25 July 2017

Peterborough Cathedral, Tuesday, 25 July 2017 - Saint James' Day

Iconoclasm in Two Cathedrals

Today we took a side trip to Peterborough to see its cathedral, and its expansive and unusual west side. There will be some comments about Oliver Cromwell, pictured above - but that will come later. A bus picked us up and we trekked north and west up to the city of Peterborough, passing through rich fields some rich with sugar beets, and others with some type of grain. Flat and fertile would describe the countryside. After the small town comforts of Ely, Peterborough seemed quite busy and bustling. The Cathedral looms at one end of the Market Square, presenting the city with an unusual façade.

An ancient abbatial church, Benedictine, it was made a diocesan cathedral following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. It represents, as do most cathedral churches, the layers of time, taste, and usage. The first vision is of the baptismal font, recovered from a garden in the close.

The eye is next drawn to the contemporary crucifix that hangs over the crossing.

What is not easily perceived in other cathedrals, but seemed to be accessible here were the evident layers of redecoration and renewal. It was most especially seen in the Presbytery and its rather nice mosaic floor and the Victorian baldachino and high altar, which stand in contrast to the Norman surroundings. The stalls in the quire are Victorian as well, and quite handsome.

These stand in contrast to the pulpit and lectern in the crossing where what appears to be a Georgian pulpit and lectern stand.

It is in the quire that the tour guide clues us into the history of the place, and the theme for today's reflection - the destruction wrought at the hands of Cromwell and his troops. We are asked to look at the fine eagle/lectern in the quire.

It is certainly beautiful, but not unusual. We see them everywhere in European and American churches. There is one aspect to this lectern that does make it unusual. 

Do you see anything missing? The story goes that the Cromwell troops thought that this lectern was gold, and sought to melt it down for the valuable metal. A monk clipped off a bit of the feather to prove to the soldiers that it was really brass, and thus the piece was saved. There was, however, major destruction. All of the medieval windows were destroyed. There is a small example of medieval glass in two windows behind the high altar. They were gleaned from the shards of the destroyed windows and present an interesting aspect (one seen in some German churches as well).

The most drastic example of this destruction can be seen in Ely Cathedral's Lady Chapel. It's perpendicular Gothic windows were totally denuded of their glass, presenting us today with a bright interior.

Monuments were stripped from walls, ridding them of supposed papistic superstition and idolatry. In the photo below, we see two types of destruction. There are the remains of a family memorial, and above it you can see the remains of the old Norman apse (note the zigzag line that delineates the lower wall) and the 16th Century "New Room" with its flamboyant Gothic ceiling.

So we see the destruction wrought from ideologues, and that from those who sought to improve the capacity of the place, replace removed sections with beauty.

A political aside:

It seems to me that we are witnessing a similar destruction of institutions, education, cultural arenas, and natural resources all for the sake of a retrograde ideology. I can't be too critical of Cromwell when I sit back and allow the destruction of these things in my own time. (Off the high horse).

It was a lovely day of seeing countryside and city, culture and humanity. Before we left there was lunch in the cathedral close under a lovely green tree. Yes, a fine day, finished later with Evensong on Saint James' Day, where I along with the choir participated in the Ely Cathedral's worship.

24 July 2017

Ely Cathedral, Monday, 24 July 2017

The Contained Pilgrimage - Some Thoughts

In 2008, I took my mother to Germany to celebrate her 92nd birthday. I only required one thing of her and that was to allow for a trip to Aachen to see Karl der Großes chapel, and to visit the pilgrim church of Saint Anne in Düren, a small city that lies between Köln and Aachen. Saint Anne's Church was destroyed in the Second World War, and was rebuilt using a lot of the ruined stone in a marvelous building designed by Rudolf Schwartz. So it was my pilgrimage, a trip to search for a moral or spiritual significance in life - a building, and an artistic expression. Oddly enough, peoples throughout the ages wandered their way to Düren to see the head of Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary - so there was an alternative pilgrimage that was possible.

Right now I am on a pilgrimage with the Choir from Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, and my thoughts have been centered for several days on what it means to be a pilgrim. Usually pilgrimages happen over long distances, such as the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain that stretched from various points in Europe - Köln being one starting point. My thoughts are, however, that pilgrimages can happen within confined spaces, and indeed do. At the outset one is greeted when entering Ely Cathedral with a labyrinth. It gives you a clue as to what you need to do while in the building - wander - make a pilgrimage - seek a moral or spiritual goal. The most famous of such labyrinths is at Chartres, sitting below the regular seating in the nave.

At Ely the Baptistry is to the immediate right as you enter, giving you another clue about the journey and about where you might begin. 

