Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The marvelous creations of Pugin, and other photos: part 3

Here are the last photos for now. If you've missed it, the first entry in the series is here.

At the end of the second set, I posted an image of the Blessed Sacrament chapel at the church of Saint Giles, Cheadle. Here's a view from the nave. The Sacrament chapel can be seen to the far right.

Pugin's "Medieval Court" at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations of 1851, which won him praises all around for showing the world how to apply the True Principles in all things.

More illustrations of the Medieval Court.

A thurible (incenser).

 The baldachin (canopy) over the high altar of Saint Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham. Pugin was honored with the task of constructing the first Catholic cathedral in England since the Protestant Reformation. The altar houses a relic of Saint Chad of Mercia as well.

Pugin's creation of another sort. On the left is one of his daughters, Anne Pugin. To the right is Anne's husband, John Hardman Powell, who was also Pugin's only pupil.

Pugin's vision of a Gothic future was very.... hmm, spiky, indeed. This is from a cover illustration of the Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture.

The Banqueting Hall at Lismore Castle, Ireland, currently the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. The Banqueting Hall was remodeled from what was formerly a chapel, back when the castle was the local bishop's residence during the Middle Ages.

Pugin's tomb at the church of Saint Augustine, Ramsgate. He's carved wearing his black velvet gown, which he wore for formal events. I believe the five figures praying below him are his children, while his wives are portrayed in the stained glass above.

The marvelous creations of Pugin, and other photos: part 2

The onslaught of Pugin masterpieces continues! See here if you missed the first entry.

Another sample of Pugin's domestic work: the King's Room at Scarisbrick Hall. It was one of three reception rooms used to showcase the family's collection of church woodworkings imported from the Continent. Above the door are paintings of King Henry VIII, his wives, and progeny.

An illustration for the front page of Pugin's "Gothic Furniture", a set of illustrations on the Gothic revival applied to household items.

A jewelry set Pugin fashioned for one of his wives, I believe. Includes necklaces, earrings, brooches, and bracelets.

There are already plenty of pictures online of Pugin's chasubles (priestly vestments). I decided to instead post one of the dalmatics he designed. These are the vestments worn by a deacon in solemn high Mass.

The Peers' Lobby, an antechamber in Parliament where the lords assemble before entering the House of Lords.

An illustration of the House of Commons chamber as designed by Pugin (subsequently destroyed by bombing during World War II). Certainly looks a lot richer than the current version.

A photograph of how the House of Commons looked before the war.

Portrait of the Most Rev. Robert Willson, first Bishop of Hobart, Australia, and one of Pugin's greatest supporters. He's seen here in Pugin's vestments.

An episcopal ring worn by Bishop Willson in the previous portrait.

An altar for a private chapel at Alton Towers. Lord and Lady Shrewsbury, more of Pugin's patrons, are portrayed at either side of the crucifix in medieval dress.

The chapel of the Blessed Sacrament at the church of Saint Giles, Cheadle.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The marvelous creations of Pugin, and other photos: part 1

Here are a few of the lesser-seen creations or drawings of Augustus Welby Pugin, as seen in the book Pugin: A Gothic Passion by Paul Atterbury and Dr. Clive Wainwright. Truly, you can apply his "True Principles" to everything!

Pugin's first job was in the London theatre, raising sets for the stage. He soon graduated to drawing them. The set below was made by Pugin for a production of Shakespeare's Henry VIII, probably for the trial of Queen Katherine of Aragon.

Pugin was a man interested in every single aspect of design. Not only did he write and illustrate his own books; he sometimes oversaw the details of binding and publication too. The following example is of the Liber Vitae (Book of Life), a book recording visitors to Ushaw College, a Catholic seminary. It was founded by students of the English College in Douai, France that had fled from the Revolution. As a reminder of the pathetic state of the Church today, Ushaw closed last year due to lack of vocations.

An illustration inside the book.

A door-knob and plates in Gothic style in Pugin's house, using the latest in 19th century technology.

Concept art for Pugin's house, called the Grange, and the church of Saint Augustine of Canterbury (Pugin's patron and namesake) next door. The church spire was never finished. In yet another insult to the legacy of Pugin, the Benedictine monks who moved out of this church earlier this year put up a lot of the church's treasures, including vessels made by Pugin, up for sale on the secular market. Is nothing sacred anymore?

