Dominic and Clare: Two Great Saints, Two Great Activities

With the feast of St. Dominic tomorrow, and that of St. Clare of Assisi coming up this Saturday, I wanted to share two bits of news related to both, which hopefully the reader will find interesting.

The first involves a Solemn Mass which will be held at St. Dominic’s Church here in DC, at 7pm tomorrow evening. After Mass there will be the opportunity to venerate a relic of St. Dominic, followed by a reception which, I am assured by the parish, will be non-solemn. St. Dominic (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, more commonly known as the Dominicans, who, along with St. Francis of Assisi (1180-1226), helped to usher in a significant period of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic growth in the Church during the Middle Ages, and his spiritual descendants carry on that work today.

If you’ve never been to St. Dominic’s, you’ve probably seen its striking bell tower from the 395 expressway going to or from Capitol Hill. It points skyward amidst the bland, boxy, brutalist concrete structures that were built in the middle of the previous century, when demolition of historic structures in the name of “progress” was all the rage in urban centers. St. Dominic’s is one of the few architectural survivors from before that supposedly enlightened movement destroyed the neighborhood around it, which similarly ruined places like Penn Station in New York and Boston’s City Hall. And what a magnificent survival it is, as you can see here:

Esgles

SantDom

Although I’m unaware of any evidence that he ever met her, another contemporary of St. Dominic was St. Francis’ dear friend St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), whose life the church commemorates on Saturday, August 11th. St. Clare founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, more commonly known as the Poor Clares, a few years after the foundation of the Dominicans and Franciscans. Whereas the former concentrated largely on preaching and education, and the latter on caring for the poor and outcast, the Poor Clares are a contemplative order, living in monastic community and spending their days in lives of prayer and meditation.

In 1326, the first Poor Clares monastery was founded in Pedralbes, then a small village in the foothills of the mountains that surround Barcelona, by King Jaume II for his 4th and final wife, Queen Elisenda de Montcada. She retired there after his death, and over the years the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes grew in size and beauty to eventually become designated as a National Monument of Spain. It’s a place that has been important in the life of my mother’s side of the family for many generations.

One of the great treasures of the monastery is the Chapel of St. Michael, a cell located in the beautiful, triple-story Gothic cloister (the only one in Europe, BTW.) It is completely covered with frescoes dating from 1346, executed by an artist named Ferrer Bassa (1285-1348). Little is known of his life or training, but the frescoes are highly significant to art history as evidence of early Italian Renaissance art making its way to the Iberian Peninsula. Bassa’s work shows that he was familiar with the work of contemporary Italian artists such as Giotto, Duccio, Simone Martini, and others, and may have studied in Siena. This art would have been seen as cutting-edge design at the time of its execution in Barcelona, since there was nothing else like it outside of Tuscany.

Now, after a multi-year, complex conservation and restoration effort, the chapel has been brought back to as near as possible what it looked like when it was first completed in the mid-14th century. The decorative program features a number of saints – including St. Francis and St. Clare, naturally – as well as scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Because the chapel was originally a nun’s cell, it’s not possible to get a good sweeping vista of the decoration, but this gives you some idea of the impression that you get when you step inside from the cloister:

Capella

The significance of the spread of this kind of art outside Tuscany cannot be overestimated. Whereas in earlier Catalan art, faces were often stoic and expressionless, Bassa introduced his Catalan viewers to a new and unprecedented kind of realism, drawn from the observation of nature and real life, in which we can more easily empathize with the figures depicted in the scenes. Here, for example, we see expressions of anxiety, sorrow, and suffering in the faces of the women who have been witnessing the torture and death of Jesus:

Mullers

Whether you find yourself in Barcelona this weekend for the feast of St. Clare, or indeed at any other time, if you are interested in art history, magnificent architecture, and/or Christian spirituality, make sure to make a pilgrimage to Pedralbes. There are still a few Poor Clare nuns left, although sadly like many religious orders in Spain, they have been dying off for quite awhile now, and personally I’m worried that the place, which is mostly run by the city as a museum at this point, is going to get turned into some god-awful hotel and conference center or something, so best to go see it now while you can. It’s a bit off the beaten path for most tourists, being in a mostly residential neighborhood, but I think you’ll find the beauty and indeed the peacefulness of the place well-worth the trip.

YouTube Video: Mass For My Mother

Today I want to share with my readers an audio recording that is rather special to me. Back on October 11th of last year, my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in the Nation’s Capital celebrated the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, with the Mass Intention being for the repose of the soul of my Mother, who had died six months before. Music was of enormous importance to her, and throughout her life she loved to sing, both as a soloist and in choirs, and enjoyed playing musical instruments. So some weeks prior, our parish Music Director Neil Weston very graciously allowed me to sit down with him, and request a number of hymns and musical pieces that my Mother loved to be included in the Mass. The end result was an uplifting celebration, giving thanks to God for His goodness, and in a particular way for His gift of the lady whom we all prayed for that day.

