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.

Sinful Artists, Sacred Art

This week Apollo Magazine offers a thoughtful piece on the work of the British sculptor Eric Gill (1882-1940), who is the subject of a new exhibition that just opened at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft in West Sussex. I warn you that it’s a difficult article to read, because author James Williams pulls no punches in looking at the rather shocking personal life of the artist in tandem with his religious art – and the piece includes one illustration by Gill toward the end of the article which you may not want to see, if you’re particularly sensitive. But for those of you prepared to read it, it offers a good opportunity for adult reflection and discussion on some difficult aspects of the arts where they intersect with faith.

Gill became a prominent artist at the turn of the previous century, primarily as a result of his sculpture, but also from his work as an engraver and a designer of typefaces, such as that still used by Penguin Books. His art can be seen in many places throughout Britain, but perhaps his most famous and public works are those which decorate Broadcasting House, the Art Deco headquarters of the BBC. When I lived in London, I walked past this building nearly every day on my way to and from school, and admired Gill’s figures of Ariel and Prospero from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” which adorn the facade.

After he converted to Catholicism in 1911, Gill received many commissions to create works of art for Catholic institutions, including the Stations of the Cross which he created for Westminster Cathedral, the Catholic cathedral in London. He and his wife formed a lay religious fraternity with other artists interested in Catholic subjects, and went to live in an art colony in Wales. While his views became increasingly socialist as he grew older, he nevertheless continued to practice his faith, even as he supported more left-leaning causes.

Many years after his death, it was revealed that Gill had a voracious sexual appetite, which extended not only to his own adult sisters and grown daughters, but even to the family dog. He detailed his activities in his diaries, which came to light in the late 1980’s as a biography of his life was being researched. Up until then, Gill had been viewed as one of the preeminent British sculptors of the first half of the 20thcentury, and his religious faith was taken to be what it was: a part of his personal and artistic philosophy just as much as his outspoken public opposition to anything resembling fascism.

When the truth of Gill’s personal life became known, right around the time that the clergy sexual abuse scandal began to break, there were calls for his work to be removed from the churches where these pieces were displayed. Although that did not happen, the taint of this scandal now permanently colors his legacy, so that one cannot see his art without thinking of Gill’s private activities. It is fair to say that for many, there is an unavoidable feeling of discomfort in such a situation, and I must say, the more I have looked at Gill’s work after reading this piece, the more disturbed and disturbing an artist I find him to be. Perhaps there is something to be said, after all, for the idea that his art should not be in our churches.

That being said, works by many great Catholic artists who also happened to have considerable sexual appetites are very common in our churches, in Bibles and religious books, and so on. Raphael for example, supposedly died as a result of an evening’s overexertion with his favorite model-mistress, whose features he used in many of his religious paintings. Michelangelo wrote erotic love poems to a number of young men, including at least one of his assistants and two of his models. Late in life Velázquez fathered an illegitimate child during a trip to Rome to paint the Pope, an affair which kept him from going back to his wife for nearly 3 years.

The same proclivities and weaknesses are not limited to Catholic artists, either. Mozart may or may not have been a philanderer, but he was definitely a freemason (a mortal sin for a Catholic), while Fauré had endless mistresses and extramarital affairs. Nevertheless, the religious music of both composers is still performed regularly in churches all over the world. Waugh enjoyed affairs with both men and women, and became both alcoholic and drug addict, but still rose to become one of the most prominent Catholic authors of the 20th century. Indeed, as he famously remarked when Nancy Mitford pointed out that his faith and his behavior often did not jibe very well, he would have been even more of a reprobate if he wasn’t a Christian.

All of these men were great artists in their fields, and yet all them were great sinners as well. None of them were perfect, and yet they all succeeded in revealing something of Divine perfection in their work. If you’re looking for artists who both created great religious works and practiced personal continence, you’re going to find a very short list. With extremely few exceptions, someone who writes a beautiful hymn or paints a magnificent icon is not any less sinful than the rest of us are.

So when it comes to Gill, you’ll have to reach your own conclusions about what to think about his work. Personally speaking, I’m increasingly of the mind that his public art, beautiful though it may be, is tainted because of other art that he created, which inappropriately comingles eroticism and faith. However, I leave it to those with larger brains than mine to figure out what is to be done here.

Every area of creative endeavor is populated by sinners, just as our banks, hospitals, and grocery stores are. Artists are, perhaps, more likely to be unconventional in their personal lives than those engaged in more ordinary occupations. Yet if you care about both the arts and your faith, at some point you have to find a way to reconcile the two, which as we’ve seen are often diametrically opposed to one another. Perhaps in this context Mary Magdalene, the sinner who became a great saint, would be just as appropriate a patron saint for artists, as she already is for those who have suffered greatly from temptation.