Pugin imposed his sense of style upon pretty much everything in his life. Below is a plan for a wedding dress he designed for an ex-fiancee, Helen Lumsdaine. In a medieval style, of course!

In the below illustration, Pugin imagined what a medieval chest would contain, and just drew these items up on a whim.

A lantern clock, currently held at the Palace of Westminster.

Pugin didn't do many private houses. One of his domestic commissions was for Scarisbrick Hall, the seat of an ancient Catholic recusant family whose claim to nobility goes back to King Stephen.

If you liked what you saw, feel free to check out my previous postings on Pugin:

-Selections from Ferrey's "Recollections of A.N.W. Pugin"
-Gems from Pugin's "Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament"

This series of photos continues here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Selections from Ferrey's "Recollections of A.N.W. Pugin"

It's a Monday night and my thoughts turn once again to the life of the great Victorian architect and designer, Augustus Pugin, who may rightly be called the first modern Goth, the first traditional Catholic (I should say, the first to be conscious of a need to return to earlier practices while still being loyal to Rome), and perhaps even the first steampunk. Here are some selections from Recollections of A.N.W. Pugin by Benjamin Ferrey, an architect who had access to Pugin's letters.

On Pugin's fashion sense, or lack of it:

His slovenliness in dress at this time amounted to eccentricity. He was in the habit of wearing a sailor's jacket, loose pilot trousers, jack-boots, and a wide-awake hat. In such a costume landing on one occasion from the Calais boat, he entered, as was his custom, a first-class railway carriage and was accosted with a 'Halloa, my man, you have mistaken, I think, your carriage.' 

'By Jove,' was his reply, 'I think you are right; I thought I was in the company of gentlemen.' 

This cutting repartee at once called forth an apology. The remainder of the journey was most agreeably passed in examining his portfolio filled with sketches just taken in Normandy.

I've noticed, through the course of reading about Pugin's life, that there are a lot of anecdotes about him on trains. Here's one from the book Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome by Patrick Allitt, which also touches the odd zealous convert-itis that I've certainly had, and still have to some degree:

His Byronic eccentricities--he sometimes posed as a poor sailor and at other times swaggered about in billowing homemade capes--were a self-conscious effort to make himself a larger-than-life representative for the traditionally modest and self-effacing Catholic community. No wonder he became an object of suspicion to ordinary citizens. When a lady seated near him on a train saw the recent convert ostentatiously cross himself, she cried out in alarm: "you are a Catholic, Sir! Guard, guard, let me out--I must get into another carriage!"

He liked to sing snatches of opera or plain chant in a deep baritone, in private or public, and made the sign of the cross whenever entering a train. An offended businessman travelling up from Ramsgate glared at Pugin and said: 'I say, my man, haven't you made a mistake?' 'Yes,' the Goth replied: 'I took this for first class.'

On the need for great men and great houses:

Pugin's professional pursuits did not admit of his making many social visits, but he occasionally accepted an invitation. Lord R----r once calling at St Marie's Grange during its erection, and desiring to make his acquaintance, asked if he would dine with him, to which Pugin assented. 'Very well then,' said his Lordship, 'I'll expect you to-morrow at six o'clock.' Thither at the time Pugin repaired, and as he was admiring the stately rooms and objects of art and vertu with which they were enriched, his Lordship, who was well known for his simple habits and encouragement of agricultural pursuits, observed, with perhaps generous feeling, that he would as soon live in one of the smallest cottages on his estate as in his large and magnificent mansion. Upon this, Pugin, jumping up and pacing the room in apparent excitement, exclaimed, 'The devil you would--the devil you would, my Lord; then what is to become of me and all other artists?'

On Pugin's extraordinary drawing talents, and again his choice of dress:

After an absence of some weeks Pugin unexpectedly called at his publisher's, who observed that his dress, which usually was untidy, appeared more strange than ever. He was enveloped in a huge pilot-coat, large enough for a man twice his size. On this strange exhibition, Mr. Weale, his publisher, remarked:

'Why, you appear to have made a mistake, and have got a coat belonging to somebody else.'

