Thursday, 25 March 2010

Byron’s interest in Greece and the Irish connection

Lord Byron ... persuaded to take part in the Greek War of Independence by an Irish sea captain

Today [25 March] marks Greek Independence Day. To mark the occasion, I am posting a paper delivered five years ago

Patrick Comerford

Members of the Byron Society, I’m sure, are aware of many of Byron’s Irish connections, including those he acquired through Lady Caroline Lamb, who was born Lady Caroline Ponsonby, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bessborough, of Piltown, Co Kilkenny. Perhaps too you are familiar with his school-day friendship with John FitzGibbon, 2nd Earl of Clare. Doubtless, you know of his friendships with Tom Moore and with the Countess of Blessington and her husband, the former Lord Mountjoy. On the other hand, members of the Irish-Hellenic Society will be aware of Byron’s Greek connections, and that he gave his life for Greece at Messilonghi. But few people in Ireland realise that:

● Byron would never have given his life for Greece but for an adventurous Dublin seafarer;
● Byron was enticed back to Greece by the offer of an introduction to a poet who had a sister-in-law from the Irish Midlands;
● Byron found hospitality on Kephallonia with a colonel from Celbridge who was a cousin of Lord Edward FitzGerald;
● in Metaxata, Byron forged friendships with two Irish Kennedys, one who wanted to convert him to evangelical Christianity;
● Byron command of the Greek army eventually passed to an Irish general who had direct connections with Byron’s family;
● and, finally, Byron’s body was brought back to England against his wishes because of the political cunning of an Irishman.

Recruiting Byron to the cause of Greece

The Blacquiere or Blaquiere family – whose name is pronounced popularly in Dublin as “Black-wire” – were descended from Huguenot refugees who fled to Ireland in the 17th century. They gave their name to both a bridge over the Royal Canal in north Dublin and to a Church of Ireland national school in Phibsborough. Both the bridge and the school were demolished in the mid-20th century. But the name Blaquiere should also still evoke Irish associations with the Greek War of Independence, for Edward Blaquiere from Merrion Square, Dublin, persuaded Byron to return to Greece and join the struggle for independence, and was one of the most energetic Irish Philhellenes. It is to this Dubliner that the historian Dakin traces the origins of English support for the Greek cause, for he was the man who was responsible for Byron's last journey.

Although Edward Blaquiere has sometimes been described as an English Philhellene, we must insist on his Irish identity. A man of very pronounced conviction, energy and obvious sincerity, he did not follow his brothers into Trinity College Dublin; instead, he began his career in the Mediterranean with the British navy, and later moved to Spain, where he became involved in the Spanish revolution. From there, he moved to London, where he became involved in raising funds for the Greek cause as the agent of the London Greek Committee.

As Blaquiere was joining the Spanish Revolution, John Louriottis was being sent to Spain and Portugal in the hope of raising a loan that had been sanctioned by the Greek National Assembly. In Madrid in February 1823, he met Blaquiere, who promptly advised him that London was the best capital for raising funds. In London, Blaquiere introduced Loutriottis to a small group of Philhellenes. That meeting promoted the formation of the London Greek Committee, whose Irish members would include the poet Thomas Moore. The new committee encouraged Blaquiere and Louriottis to go back to Greece to report on the state of the country and to persuade the Greek Government to send official agents to London to handle the negotiations for a loan.

Persuading Byron

Blaquiere and Louriottis left for Greece on 4 March 1823. Five weeks later, they arrived in Genoa, and on 5 April, a few days after Lady Blessington’s famous visit, they called on Lord Byron at the Casa Saluzzo. Byron had already visited Greece, where he met Ali Pasha, who inspired Childe Harold. At the suggestion of the raffish Lord Altamont from Westport House, Co Mayo – later Marquess of Sligo – Byron had also travelled through the Peloponnese, and the two conspired together in claims about the poet’s rescue of a Turkish damsel in distress. Once, in a conversation with Altamont in Athens, he imagined his future death with swooning women around his bedside saying: “See that Byron – how interesting he looks in dying!”

By the time Blaquiere visited him, we could say that in terms of visiting Greece, Byron had been there, done all that and bought the T-shirt. And so, when Blaquiere arrived at the Casa Saluzzo, Byron had no intention of taking another package holiday in a Greek resort. Instead, he was contemplating travelling with his friend, Edward John Trelawney, to fight in South America.

However, it was just a year after the outrageous massacre on Chios, in which the Turks had slaughtered 25,000 of the 100,000 islanders. Blaquiere persuaded Byron instead to return to Greece to represent the interests of the London Greek Committee and to act as one of the three commissioners to administer the loan being raised – the other commissioners were to be Charles James Napier from Celbridge, Co. Kildare, by then the British resident on Kephallonia, and Leicester Stanhope, an English Philhellene. At first Byron was uncertain about Blaquiere's proposal, but as the weeks dragged on his new Irish friend became more persuasive.

On 28 April, Blaquiere told Byron: “Your presence will operate as a talisman and the field is too glorious, too closely associated with all that you hold dear to be any longer abandoned ... The cause is in a most flourishing state.” Later, Blaquiere wrote: “I well remember with what enthusiasm he spoke of his intended visit, and how much he regretted not having joined the standard of freedom long before.” Byron quickly wrote to Trelawney, asking him to join him: “I am at last determined to go to Greece; it is the only place I was ever contented in ... They all say I can be of use in Greece. I do not know how, nor do they; but at all events, let’s go.”"

While Byron waited for Trelawney to pack his bags in Rome, Blaquiere headed off to Greece. He arrived with Louriottis at Tripolis on 3 May 1823. He spent about two months in the Morea, taking great pains, as only an Irishman could, to impress on Greeks of all parties not only that he was not a British agent but also of the need to raise money in England and to commit English financial interests to the cause of Greek independence.

Meanwhile, Byron set sail for Greece, leaving Leghorn on board the Hercules on 23 July 1823. Blaquiere had advised Byron to go first to Zakynthos, but during the voyage Byron was persuaded to head instead for Kephallonia, which had been captured during the Napoleonic Wars by an Irishman, Richard Church from Cork, and where Charles James Napier from Celbridge was by then the resident or governor of the island.

Guest of a Celbridge colonel

General Sir Charles James Napier, as he later became, is often remembered as the officer who refused to fire on the protesting Chartists and as the conqueror of Sind in India, for his announcement: Pecavi Sind. However, it is said that his time as British governor of Kephallonia “was probably the happiest period of Napier’s life.” Napier was raised in Celbridge, Co. Kildare, and was a first cousin of the United Irish revolutionary, Lord Edward FitzGerald. This may have captivated Byron, who once wrote in his journal, recalling the 1798 Rising during his youth: “If I had been a man, I would have made an English Lord Edward FitzGerald.”

On his arrival in Kephallonia, Byron was surprised to find that Blaquiere was not there but was in Corfu, on his way back to London, having persuaded the Greek executive to send Louriottis and Orlandos ahead of him as their representatives. Back in London, Blaquiere would present the London Greek Committee with his Report on the Present State of the Greek Confederation. In this report, he gave a glowing account of the economic potential of Greece, claiming an independent Greek state would be as opulent as any in Europe.

The Hercules anchored in Argostoli, the capital of Kephallonia, 3 August 1823. Not only was Byron disappointed that Blaquiere, but he was indignant that Napier was absent from the island too. Byron felt insulted and incensed, and was disappointed too by the fact that he was missing the opportunity to meet the Greek national poet, Dionysios Solomos, who lived on neighbouring Zakynthos. Blaquiere appears to have promised Byron that he would arrange for “a distinguished young poet of the Ionian islands” to receive and entertain him. The meeting never took place, but the fault may not have been Blaquiere’s: Solomos was known for his petulance and Robin Fletcher, in his study of ‘Byron in Nineteenth-century Greek literature,’ says that Solomos must have been aware of Byron’s presence in Kephallonia, and suggests that the Greek poet may have been indulging in one of his moods of retreat.

