Category Archives: Cathedrals and Churches

Easter Time in Helsinki


Helsinki in early April is chilly and blustery.  All the children are bundled up in one-piece snow suits. I was wishing I had one! Finland is not a place for religious pageantry and parades as in Southern Europe.


The Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral is impressive in its grand spaces, but very austere. Aside from Martin Luther gazing skyward, there’s not much to look at. And (at least on an admittedly quick stop) I didn’t see a children’s corner with little chairs, or posters about bake sales, or ladies dusting things, or a single clergy person.


The National Museum of Finland was a much more church-like experience. This pulpit is from the church in Parainen, Finland, dated 1650. At the time, Finland was a frontier to the west of Sweden–and very handy as a buffer between Sweden and Russia. Newly built churches were required to have pulpits. Lutheranism was the state religion of Sweden, and everybody was expected to sit still for it or else.


This pulpit is from the Kalvia Church, around 1726.  I like the cloudy heavens painted on its ceiling just above the preacher’s head.


Wait, there are hourglasses? Four of them? How long is this sermon going to be, anyway? Better not ask.


My favorite item was an altarpiece depicting the Last Supper. It’s from the Ylane Church, dated around 1675.


The faces are friendly and everyone is having a nice time together. There seem to be only 11 apostles. Apparently Judas has already left the building.


Jesus (with spiky sun-ray halo) seems to be holding a child in his lap. So the story is maybe doing double duty here: “Let the little children come unto me.”

The museum also had wonderful religious wood carvings dating back as far as the 1200s. I liked St. Martin on his horse, about to share his warm cloak with a beggar. He was carved and assembled from several pieces of wood around 1320.


I gazed for awhile at the Archangel Gabriel, carved and gilded around 1500.


Then I was back on the friendly but chilly streets of Helsinki, wishing I had a striped snowsuit and a red polka-dotted hat with flower ears.

Get-Well Wishes for QEII

 

qeii-telegraphI just read that Queen Elizabeth is resting indoors  for the second weekend in a row at her Sandringham home.  She didn’t make it to church on Christmas.  Now the word is that she may not be well enough to attend services on New Year’s Day either. She’s pictured above after delivering her annual Christmas address to the nation (photo from “Telegraph” article cited below).

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I visited Sandringham about a year and a half ago and was royally wowed. No photos are allowed inside the house, but the grounds and gardens are spectacular.

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Tourists enter through the same grand door as invited guests. The place is off the beaten tourist track.  It’s way in the northern stretches of East Anglia, an area blessedly neglected by travel writers like Rick Steves. It took me many years and many trips to England to finally get there. That is the whole point, for the Royal Family.  It is their private, personal residence–a place to really get away from it all.

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Naturally, there’s a gift shop, well supplied with royal portraits, china, tea towels, and stuffed Corgis.

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There’s a delightful museum, too, in the old stable block.  It holds all sorts of bits and bobs of royal life.  I was especially charmed to learn that Prince Philip (now 95) is a very decent painter. I loved his little painting of the Queen reading the morning papers.

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I wrote about the parish church in two previous posts, cited below.  It’s one of the most beautiful small churches I’ve ever seen.  Each year, locals and a few tourists line up along a fence to watch the royals walk to church on Christmas, and this year on New Year’s Day too.

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I hope the Queen is well enough to walk over to her pretty little local church and take part in prayers for New Year’s Day. Whether she makes it to church or not, I wish my favorite 90-year-old reigning queen a happy  and healthy 2017.

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https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/07/06/a-royal-christening-at-sandringham/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/05/07/sandringham/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/04/30/the-queens-church-at-sandringham/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/31/queen-may-attend-church-new-years-day-decision-expected-sunday/

Thanksgiving Day: A Berwick Memory

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For Thanksgiving Day, I thought I’d post some paintings from beautiful Berwick Church in southern England.  St. Michael and All Angels is a little parish church in Sussex, dating back to at least the 12th century.  Parts of it are even older, dating from Saxon days. It was given a modern artistic touch in the 20th century.

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During the First World War, the famous Bloomsbury group of artists, writers and intellectuals decamped from their London homes and occupied the Charleston Farmhouse and Monk’s House in this area.  The men were mostly conscientious objectors.  They fulfilled their patriotic duty by doing farm work in Sussex.