'Oh,' observed Pugin, 'it is of no consequence--I caught up the first garment that came in my way, getting into harbour after a stiff gale off Calais; but here are the plates for my book:'--at the same time pulling out a heap of copper-plates from under the ample folds of his coat. 'They are all ready for proving.'

'But how and where did you finish the etchings?'

'Oh,' said Pugin, 'I finished them in the boat.'

'Impossible,' replied Mr. Weale.

'Not a bit of it,' retorted Pugin; 'the motion of the sea makes no difference to me;' and, truly, many of the outlines illustrating the 'Apology' were etched by him under these apparently impossible circumstances.
One such illustration of Pugin's from the Apology.

On a spectacular set of bridal jewels Pugin designed and crafted for a woman, Helen Lumsden, whom he sought to marry:

In anticipation of his intended marriage with Miss L--- Pugin designed most beautiful bridal jewels, and had them made under his personal directions. These, it will be remembered, were exhibited amongst the productions of mediaeval jewellery in the Great Exhibition of 1851.

They were deservedly admired, and on Her Majesty's visit to the Exhibition, she specially requested to see them, before inspecting the other objects in the collection.

The expense incurred in these ornaments must have been considerable, and he evidently intended that his marriage ceremony should be of no common kind.

The engagement was broken by the Lumsden's Scottish upper-class, stoutly Protestant family, who forbade her from marrying a Catholic, even though she had already converted.

Victoria and Albert at the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851
Pugin's jewelry set for Lumsden, now a part of the Victoria & Albert Museum's collection.

From a rather controversial letter sent home, in which Pugin wrote of his trip to Rome. He was horrified by the Baroque architecture, and believed that the city had been caught up in a wave of pagan-ish wreckovation:

Rome, May 1st, (1847).

'I have now seen Rome and what Italian architecture can do, and I do not hesitate to say that it is an imperative duty on every Catholic to defend true and Christian architecture with his whole energy. The modern churches here are frightful; St Peter's is far more ugly than I expected, and vilely constructed--a mass of imposition--bad taste of every kind seems to have run riot in this place; one good effect however results from these abortions: I feel doubly grateful for living in a country where the real glories of Catholic art are being revived and appreciated. In Rome it is hopeless, unless by miracle. I assure you I have felt quite depressed and miserable here; I shall be quite glad to get away. Were it not for the old Basilicas and the associations connected with the early Christian antiquities, it would be unbearable--the Sistine Chapel is a melancholy room, the Last Judgment is a painfully muscular delineation of a glorious subject, the Scala Regia a humbug, the Vatican a hideous mass, and St Peter's is the greatest failure of all. It is quite painful to walk about; Italian architecture is a mere system of veneering marble slabs; it is enough to make one frantic to think that these churches with their plaster pilasters and bad windows, have not only been the model for all larger churches erected during the last two centuries, but have been the means of spoiling half the fine old buildings through the efforts that have been made to assimilate them to this wretched model. They must have had some fine things at one time, for there are several tombs and incised stones of the right character, and the subterranean church of St Peter's contains several bishops and popes in fine chasubles, etc. I hope you will tell everybody that this is the place to confirm people in the true style, and I can now speak of all their matters from personal observation. I leave here on Tuesday (the 1st of May); as soon as, D.V., [James: I assume this is Pugin's pious way of writing Deo volente, or "God willing" in shorthand] I return to England I will come down to Ushaw.

'My legs are still very weak, but otherwise I am stronger, and I shall feel better when I can get sight of a mullioned window again. The old Basilicas are very interesting, and if they had not given such a miserable modern dress to all the holy places, one might realize all the wonderful events connected with the early ages of Christianity within the city; but how is it possible to realize an idea of the residence of St. Peter, when we see a thing like a side chapel of Versailles? or the relics of a saint in a flower-pot? we must nail our colours to the cross, not to the mast. I never surrender; if my health will permit me, I shall publish this journey and my impressions of Rome; it will have novelty, at any rate, to recommend it.

