Masterpieces of English Mediæval Embroidery
Victoria and Albert Museum
until 5 February 2017
Opus Anglicanum is not some secretive, right-wing, traditionalist prelature – Archbishop Welby’s equivalent of Opus Dei. Rather, it’s the distinctive style of English embroidery of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries – the kind of stuff denounced by the more austere saints, and chased after by Pope Innocent IV. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it was the most desired and costliest bespoke tailoring in Europe. Thereafter, fashion changed. Cloths became thicker and less amenable to the technically complicated needlework, the underside couching and the fine split stitch, which was the glory of English embroidery. The cloth also became more patterned so there was less need for decoration with very expensive threads. Then Henry VIII performed his own personal Brexit, and the trade never recovered. But in its day Opus Anglicanum was the European leader in status-symbol clothing.
This beautifully curated show largely features vestments. Opus Anglicanum was used for lay clothes, but these tended to wear out quicker and not many examples survive. The main secular items on show are the surcoat of the Black Prince, and fragments of a horse trapper – the protective covering of a horse in battle or in a tournament. The trapper is loaned by the Musée Cluny – one of a number of important loans from outside the V&A’s own collection – and had been turned into a chasuble. A number of the exhibits have had a similarly varied history. Orphreys in particular were often cut off worn out vestments to be re-used, and by the fifteenth century beautiful Gothic shapes were being cut down by clergy who demanded a more Roman-style chasuble.
The show also features examples of the books and glass on whose designs the embroiderers drew. These patterns were crucial for works which when worn must have looked like illuminated manuscripts on legs. At the height of its popularity Opus Anglicanum work was simply covered with pictures – saints and martyrs, scenes from the Life of the Virgin, Our Lord’s Passion, and fantastic bestiaries all linked together by architectural or arboreal frames and tendrils. The best preserved examples in this exhibition – notably a High Mass set from the Burrell collection – show that Opus Anglicanum vestments must have been stunning. Today the colours, of course, have faded and sometimes a better sense of what the vestments might have looked like can be got from the catalogue, where the colours have been enhanced by computer technology. The catalogue is also a good introduction to current scholarship in this field, but only available in hardback – there’s no softback edition because the Museum is not expecting crowds. Or as the lady on the desk said, you won’t need timed entry.
So the show is niche, but no less splendid for that. Among the individual highlights there are from the V&A’s own store the Butler-Bowden cope and chasuble, the Thornton chasuble, the Tree of Jesse chasuble, and the Syon cope. The Fishmongers’ Company have lent their pall, a spectacular golden coffin-cover for a small fishmonger. And then there are series of copes from abroad: Bologna, Madrid, the Vatican, and Toledo. The Whalley Abbey high-mass set, a marvellous cope from the Diocese of Arundel & Brighton, and parts of the Steeple Aston cope, loaned to the Museum and cut up to make a frontal and dossal complete the highlights.
What are we to make of these vestments? It is good to have them on show because it’s all too easy to walk past them in their usual location in the museum. The entrance price of £12 concentrates the mind and these works, especially the great copes, repay a careful look. They are full of detail and narrative which could not have been clear to the congregation when in use. But then the finer details many mediæval church furnishings could never have been seen; and yet they were treated with consummate skill – my neck still occasionally twinges from having looked up at the Pisanellos in St Anastasia, Verona this summer. Something of the devotion that lies behind that workmanship can still be felt. Of course there were elements of self-display and self-importance; and doubtless money might have been differently spent on the poor – this show focusses on high end items, so we have no sense what the average parish on monastery vestment might have looked like. But when that is allowed for there remains a sense of a religious culture, of saints and their stories and Jesus and Mary as part, literally, of the fabric of daily life. Our Church lost a lot when this cloud of witnesses was banished from sight.
PARISH CHURCHES OF GREATER LONDON
The Heritage of London Trust 446pp, pbk
Michael Hodges, a distinguished City banker, explains in his introduction to this handsome volume – plentifully illustrated by his own excellent colour photographs – that the idea for his guide sprang from the suggestion of the then Director of The Heritage of London Trust that London needed a guide similar to that published for Wiltshire churches by the Wiltshire Historic Churches Trust. Parish Churches of Greater London is a potentially confusing title, possibly scaring the unwary reader into thinking that it is a guide only to those Metroland churches hymned by Betjeman in the outer reaches of Hornsey, Newham, or Stanmore. In fact, its scope is a great deal wider than that; and Hodges treats of major Anglican and Roman Catholic parish churches in London which are not City churches. His guide is not comprehensive – of those places of worship listed in the current London volumes of Pevsner, he admits to only covering around a third. However, Simon Jenkins in his “England’s Thousand Best Churches” only covers just over thirty churches in the same area, and Pevsner’s comprehensive volumes are not exactly books to read for fun. Hodges’s book, with its generous photographs of buildings and the details of decorations or monuments within them, therefore represents a valuable and scholarly addition to the avid church crawler’s library; it might indeed inspire those who are not to take up that gentle hobby.
Hodges’s survey is divided into the London Boroughs in which the churches he describes stand, prefaced in each case by a brief survey of the history of the area that the relevant Borough now embraces. This is not confined to ecclesiastical history; the Harrow section has a nice paragraph on the history of the eponymous school, and the vanished glories of the magnificent mansion of the Duke of Chandos, demolished three years after his death. These outlines root the churches he goes on to describe in the history of the area for which they were built: an essential element of their own history, and the purposes and functions for which they were built, and the local populations that they served.
As is fitting for a book published by a trust dedicated to the preservation of architectural heritage, there is a brief but useful bibliography for further reading on both churches and their architects, and also a list of churches categorised by their architectural styles. From the reign of James I onwards, that list is expanded by reference to the relevant architects, with dates and brief biographical details in period and Borough alphabetical order. The Temple Moore enthusiast, for example, could happily spend a rainy afternoon looking out a suitable anorak and planning a round trip of the legacy of that somewhat neglected Yorkshire genius in the nation’s capital.
It would be totally wrong, however, to depict Hodges as a mere gazetteer, and an earnest compiler of facts. He is not afraid of expressing his prejudices; and Evangelical red plastic chairs introduced into the nave of one Victorian masterpiece come in for a gentle sideswipe. Nor is he fearful of drawing on brief quotations from Pevsner and Summerson appropriately; Summerson’s description of the thin spire resulting in an obelisk on top of St John’s, Waterloo Road, as “the kind of tower that Ictinus might have put on the Parthenon, if the Athenians had had the advantage of belonging to the Church of England” is especially apt. One of the major strengths of the book is a nice eye for the telling and quirky detail: “In later life, [he] became a supporter of Mussolini and died in Rome, surviving Il Duce by some three years.” This instinct for the interesting, rather than the merely instructive, spills over into Hodges’s descriptions and photographs of churches; and also the monuments, stained glass, furnishings, and decorations inside them which are not just dully architectural or historical. Who among us knew that the organ in Our Most Holy Redeemer, Clerkenwell, was originally from the Chapel Royal at Windsor and owned by the Prince Consort? Furthermore, who or what can have persuaded the Widow of Windsor to part with it? For the readers of this magazine, a particular pleasure (which the author freely admits) are Anglo-Catholic details in prose and photograph. Hodges remarks that, in St Silas, Pentonville, “the Travers altar of Our Lady of Walsingham was paid for by an American gin distiller.” One might say that in this instance he reveals several Catholic-Movement principles in one brief sentence.
This reviewer’s only plea for the second edition of this impressive guide is that the author might indicate briefly the number of the ’bus routes or the Underground or Overground stations nearest to the churches described. It is not given to all to have John Piper as a chauffeur, as Betjeman did when he was compiling the Shell Guides. Nor is it the desire of anyone in particular to negotiate the terrors of London traffic or pay the Congestion Charge only to find the church door locked, and the relevant telephone number on permanent voicemail.
The Inspiration of the
János Lukács SJ
Gracewing, 280pp, £14.99 pbk
At first sight there may not seem to be much in this book for an Anglican, even one of our Catholic constituency. It is essentially an enquiry into the usefulness for novitiate formation of the Ignatian Constitutions – basically, the rules that St Ignatius wrote to guide the ongoing life of the Society of Jesus. However, it repays careful reading.
Lukács points out that the process that liberated the Exercises from centuries of sterile use and made them so applicable to modern Christian life was one that involved years of careful study and thought. The Constitutions need a similar process of study, starting from the principles that inform the Exercises. It is here that the value of this book lies for those of us with some familiarity with Ignatian Spirituality.
Ignatius recognises the importance of desire. Throughout the Exercises the question “What do I desire?” is repeated over and over again, with answers given by Ignatius based on our relationship with Christ. So Lukács tells us that “true freedom in the Lord will only be a reality if the desire for it is as powerful as the human motivations that Lucifer can grab and distort.” (p.39) There is a hard realism about Ignatius; for we never outgrow the need to watch for the activity of the Devil.
Jesuits place huge importance on the formative years of a Jesuit’s life. This is not to “condition” him into some smooth-functioning machine; but to ground him in the love of God. “The major motivations of the Jesuit are structured and ordered before the actual beginning of the apostolic life in such a way that he can live from the Father’s love and preach the Gospel in close companionship with Jesus.” (p.44) This, I believe, is how our Catholic theological colleges understand priestly formation – in contrast to a Church that sees it largely as the acquisition of certain managerial skills and chunks of useful information.
Lukács makes particular use of the word “pathway” to describe Jesuit formation. The Jesuit is always on a journey. Externally it is a journey of service, serving God and the people whom God has given him to serve. Internally it is journey of growth or progress. Progress is to be seen not in the mere acquiring of more skills or greater competence, but in growth in the fundamental virtues of faith, hope, and love. Insights become clearer; knowledge is deepened as the young Jesuit grows in relationship to God.
How do you know whether a person is really called to the Jesuit life? Perseverance is one factor; a growing freedom, too, as the years pass by. Most of all, “the desire to follow Christ […] will be a more reliable sign of a personal vocation than fears and doubts about the future or superficial enthusiasm.” (p.92)
That says it all, really. Christians, lay or ordained, should not be concerned with personal fulfilment, affirmation, or career paths. We should simply love Christ and long to follow and serve Him. If that sounds simplistic, it is worth remembering that Jesuits take 15 years to get to the point of starting. Lukács reminds us of the hard work and patience necessary to proper formation.
Nicolas Stebbing CR
Sacred Music, Social
The Sixteen & Britten Sinfonia
Barbican Centre 15 October 2016
James MacMillan — Miserere
Thomas Tallis — Why fum’th in fight?
Ralph Vaughan Williams — Fantasia
on a theme of Thomas Tallis
MacMillan — Stabat Mater
Why listen to sacred music if you’re not religious? Many people turn to sacred music for calm, for reflection, for spiritual food; but all of them do so, most likely, without engaging with its texts. Sir James MacMillan’s new work, Stabat Mater, a concert setting of the thirteenth-century hymn, seizes every opportunity to make us listen to the text and to reflect on what it might mean for us today, religious or not.
Setting this text was the brainchild of MacMillan’s commissioner, John Studzinski, founder of the Genesis Foundation. He was prompted, said the programme, by “his belief that Mary’s grief at the foot of the Cross is recognisable to thousands, hundreds of thousands, of parents around the world, especially today in time of war and refugee crisis”. MacMillan himself grew up singing this text – clothing it in music with the wisdom of age, he found within it a deep social conscience that fulfilled Studzinski’s hope that sacred music might resonate far beyond traditional religious settings.
The Sixteen and the Genesis Foundation have been working with MacMillan on this project for over three years, and previous collaborations include his Miserere (2009), which curiously doesn’t sound like a conventional piece of MacMillan. Its sense of stasis and its consistent harmonic warmth are more redolent of the generic Western choral sound; but this approach is well suited to the long and wandering litany of Psalm 51. His setting rolls gently in peaks and troughs, almost embodying the act of reading the text, creating a prayer-inducing soundscape, a space for self-reflection; something which surely transcends religion. The Sixteen and Harry Christophers made this possible by knitting the piece together into one, seamless utterance.
Looking at the programme cynically, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis might have seemed like just another piece for string orchestra; but, juxtaposed with the Miserere, it possessed the same reflective quality. In addition, MacMillan’s Miserere recalls Allegri’s famous setting in just same way that Vaughan Williams allowed his mind to wander on Tallis’s Why fum’th in fight (Psalm 2: 1-2). To achieve this sense of meandering requires real control and leadership; but Christophers appeared to be sharing this responsibility with violinist Thomas Gould. The Fantasia’s climax passed without the weight and catharsis that listeners crave and, like the rest of the piece, it seemed to be playing itself.