It has unfortunately taken me an inordinately long amount of time to post it, but the audio of the Mass is now available for you to listen to on YouTube. Admittedly the recording quality is admittedly not the best, as I recorded it on my phone, and of course there are background noises of people moving about or doing things like coughing. However it is certainly listenable, and I want to thank both my brother Alex, and my friend Rich Cromwell from The Federalist, for helping to both improve the sound as best as possible, and to get the resulting video ready for posting.

When Neil and I had drunch a couple of months earlier to discuss the Mass, he did not bat an eyelid at my requests, whether for hymns or for pieces to be performed by himself and his musicians. If you have ever been to Mass at St. Stephen’s, you know that Neil is an amazing organist, and that our choir is magnificent – without exaggeration, it is among the very best in this town, which is particularly remarkable for such a small parish as ours. However as I discovered subsequently, both Neil and the other musicians went far above and beyond the call of duty in preparing for this Mass.

The piece that I had requested for the Offertory was the joyful “Alleluia” from Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate”, and I think you’ll agree from the recording that Neil, violinist Jeffry Newberger, and soprano Grace Srinivasan did a splendid job. I only found out later that Grace had never sung this piece before, and learned it specifically for this Mass. It is a real challenge for any singer, and of course Mozart is particularly infamous for taxing the abilities of his sopranos, but Grace was clearly up for it – plus she absolutely nailed that difficult, high Top C at the end.

I also asked Neil if he could learn the music to the Catalan hymn, “El Virolai de Montserrat”, if there was enough time for him to play it quietly on the organ after “Adoro Te Devote”, the beautiful Eucharistic hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas that I had requested for during Communion. “El Virolai” is a 19th century hymn to Our Lady of Montserrat, the Patroness of Catalonia, to whom my Mother had a particular devotion. To my great surprise, when the time came it was not only played by Neil, it was SUNG by the entire choir – and in Catalan, a language which none of them speak! They all had to learn to sing it phonetically, by carefully studying both the text and audio recordings of the piece.

While I had directly chosen everything else, for the Postlude I semi-left it up to Neil to choose a piece. As he had been so – ahem – instrumental in helping the parish to obtain our magnificent new organ, I suggested that he pick something very loud and grand, which would enable him to quite literally pull out all of the stops and rattle the windows, in the manner of the famous Anglo-American organist and musicologist E. Power Biggs. Neil obliged with a very appropriate selection, Biggs’ arrangement of a piece by the 18th century Catalan composer and organist Father Antonio Soler. “Padre Soler”, as he is often referred to by musicians, had begun his musical studies at the Abbey of Montserrat, before eventually rising to become the Chapel Master to the Spanish Court at the Royal Monastery of the Escorial. While the microphone on my mobile was not quite good enough to capture the full breadth of Neil’s playing of this piece, what an absolutely splendid performance it was.

My thanks once again to everyone who participated in and attended this very special Mass, for which my family and I are eternally grateful. I hope that, for those of you who choose to listen to part or all of it, you will find some joy and beauty in this recording. Even if the audio quality is not the best, it may yet bear good fruit – whether by [hint, hint] encouraging you to visit us at St. Stephen’s on Sunday at 11:00 am, or by supporting and encouraging excellence in your own parish music program, or by introducing you to some wonderful sacred music which you might not already know.

The Annunciation on Capitol Hill

No, this is not a report on a political candidate announcing their intent to run for President. Rather, just a brief post this morning to share what a beautiful evening it was last night at Holy Comforter and St. Cyprian Parish on Capitol Hill. For those who have never visited, do make a point to drop in sometime, as it’s quite an interesting, vibrantly decorated building.

To commemorate THE Annunciation, i.e. when the Angel Gabriel was sent to that little village called Nazareth as described in the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, the parish celebrated Mass in the Extraordinary Form, featuring music by late 16th/early 17th century composer Hans Hassler.

Rather than do a play by play review, I thought I would share an audio file of the parish schola singing the “Sanctus”. Even without being at full strength last evening, they did a splendid job of bringing peace and a reflective mood to the celebration. Amazing that less than a year ago, they were singing Dan Schutte claptrap.

With a very good experience at Confession with Monsignor Pope beforehand, and dinner at a nearby tavern with some clergy friends afterward (thanks to the unknown individual who bought us dinner!) it was a wonderful Wednesday, and a good pause before heading into the intensity of Holy Week.

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Window at Holy Comforter and St. Cyprian, Capitol Hill