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.

Dali, The Dominican, and Forgotten Faith

​After the March for Life last Friday, I rushed over to the National Gallery of Art to meet up with a friend, who wanted a quick tour of some of the highlights of the NGA’s collection. When you’ve only got about 45 minutes to “do” a vast museum before the place closes, you’ve got to be somewhat strategic with your choices. Fortunately, when I asked the gentleman in question whether there was a particular area of art that he was interested in, he immediately said “Italian Renaissance”, and away we went.

At the end of our very speedy tour however, which not only encompassed the Italians but also some Spanish, French, and Dutch Baroque, I made a point of finishing up at “The Sacrament of The Last Supper” (1955) by Salvador Dalí, which at the time it was acquired was the most popular painting in the entire National Gallery. It’s a piece I’ve been familiar with all my life, since a reproduction of it hung in our playroom at home. Despite its initial fame, today Dalí’s large, mystical work hangs in a basement hallway, located on the way to the museum gift shop, where hundreds of people hurry past it every day without even looking at it.

Dalí’s return to the Catholic faith in middle age generated some of his most interesting works, including not only the NGA’s “Sacrament” but the magnificent “Madonna of Port Lligat” (1949), now at Marquette University in Wisconsin, and what is arguably his most popular painting, the massive “Christ of St. John of the Cross” (1951) in the Kelingrove Gallery in Glasgow. As is the case with all of the artist’s work, the National Gallery’s picture normally requires a bit of explanation, since it isn’t actually a representation of the Last Supper in the way that we understand that term. For reasons of space, I’m not going to attempt that here.

Instead, I’d like to point the reader to the work of an artist you’re probably unfamiliar with, but in whose work I think you’ll see some earlier echoes of what Dalí was trying to do, centuries later. A fellow Spaniard who lived centuries before Dalí, he too came to a deeper religious faith in the middle of his life. In his case, it led him straight into the Order of Preachers, i.e., the Dominicans.

Juan Bautista Maíno (1581-1649) was a painter from the Spanish province of Castile, who trained in Italy for a number of years before returning to work in Spain. When I was in Madrid a few weeks ago, I had the chance to take in one of his greatest works, “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, which was painted between 1612-1614 for the Dominican priory church of St. Peter Martyr in Toledo. Interestingly, during the course of executing this altarpiece, Maíno decided to join the Dominicans himself. As a result, he is more commonly referred to as “Fray Maíno”, in reference to his becoming a Dominican friar, much as the Italian Renaissance artist “Fra Angelico” is also commonly known by his Dominican friar name.

For a work that was painted over 400 years ago, there is something strikingly modern about Maíno’s altarpiece. Notice the almost photographic renderings of the gourd and puppy in the foreground, for example, or how the figures look like ordinary people, rather than idealized statues come to life. I particularly love the unusual detail of St. Joseph, on the right-hand side of the picture, who is holding and kissing the Baby Jesus’ arm, while the Child and His Mother smile at each other. There is a wonderful immediacy in the way that Maíno brings us into this scene, as a participant in something that is almost more real than real.

While Dalí’s “Sacrament” is a very different picture, more monumental and symmetrical, there are definite parallels with Fra Maíno’s style. The bread and wine on the table for example, and indeed the folds of the tablecloth itself are, like the details in Maíno’s altarpiece, beyond real. You could almost reach out and pick up one of the pieces of the broken loaf of bread in the foreground. And in fact, that’s exactly what you’re being invited to do: there’s a space right in front, across from Christ, for the viewer to come to the table.

Similarly, while the monks bent in prayer around the table are physical types, who mirror each other on either side of Christ, as in Maíno’s work there is no question that they are taken from studies of real individuals. We cannot see their faces, but we do see their hair, and what incredible attention to detail in the growth and coloring of different types of human hair we can see among these ordinary men. It is fascinating to think that, in the 17th century, Maíno was looking at the human figure in a way that later, through the advent of photography and the exploration of Surrealism, Dalí was able to resume with the same purpose: to express his Christian faith.