I think that we tend to think of churches as places where a community gathers, and when we go there we expect to be in the company of a lot of people, all gathered to worship and to sing and pray together. What troubles me about this is that it limits our expectation and experience of the place. Might it be more than that, might it be a place for individual wandering and pilgrimage as well. Take a look at the floor plan of the Cathedral at Seville below.

Notice that in the midst of the nave is the quire, really a separate building that blocks visual access to the high altar that lies right behind it. This is not a room for gathering a bunch of people that can see the mass from the far reaches of the nave. It is built for limited congregations, and for those who wish to be pilgrims there. Seville is really a large room with destinations within it. Ely is really a collection of rooms, in which a congregation may gather, or individuals may wander.

The Baptistry is a starting point, although it could be a destination of remembrance as well. If you look at the plan, the nave, the quire, the ambulatory with its chapels, the Lady chapel, and the transepts and their chapels represent a variety of destinations that a pilgrim might seek. As I sat in the choir this evening at Evensong, my eyes wandered up to the galleries that snake along above the quire (and in the nave and transepts as well). I had always thought of them as architectural necessities, rather than as other routes for monk/pilgrims seeking individual serenity and quiet. They are probably both.

What follows are three "pilgrimages" that I found at the cathedral. There are many, such as the individual figures in the arches of the Lady Chapel, or the panels above the stalls of the quire. Here are suggested pilgrimages that can give you some idea of how you might wander at Ely:

1. Pilgrimage around the Baptistry and its Font - Investigate the images of the Evangelists on the Font. Where is the Font placed in relationship to the entire Baptistry? Why? 

2. The ceiling of the Nave is its own pilgrimage - but you might want to bring binoculars. The ceiling fills 12 bays of the nave and begins with Creation, The Fall, etc., continuing through the whole Hebrew Scriptural Salvation History. It was painted in the Victorian period in 1862.

3. The Quire. Notice the panels above the individual choir stalls, and the carvings below the seat level and at the end of a row of stalls. So much information is available to the faithful pilgrim who searches on her quest. 

I worry that I've become a bit pedantic with all of this. However, my visit to Ely calls me to look differently at the worship space in my own parish church. How might I be a pilgrim there, and how might I encourage others by its architecture to do the same?

23 July 2017

Ely Cathedral, 23 July 2017

A Traffic of Ideas

What I'm about to write here I'm certain that any art historian worth her or his weight in gold might have some disputes about. My thoughts here are really about connections across lands, cultures, and times. But first, where are we and what am I doing? Right now I'm accompanying the parish choir of Saint Mark's Church, Berkeley, California, where I am serving as Interim Rector. We arrived yesterday at Heathrow and immediately loaded a bus that took us cross the English countryside to Cambridgeshire and to the town of Ely. The landscape was flat, with yellowed stalks from the crop that had just been harvested. There, on the horizon, was the cathedral church, visible from a great distance, very much appearing as a ship on a sea of fields. Indeed, it is known locally as the ship of the Fens. So here we are with this ancient Norman church. My first vision of it as the bus pulled into the car park was a recollection of this:

This is not in Ely at all but is the remains of brick work in Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome. What has captured my imagination here is the repeated artwork, and the decoration within the arch, indeed the decorative effect of the brick work. This is the image that immediately caught my attention as we left the bus:

The repetition of arch and column and the whole decorative treatment of the façade seems, to me, to be redolent of the brick work in Ostia. This treatment can be seen through out the building as the artisans worked to make the surfaces rich with waves, diamonds, checks, and other geometric devices. It can be found throughout the building.

This program of decoration can even been seen in the Gothic additions to the building which are decidedly flamboyant in nature. This is especially evident in the Lady Chapel.

The overly decorated Gothic arch is at point given a dimensionality as the point of the arch is pulled away from the surface to create an arabesque type feature. Even the ceiling ribs are combined in such a way as to hint at the angles of the arches in the Norman sections of the building.

So how do ideas such as style and treatment travel? Were they even influenced by the Roman brickwork seen in Ostia or perhaps elsewhere? One thing is certain. Our world has always been culturally connected, and remains so. We just need to find the evidence.

Tomorrow I will look at other aspects of the cathedral.

26 October 2016

Romanticism, 26 Oktober 2016

Ignore the bust - and admire the beauty of the gold leaf decorations of the niche. I never tire of going to the Alte Nationalgalerie on Museuminsel in Berlin. It is a stunning building that was decimated in the second world war, but has been lovingly restored. One room has been kept so that we can know the state from which it has been brought.

All else has been restored in a convincing and attractive manner.  I especially love the doorways on the main floor, and the dome on the third floor.  The doorways "pull" you through the galleries, and the dome is a restful place that introduces you to the heart of the collection.