'I remain yours respectfully,
A. Welby Pugin.'
Pope Pius IX, nevertheless, saw it fit to reward Pugin with a gold medal during an audience:

The Pope, to mark the sense His Holiness entertained of services he had rendered, presented him with a splendid gold medal. This token of approbation from the Pontiff gratified Pugin more than any other event in his life. For it should be mentioned that, although his merit as an architect was acknowledged by a large section of the Church Catholic, and his talents used wherever possible: there were yet many ecclesiastics, who, if they did not altogether dislike mediaeval art, showed a great indifference to Pugin's efforts. These persons, obstinately persisting in setting at defiance his notions of true art, continued to erect their buildings in late Italian architecture, and to fit up their churches with all sorts of cheap and tawdry ornaments, artificial flowers, candles, plaster figures, coarse paintings, and (as he termed them) other "abominations", these being the external objects through which they sought to make the forms of devotion attractive. This course of procedure greatly annoyed Pugin, and he often found himself at issue with dignified ecclesiastics, who instead of advancing his objects, countenanced some of the clergy in their perverse doings. He frequently expressed a more favourable opinion of the Anglican clergy, than of those belonging to his own Church, for however abhorrent his religious opinions might be to the former, the clergy of the Church of England as a body were entirely favourable to the revival of architecture of which Pugin was so masterly an exponent.
According to Patrick Allitt, Pugin, in his typical fashion, "reciprocated by pressing a copy of his Gothic manifesto Contrasts into the pontiff's hands." Sounds like something I would've done.

A lot of Anglicans who convert to Catholicism find themselves in the position of having to switch from worshiping in grand, Gothic temples which are aesthetically fit for the Lord's service, to banal monstrosities inflicted upon Catholics by bishops and priests of shockingly bad taste, if not modernism. Turns out that Pugin suffered the same, and that was in the 1800's:

During the early part of his residence at Salisbury, and before he inhabited St. Marie's Grange at Laverstoke, Pugin was still in communion with the English Church, and regularly attended divine service in the Cathedral. But after his secession, he frequented the Roman Catholic chapel of the town,--an ill-shaped room, having no pretensions whatever to an ecclesiastical character. This change in his attendance, from the glorious cathedral to the miserable chapel, was a sacrifice of no small kind for a man of Pugin's taste to make. It was out of the question to alter the building, but he did his utmost to impart dignity to the externals of public worship, which were at that time sunk to the lowest level of bad taste. 

Considering how much Pugin emphasized architecture, some critics, such as John Ruskin, accused him of having converted to Catholicism merely because he liked Gothic aesthetics. (The same has been suggested about me more than once.) This section was worth transcribing in full:

Many both in and out of the pale of the Roman Catholic Church, did not scruple to attribute Pugin's conversion solely to the love he had for the outward splendour of the middle ages.

This was far from being the fact. His faith in the Catholic Church rested probably on far higher grounds than on his admiration for external magnificence. In reply to a charge of this character made in a public journal, he stated that he did not for a moment deny that the study of ancient ecclesiastical architecture was the primary cause of the change in his sentiments, by inducing him to pursue a course of study terminating in his complete conversion.
'My education,' he goes on to say, 'certainly was not of a description to bias me towards Catholicism; I had been taught to view it through the same distorted medium as the generality of persons in this country; and by the time I was at all capable of thinking on the subject, I was thoroughly imbued with all the popular notions of racks, faggots, and fires, idolatry, sin-purchase, etc., with all the usual tissue of falsehoods so industriously propagated throughout the land, that by such means men may be led to detest and fear what they would receive with joy and reverence could they but behold it in simple truth.

'It was I say with such perverted feelings I first became a student in ancient art. Soon, however, I found it necessary to begin a new and different course of study to what I had hitherto pursued. The origin, intention, and use of all I beheld around was then perfectly unintelligible to me; but, applying myself to liturgical knowledge, what a new field was open to me! with what delight did I trace the fitness of each portion of those glorious edifices to the rites for whose celebration they had been erected! Then did I discover that the service I had been accustomed to attend and admire was but a cold and heartless remnant of past glories, and that those prayers which in my ignorance I had ascribed to reforming piety, were in reality only scraps plucked from the solemn and perfect offices of the ancient Church. Pursuing my researches among the faithful pages of the old chronicles, I discovered the tyranny, apostasy, and bloodshed by which the new religion had been established, the endless strifes, dissensions, and discord that existed among its propagators, and the devastation and ruin that attended its progress: opposed to all this, I considered the Catholic Church; existing with uninterrupted apostolical succession, handing down the same faith, sacraments, and ceremonies unchanged, unaltered through every clime, language, and nation.