Byron’s feeling of indignity may have been eased by the fact that Napier’s deputy, John Pitt Kennedy from Carndonagh, Co Donegal, came on board the Hercules to welcome him to the island we know now as Captain Corelli’s Island. Napier returned to Kephallonia two days later, and he and Byron quickly became fast friends. Byron spent his first few weeks on board the Hercules, but eventually accepted Napier’s offer of hospitality. Napier wrote to his mother: “Lord Byron is here and I like him very much.” Amused rather than shocked by Byron's scepticism, the quietly religious Napier addressed the poet as “your athiestship.” Defending his faith in the course of those arguments, Napier told his guest he “never feared a parson, except when expecting long sermons in a cold church.” The two had lengthy discussions on the Greek situation and it was characteristic of Napier to think big and talk tough: he wrote to Byron saying: “A foreign force is the only thing which can give a speedy and decisive turn to the war.”

The Kennedy friends

Byron also became friendly with two Irish members of Napier’s staff, John Pitt Kennedy, who is credited with paving the roads of Kephallonia, and the devout and pious army doctor, James Kennedy. (Fiona MacCarthy claims Dr Kennedy for Scotland, but Woodhouse presumes he was Irish.)The poet distinguished between these two Kennedys on Kephallonia by referring to them as the Saint and the Sinner, although Woodhouse points out that John Pitt Kennedy “was certainly no sinner.”

The Aghios Theodoros Lighthouse in Kephallonia ... designed by John Pitt Kennedy

John Pitt Kennedy was born in Co Donegal in 1796, the fourth son of the Rev John Pitt Kennedy, Rector of Carndonagh. On Kephallonia, he was the island secretary and director of public works, and over eight years built the Vardiani and Aghios Theodoros lighthouses at the entrance to the harbours of Argostoli and Lixouri, erected public buildings, and criss-crossed the island with roads. His contemporary, the devout Dr James Kennedy, had lengthy discussions with Byron on the Christian religion, and even persuaded him on one occasion to go to church, for twelve hours. Dr Kennedy had no doubts about Byron's sincerity, and later wrote his Conversations on Religion with Lord Byron to clear the poet of “that obloquy which is attached to his name in the minds of most Christians.” Later, Kennedy sent Byron a Greek Bible printed in Malta on a printing press established by the Revd James Connor, who had been sent to Constantinople and Malta as the first missionary of the agency I once worked for, now known as the Church Mission Society Ireland.

On 6 September Napier helped Byron to move into a villa at Metaxata on the coast south of Argostoli. Byron’s simple house was small and poor but was set in an enchantingly beautiful landscape. From the balcony, he could see Zakynthos to the south and in the distance he could see the outline of the Peloponnese. There he found a relative degree of reflective tranquillity, and spent his time listening and doing nothing. He wrote:

“... standing at the window of my apartment in this beautiful village – the calm though cool serenity of a beautiful and transparent Moonlight – showing the islands – the Mountains – the Sea – with a distant outline of the Morea traced between the double Azure of the waves and skies – have quieted me enough to be able to write ... which (however difficult it may seem for one who has written so much publicly – to refrain) is and always has been – a task and a painful one.

Later, Henry Napier visited the house his brother Charles had found for Byron in Metaxata and described the scene:

“To Lord Byron’s admirers this village is classic ground, for he resided there for three months previous to his going to Missolonghi and his death. In consequence of not speaking Greek I had some difficulty to find the house because, as I afterwards discovered, the inhabitants knew him by no other name than ‘Milordo.’ It is small but situated on one of the most retired corners of this beautiful village with a fine view of the rich plain on one side and on the other the Castle of St George and Mount Aenos.”

At Lakithra nearby, a marble plaque marking one of Byron’s favourite spots bears an inscription in Greek that translates: “If I am a poet, I owe it to the air of Greece” – Byron.

Byron’s final adventure

Meanwhile, Byron was having doubts about the intentions of our friend, the Irish sea captain. He was convinced that Blaquiere and the London Greek Committee merely wished him to act as their agent and to take delivery of their funds, but were not interested in his joining the military struggle. On the other hand, during the remaining months of 1823, a stream of emissaries from Greece arrived at Metaxata bringing letters to Byron pleading the cause of different parties and factions. But Byron wisely refused to commit himself to any one faction.

Among the foreign Philhellenes who visited him at Metaxata were George Finlay, later the historian of Greece, and Leicester Stanhope, later fifth Earl of Harrington. Stanhope’s aristocratic arrogance irritated both Byron and Napier. Byron later wrote: “He came up (as they all do who have not been in this country before) with some high-flown notions of the sixth form at Harrow or Eton, but Colonel Napier and I soon set him right ... I can assure you that Colonel Napier and myself are as decided for the cause of Greece as any German student of them all; but like men who have seen the country and human life, there and elsewhere, we must be permitted to view it in its truth, with its defects as well as its beauties.”

Sir Frederick Adam, who was in charge of British affairs on Corfu, let Napier know that he was unhappy with Byron’s presence. “Let me know what Lord Byron's instructions are – and what he is about,” he wrote. Later he complained to Napier: “You don’t tell me a word of Lord Byron or what his intentions are.” Perhaps Adam was unaware of Napier’s intentions too: he was hoping to obtain the command of the Greek army, and Byron agreed to provide him with an introduction to the London Greek Committee. Byron admitted he “would like to linger because I feel more satisfied and time passes more pleasantly than ever long before.” But by now Napier was worried that Byron's presence was turning Kephallonia into a headquarters for the Philhellenes and a transit camp for volunteers.

Byron lingered on in Kephallonia for a little longer. When Napier was invited to become one of the three trustees – along with Byron and Stanhope – for the loans raised by Blaquiere and the London Committee, he declined the invitation, and his refusal was partly responsible for the bankers Barff and Partners delaying the release the funds when Blaquiere later arrived back in Zakynthos.

Stanhope arrived in Missolonghi on 12 December 1823, hoping that he would soon be joined by Napier as generalissimo of the Greek army. He began writing to Byron, almost daily, imploring him to cross over from Kephallonia to join the struggle. Byron finally left Kephallonia on 30 December 1823 for neighbouring Ithaki and after an eventual journey arrived at Missolonghi on 5 January 1824.

Meanwhile, Napier, tired of his quarrels with Adam and more deeply committed than ever to the cause of Greek liberation, left his two young Greek-born daughters in the care of John Pitt Kennedy, and taking Byron’s letter of introduction headed to England to meet the London Greek Committee. Byron recommended that Napier should be appointed to the command of a Greek army, saying: “... a better or braver man is not easily to be found. He is our man to lead a regular force or to organise a national one for the Greeks. Ask the Army? Ask anybody?” Byron’s biographer, Sir Harold Nicholson, concludes: “There can be very little doubt that had Napier’s services been accepted by the Greek Committee, the protracted misery of the Greek War of Independence would have been curtailed by several years.”

In London, Napier tried to raise £40,000 towards raising a Greek force. But much to his disgust he found that the Greek Committee was more interested in the cultural regeneration of the Greeks than in his own military genius. Byron – who had no illusions about his own military skills – continued to hope that Napier would return to take command of the Greek army. During his final days in Missolonghi, he confided to Dr James Kennedy, the devout Irish doctor, that he sensed his approaching end. And as he lay dying in Missolonghi on Easter Sunday, 19 April 1824, one of Byron’s last wishes was that Napier was there: “I wish that Napier and Hobhouse were here,” he said, “we would soon settle this business.” Byron died the following day, and the melancholy news was conveyed to Napier by James Pitt Kennedy.

A few days before his death, Byron had expressed those memorable words, “My wealth, my abilities, I devoted to the cause of Greece – well, here is my life to her!” His death was not in vain, and Blaquiere’s prediction that his presence would operate as a talisman proved true: the news reverberated across northern Europe, helped to keep interest in the Greek cause alive, and arguably changed the course of the war.

Lord Byron on His Deathbed, by Joseph-Denis Odevaere, c 1826

Raising funds

Meanwhile, what had happened to that adventurous Irish sea captain? Well, while Byron had been tarrying on Kephallonia, Blaquiere was touring England and Ireland, seeking the support for the Greek cause. The Greek loan was floated on the London Stock Exchange in February 1824, and Napier, Byron and Stanhope were nominated as commissioners for the loan. However, Napier declined the honour, while Stanhope was about to be recalled to the British army. And so, Napier and Stanhope were replaced as trustees, which played havoc with the bankers back in Zakynthos, while the contractors for the loan in London, Loughman, Son, and O’Brien – a very Irish partnership, by all accounts – made an excessive profit from the floatation of the loan.