So the question that seems to naturally follow here is why do I keep coming back here.  What, other than the building itself, is the nature of the attraction. Sometime in the 1970s, I read a book called Dreamers of Decadence by Philippe Julian, and Robert Baldick. In it I met Odilon Redon, Edvard Munch, Gustav Moreau (whose atelier in Paris I visited once), and Jan Toorop among others. There was one artist in that discussion on Symbolist painters that I immediately took to, and that is Arnold Böcklin. There are several paintings by him here, some portraits, and landscapes, but above all his symbolist paintings. I am especially taken by the painting, "The Island of the Dead."

So I had to ask myself the question, "What is it about these romantic painters, with their slightly bitter edge, that is so attractive to me?" Today, as I thought about that, I think I realized something and that is that these painters still were cognizant and conversant with the myth (whether Christian, classical, or tribal). It is an orientation that we seem to have lost in our time. As an illustration, here is Franz Stuck's painting "Die Sünde" (Sin), which was painted in his lovely studio at Villa Stuck in München. 

Here the "evil" woman (taking the myth seriously) looks at us from the canvas, with the serpent peering at us as well over her shoulder. I don't like what the canvas says about women, but I do like all the cultural references that are there to be thought about and brought to mind. There is a challenge here to think about sin as a cultural force and as a religious concept, and its attachments in the culture at large. 

There is an early Max Beckmann, in which you can see how his modernist definitions of space and human form was beginning to develop. Although not a symbolist, he certainly understood myth and classical tales in his later works.

Then there is a haunting portrait of Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger, in which the philosopher stares out at us, but beyond us - deep in thought.

Finally, I couldn't help but photograph this wonderful painting by Anton Feuerbach, a painter steeped in classicism, but reaching for the modern. Finally, there is something here that explores deeply what it means to be a human being, at all points of the culture.

And, perhaps, divine as well.

24 October 2016

Some Casual Observations Donnerstag bis Montag (20 Oktober - 24 Oktober 2016)

Speaking of gulashsuppe...

the second best in the world can be found in this restaurant in the Nikolaiviertel in Berlin. I've had it there several times and it never disappoints.  (The best is found in Prague, across the river, in a nameless restaurant that serves it with wonderful dumplings.)

The Ballet in Berlin - Giselle was playing, so we had to go see the production at the Staatsballett Berlin, performing temporarily at the Schiller Theatre in West Berlin.

The stage was a bit small, but the sets were quite fantastic, better than SFB's. The corps at SFB, however, is distinctly superior. We both enjoyed the first act, but the second act (my favorite) lacked something.

A couple of amusing things happened. A French couple was convinced that we had their seats (they being on the left, and we the right). It took some time to explain the situation to them, to the amusement of those sitting around us. Also, during the intermission we looked at the Opernstore, the only Ballet store that I know of that sells mustard.

Saint Hedwig's Organ - is always a delight and so we took advantage of an afternoon concert on their magnificent Klais organ.  A piece by Bach and then Durufle was played to the delight of all. 

Saturday on the Spree - We always like taking a Spree cruise, that takes you down river and then back to the Tiergarten by way of the Landwehr canal.  It gives you a different perspective on the city, and allows several opportunities to experience locks.

That and a glass of hot chocolate, and later tortellini with vegetables makes for a delightful mid-day.  On several of our walks we run into Stolpersteine, small memorials to people who were deported and then murdered at the camps.

It's impressive to watch a culture and a people wrestle with their past - there are so many evidences of a good effort.  Every now and then, however, one runs into something like this:

In the neighborhood near our hotel there was once a synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazi's and further decimated by the bombings in Berlin. The city erected a memorial there made of Corten Steele - a stylized menorah with a panel explaining the history and the memorial. The panel had been defaced with yellow paint proclaiming "Jesus Wahrheit" (Jesus the Truth). It is embarrassingly disgraceful. The plaque is really quite beautiful with the Hebrew and German text incised into the steel.

Sundays in Berlin are locked up tighter than a drum - so finding ourselves at Hackescher Hof with nothing to look at or buy, we got on a streetcar, and took it to the end of the line and back. It allowed us to see parts of Berlin we had not visited before, and to see how rejuvenated the eastern half has become. There is one thing, however, that Berlin can't seem to deal with and that is graffiti; it appears everywhere, and to the detriment of some fine buildings.  

A visit to Amarna - On Monday we visit Museuminsel, and specifically the Neues Museum.  We are there to visit Nefertiti, of course, but she wasn't allowing photographs. A photo, however, of Queen Tiy gives you an idea of the beauty of this collection's holdings.

And there is a wonderful example of the Amarna style in a fresco of ducks and water lilies.

We had a good conversation with two different couples, both from London. It expands your world to share ideas and points of view with people from other places. Delightful! Especially delightful, however, is traveling with Arthur.