​Cambridge Catholic Art Exhibition Fails Catholicism 101

Occasionally – but only very occasionally – I’m pleasantly surprised to come across an article in the art press in which the author “gets” Catholic art that is the subject of an exhibition. In this case, the author is art historian Charles Hope writing in Apollo Magazine, and the exhibition is “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy”, which recently opened at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. To his great credit, Mr. Hope takes the exhibition’s organizers to task for displaying a poor understanding of Catholic theology and devotional life, something which more often than not is missing in critical reviews of exhibitions which feature Catholic art.

The idea that many of the paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects from the Renaissance which we admire in our museums were made for the purposes of prayer, is something that is alien to the majority of contemporary critics and curators. The Fitzwilliam show, apparently, is no exception; the Museum must not have bothered to have a devout Catholic priest, theologian, or layperson take a look at their exhibition catalogue first, while it was still in mockup. For example, Mr. Hope notes that a pair of icons containing images of the Annunciation to, and the Assumption and Coronation of, the Blessed Virgin Mary are described as “Christological” rather than “Mariological”.

In explaining the presence of donors, i.e. the men and women who paid for an altarpiece or sculptural group, the exhibition provides the usual stock answer which one comes across in most art criticism about the motivations behind the creation of religious works of art. The idea that the purpose of placing these donors in the completed piece was a chance to demonstrate their wealth and piety is based on an essentially Marxist understanding of history. In this analysis, it is economics which serves as the primary motivating factor, rather than faith.

Rejecting the curators’ assertions that those who appeared in these works were primarily interested in status, by commissioning these objects to show off how elite they were, Mr. Hope makes a – for contemporary art criticism – radical departure from conventional wisdom. “They were not claiming anything at all,” he notes, “but were inviting those who saw their portraits to pray for their souls, with the implication that they, in purgatory [sic], were praying for the souls of the living. In fact, most of the objects in this exhibition, apparently, suffer from a lack of curatorial understanding and acceptance of this concept.

As Mr. Hope correctly points out, the rejection of the doctrine of Purgatory by Protestants created a gulf between Catholic and Protestant understanding of this art. This is a fact which, I suspect, has influenced the mostly atheistic and agnostic views which dominate British high culture today. As Mr. Hope writes, the Catholic concern with sin, death, and the next life “was central to their religious thinking, motivating the construction of family chapels, the endowment of masses for the dead and the religious invocations which were standard in wills.”

This lack of understanding of Catholic theology regarding subjects such as Purgatory is an important and significant explanation as to why so many art critics do not really “get” Catholic art. While many non-Catholics continue to misunderstand Purgatory as a place where one’s final destination is still open to debate, Mr. Hope and Catholics in general understand that under Catholic teaching, everyone who makes it to Purgatory is, in fact, on their way to Heaven – once they finally rid themselves of their remaining imperfections such as remaining bad habits. Msgr. Charles Pope, of our fortunate Archdiocese of Washington, explains how: “even if we were to engage in the folly of thinking we ourselves, or someone else had reached perfection, the truth is we don’t really know what true, God-like perfection is. All I know is, that if I were to die today, God would have to bring to completion the good work he has begun in me.”

While it is true that (sadly) hardly any wealthy Catholics are commissioning beautiful works of religious art these days, for those everyday pray, pay, and obey Catholics like yours truly, the ideas and practices described by Mr. Hope in his review are absolutely relevant. We still request Masses to be said for the repose of the souls of our loved ones, and for those of the loved ones of our close friends and colleagues. We still go on pilgrimages, perhaps lighting candles, leaving flowers, or taking away some token of our visit to remind us of our spiritual experience – and often we do so on behalf of those in Purgatory, who cannot pray or act on their own behalf as they are being purified for Heaven.

That an institution of higher learning of the level of Cambridge should put together such a slapdash and poorly-informed exploration of Catholic theology as expressed in Renaissance art is, frankly, an embarrassment. Unfortunately, such things are mostly the norm, these days. If the fork-tongued pundits who dominate mainstream media cannot be trusted to accurately report on Catholic issues – and they cannot be – then one can hardly expect the institutions which gave birth to said brood of vipers to do any better back at the nest.

If any of my readers should find themselves up at Cambridge for this show, which runs through June 4th, I’ll be curious to read and share your comments with your fellow readers on your impressions of the exhibition.

Pinturicchio – Detail, “Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John the Baptist” (c.1490–5) The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge