art market., but you are capable of forming a rational thought pattern, you often find yourself in rather a lonely place. For every article about the reemergence of a lost masterpiece, or the discovery of fascinating buildings from ancient times, there are ten about – I kid you not – whether Kate Middleton is a bad influence on the art world. What I have learned over the years, watching the lunatics take over the asylum, is that the relative lack of interest in beautiful, old things, which has become so ingrained in the groupthink of the creative classes, has greater significance than simply in questions of taste. We are in serious danger of losing our artistic and cultural heritage of beautiful, old things, to the worship of all things ugly and new.  

Some countries are much more on the ball about protecting and celebrating their beautiful, old things than others. Yesterday for example, the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a 4thcentury A.D. Roman shipwreck in the harbor of Caesarea – a town well known to Christ and indeed to you, if you’ve ever read the New Testament. Items recovered included a number of bronze statues in a remarkable state of preservation, from having been covered with sand for centuries. I’m always impressed by the way that the Israelis make a point of celebrating these historic works of art. They place a premium on preserving and sharing this history and beauty with their citizens and with visitors.

Sad stories about the lack of due care shown to our past, like the general neglect of Pompeii, are all the more remarkable when stories emerge about how earmarked taxpayer funds have gone to waste. It is true that brazen thefts of well-documented works of art sometimes have a happy ending, as occurred recently with the discovery of a cache of Old Master paintings that were stolen in Verona last year. Because of the chronic underfunding of museums and historic sites, it’s a thief’s paradise out there, and we hear less about what is missing than about what is recovered.   

Yet I don’t believe that the answer to the problem of preserving and protecting artistic patrimony lies in simply throwing more money after it, at least not exclusively. The fact that there is so much decay and theft, it seems to me, stems not so much from underfunding as it does from a lack of leadership, which itself comes from a lack of appreciation. A greater value has been placed on trendiness over tradition, which spills over into issues like understaffing or a lack of security. The illegal trade in art and antiquities would not be possible without someone, somewhere, turning a blind eye, or giving up the fight out of frustration. 

The real root of the problem is the ignorance of the supposed cognoscenti, an ignorance most easily demonstrated by a glance at sales figures from the art market. When art requiring little or no artistic skill, such as pseudo-graffiti created with stencils, cause institutions and philanthropists to dance to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, what does that say about our society? How can a wax dummy of Adolf Hitler, by a contemporary artist whose name I’ve already forgotten, go for $17 million, while a beautiful, old bust by Houdon, one of the greatest sculptors of the 18thcentury and indeed in the history of Western art, is only worth $25,000?

If the powers that be cared more about our artistic heritage, and less about getting Beyoncé or one of the Kardashians to appear at their cocktail parties, I believe the situation would be quite different. Collectors and philanthropists who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the work of contemporary artists, but spend a fraction of that amount – if any – on the preservation and celebration of beautiful, old things, thanks to the infernal whisperings of alleged experts in the arts, have contributed in no small way to this mess. You cannot expect the public to sympathize when you call for the protection of ancient buildings and works of art, when you yourself fail to throw your weight and, yes, your money behind it.

Credit where it’s due, there are certainly many who do their fair share. The Italian luxury goods retailer Fendi, for example, paid most of the $2.4 million needed to restore the recently reopened Trevi Fountain in Rome. Other Italian companies are picking up the tabs for preserving the Coliseum and the Spanish Steps. The Italian government at least recognizes that it does not have the resources to address these projects on its own, and has reached out to companies who care about these things to get them to help.    

Meanwhile in France, the government of Le Petit Hollande spent untold millions at the Palace of Versailles last summer to host a monumental sculpture exhibition by the decidedly untalented British sculptor Anish Kapoor, one of whose rather adolescent and prurient works was designed to evoke the nether regions of Queen Marie Antoinette. This summer the artist whose work was chosen to litter the gardens of the grandest chateau in France is the Danish-Icelandic sculptor Olafur Eliasson. Mr. Eliasson’s most recent work involves carting large blocks of glacier ice to public spaces and then allowing them to melt, in order to draw attention to climate change. God help us all.

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Part of the Roman bronze collection found in Israel this month