'For upwards of three years did I earnestly pursue the study of this all important subject; and the irresistible force of truth penetrating my heart, I gladly surrendered my own fallible judgment to the unerring decisions of the Church, and embracing with heart and soul its faith and discipline, became an humble, but I trust faithful member.

'I therefore hope that in Christian charity my conversion will not any longer be attributed solely to my admiration of architectural excellence: for although I have freely acknowledged that my attention was first directed through it to the subject, yet I must distinctly state that so important a change was not effected in me but by the most powerful reasons, and that after a long and earnest examination.'

In this outspoken and characteristic letter Pugin completely vindicates the change of his religious opinions, from the light and frivolous motives so freely imputed to him at the time. Had he, however, remained in the Church of his birth, what a noble field would have been open to him in the restoration of those ancient churches and cathedrals with whose beauty he was so familiar!

Pugin's conversion disqualified him from working to restore the many great Gothic cathedrals now owned by the Anglicans. (Arguably, it was also a reason why he couldn't have received his due credit for his work on rebuilding the Houses of Parliament. It would've been awkward, to be sure, for the seat of British government to have been raised in the post-Reformation era by a papist.) But Pugin also had to contend with naysayers in his own Catholic circles. He had to contend with a culture of bad taste that pervaded among both clergy and laymen. The subject of sacred music is one in which Pugin often clashed with the sensibilities of his unenlightened Roman brethren. Allitt writes,

"At the opening for one of his churches, Saint Marie's in Derby, he drove off in a huff when he found that the choir was going to sing operatic music rather than the Gregorian chant he had specified."

The Recollections provides a lengthy, but very worthwhile segment on this very subject:

What Pugin had now to complain of was, that in spite of all his noble exertions to restore a purer taste and a higher standard of Christian art among the Catholic body, not only were churches erected whose appearance was something between a dancing-room and a mechanics' institute,' but that the vocal entertainment of a concert-room was substituted for the solemn music of the Church. 'What!', he exclaims, 'shall the Song of Simeon, the Hymn of St. Ambrose, the Canticle of our Blessed Lady herself, give place to modern effusions? Shall we tolerate the conversion of the liturgy into a song book?'

But his fiercest indignation is justly reserved against the theatrical performances which too often take place at the opening of new churches. 'Bills of performance,' he complains, 'are circulated, worded, and lettered in the manner which a musical director with a travelling company would put forth on arriving in a country town. On one occasion Madame Stockhausen, the star of the day, headed the bill, then the name of some second rates and of the conductor or leader succeeded in due order. Even the clergy,' he says, 'were played in like soldiers to parade. Procession march! occasional overture!--so said the bills--choruses, duets, quartets, fugues, sermon, collection, solos, etc., succeeded in rapid succession; and what began with an overture, ended, in true theatrical style, with a finale.' 'This new church at Hereford,' he adds, 'might be fitly termed the new Catholic Concert Room; it does not possess the slightest character or essentials of a church.'