Perhaps the reason why the National Gallery has banished this painting to a basement is because we live in a time when elites are embarrassed both by faith and by those who have it. Ancient paintings and sculptures looted from churches and monasteries are considered acceptable acquisitions for museums because they represent the past, rather than the present or the future. Those who openly despise or who are indifferent to Christianity do not want to see Modern or Contemporary paintings or sculptures that celebrate Christian belief: rather, they want to see art that skewers it. The fact that such an overtly Catholic work of art even made it into a major museum is a testament to the enormous popularity of the artist, rather than an appreciation of this particular subject matter.

I can certainly understand why this piece is not to everyone’s taste. Yet for those willing to take the time to look at and try to understand what is going on in this painting, I believe there are many worthwhile things to discover here, both in terms of a deeper understanding of Christianity, as well as a greater appreciation of the history of art. Among these is a realization that, for all of its apparent strangeness, Dalí’s work does not exist in a vacuum.

Blow Out: Destruction And Danger In A French Cathedral

Recently a number of people have been sending me links regarding the transformation of an elegant French chateau into a monstrosity for the display of (mostly bad) art. It’s odd that this story has only been making the rounds in the commentariat now, since the destruction of this building actually took place a few years ago. However in the uproar over this act of architectural violence, few have noticed a more recent architectural disaster in France that needs addressing.

Two weeks ago, the 13th century rose window of Soissons Cathedral was blown out during severe winter storms, leaving a gaping hole in the façade of the West Front. As Apollo Magazine notes, thanks to the solid engineering which went into its construction, the structure of the great window at Soissons had successfully withstood previous disasters, including a nearby explosion during the Napoleonic Wars and bombardment during World War I. The great iron pins that hold the stone tracery together did their job for many centuries, up until now.

Back in 1918, a bomb blew out all of the glass in the rose window, but left the structure of the window itself intact. The replacement design was a pleasant if unremarkable hybrid of Romanesque and Gothic, depicting Christ seated in judgement of the world. This is an entirely appropriate theme for the West Front of a Gothic cathedral, where the decorative program usually references the Apocalypse, including the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, and the condemnation of the damned to Hell.

In addition to the structural damage, officials will have to address the problem of replacing the church’s organ, which stood behind the window and was destroyed as it caved in. The instrument dated from the 1950’s and, although not as ancient as the rest of the building, it did hold historic significance for lovers of sacred music. It was for this organ that composer Maurice Duruflé wrote his Opus 12, “Fugue sur le carillon des heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons”.

However even before the organ can be dealt with, the Cathedral is obviously going to need a new window. The glass of the now-destroyed window was itself a replacement, less than a century old and not of particular artistic importance. One could argue that the Cathedral is less morally bound than it might otherwise be, regarding its replacement.

Therein, of course, lies the potential danger.

For decades, there has been a tendency in church renovation to take advantage of the opportunity to replace failing or missing stained glass with ugly and embarrassing designs. Usually the replacement window exhibits no genuine artistic skill, or it has little or nothing to do with Christianity. We can see this in historic churches all over the world.

At the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona for example, which was burned by leftists during the Spanish Civil War, there are several miraculous survivors of windows from the Middle Ages. Yet some of the replacement windows are both ugly and inscrutable, such as this one installed in commemoration of the 1992 Olympic Games. Similarly, Westminster Abbey in London recently announced that it has commissioned a new window from British artist David Hockney, meant to honor Queen Elizabeth II. I realize that I am in a very tiny minority on this point, but I find Hockney’s work juvenile and shallow, and I expect the end result to be something similar.

What will Soissons do? Will the previous window, of which many images exist, be recreated? Will a new design in keeping with the subject matter of the old window be commissioned? Or will an image of the Last Judgment be considered too out of step with “who am I to judge”?

Only time will tell, but given the state of Christianity in Europe generally, and the many decades of horrible church renovations we have seen since the 1960’s, I don’t honestly feel too hopeful about the outcome in this situation.