Blaquiere sailed from London on the Florida at the end of March with the first instalment of that loan. By now, not only had Byron given up any hopes of meeting Blaquiere – he had died at Missolonghi on 19 April 1824. Two days later, Blaquiere arrived back in Zakynthos on board the Florida with the promised first instalment, totalling £40,000 sterling, and banked the money with Barff and Partners. By now, however, Byron was dead, Stanhope was back in Zakynthos, making his return to London, and Blaquiere had an acute problem in administering the funds. He found to his distress that Stanhope had ordered Barff and Partners not to release the funds, in the hope of having the London loan released to his own faction within the Greek leadership, and while Blaquiere tried to insist that in the new circumstances he was empowered to act alone, the bankers refused to release the money.

Blaquiere wanted the funds to be released so military preparations could begin immediately; he was anxious too to return on the Florida so that he could continue raising funds. And then, Byron’s body arrived on Zakynthos. There was a major debate on what to do with the body: Byron’s own wishes were to be buried in Greece, and the day before he died he declared: “One request let me make to you. Let not my body be hacked or be sent to England. Here let my bones moulder – Lay me in the first corner without pomp or nonsense.”

Despite those dying wishes, Count Pietro Gamba wanted to send Byron back to England for burial; Stanhope prevaricated; while Lord Sydney Osborne, to Blaquiere’s shock and dismay, thought “the body ought to be burned in Zante!!!!!!” – there are six exclamation marks in Blaquiere’s note. Blaquiere realised the propaganda advantages of a full funeral in London and so on 24 May 1824, the coffin was placed on the Florida, the same ship on which Blaquiere had arrived on the island just over a month earlier. The Florida set sail a day later, and so despite his dying wishes, Byron’s body was hacked: his heart was buried in Westminster Abbey, and his body was buried in a small parish churchyard. But what happened to his Irish friends in the struggle for a Greek nation?

A Cork commander

Well, Napier never accepted the command of the Greek army. It passed instead to another Irish Philhellene, Sir Richard Church (1784-1873). Church was born in Cork, into a distinguished family of Quaker merchants. His parents were shocked when he enlisted as a boy soldier; they bought him a commission, which led to their prompt excommunication or “disowning” by the Society of Friends.

Church took on Byron’s mantle among the Philhellenes when he became commander-in-chief of the Greek army following successful lobbying by Blaquiere and the banker Barff. Church has been hailed as “the liege lord of all the true Philhellenes.” But it is often forgotten that Church too had a family connection with Byron. He was married on 17 August 1826 to Elizabeth Augusta Wilmot; she was a sister-in-law of the 2nd Earl of Kenmare, Valentine Browne (1788-1853) of Killarney, Co Kerry, and her father, Sir Robert Wilmot, had been married to Byron’s sister, Juliana Elizabeth.

In March 1827, seven months after their marriage and less than three year’s after Byron’s death, Church arrived in Greece to accept to the command of the army. Later in 1830, he conspired with his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton (1784-1841), Byron’s nephew, to block an allied plan that would have severely limited the borders of the new Greek state. When he publicised Church’s opposition to the plans, a humiliated Prince Leopold decided not to accept the allies’ offer of the Greek throne – instead he would become King of the Belgians.

Sir Richard Church’s grave in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church remained in Greece for the rest of his life, becoming a life senator, a councillor of state, and inspector general of the Greek army. He was involved in the coup of 1843 and the turmoil that eventually led to Greece acquiring a democratic constitution, and in the popular revolt that led to Otho’s abdication in 1862. He is commemorated by windows and plaques in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens; the monument over his grave in the First Cemetery in Athens bears the epitaph: “Richard Church General who having given himself and all that he had to rescue a Christian race from oppression and to make Greece a nation lived for her service and died amongst her people rests here is peace and faith”

Napier’s later career

Napier never became commander-in-chief of the Greek army. After the massacre at Missolonghi in 1826, he left Kephallonia, broken-hearted that his official position had left him unable to intervene. He left behind his Greek partner Anastasia and their two Greek-born daughters, and a plot of land in the hope that he could one day retire again to the island where Byron had been his guest and that had become his home. But this was not to happen. On his deathbed, he was attended by Lord Edward FitzGerald’s daughter, Pamela, who may have been the one true love in his life. His family later bequeathed his small piece of land in Argostoli to the people of Kephallonia and it is now a public park.

