30 December 2013

A bright mid-winter sunset
on the beach at Donabate

A bright winter sunset at Balcarrick Beach in Donabate this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

One of the basic instincts in northern Europe in the mid-winter is to keep alive the hope for light pouring back into the world.

It explains the midwinter calculations that made Newgrange a monument not just to those buried in the chamber but to the importance of hope for light in the darkness of northern Europe. It explains why people festoon their houses with such glaring and gaudy but seasonal lights at this time of the year. It explains why people count the extra minutes and moments of sunlight in the afternoon as December moves towards an end.

This afternoon, two of us were on our way to Portrane when we realised the afternoon was turning to evening. We decided to take a detour at Donabate and catch the sunset on Balcarrick Beach.

Clear blue pools beneath the setting sun in Donabate this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The tide was out, and under the low, setting sun, the sand seemed to stretch for miles, and slow setting sun was orange – for all the world like a falling Christingle orange – casting a glow all around.

Here and there, just below the Martello Tower and the ramp down unto the beach, small pools of water were catching the sunlight in clear blue bowls, as clear as the blue pools in the calcified terraces of Pamukkale in south-west Turkey.

By the time we walked back up the ramp beside the Martello Tower, the sun had set in south west, but there was still a warm orange glow in the blue sky.

‘Heaven cannot hold him / Nor earth sustain …’ heaven and earth came together at sunset in Donabate this afternoon (Phoograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The weather was bleak and cold, but no snow had fallen, and still I recalled Christina Rossetti’s words:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim Thronged the air –
But only his mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give him –
Give my heart.

The waves on the beach in Donabate at dusk this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Goodbye to 2013 (Part 1) and my top
ten religious news stories of the year

Goodbye to 2013 ... sunset in the Phoenix Park last Saturday...

... and hello to 2014 ... sunrise above the lawn outside my study (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post Religion editorial team identified its own choice of the Top 10 religion stories of the year. So, to introduce my review of the past year [2013], I have chosen my own Top 10 religion stories of 2013.

1, The election of Pope Francis:

A lighter style for a new Pope and a new Archbishop ... Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis in the Vatican

In less than a year, Pope Francis has become the most talked about person on Facebook, on Twitter and on the Internet, and Time Magazine has named him as the Person of the Year. At the age of 85, Pope Benedict XVI resigned as pope on 28 February, an unprecedented decision for a living Pope for 600 years.

After half a century in which the advances of Vatican II were steadily eroded by Pope after Pope and by the curia, Pope Francis has stamped the Papacy with his own mark. He demonstrated his priorities by washing the feet of Muslim and women prisoners on Maundy Thursday. He was received enthusiastically at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. And since then he has been outspoken in expressing his views on atheists, gays, and the economic system:

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”

This Pope is showing genuine humanity, warmth and empathy for people with disabilities and children. He cold calls people in need, and he lives a humble lifestyle. He is challenging the old guard and the cold-hearted, and has done more than anybody else this year to restore confidence in the Church as a whole.

2, The new Archbishop of Canterbury

In February, I wrote about Archbishop Justin Welby’s Irish roots, which led to a number of radio interviews

Archbishop Rowan Williams stood down as Archbishop of Canterbury on 31 December 2012 and became Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, on 1 January 2013. Already 10 Downing Street had announced on the appointment of Justin Welby as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. He was formally elected on 10 January at a ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral, he legally took office on 4 February at a ceremony in Saint Paul's Cathedral, London, and he was enthroned in Canterbury on 21 March.

The new archbishop favours the consecration of women as bishops, and has described last year’s vote in the General Synod rejecting legislation on women bishops as a “very grim day, most of all for women priests and supporters.”

At his first press conference, he spoke out strongly against homophobia and stated that he is “always averse to the language of exclusion, when what we are called to is to love in the same way as Jesus Christ loves us.” He has also said: “I know I need to listen very attentively to the LGBT communities, and examine my own thinking prayerfully and carefully.”

In July, he spoke out against the payday lending companies, and pledged that the Church of England would support credit unions as society needs to “provide an alternative” to the “very, very costly forms of finance” that payday lending companies create.

We first met when he was the Dean of Liverpool, and I was delighted to uncover Archbishop Welby’s Irish ancestors. His close kinship with Lord Edward Fitzgerald and other leading families in Co Kildare received attention from the religious and secular media, and I was interviewed about this on a number of radio interviews.

3, The consecration of Bishop Pat Storey

I was present in Christ Church Cathedral for the consecration of Bishop Pat Storey as Bishop of Meath and Kildare

Near the end of the year, the Most Revd Pat Storey was consecrated Bishop of Meath and Kildare, and it was true pleasure to be at her consecration in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. She is the first woman bishop in the Church of Ireland and the first woman bishop in any one of the four Anglican churches in these islands.