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In 1941, several artists from the group were hired to paint new murals and decorations in the ancient church.  These are some of the few remaining works of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Quentin Bell.  They depicted themselves and their friends, both as country laborers and as figures in sacred scenes.

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The artists were all free-thinkers and even atheists living unconventional, sometimes scandalous lives.  But the local religious authorities hatched an ambitious plan to give artists employment; they hoped the plan would spread all over England’s ancient churches.  That didn’t happen, but I’d like to think the Bloomsbury group occasionally attended a service at the little country church they decorated so beautifully.

Berwick Church stands as an example of cooperation and understanding between people with very different views of the world.  After the tumultuous election season Americans just endured, I think we can use some cooperation and understanding. We’re different, but we can stand together.

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As for me, I’m spending Thanksgiving Day on an airplane, heading off on a new adventure.  They’re serving pumpkin pie in the airport lounge.  It’s pretty good!

For All Saints’ Day: Henry Chichele’s Tomb at Canterbury

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Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day, when the Christian calendar honors the departed, saintly and otherwise. After the rollicking party atmosphere of the American “Halloween,” when everyone pretends to be scary and scared, I thought of something truly scary (at least to me).  Last spring I saw the “cadaver tomb” of Archbishop Henry Chichele, who died on the 12th of April, 1443. But the Archbishop had been contemplating his own death for many years. He had his own tomb built many years before he died.  It’s elaborate and colorful, but still it’s the very opposite of vain.

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Under the brightly painted effigy of the Archbishop dressed in his finery and clasping his hands in everlasting prayer, there’s another effigy.  The lower effigy shows the good Archbishop as a decaying corpse, naked and bony.

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The archbishop not only paid for this jarring reminder of his own mortality, he forced himself to contemplate it often.  The tomb where he would someday be buried was directly opposite his ornate Gothic pulpit. The inscription reads, “I was pauper-born, then to primate raised.  Now I am cut down and served up for worms. Behold my grave.”  If that isn’t scary, I don’t know what is. But the Archbishop’s intent was to be ever-aware of the brevity of life.

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Henry is just one of many historical figures honored in Canterbury Cathedral. Another is Archbishop Thomas a Becket, murdered at the direction of King Henry II in 1170.  The exact spot where assassins surprised him at prayer is still a much-visited place of pilgrimage. Above the small altar, there’s a menacing modern sculpture of the weapons that left Thomas bleeding onto the cathedral stones. Unfortunately, King Henry VIII ordered Thomas’s tomb destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  (I didn’t realize Henry VIII had done this particular deed.  He has a lot to answer for). Today, the approximate burial place of the sainted Thomas is underneath a dark, empty chapel decorated only with a single candle left burning.

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Canterbury Cathedral, dating back at least as far as St. Augustine in 576, is one of the most interesting of all the many churches in England. I was lucky enough to attend Evensong in this ancient place of worship and history. I’d love to return.

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

St. Clare of Assisi

St. Clare, detail of fresco by Simone Martini, circa 1322-1326, Public Domain

St. Clare, detail of fresco by Simone Martini, circa 1322-1326, Public Domain

St. Clare of Assisi, known also as Santa Chiara in Italy, was born on July 16, 1194 in Assisi, a hill town in Umbria. She was born to a wealthy noble family and was said to be beautiful.  In the natural course of things, she would have been married to a noble man in her early teens.  But she persuaded her parents to allow her to wait until she was 18 to marry.  By that time, she had found another love:  all she wanted was a life of prayer and poverty and service. She was one of the early followers of St. Francis of Assisi, and her presence is felt in Assisi almost as strongly as that of Francis himself.

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The portrait of Clare above is from one of the beautiful frescoes in the Lower Basilica of St. Francis. Masses are held frequently.  I wandered into one and felt immediately welcome in a crowd of people from all walks of life.

Porziuncula in Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, Assisi

Porziuncula in Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, Assisi

Clare heard Francis preach during Lent in 1212. On Palm Sunday of that year, Clare left her father’s house and went to the small chapel called Porziuncula (which means something like “small portion”). The tiny chapel, down the hill from the main town, still stands.