Like the Miserere and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia, MacMillan’s Stabat Mater picks up where another work left off. His own Seven Last Words from the Cross gives up the ghost with a repeated, shuddering dissonance as Christ completes His sacrifice and our redemption. The opening of the Stabat Mater resuscitates this pang, placing the listener at the heart of the Passion, now from a mother’s perspective. The Stabat Mater continues to draw heavily on the Seven Last Words, often shamelessly, but this passing of pain between the two works, from Christ to Mary, set in motion another, much more affecting emotional transaction.
The hymn paints a pitiful picture of the Mother of God, before pledging to share first her sorrow, then her pain, and finally her Son’s death in order to share in the gift of His suffering. Split into four movements with five stanzas each, MacMillan’s setting embodies the developing conscience and empathy of its writer by causing us to experience Mary’s pain; and, through a Bach-like, varied distribution of the narrative voice, systematically challenged us to consider what we might do about it.
After entering the sound-world of the Seven Last Words, a lonely violin solo brought Mary into focus accompanied by rumbling, earthy strings inviting us, like Mary, to look up. Waves of shifting, mercurial harmonies allowed us to see her Son through her eyes; from inside her grief-battered head. Some minutes of this nauseating music left us begging for a voice, and by starting with male voices MacMillan was able to shift our focus, inviting us now to look at Mary from the outside. Having experienced her pain, we looked on from the comfort of our seats with empathy. Soon all the voices were engaged in a busy contrapuntal melee, with the sound of commotion drawing us back inside Mary’s spinning head; but a number of soprano solos within the opening movement gave Mary herself a voice.
Throughout the work The Sixteen and the Britten Sinfonia were deployed in a number of narrative roles – as Mary, as a baying crowd, as narrators, and eventually, us – allowing the music to inform the way we listened to the words. The first movement closed with that probing question “Who is he that would not weep?” – proffered first by a vocal quartet, before the whole choir repeated the same words in agreement and in sounds approaching shouting. A group of bystanders at the scene had become a protest group on the stage in front us.
Having agreed that Mary is worthy of her grief, the second movement began with a subtle rephrasing of the same question: “Who would not grieve with her?” Turning again to low, grumbling strings, MacMillan makes it immediately clear what he thinks, but the choir takes time to process this new idea. Initially speaking the question, they appeared to be conferring before broadcasting their agreement in song. Again by delivering the text in a range of narrative voices, MacMillan created an additional narrative: a group of privileged people coming to terms with the suffering of others. “Make my heart burn with love for Christ” was, fittingly, set to the accompaniment of yet more music taken from the Seven Last Words.
MacMillan’s reliance on the Seven Last Words was laid bare in the third movement, whose affect and structure was modelled directly on the other’s work second movement: strident choral exclamations interspersed with brooding string interludes, growing more dissonant and complicated as the movement progressed. The petition “drive the wounds of the Crucified deep into my heart” started as an uncertain proposition, with one person singing, before others joined one-by-one. It felt like a demonstration slowly forming; again it is MacMillan’s careful evolution of the narrative voice which makes this interpretation possible and, importantly, palpable.
It would seem that MacMillan’s message is clear; but the fourth movement, a Britten-like epilogue, paused to reflect on what had just been said and what we might have learned from it. It was here that the choir became us, singing in unison, bitterly sorry: “Let the Cross inspire me.” There was a sense of remorse for Christ’s death, that it was too late for Him and for Mary; too late for the Mother of the World and her children. Mary’s pain had become our social conscience.
Christophers was almost in tears as he, The Sixteen, and the Britten Sinfonia received a standing ovation – the Stabat Mater’s keen effect was all their making. It’s a shining example of how sacred music can enrich and direct our lives, teaching us to broaden our consciousness. It is, of course, a religious work – but one that’s pertinent to everyone.
True Man a Long Season
Fr Mark Woodruff has produced an edition of the poetry of the late Fr Gordon Shrive SSJE, True Man a Long Season. A veteran of the Battle of the Somme, where he was maimed for life, Gordon Shrive joined the Cowley Fathers in 1931 as a lay brother and was sent to the Society’s mission station at Tsolo, in the Eastern Cape. In 1950 his injuries were deemed not to be a bar to his being ordained, and as a priest “out of his own adversity he entered into the lives and hopes of those he served, resolute and truthful on the wickedness of segregation and human injustice”. He died in 1987.
The book is available from the Fellowship of St John the Evangelist: £5.00, including p&p. firstname.lastname@example.org