Let’s Make This Happen: The Faithful Traveler In Portugal

I’m going to do a bit of shameless plugging this morning and ask you to please take a moment to see a clip at the IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign for “The Faithful Traveler In Portugal”.

In this latest outing, Diana von Glahn takes us all over Portugal, to enjoy the sights, sounds, and tastes of this beautiful little country, in the tradition of the best travel series. Yet unlike other travel shows, “The Faithful Traveler” does something which no other travel documentary ever does in any depth. It takes the time to stop and show us the spiritual significance and Christian history of the places which secular guides simply breeze past, or at best explain briefly and more often than not get completely wrong.

If you’ve seen previous series of “The Faithful Traveler”, you know that the show mixes great scenery, research, spirituality, and humor. Host Diana von Glahn is serious when she needs to be, extremely knowledgeable – the lady does her homework – and yet always manages to see the humor in things. She’s exactly the sort of fun, thoughtful, and energetic friend that you would want to go on vacation with, which is what makes watching these programs such a joy. It’s also exactly the kind of positive, well-produced media that the Church has been asking Catholics to create, both for Catholics and for those who are interested in Catholic culture, but which so rarely gets made.

Please consider supporting “The Faithful Traveler” as I have, with a donation to help finish the series. For those of you who like premiums, there are quite a few on offer, as you’ll see by scrolling down the IndieGoGo page. Even if you can’t afford to help financially, please do add this special request to your prayer list, and be sure to share this link with others. You never know who may be in a position to help finish this program, and we all know how powerful the combination of social media and recommendations from friends can be. Thanks and God bless!

Art, Catholicism, And Stillman (No Not That One)

If you’ve ever wondered how Whit Stillman so effortlessly conjures up the lives and social mores of the American bourgeoisie in his films, next month you’ll get the chance to see some of the splendid works in his family’s art collection come to auction – along with an unexpected connection to Catholic charity.

Sixteen works from the collection of the late Chauncey Devereaux Stillman (hereinafter “Mr. Stillman”), a cousin of the director’s father, will be auctioned by Christie’s this year. The sale will include paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, John Singer Sargent, and one of Gilbert Stuart’s famous portraits of Washington, among others. A highlight will be a painting by the American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, who was a personal friend of Mr. Stillman’s grandfather; he one of the first major collectors of her work. The paintings will be exhibited together during Classic Art Week in April at Christie’s New York; a first grouping will be sold in New York on April 27th, while the remaining group will be sold at Christie’s in London this Autumn.

Mr. Stillman had excellent taste, as one might expect. He came from one of the preeminent American banking families, which founded what eventually became CitiBank. A work from his collection, which had previously belonged to his father and grandfather, still retains the record for the most expensive Old Master painting ever sold in the United States. In 1989 the collector and philanthropist sold “The Halberdier” (c. 1530) by the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo (shown below), to the J. Paul Getty Museum for $35.2 million.

The proceeds from the upcoming auctions will be used to benefit the charitable foundation established by Mr. Stillman back in the 1980’s. The foundation not only maintains his former country house in upstate New York, where these paintings are housed, but also works to encourage the preservation from development of agrarian communities. The charity additionally does work, interestingly enough, to encourage greater appreciation of Catholic intellectual life.

As the Wethersfield Institute describes on its website, it seeks “to promote a clear understanding of Catholic teaching and practice, and to explore the cultural and intellectual dimensions of the Catholic faith.  The Institute does so in practical ways that include seminars, colloquies and conferences especially as they pursue our goals on a scientific and scholarly level.” Among those who have presented papers at the Institute are names well-known to at least some of my readers, including Mary Ellen Bork, Deal Hudson, and Russell Kirk. There is even an annual Mass at St. Michael’s in New York every year, to pray for the repose of Mr. Stillman’s soul.