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But now the Porziuncula is inside the magnificent Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. When it is still a humble chapel outside the city walls, this is where Clare met Francis, intending to leave her old comfortable life behind for good.  Her hair was shorn and she traded her sumptuous gown for a rough plain robe and veil.

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Some of the rough-woven clothing worn by both Francis and Clare is on display in Assisi.  Ordinarily, I might be sceptical, but both Francis and Clare were sainted very shortly after they died, and it is wasy to believe that their clothing was preserved.

Francis sent her to a nearby convent of Benedictine nuns. Her father was not pleased. He tried to force her to return home, but reportedly she clung to the church altar, showed him her short-cropped hair, and declared that she would marry no one but Jesus Christ. Soon, though, two of her sisters joined her, and eventually even her mother became part of the order she founded.

At the time, monastic life could be fairly luxurious.  Following the teachings of Francis meant seeking out extreme poverty and completely selfless service to the poorest of the poor.  This was a radical choice that could have been dangerous, but Francis and then Clare received approval from the Pope. Clare’s order came to be called the Poor Ladies, and later the Poor Clares.

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Today, the narrow medieval streets of Assisi look much the same as they did in Clare’s day.

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The city may be crowded in summer.  But last year I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of sunny December days there, soaking up great art in situ and being refreshed by the spirituality of the place. I’m hoping to do it again.

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Clare is present in many ways, like this elegant 1888 statue.

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She’s also present in lighthearted personal displays, like this doorside lantern where she stands cheerfully next to St. Francis and his namesake, Pope Francis.

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

St. Eustace in Canterbury Cathedral

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Among the many treasures at Canterbury Cathedral, one of my favorites on my visit this week  was this large large wall painting, done in about 1480. It’s the legend of St. Eustace, who lived a colorful if harrowing life. He might possibly have been a known historical character, a Roman general named Placidus, in the 2nd century A.D.

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The legend goes that Placidus was out hunting one day when he had a vision of Christ  in the antlers of a stag.  He immediately converted to Christianity and changed his name to Eustace.

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It’s hard to see the images that go high up the stone wall of the catheral.  But there’s a horizontal copy nearby.  Photos of it are not great because it’s covered by glass, but the reflections of the stained glass windows are sort of a bonus. I loved the images, especially the animals like the smiling stag and the hunting dogs above.

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The legend goes that Eustace’s troubles began right away.  His faith was tested by various calamities.

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I was admiring the lion image. Personality plus! Then I read that the lion was grinning because he had just eaten Eustace’s son.

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The wolf, looking all innocent? He had eaten the other son. But the legend goes that Eustace endured his hardships and kept his faith.

The painter of the Canterbury mural subscribed to a disputed end of Eustace’s story: the very upper part of the mural shows Eustace, his wife and his remaining children being roasted alive by order of the Emperor Hadrian. Eustace had refused to make a pagan sacrifice. Then they were all beatified, so there was still a happy ending of sorts. However, the martyrdom and even the historical existence of the saint are in doubt. I love the painting, regardless of the source. Bravo to the anonymous painter, back through the centuries!

To me, the charm of the mural is in the medieval images of people in nature, learning lessons from animals. The painter told the story with gusto and some humor.

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

 

 

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All Saints’ Church at Kedleston Hall

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Kedleston Hall is the spectacular showplace home of the Curzon family, designed by Robert Adam, finished in 1765 and open to visitors before all the plaster was dry. The housekeeper led visitors (of the right sort, of course) on a tour through the state rooms. The point was to impress visitors with the wealth, power and taste of the family. Not everyone cared for the place, though. Dr. Johnson remarked, “It would do excellently for a town hall.” I have to agree.  Entering the lofty Marble Hall feels like entering a courthouse. Visitors stop in their tracks and speak in hushed voices.

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My favorite part of the estate is All Saints Church on the grounds outside. The church is an important historic site, cared for by a special organization separate from the National Trust, which manages the house.

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Curzon ancestors, dating all the way back to Norman times, were buried inside and in the churchyard. When Sir Nathaniel Curzon inherited the estate in 1758, he lost no time in razing the medieval village where his ancestors had lived quietly for centuries. But he kept the village church where they slept in their tombs.

