Archaeology As Sideshow: Digging Up the Dead

I wanted to be a lot of things when I was little: superhero, paleontologist, CHiPs officer, fireman, Jedi, wizard, pope, etc.  One of my more lasting pipe dreams however, was to become an archaeologist, and that early interest in archeology has stayed with me lo these many years later.  Yet there’s always been an aspect of this science which I find disturbing, as exemplified by some recent work in the UK, and that is the practice of digging up the dead in order to put them on some sort of display

Recent reports are that the group of archaeologists and researchers who managed to rediscover the tomb of England’s infamous King Richard III are at it again.  This time their quarry is King Harold II, last of the Saxon kings of England, who was allegedly killed during the Norman Conquest at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  In the famous Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is shown rather graphically getting an arrow through the eye into the brain, proving that our medieval ancestors liked violent comic books as much as we do.

The exact location of Harold’s grave is presently unknown, but archeologists have an idea of where they should look.  The hope is to find it using the same ground-scanning technology employed to locate Richard’s grave, on the grounds of a much-rebuilt former Benedictine abbey from Harold’s time.  If he can be found, they may be able to determine whether Harold was indeed felled in battle, or whether – as another source maintains – he lived to a ripe old age as a religious hermit, after being deposed by William the Conqueror.  Thus, a long-standing historical mystery would be solved.

Part of this same historical curiosity was what drove these researchers to look for the remains of Richard, of course.  Did the last Plantagenet king in fact have a hunched back? Was he really killed in battle?  After locating his tomb and digging him up, it turned out that yes, Richard had a spinal deformation, and yes, he was hacked to death in battle, and pretty savagely, too. These kinds of details make history, and indeed archeology, an exciting area of study.

However the problem is that Harold, like Richard, was a Catholic. As a Catholic, he had the right to be buried in the way he and any Catholic would be buried, in consecrated, Catholic ground.  I suspect that Harold, if he’s found, is going to be dug up and put on display in a building expropriated from the Catholic Church, for indeed that is what is happening to the remains of Richard.

To be fair, the rediscovery of Richard’s resting place led to his reburial in a church, rather than leaving him in a parking lot, and that’s all very well as far as it goes.  Yet there is a certain element of the bizarre in the notion that either of these monarchs should be disinterred and reburied in buildings stolen from their faith by people who would have persecuted or executed these men for being Catholics but a few centuries ago.  Even today, in the 21st century, Harold and Richard would still be banned from succeeding to the English throne, based exclusively on their Catholicism.

Given that Harold, at least, is expected to lie somewhere in the graveyard of the abbey where he was originally buried, it seems far more preferable to leave him there, even if his tomb is located and explored.  Don’t turn him into some sort of sideshow attraction, just leave him where he is when all is said and done.  It still won’t be a Catholic site, but at least it would avoid the painful historical anachronism of what would surely follow, in a formal re-interment somewhere else.  The dead deserve far more respect than that, whether they are a significant archaeological find or not.

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070) Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070)
Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France


Popery and Politics in 21st Century Britain

It may be something of a surprise to the regular reader of these pages to learn that I have no interest in watching coverage of the British royal wedding this weekend. Certainly I wish Prince William and Catherine Middleton well in their marriage, but I cannot bring myself to be as enthralled by it as is virtually every pin and cog of the media juggernaut on both sides of the pond. I would never favor abolition of the British monarchy, much as I am quite happy not to live in a monarchical system. Yet as a Catholic I cannot help but turn up my nose a bit at it, since in its present form it represents the continued power of institutionalized British anti-Catholicism in the more than 300 years since Catholics were removed from the line of succession upon passage of the 1701 Act of Settlement.

Recently Deputy British Prime Minister Nick Clegg nixed the idea of abolishing the prohibition on Catholics, following pressure from Church of England leaders. As Peter Hutchinson reports in The Torygaph today Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scottish National Party, has called for Mr. Clegg to issue a formal clarification of the government’s position on the issue. The reader will no doubt note the curious fact that Mr. Salmond is not himself a Catholic but a member of the Church of Scotland; even more curiously, Mr. Clegg is an atheist who is married to a Catholic Spaniard, and whose children are being raised as Catholics. Make of this what you will.

