Daily Archives: May 9, 2015

St. Martin-in-the-Fields



After spending a few hours in London’s National Gallery, I’ve had enough of appreciating great art. I’m more than ready to stagger down the steps into Trafalgar Square, navigate through the crowds, cross the street, and disappear down the well-worn steps into the ancient crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church. The church was once literally “in the fields,” far outside the center of London. Now it’s at the epicenter. The day before I visited was May Day, when tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the square. (In most of Europe, May Day is similar to Labor Day in the United States. In Europe, people march in support of working people on this day). On any day, though, Trafalgar is full of people.


The centuries-old crypt underneath the church has been turned into a cheerful cafeteria and venue for jazz concerts.

Are we walking on top of very old tombs? I don’t think so. I think these are grave markers from centuries past, when the church still had a churchyard around it. I think that tombs once in the crypt were moved elsewhere during one of the many rebuildings of the church over the centuries. Of course, like many British churches, the site of this one dates back to Roman times–or very likely even pre-Roman pagan times. So there’s no telling what is deep underground. If there are spirits of the departed, I think they enjoy the company.

The food is cooked onsite, inexpensive, healthy and delicious.

El Greco, St. Martin and the Beggar, circa 1597, Public Domain

El Greco, St. Martin and the Beggar, circa 1597, Public Domain

Who was St. Martin of Tours? He was a 4th-century Roman soldier who became one of the first conscientious objectors when he decided not to fight. He offered to go to the front lines unarmed, but fortunately the enemy sued for peace and he was allowed to leave the army. He eventually became Bishop of Tours, a post he accepted reluctantly because he preferred to serve the poor directly. He was well known enough in his day to have a biographer who followed him around and wrote about him, so it is pretty well documented that he once impulsively cut his warm military cloak in half and gave it to a near-naked vagrant in the dead of winter. Legend has it that the next morning the cloak was made whole again. The rest of his life was devoted to serving the poor and outcast, and that is the mission of St. Martin-in-the-Fields today. The church’s cafe and its many concerts support its work with the poorest of the poor in London.


I’m happy to contribute to the work of this famous church by joining the lively crowd in the once-silent crypt. Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!


Why I Love England: History in Bits and Bobs


In the Oak Gallery at Blickling, a Tudor house in Norfolk, I came across a tall chair upholstered in red velvet. It had no label, just the usual polite note from the National Trust asking the visitor not to sit on it. (Actually, the NT has so many unsittable ancient chairs that they often just place a dried thistle or a pinecone on the seat).

I asked the friendly room docent, a lovely white-haired lady, if there was anything special about this chair. “Oh, yes!” she said. “That was the coronation chair of Charles the Second.”

Really? The coronation chair of the King whose reign ended the bloody Civil War in England didn’t rate a placard? Charles II was the English king crowned in 1660, 11 years after his father, Charles I, was executed–for treason. How could a king be guilty of treason? Charles I wanted to rule as an absolute monarch, levying taxes without consulting Parliament. Thus began the bloody English Civil War. Charles I lost.

Contemporary print of Beheading of Charles I of England, 1649, Public Domain

Contemporary print of Beheading of Charles I of England, 1649, Public Domain

Charles I was executed in public, with all due ceremony, in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, in 1649. It was a cold day in January, and reportedly Charles’s main worry was that he would shiver and the crowd would think he was scared. He wasn’t.


Charles I was an unpopular king, but there are countless images of him. I can spot one at twenty paces.  The painting above is at Blickling, but I forgot to take a picture of the caption so I don’t know the artist.  I think the future Charles II is shown with his unfortunate dad. The pointy beard at the bottom of Charles I’s long narrow face is always a giveaway. I’m sure I’m being way too hard on the man, but to me he always looks very aloof, with his head in the clouds.