'It is painful' (and I will quote his letter at large, on account of its importance and of its earnestness, so characteristic of the writer) 'to be obliged to speak thus of a building which, in all respects, should have been a consolation and a glory; but there are occasions when silence becomes a sin, and this is one. The odium of this and similar transactions falls on the whole Catholic body, and if they pass unnoticed by any but our enemies, they disarm us of many powerful arguments against our adversaries; and as I wage perpetual war against Protestantism and innovation in every shape, and hope by the blessing of God to live long enough to set forth the glories of Catholic antiquity that formerly existed in this land, whenever I see Catholics truckling to the debased taste of the times and degrading their honourable title I shall not fail to reprove them, even at the cost of private benefit, or of being branded with the title of fanatic.
I have, therefore, considered it necessary to make this public avowal of my horror of such proceedings as those of Hereford; in which feeling, I am happy to say, I am most heartily joined by a vast number of faithful Catholics, both ecclesiastics and laymen, who, although unwilling to incur the odium of thus publicly avowing their feelings, coincide entirely in my views. For my own part, where the truth and the interest of religion are concerned I am a stranger to fear; and all the fiddlers and organists and performers and committee-men in England, would not prevent me from exhibiting these disgraceful profanations in their true light. The usual excuse, that they are necessary to raise money, is not only false, but it shows an utter want of that confidence in God which should form the base of every Catholic's conduct. What a narrow mind and grovelling soul does it betray! with the knowledge of possessing the true faith and firm promises of God, to descend to the tricks of perambulating mountebanks, and compromise all propriety, and even common respect to holy things for the chance of a few Protestant shillings, when a tithe of the number of real Catholic hearts, filled with true zeal and devotion would contribute more to the necessaries of the Church in one hour, than could be drawn from the unwilling pockets of the heretics in twelve months. If speculating on musical talent is to be in vogue, the noted M. Bochsa would be a far better person to open Catholic chapels than the most holy bishop; but then, let not the name of religion be mixed up with such an exhibition. Call it by its real name--a Concert--turn out the altar, fill the building with pit boxes, and gallery for the occasion, but let not the clergy suffer the degradation of sitting in dumb show to hear some women sing; and, above all, let not the holy sacrifice of the mass be made the vehicle of this horrible profanation.
As for the pretence, that conversions can be made by such exhibitions, I deny it in toto. How was the true faith propagated in bygone days? Did the apostles or ministers who converted England, lead about fiddlers to attract people to their discourses? No! they held the Divine commission to go forth, and forth they went, and God was with them; and the same Rock which sustained them in difficulties ten times greater than surround us is our foundation. Did the apostles themselves hold greater power and authority to preach the truth and administer the sacraments, than is possessed by the most humble of the ordained priests amongst us? Certainly not. Why then resort to such miserable expedients and shallow policy, calculated to draw down a curse instead of a blessing? Our great object should be to work for the love and glory of God, and do all things in a manner calculated to please him, without regard to worldly prejudices; and we may then expect, as in days of old, to receive his blessing on our endeavours. The present system of opening chapels is in complete opposition to the intentions and regulations of the Church. Instead of being solemn and edifying functions, they are, for the most part, scenes of irreverence and confusion; and the building which for the first time is sanctified by the presence of God himself, is filled with a gazing mob and a company of noisy musicians, who run riot in extravagant sounds, and act in direct opposition to the decrees of Councils, and the regulations of the Pontifical.

Finally, a reading on a time when Pugin was called in by a nobleman to be consulted on what to do about restoring his ugly manor. I can think of many buildings that would benefit from Pugin's advice here:

[H]e at once pointed out what ought to be done, remarking upon the bad taste yet remaining in the details of the portion of the house not destroyed, plainly intimating that the whole building should be re-constructed. Being interrupted occasionally by the noble proprietor asking, 'Well, what shall I do? what shall I do?'

'Do,' exclaimed Pugin, 'why put a barrel of gunpowder and blow up what remains, and when it is demolished then I'll tell you what to do;' a piece of advice not acted upon and the house was restored in the same debased style but not as may be imagined under the professional guidance of Pugin.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Two observations

1.) On the word "Gospel". Ever think about where we get the word "gospel" from? It's a long way from the Greek evangelion or the Latin evangelium, used to refer to the Gospel in the Latin Mass. "Gospel" comes from our treasury of old Anglo-Saxonisms. It literally means "good news", or perhaps "glad tidings". It's a contraction of god (in old English, not "God" as in the Deity, but merely good), and spel (story, message). Over time, god became conflated with God, and the word came to mean something like "God's spell". The medieval missionaries in England used this to their advantage by casting the holy Gospels as incantations against evil spirits, perhaps as a counter to the runes of the heathen Nordic gods. For centuries until the Protestant Reformation, it wasn't unusual for an Englishman to kneel before a priest and ask him to say his In principio as a blessing, or for a priest to say the In principio as a ward before entering a strange house or dangerous place. (See Chaucer's description of the Friar in his General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales: "So plesaunt was his in principio".)