The issue of the British succession came up last evening in the context of a discussion among friends regarding Prince William’s decision not to wear a wedding ring – a practice very widespread among the married Englishmen I knew during the time I lived in London. One of the gentlemen in our conversation was surprised that I did not really care either way whether he wore one. My response was simply to state that my position on matters related to the Saxe-Coburgs is one which I can only describe, for lack of a better term, as “Jacobite”.

Jacobite views were well-regarded in my family; indeed, one of my siblings has “Stuart” as one of his middle names for this reason. The attempt to try to get the Stuarts back on the throne is one of those great lost causes of history which still inspires the romantic, as indeed is the Carlist cause in Spain. In both cases, these wars of succession are still being fought, albeit off the actual field of battle, in the trenches of constitutional law, where the anti-Catholic reaction to the Jacobites came to be formally enshrined at the dawn of the so-called Age of Reason.

Subsequent attempts to abolish or reform the Act of Settlement in order to allow Catholics to succeed to the throne have been considered and dropped numerous times. This is partly due to the complicated legal maneuvering that would be required, and partly due to the continued opposition of politically conservative British Protestants. Thus the re-emergence of this issue in recent weeks has been more interesting to me than questions about whether Prince William ought to wear a wedding ring or whether the tune “Coal Miner’s Daughter” should be played whenever Catherine Middleton enters a room.

For unlike the romantic notions of putting a Stuart back on the throne of Britain or a Hapsburg back on the throne of Spain, the Act of Settlement is a blatant instance of institutionalized anti-Catholicism that is still enforced today. It remains the law of the land not just in England and Scotland, but throughout the British Commonwealth, since any attempt to change it must be passed by the respective governments of each of the members of the Commonwealth, from Canada to Australia, New Zealand to Jamaica, and so on. It is so ancient a prejudice as to be deeply embedded in the fabric of the entire empire.

Those in Britain, the U.S., and other northerly climes who look at the ongoing arguments between Catalonia and Castile in Spain as being anachronistic remnants of the Carlist and Bourbon conflicts of the early 18th century, have only to look at Britain’s own history for an example of deliberate policies of exclusion that date back to precisely the same period. The key difference, of course, is that in Spain religion did not directly enter into the question of succession. In Britain, by contrast, religion is very much at the heart of the matter.

The Church of England is very right to point out that to allow a Catholic to ascend the throne could create a potential constitutional crisis. That fact would seem to suggest, to a reasonable mind, that the flaw is not in the idea of opening the succession, but rather in the anti-Catholic language of the Act. To undertake what is difficult, but just, may result in tears or worse, but that does not mean that apathy or inaction are the better choices.

Portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart
by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1748)
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Put Your Best Foot Forward

Reading press coverage this morning about Catherine Zeta-Jones receiving the CBE, I was struck by the fact that she always looks like a visitor from another, more glamorous age, when women enjoyed being well-dressed, rather than deforming themselves into some sort of infernal amalgamation of streetwalker and sideshow freak. I suspect that not only would she have felt perfectly at home in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but even in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is no stretch to imagine what a “Portrait of the Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, CBE” by John Singer Sargent might look like, or indeed, to stretch back even earlier and envision a portrait by the subject of today’s blog post, the great but often sadly under-appreciated Sir Thomas Lawrence.

The Yale Center for British Art has just opened a new exhibition entitled “Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance”, which will run through June 5th. Would that I might find myself among the ivy in order to enjoy this group of remarkable paintings by this equally remarkable painter. Though characterizing Lawrence as a painter of the Regency period, which gave us Jane Austen and John Keats among other notables, is a bit limiting with respect to understanding the sweep of his career.

Lawrence was born in Bristol in 1769 and died in London in 1830, which is important to keep in mind in looking at his art. Admittedly I write this often when discussing artists or architects, but when I provide correlations to general history my hope is to give my readers a general point of reference to the time in which the person lived. Too often art history tends to operate in some sort of vacuum, in which the viewer is not given an idea of what was taking place historically around the same time. Thus, when I point out that Lawrence was born roughly around the start of the American Revolution, was a young man when the French Revolution took place, was entering middle age when Napoleon reached his zenith, and died in the year that train travel between cities first became possible, it should give you some idea of the changes that he observed, first-hand, working during this age of tumult and great changes.