Back in Ireland, John Pitt Kennedy became increasingly critical of British government policies, and published a book with the revealing title of Instruct; Employ; Don’t Hang Them: or Ireland Tranquilized Without soldier and Enriched without English Capital. In 1838, he established a model farm and teacher-training school in Glasnevin, the first beginnings of Dublin City University. There he was visited by Napier, and they never lost the bonds of friendship forged in Kephallonia in the 1820s while Byron was their guest. He died in 1879 and is buried in London.

The Solomos connection

As for Blaquiere’s failure to make good the promise to introduce Byron to Solomos, there is one obscure connection between the Solomos family and the Irish Philhellenes, through Eliza Tuite, the daughter of a minor aristocrat, Sir George Tuite (1778-1841) of Kilruane House, near Nenagh, Co Tipperary. At the end of the 18th century, Count Nicholaos Solomos of Zakynthos became known as Count Tabakieris or “the tobacco count,” as he amassed a fortune through the tobacco trade. In the 1790s, the count had a secret affair with a young beautiful but poor Greek maid, Angeliki Niklis. Their two sons, Dionysios and Demetrios, were only legitimised in 1807 when the elderly count married her on his deathbed the day before he died. In the Spring of 1823, while Blaquiere was persuading Byron to go to Greece, one of those sons, Dionysios Solomos, wrote his Hymn to Liberty, which later became the Greek anthem.

Following Church’s capture of Zakynthos, the Solomos villa became the residence of the British High Commissioners during their visits to the island. In 1828, the poet Solomos moved from Zakynthos to Corfu. He returned frequently to Zakynthos for family visits, but became estranged from them in a lengthy legal battle with his brother Demetrios and their half-brother Ioannis Leondarakis over the remaining family property. In 1838, Eliza Tuite married Ioannis, by now Count Giovanni Salomos or Solomos, who had continued to live in Zakynthos and in Patras on the neighbouring Peloponnese shore. She died in Athens on 19 May 1861, her funeral was held in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church, and she was buried in Athens on 21 May 1861. Her husband, Count Ioannis Solomos, died two months later and was buried in Piraeus.

Blaquiere’s fate

But, finally, what happened to Blaquiere?

Blaquiere valiantly kept up his efforts and his struggles to ensure that the British loan was released by the bankers in Zakynthos so that it could be used to fund the Greek struggle for independence. While he remained in Zakynthos, he sailed with local Greek dignitaries and took part in a moving ceremony in the lagoons near Anatoliko on 18 June 1824, when Point Protopanistos was renamed Fort Byron.

He continued to play an active role in the struggle for independence. While some Greeks were still trying to persuade Napier to accept the command of the armed forces, Blaquiere and his banking friend in Zakynthos, Barff, along with others, had turned in hope to Sir Richard Church. He was still on Zakynthos when he drafted the Greek government’s invitation sent to Church in September 1826, and waited on Zakynthos expecting Church's arrival. Suspecting Church was unhappy with the terms of the invitation, Blaquiere returned from Zakynthos to the Greek mainland to seek a general invitation for Church.

When Church eventually arrived in Greece, Blaquiere was at Kastri to greet the Irish general upon his arrival on 9 March 1827. Blaquiere was still at Church’s side during the disastrous attempt to relieve the besieged garrison in the Acropolis of Athens, and when the surrender of the Acropolis on 5 June became the subject of controversy in the European press, Blaquiere rushed to defend the reputation of his fellow Irishman, Richard Church. Back in London, Blaquiere remained an active spokesman on behalf of Greece. He maintained his enthusiasm for radical causes, and was drowned some years later in 1832 in a leaky ship on a characteristic mission to promote the liberal cause in Portugal. It was a sad and lonely end for this heroic Irish adventurer, who was buried at sea rather than in Greece or close to his family in Saint Mark’s Churchyard in Dublin.

Byron, against his wishes, was buried in England and has his monument in Westminster Abbey. But none of his Irish Philhellene friends was buried in Ireland, nor, to our shame, is there a lasting memorial or monument to even one these Irish Philhellenes on their native soil.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This lecture was first delivered to a joint meeting of the The Irish-Hellenic Society and the Byron Society in the United Arts Club, 3 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, on 9 February 2005.

