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.

Advertisements

The Monarch At Rest: A Permanent Home For A British Masterpiece?

A major story at present in the international art press concerns the fate of one of the most famous and influential British works of art ever painted. “The Monarch of the Glen”, pictured below, was painted in 1851 by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) for the House of Lords, but thanks to a bizarre and tangled history, too convoluted to explore in full here, it is currently the property of the international beverage conglomerate Diageo. While there are various possibilities regarding where this Victorian masterpiece will ultimately end up, fortunately it looks as though it will at last become part of a public collection as it was always intended to be – even if not exactly where it was intended to be.

Landseer was an artist who specialized in the representation of animals, and his reputation as an observer of their anatomy and behavior was such that he asked to design the four massive bronze lions which still today surround the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. However prior to his foray into the world of sculpture, it was Landseer’s paintings and drawings which led him to become one of the most popular British artists of the 19th century. Even though he depicted everyone and everything from the British Royal Family to prize-winning dogs and cattle, it was “The Monarch of the Glen”, depicting a majestic stag roaming the Scottish Highlands, which forever sealed his reputation.

When the Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834, the ruins were replaced with the enormous Gothic Revival complex that we commonly refer to today as the Houses of Parliament. The project took decades to complete, in part because of the Palace’s massive size, but also because of the significant cost involved in its decoration. If you have ever been to London and had the opportunity to examine the buildings up close, you realize that they are absolutely covered in statuary, architectural detail, and colorful decoration, something which cannot be fully appreciated in photographs taken at a distance. Inside the Palace, the various rooms, staircases, and halls are even more sumptuously decorated, with elaborate tile and stone work, brass and iron ornament, and vast quantities of painting and sculpture.

In 1850, Landseer was commissioned to paint three large works for the Palace, destined to be hung in the Refreshment Rooms of the House of Lords. You can see some of the restoration work that has been going on in these Rooms, including the revival of the sumptuous wallpaper designed by Augustus Pugin, by following this link. Landseer was asked to provide three canvases for this space illustrating scenes related to hunting, and the most famous of the three turned out to be “The Monarch of the Glen”. Unfortunately, when the time came for the paintings to be delivered, the House of Commons refused to pay Landseer’s bill of £150 for the three paintings.

Today, Parliament’s decision seems incredibly short-sighted, given how famous “The Monarch of the Glen” has become since its creation. It has been copied and reinterpreted by other artists, studied and written about by historians and philosophers, and has become something of an internationally recognized symbol of Scotland. For example, not only was there a long-running BBC television series, about a down-at-heel Scottish aristocratic family, which took its title from the painting, but references to the painting continue to appear in popular advertising campaigns and other media related to Scottish whisky, tourism, and the like.

In the 2006 film “The Queen”, there is a beautifully-shot scene in which Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) becomes stranded in the middle of the Scottish Highlands near Balmoral Castle, when her Range Rover breaks down. She and the Royal Family have retreated there, in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, to regroup and figure out how to proceed, as the monarchy stands perilously close to extinction in the wake of popular resentment of the Queen’s perceived coldness toward the death of her former daughter-in-law. The Queen seems not herself, uncertain of what to do, and confronted by conflicting advice, which has led her into a course of public inaction and private frustration.

In what ends up being the major turning point of the film, as the Queen awaits rescue she is confronted by a magnificent stag, very similar to the idealized animal portrayed by Landseer in “The Monarch of the Glen”. The deer has been the subject of rumor on the estate, and hunters are actively seeking to bring it down. Human queen and cervine king stare at each other in silence for some time, until the Queen seems to recover herself and waves the deer off, saving its life. It is a scene which makes all the more sense to the viewer, if you are familiar with both Landseer’s painting and its title. From this point, just as the animal monarch returns to his throne unharmed, so too the human monarch returns to her throne, unharmed.

While Landseer’s painting may at last be finding a permanent home in a public collection, that collection looks likely to be the National Galleries of Scotland, rather than the Palace of Westminster, where it was originally intended to be displayed. In the wake of Brexit and the Scottish independence movement, you may make whatever political conclusions of this arrangement that you will. Personally, I tend to agree with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, who in this piece comes close to saying that really, the painting should be the subject of a donation rather than a sale.

But be that as it may, this painting is a real treasure, for whatever public institution ends up becoming its proud and permanent custodian.

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