For someone so capable that he eventually rose to be President of the Royal Academy, back when that meant something, readers may be surprised to learn that Lawrence was basically a self-taught genius. Beginning as a child, his facility in capturing people’s appearances using pastels on paper gained him increasing attention, and apparently his accompanying good manners and self-effacing nature charmed many of the society people with whom he gradually came into contact. They in turn would allow him to study the Old Master paintings, drawings and engravings in their private collections, so that Lawrence created his own home-schooled academic experience in studying the history and techniques of great artists.

Lawrence arrived in London when he was 17, and enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy, but later left it because he was not interested in drawing and studying classical sculpture. He received his first royal commission, to paint Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, when he was only 20 years old; she didn’t like the picture, but the king did, as did the members of the Royal Academy. This launched his association with the royal family, which was to continue for the rest of his life, and brought him into close contact with many of the most famous and influential people of his day. In 1792, when the great Sir Joshua Reynolds died, he was made President of the Royal Academy when he was just 23 years old.

My Catholic readers may be particularly interested to know that in 1819, George IV commissioned Lawrence to paint a portrait of Pope Pius VII for the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. This may seem rather surprising at first, but King George wanted to honor all of the European leaders who had banded together to help defeat Napoleon. Erring on the side of fairness, he had to include the Pontiff, whose excommunication of Napoleon and subsequent imprisonment had inspired many Catholics to come to the aid of those allied against the little dictator.

Lawrence had a great talent for bringing out what was most attractive about his sitter, often managing to flatter them despite some of their worst features. This is what earns him the sobriquet of being a “society painter”, but too often that term is bandied about by art critics who think that Gilbert & George are anything other than a pair of peasantly perverts. It must be said that Lawrence had his failings as a painter – in particular some of his images of children are not quite right – but when he is good, he is very good indeed. His combination of capturing the personality of his subject and at the same time incorporating elements of landscape painting and details such as the drape of fabric or the texture of a flower through rapid, almost Manet-like brushstrokes, make his images irresistible to all but the most black-hearted of patrons of the arts.

As this blog’s patron Count Castiglione would certainly argue, it is a sign not only of personal self-respect but also of good manners to want to look one’s best, whether when with intimate friends or out and about in public. There is of course a tipping point beyond which we should not go, but Catholics sometimes need to be reminded that even when we are suffering through penance, Christ tells us to look our best:

When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.

But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.

(St. Matthew 6: 16-18)

I will freely admit that it is perhaps more than a bit of a stretch to turn from society portraiture to Christian thought, but when we are considering the purpose of art when at its best, I do not believe the connection is really so tenuous. Great portraiture can give us an insight into the character of the sitter, true, but it can also inspire us to be better than we may be at present. The painter who celebrates virtues such as heroism, grace, and intelligence in his art can, when he is good at what he does, cause the viewer to aspire to these virtues as well, even if there is some idealization going on.

And in celebrating these virtues in paint, Lawrence is not behaving in a way foreign to our natural instincts to put forth our best efforts. For example, are you a good cook? Then chances are, you make the food look attractive when you serve it to a guest, so that they will enjoy the meal more than if you simply slopped it out of a pot, even though it would taste the same either way. Because we are not creatures of pure spirit, presentation matters to us: it is a reason why iconoclasm never really makes sense in a full understanding of Christianity, and also why a simple but reverently celebrated mass is usually better at drawing our hearts and minds toward the Divine than either a slapdash “quickie” mass or some bacchanal of tambourines, drums, and hymns like “Rain Down”.

Lawrence may have prettied up his sitters a bit, but in so doing he also showed the people of his day, and indeed shows us now, that whether you are tall or short, fat or thin, handsome or not-so-handsome, you can still be attractive. No one of us is perfect, but putting your best foot forward, whether you are fasting during Lent or receiving an award from your government, is something that can draw people to us and to follow our example. Those of my readers called to be ascetics like St. Mary of Egypt can certainly ignore such advice, but for the majority of us who are not detached from the world, young Catholics need to be aware that we attract others to ask about our way of life if we are not only attractive on the inside, but also on the outside: the former is infinitely more important, but the latter is an opportunity that we can and should take advantage of.

Charles William Vane-Stewart, Marquess of Londonderry
by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1812)
National Portrait Gallery, London