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.

​Fallen Angel: Rethinking The Selfie

Recently a tourist was visiting Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art, when he decided to take a selfie with a magnificent Baroque statue of the Archangel Michael. The image, which stood on a plinth in one of the galleries, was carved in the mid-18th century by an unknown artist. It is made of polychromed wood and gesso (plaster), and depicts St. Michael dressed in gleaming armor, with his cloak billowing out behind him as he steps onto a cloud.

To the horror of onlookers, as the tourist backed up to take his selfie, he knocked the statue over. It fell to the floor, and smashed into pieces. While initial reports stated that the damage was irreversible – which at the time I thought rather a hasty conclusion given the materials involved – the museum later indicated that the statue can eventually be repaired.

The selfie, whether obtained by stick, outstretched arm, or self-timer, can be a godsend in some situations. We have all been at events such as birthday parties or family vacations where we want to record a memory of our time together, but there is no “other” to whom we can turn to capture an image for us. In these moments, the selfie becomes a manifestation of love and gratitude.

However in many instances, the selfie has become a way to actively avoid trusting other human beings. If you are standing in front of the Capitol here in Washington for example, there will be plenty of passersby whom you can hand your phone or camera, and ask them to take your picture. Such requests were once so commonplace, that it became a kind of internationally-recognized cultural behavior: people who could not communicate to one another using words, could use gestures to politely ask for, and give, assistance to one another. The selfie has, to a significant extent, reduced or eliminated such trusting interaction, turning the focus back exclusively upon the self.

Of course, not all selfies are indications of an insidious, underlying selfishness, any more than all images which do not feature their photographer are inherently selfless. A woman photographing still lifes of her jewels or fine clothes and sharing these images on social media, may well be acting out of a greater selfishness than a woman who posts a selfie of herself and her friends, all dressed to the nines for a joyful wedding celebration. There is nothing inherently evil about taking and periodically posting a self-portrait, even if there is something unquestionably stupid about allowing selfie sticks into places like public galleries and museums.

We do not know the motives of the tourist who ruined the statue of St. Michael. Perhaps we can take a kindly view, assume that he has a pious devotion to the Archangel, and wanted a picture of himself with this striking image of the Heavenly warrior. Yet even if this is the case, both prudence and an underlying respect for others would dictate that he should have asked for help. Would it really have been so difficult to, in a moment of trust, ask another of the museum patrons to capture the image for him, directing him so as to not only avoid damaging the statue, but also to achieve the result he wanted with a minimum of disruption?

Media analysis of this incident has largely focused on the lack of adequate museum funding, saying that if there had been more guards, this accident would not have happened. However I doubt that even a fully-funded staff of guards and docents could ensure that such an occurrence would never take place. Rather it is the underlying view of the selfie that needs greater consideration, particularly with respect to how it can negatively impact others.

Philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand once observed that “vanity as a rule is referred to intellectual, vital, and exterior assets rather than to religious or moral virtues. What occupies the center of attention here is one’s social figure.” Yet vanity turns into something more destructive, when it is employed in such a way as to injure others, whether directly or through the loss of beautiful works of art or natural wonders shared by all mankind.

Again, selfies are not in and of themselves, bad things, and the solution to the problem of accident prevention is not to ban museum photography entirely. But perhaps what our cultural institutions can do to avoid situations like this in the future, is to encourage visitors to think more carefully about why they are visiting in the first place. For when we choose to place ourselves in front of a great work of art, merely in order to photograph ourselves with it, we may be saying more about our attitude not only to the art itself, but more importantly toward our fellow man, than we may realize.

Repurposed Urbanism: New Uses for Old Technology in New York, DC

In a few weeks, I’m looking forward to finally seeing American artist Richard Estes’ masterpiece, “Telephone Booths”, which is in the permanent collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. This is one of the greatest examples of Photorealism, a genre developed back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s by American artists like Estes and Chuck Close, and one of the few movements in Modern Art where one can be genuinely dazzled by the technical skill of the artist. Sadly, scenes such as that painted by Estes in this work are no longer as common as they once were, because the phone booth has become obsolete. (If you’ve ever tried to find one so that you can change and spring into action, you know what I’m talking about.)

Interestingly though, phone booths are making something of a comeback in New York City of late. Long abandoned to the whims of vandals and street artists – though I repeat myself – these formerly ubiquitous sentinels of urbanism are finding new life as WiFi kiosks. When I was in New York two weeks ago, I noticed one directly outside my favorite pizza place in Murray Hill.

Yet even as they are repurposed, it is nevertheless stunning to learn that there are only four proper, glass phone booths left on the streets of Manhattan. It is impossible to imagine movies like “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” without these objects, yet now they have become as elusive as Fabergé eggs. Telephone booths, be they open or glass-enclosed, are what we might call “urban furniture”, which always changes when technology changes.

For example, there are no lamplighters patrolling America’s streets anymore, lighting gas street lamps at twilight and putting them out at dawn. Coming across a working gas streetlamp in most major cities today would be something exceedingly rare. An unusual variant of the gas lamp persisted for quite awhile in the Nation’s capital, however.

Here in DC, many of the thousands of former police and fire call boxes, which were first installed in the city around the time of the Civil War, did not require the assistance of lamplighters. They were permanently lit by gas lamps from within, so that the public could see to contact authorities in any weather, any time of day or night. Thus, even in the thick fog that sometimes rolls in off the Potomac in Winter, or the torrential downpours of our standard Summer, the lamps of these boxes would still be visible.

By the 1920’s, all of the call boxes had been converted to electric; by the 1960’s, thanks to acts of vandalism and the generally poor behavior and bad taste of the Baby Boomers, they began to be taken out of service. Today, many are being converted for use as historic district markers, or as permanent display stands for commissioned art. Here is a terrific history of both the boxes and the efforts to repurpose them for the benefit of the communities and visitors who come across them.

Like the phone booth, albeit in a more limited fashion, the call box served the purpose of communicating the need for aid. Today, the overwhelming majority of members of the public carry around individual devices which serve this purpose, and more. Yet while phone booths and call boxes allowed a certain degree of safety and communication to be shared among residents and visitors to particular neighborhoods, even with the degree of individual privacy afforded by the glass telephone booth, now these common spaces have been eliminated in favor of a kind of individual responsibility. I don’t have to share space or technology, let alone seek safety merely by being in proximity to anyone else, because I’m expected to carry my own device for that purpose.

What will be interesting to see in the future, after WiFi is replaced with the next big development in technology – Skynet, anyone? – is what will become of the repurposed phone booths, once they are no longer needed for this new purpose. Will they become community plant stands? Rentable spaces in which to conduct (legal) business transactions?

My guess is that, more likely than not, they will they finally be removed for scrap, the detritus of an earlier, seemingly more primitive, but in some ways infinitely better-connected society.

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Telephone Booths by Richard Estes (1968)