The Annunciation

Patrick Comerford

Today [25 March] is the feast of “The Annunciation of the Theotokos” – a day that is celebrated in the calendars of both the Western Church and the Orthodox Church.

Icons for today’s feast draw on the Biblical account, but Orthodox iconography is often supplemented and augmented by images that draw from the Protevangelion of James, an apocryphal text that was the source of imagery for Mary for both East and West into the Middle Ages, although it is largely unknown in the West today.

This text, written ca 150 CE, was one of the early arguments for the perpetual virginity of Mary. It draws on sources in the Gospel according to both Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, but it expands on them considerably, adding several other stories that became part of later pious, popular literature.

In the story, Mary leaves the temple at the age of 12, after an angel instructs the high priest to gather together the widowers of Judea. Joseph is “chosen by lot to take the virgin of the Lord into [his] care and protection.” Joseph initially objects, however: “I already have sons and I’m an old man,” but he is persuaded that it is his duty to take her.

After Mary moves into Joseph’s home, the council of priests decide that a new veil must be made for the Temple by “the uncontaminated virgins from the tribe [house] of David.” The high priest Samuel instructs the chosen maidens to “cast lots” to decide who should spin which threads for the veil, and in particular who is to spin “the true purple.”

The purple and the scarlet skeins fell by lot to Mary. She takes her threads home and is spinning them when she is visited by the Angel Gabriel.

In the Protevangelion of James, there is first a “pre-annunciation” scene, in which Mary goes to the well to fetch water. There she hears a voice saying: “Greetings, favoured one. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.” Mary looks around but does not see anyone. Frightened, she goes back inside and, “taking up the purple, she sat down in her house and began to spin.”

The angel then appears visually to her, telling her initially not to be afraid: “You have found favour in the sight of the Lord of all.”

The Annunciation story then continues along the same narrative outline found in the Gospels according to Saint Matthew and Saint Luke until the author returns to the story of Mary’s role in weaving the temple veil: “And she finished the purple and the scarlet and took them up to the high priest.”

Accepting the work from her, he congratulates her saying: “God has extolled your name.”

He then prophesies that she will be remembered “by all the generations of earth.”

In the Eastern Church, the principle features of the icon of the Annunciation include the Virgin with a skein of red or purple wool in her hand; the Angel Gabriel, with his left hand holding a staff, symbolising his role as messenger; and a circle of light (usually a half-circle) at the top of the icon with rays of light streaming down onto Mary.

The Angel Gabriel’s right hand is extended in the traditional Greek iconographic blessing, forming the Greek letters for the name of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes the light conceals or reveals the figure of a dove. The equilibrium of these three figures forms a triangle, with the Virgin as its apogee and the angel and the dove as opposite points that converge on her.

A Trinitarian theme is reinforced by three rays of light proceeding from the dove or from the half-circle.

This is the Annunciation scene that appears on the “royal doors” of the iconostasis of almost every Orthodox church.

Mary is depicted either standing or sitting, with purple or red skeins falling from her fingers. The threads Mary is holding reveal that she wove the Temple veil that later was rent from top to bottom when Christ died on the cross. Her acceptance of God’s will in this and in all things is represented by her upraised and open hand or, in some cases, by placing her hand upon her heart.

Saint Andrew of Crete, in his Great Canon, sang to her: “As from purple silk, O undefiled Virgin, the spiritual robe of Emmanuel, His flesh, was woven in thy womb. Therefore, we honour thee as Theotokos in very truth.”

Using the same imagery, Saint John of Damascus explains that, having entered the world by means of the Virgin, the King of Glory “is clothed with the purple of his flesh.”

Archbishop Rowan Williams, in his book Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin, gives a reflection on this apocryphal story that is rich in meaning. Mary, who spins the “sanctuary veil … the sign of the unbridgeable gulf between sinful humanity and the holy God,” is also preparing herself to become the sanctuary. “From the sanctuary of heaven, from the terrifying emptiness between the cherubim on the ark, God enters another sanctuary, the holy place of a human body.”

And so, the story of the Annunciation and Mary’s Yes is an appropriate story at this stage as we observe Lent and prepare to move into Holy Week.

Collect of the Day:

Pour your grace into our hearts, Lord,
that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ
by the message of an angel,
so by his cross and passion
we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.