The In principio, for those not familiar with the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, comes from the first passages of the Gospel of John ("In the beginning there was the Word"). Today it's only ever seen recited at the end of the old Mass, but in the Middle Ages, simply having this "Last Gospel" (so-called because John is the last of the four Gospels) recited over someone was considered a powerful blessing against evil.

2.) On getting grown men to serve and chant at Mass. I often try to think of ways to encourage and inspire grown men to serve the altar or chant in choir. The former tends to be associated in trad-dom as an extracurricular activity for small boys, while the latter is considered the province of old church women. When I was touring the palaces of Europe, I noticed that all of the royal chapels constructed or heavily remodeled after the Renaissance were built so the king sat in a gallery, far above and away from the plebs.... and the clergy. And today, we often hear Catholic politicians trying to get votes by recalling how they used to serve Mass as a kid. Contrast that with the medieval Chapel of Saint George in Windsor Castle, where there is no distinguished seat for the King. (There is, though, a queen's balcony originally built for Katherine of Aragon so that she could be closer to the altar without being in the quire proper.)

Wouldn't it be an even more powerful witness if we saw our leaders humbling themselves by serving or chanting in the liturgy? But the assumption seems to be that after a certain age,a man just gets too old or too important for such trivial tasks. This was the objection that Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk brought to his good friend, Saint Thomas More when he saw the saint in a surplice at church once. 

The following excerpt is from a paper on the life of Sir Thomas More by Monsignor P.E. Hallett, who worked to have More and his fellow martyr, John Cardinal Fisher canonized. It reads:

'To his parish church—now called Chelsea Old Church—he was a constant benefactor, giving generously altar plate, vestments, etc. He built for himself and his family the chapel which now forms the south aisle. He thought it an honour, even when Lord Chancellor, to serve Mass or to put on a surplice and chant in the choir. Once the Duke of Norfolk, coming to dine with him, found him so employed and remonstrated with him, “God‟s body, my Lord Chancellor! What! a parish clerk, a parish clerk! You dishonour the king and his office!” “Nay,” replied Sir Thomas smiling, “Your Grace may not think that the king, your master and mine, will with me for serving God his Master be offended, or thereby account his office dishonoured.”'

This was before the office of Prime Minister had been created, so at the time, More occupied the highest government post in the entire Kingdom of England, yet he considered it a supreme honor to serve the altar or chant in the choir at his local parish church, just as he had always done. And just following that passage above, another interesting tidbit:

"In the processions of the Rogation Days, which covered several miles around the countryside, More would carry the cross, and even when Chancellor he refused to ride, following his Master (he said) who went on foot."
The quire of Saint George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, facing the nave. The plaque on the floor marks the burial place of Kings Henry VIII and Charles I.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Two very different kinds of medieval mercy

          The people of the Middle Ages had a very broad concept of mercy, or in Latin, misericordia. I present two expressions of mercy today.

A choir stall with misericords.
            The first is the misericord, or mercy seat: a small shelf that’s not quite a bench. You’ll find these in some choir stalls in medieval churches, especially those which were monasteries, collegiate chapels, or cathedrals. In the old, old, old days, monks and all the clergy were bound to pray all eight hours of the Divine Office standing up. As a concession, or “mercy” to the old and infirm monks and clerics, they were allowed to lean back in the stalls and rest their posteriors on a misericord as a respite from the tiring work of praying and chanting all day long. If a family wanted a monastery or chapter to pray for a deceased love one’s soul in purgatory, they compensate the church by donating a misericord. The craftsmanship for the misericords is quite intricate, owing perhaps to all the woodcarvers’ guilds competing with one another for God’s attention. 

How to use

A great many had imagery of, shall we say, questionable religious significance.

            The other kind of misericord is a dagger with a heavy hilt and a long blade. If you were wrestling a knight on the battlefield and had him pinned down, you could reach for your trusty misericord, wedge it between his armor plates, and give him a “mercy stroke”. The misericord was so associated with delivering a coup de grâce that if you saw an enemy wielding one, you were probably bleeding out and living out your last moments on earth.