Mr. Stillman’s lovely obituary in Crisis by Father George Rutler, pastor of St. Michael’s, which describes Mr. Stillman and his appreciation of great Catholic art, may be found here. The fact that the late collector had an actual Murillo in his home chapel makes me unbelievably jealous – which I suppose is not the point, but there you are. I particularly appreciated the following remembrance from Fr. Rutler: “The last Mass he heard was in his Madison Avenue apartment, and his whispered request of me was that the sign of peace be omitted ‘because the butler finds it awkward.’”

There is no mention in the auction announcement as to why the paintings are being sold. However, this article about some financial troubles which the foundation suffered a few years ago, after control had been wrested away for a time from members of the Stillman family, may provide a clue. Now that members of the family are back at the reins, one assumes that needs must, in meeting the ongoing needs of the charity.

Hopefully, for the sake of the good work being done by Mr. Stillman’s foundation both in preserving his legacy and promoting Catholic intellectual life, the sale, while no doubt painful, will be a success.

New Scans Reveal The Architectural Ingenuity Of England’s Persecuted Catholics

An interesting news item about using new technology to uncover a relic of England’s past caught my eye this morning.

Coughton Court is a grand country house in Warwickshire, England, built by the Throckmorton family over the course of several centuries, and whose descendants still live in it today. In one of the turrets of the primary entrance to the home, the Throckmortons constructed what is known as a “priest hole”, an architectural term with which you may not be familiar. Now, thanks to 3D scans, we can get a better sense of how this unusual space functioned, and how cleverly it was concealed within the building – but first, let’s have a bit of background.

Beginning in the latter half of the 16th century, it became an act of high treason for a Catholic priest to even set foot in England. Henry VIII had already closed all of the monasteries and seminaries, appropriating much of their property for himself. His daughter Elizabeth I furthered her father’s madness by having Catholic priests declared traitors under English law, while those who harbored them or attended Catholic religious services were de facto guilty of committing a felony. As a result, a number of Catholic families who refused to convert to Protestantism decided to build secret hiding places inside their homes, where Catholic priests could escape detection by the authorities.

Some of these spaces were just large enough for a single individual to hide in for a short period of time. Others were of more substantial size, including living quarters and even tiny chapels. In the case of the priest hole at Coughton Court, the occupant of the secret chamber had enough room for a bed and a portable altar, where he could celebrate the Mass in secrecy if needed.

In addition to operating a kind of Stasi police force aided by local informants, England employed special bounty hunters popularly known as “priest hunters”, in order to combat the phenomenon of priest holes. These men traveled the countryside looking for Catholic hiding places, often accompanied by builders, stonemasons, and carpenters, in the hopes of bringing back a Catholic priest in chains. However some of the priest holes were built so successfully, that they were only discovered centuries later. Even today, previously unknown hiding places are still being stumbled across during renovations and restorations of historic homes.

Perhaps one of the largest concentrations of these hiding places can be found at Harvington Hall in Worcestershire, where a total of seven priest holes were concealed throughout the house by the Pakington family. These rooms are believed to be the work of St. Nicholas Owen, a builder and carpenter who constructed many such holes (or “hides”, as they are sometimes called) over the course of several decades. As his experience in designing these spaces increased, his work became more and more clever, and difficult for the priest hunters to detect. Nevertheless, he was eventually captured and executed in 1606, and was canonized a saint by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

While we don’t know who built the priest hole in the tower at Coughton Court, being able to see how this ingenious structure fits into the building is a fascinating use of technology. Whoever designed this hiding place was particularly clever, in that he created a stacked structure to avoid detection. Even if the authorities managed to discover the first priest hole, which would be empty other than for some bedding and other materials, they would be unlikely to realize that this space was just a decoy: the real priest hole was lying just underneath it, as the scans clearly show. Given the narrow and cramped location of the hiding place inside the house, these new 3D scans give the public a much better picture of how this concealment would have worked, than might be appreciated by simply viewing the structure from the outside.

In our present age, it sometimes seems as though we may need to return to the construction of priest holes at any moment. For the clergy, places like Coughton Court are reminders that Holy Orders can often be accompanied by great suffering. And for the laity, the courage of families like the Throckmortons to build these places, even at the risk of losing everything, ought to inspire us to bravely face whatever the future holds.