After Charles I lost his head at Whitehall, a Commonwealth of England was declared, but it was really more of a dictatorship led by Oliver Cromwell.  Before too long the people wanted their monarchy back. This is a huge simplification of events and people that are still hotly debated, of course. Oliver Cromwell was dug up and beheaded for treason after he was already dead, but many people consider him the father of British democracy.  Anyway, once again England had a hereditary King, Charles II.  I’d have thought the coronation chair of Charles II was an important piece of furniture.

I was pretty sure the kindly docent was mistaken about the tall red velvet chair.

Charles II of England in Coronation Robes, John Michael Wright, 1661-1662, Public Domain

Charles II of England in Coronation Robes, John Michael Wright, 1661-1662, Public Domain

I found a coronation portrait of Charles II with a much grander coronation chair just visible behind him.  He was crowned at Westminster Abbey in the full splendor that the English have always done so well. Now I think the chair I saw may have been used for something else–maybe a grand banquet following the coronation, built high so that everyone could see the new King.  Or maybe Charles II just had especially long legs and this was his favorite chair. I’m not willing to give up the idea that Charles II sat in that chair.

Anyway, I love the way the British love their history.  I would not dream of contradicting a lovely, friendly docent who is working as a volunteer in a National Trust property. If I heard a mistake, I would always just let it slide.  But if a Brit heard a howler of a mistake, trust me, there would be a swift and stern correction. People in the room would immediately gather round and join the debate. Events from 400 years ago might as well have happened yesterday. They are lovingly preserved in memory and in physical objects.

The Oak Gallery at Blickling is magnificent. For the price of a National Trust pass, a visitor can trace the footsteps of Henry VIII and several of his queens. When Henry was gone, Queen Elizabeth I was a frequent visitor. Anne Boleyn was most likely born on the property, though not in the present house.  On the anniversary of her death, she is said to arrive at the house in a ghostly carriage, sadly carrying her head.   Did Charles I or II walk this gallery? I’m not sure.  I’d better go back for another visit.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Thanks for Everything, Mom! Love, Vincent

Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Public Domain

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Public Domain

Vincent van Gogh painted a portrait of his mother in October of 1888 during his stay in Arles, France.  This was an autumn of turmoil for Vincent; Paul Gaugin visited him in Arles, they quarreled, and the visit finally ended with the infamous ear-cutting episode.


Photo of Anna van Gogh, Public Domain

Photo of Anna van Gogh, Public Domain

It seems that Vincent was missing his mother, whom he had not seen in years.  He wrote to his brother Theo that he was painting his mother for himself.  He had received a black and white photograph of her, and couldn’t bear to look at it. So he painted her in the soft glowing colors in which he remembered her. I wish he could have visited her. I think that her gentle actual presence would have helped him at this point in his life.

Vincent’s mother, Anna Carbentus van Gogh, raised six children: Vincent, Theo, Anna, Elizabeth, Wilhelmien and Cornelius.  Vincent was the oldest, although an earlier son, also named Vincent, had died.  Anna van Gogh was a pastor’s wife, tirelessly serving rural communities. Still, she found time to paint in watercolors, especially flowers and nature subjects.  She shared her love of flowers and painting with her children. As he accumulated finished canvases, Vincent used to send flowers to his mother in the form of paintings.  He sent, he wrote, “great bouquets of flowers, violet-colored irises, great bouquets of roses.”

Vincent’s parents had conservative and conventional religious views.  They were dismayed when he turned away from the institutional church and developed his own mystical religious view of the world, in which the divine was present everywhere at all times.  They could not approve of his stubborn poverty for the sake of his art, and they certainly could not approve of his unconventional love life.  But I love to think of Vincent’s mother, at her modest home in the Netherlands, unrolling a canvas from her son and finding a glorious bouquet of irises.

Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, J. Paul Getty Museum, Public Domain

Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, J. Paul Getty Museum, Public Domain

You can see van Gogh’s portrait of his mother at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.  It’s one of my very favorite small museums in the world, worth going a little out of the way to visit on any trip to Los Angeles.

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms!  Join me next time for more explorations into the art, artists and history of Europe.