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As the plaque above explains, various Curzons maintained and restored the church over the years.  But its pristine condition today is mostly because of a sad love story.

Photo by Chris Hoare, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Photo by Chris Hoare, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

The photo above shows the exquisite marble memorial of Lord George and Lady Mary Curzon.  It was created between 1907 and 1913 by Bertram Mackennal. (Visitors can’t get the complete view above, because the side chapel is separated from the main church by a gate). This is one of the most beautiful and intriguing of all the many tombs I’ve seen in old churches. Who were these people?

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Mary Leiter was a fabulously wealthy, cultivated and beautiful young woman from Chicago.  Her father was Levi Leiter, founder of Field and Leiter stores, which eventually became Marshall Fields. (Yes, Mary Leiter was an inspiration for Cora, the perfect wife of Lord Grantham on the TV show “Downton Abbey.”)  Mary Leiter married George Curzon in 1895. He very soon afterward became Viceroy of India, the highest title available to an Englishman, during the heyday of Victorian empire. Mary gave birth to three daughters, but failed to produce the all-important son. The years she spent in India were happy ones, but her health suffered and she died in 1906, aged only 36.

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Her husband immediately set to work memorializing her, even as he moved on to various mistresses and an eventual second wife. He never really recovered from his grief at losing Mary. So he built a neo-Gothic addition to the family church. The addition blends almost seamlessly with the original medieval church.   He commissioned the beautiful marble memorial. Mary was buried in the newly-created family vault underneath.  My understanding is that Lord Curzon had Mary’s effigy placed on the plinth as soon as the chapel was complete.  His own effigy was finished and kept in storage until he died.  Then it was placed next to his beloved Mary, and he took his place in the vault below.

Victorian technology allowed Lotrd Curzon to install a hidden elevator in the marble floor next to the memorial, so that coffins could be lowered into the vault at the push of a button.  The friendly church guide recalled the spooking of a lady in recent years. She walked into the church just as a workman rose slowly from underground, standing on the moving section of floor. The terrified lady fled.

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The guide pointed out that Lord Curzon’s right foot is uncovered, a Victorian convention indicating that the effigy was created while the person was still alive. Lord Curzon was a stickler for detail, and he expected the same from his family and everyone who worked for him.

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The sculpture depicts two angels hovering over the sleeping figures.  What are they holding? It’s the Crown of Life–a fairly obscure Biblical reference. The crown is wrapped in a veil. Why?  My thought is that nobody gets to see their heavenly reward until they actually receive it in the Great Beyond.

The sculpture stands serenely in its own side chapel, surrounded by nine stained glass windows depicting various Marys from the Bible and other sources. Impertinent questions come to mind. Considering that there are two people lying in state, why is there only one crown? Is the sleeping couple somehow supposed to share the crown, or is it meant for only one of them? If it is for one of them, would that be Mary? In some traditions, Mary the mother of Jesus became Queen of Heaven after her death. But this is an Anglican church, and as far as I know has no such tradition. Anyway, wouldn’t it be just a bit sacriligious to insinuate that one’s wife was destined to be Queen of Heaven? The guide had an information booklet, but there was very little explanation of the mysterious veiled crown. I would not use a vulgar term like “control freak” for Lord Curzon, but I half expected his ghost to tap me on the shoulder and set me straight about the crown. He did not suffer fools gladly.

Lord Curzon never found another person who could compare to his Mary, and by all accounts he often said so. How could any actual living person compete with a sainted ghost? After Mary’s death, Lord Curzon was soon battling his daughters for their shares of the money Mary had left. He ended up estranged from them. Toward the end of his life, he was also estranged from his second wife, Grace. All the same, according to the guide, Lord Curzon kindly reserved a space for her in the family vault. But Grace did not care to spend eternity directly underneath the effigies of her husband and his first wife, depicted in everlasting marital bliss. Instead she chose a burial plot for herself in the far corner of the churchyard.

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Every trip leads me to buy books which I may or may not find time to actually read. I’ve already devoured the book above, The Viceroy’s Daughters by Anne de Courcy. The Curzon family history, especially in the 20th century, is riveting.  The book is a window into British aristocratic life from Victorian times all the way through World War II.  I’ll be writing more about the glamorous Curzons.

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