Earlier in the year, Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya (61) visited the Church of Ireland at the invitation of Us, the mission agency formerly known as USPG. She preached in Saint Michan’s Church, Dublin, and I brought her on a walking tour of Dublin. She is the first woman to become an Anglican bishop in Southern Africa, and at the end of last year was consecrated Bishop of Swaziland, a small impoverished, conservative, land-locked kingdom.

In the US in September, the Revd Elizabeth Eaton became the first woman elected as the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which been ordaining women since 1970. The ELCA has four million members and is in full communion with the Episcopal Church (TEC).

In an interview before her election, Bishop Eaton said: “We’re church first, church for the sake of the world. Of course worship is primary and the thing we do. But if we’re just having our little conclaves and our own little congregations and say, ‘Well, too bad about everyone outside,’ we are completely missing the point.”

A month later, the Lutheran Church of Sweden elected its first woman Archbishop. The German-born Antje Jackelen has been the Bishop of Lund since 2007, and the Church of Sweden has been ordaining women priests for 50 years.

In November, Dr Agnes Abuom became the first woman and the first African to be elected moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. Dr Abuom is an Anglican from Kenya, and was installed as moderator during the WCC’s 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea. She was the Africa president for the WCC from 1999 to 2006.

Earlier in the year, the Dalai Lama said in Australia that the next Dalai Lama could very well be a woman. Speaking about how the world needs more compassionate leaders today, he said that “biologically, females have more potential … females have more sensitivity about others’ well being.” As a result, he said, “if the circumstances are such that a female Dalai Lama is more useful, then automatically a female Dalai Lama will come.”

Needless to say, his remarks sparked a debate on whether such comments reinforce unhelpful stereotypes and to what extent women really are more compassionate than men. Stereotypes of women as nurturing, empathetic, more consensus-driven leaders, after all, can hurt women when they engage in the more authoritative behaviour that has become a stereotype of male leaders.

Apart from obituaries in the Economist and the Daily Telegraph, little media attention was paid to the death in April at the age of 92 of Marcella Pattyn, the last of the Beguines ... is that going to put an end to singing Cole Porter’s song Begin the Beguine?

Meanwhile, as we rejoice in Ireland at the choice of Bishop Pat Storey, we should think prayerfully about Archdeacon Leslie Stevenson, who had been the Bishop-elect of Meath and Kildare, and pray for him, his family and for his continuing ministry which has been blessed and a blessing to the whole Church in the past.

4, The death of Nelson Mandela

President Mandela in Dublin when he received an honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin

The death of Nelson Mandela is probably the political and social news story of the year. But we should also think of this as a religious news story too. Nelson Mandela, more than many other political leaders, embodied the Christian values of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, endurance and tolerance, and in many of his activities his name was linked with that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

I took part in the services in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, as we realised that Nelson Mandela was dying, and in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, after his death. We should remember that he had been a lifelong Methodist. His Christian faith was described in the Church Times by the Revd Harry Wiggett, who was his prison chaplain on Robben Island. Under the headline ‘He shone with the light of Christ,’ he wrote:

“On every occasion that I visited Pollsmoor Prison to celebrate the Eucharist, a warder had to be present to keep an eye on me and to hear every word that I said, to be sure that I was not passing on or receiving any politically inflammatory messages.

“On [one] particular occasion, when I reached the Peace, Nelson gently stopped me and went over to the young warder on watch. ‘Brand,’ he asked, ‘are you a Christian?’ ‘Yes,’ the warder, Christo Brand, responded. ‘Well then, you must take off your cap, and join us round this table. You cannot sit apart. This is holy communion, and we must share and receive it together.’

“To my utter astonishment, Brand meekly removed his cap, and, joining the circle, received holy communion.

“I was deeply humbled because I, the priest, had not thought of doing that.

“To appreciate the significance of this incredible act of inclusive love, one needs to be aware not only of its spiritual, but also of its political significance. The fact that Christo Brand was white, and that he had responded to an invitation from a black, and so naturally, was deeply moving. Brand had political power, but submitted to the power of the Spirit working through Nelson, the prisoner.

“In Christo Brand’s Dutch Reformed Church, blacks and whites were not allowed to worship together. Nelson had Christo joining us in worship. Our Sanctus must truly have gladdened the Trinitarian heart that morning. That is the Nelson Mandela I know and love and pray for. That is the spiritual Nelson Mandela who, through his loving and living of life, and seeing all in the image of God, belonging to one another, that has brought hope not only to those of this multi-faceted nation, but also to millions throughout the world.

“He truly shone with the light of Christ.”

Other notable Christians who died this year included: Professor Sean Freyne, a well-loved colleague in Trinity College Dublin who also taught and lectured in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute over the years; Father Alec Reid, the Redemptorist priest who helped negotiate peace in Northern Ireland; Geza Vermes, the Jewish theologian who helped Christians understand Jesus as a Jew; Jerome Murphy O’Connor, the Cork-born theologian who understood Jerusalem more than most; and the composer John Tavener, who died at 69, and who helped spread a love of Orthodox liturgical music among Anglicans and others.

At the Festal Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Christmas Eve, the choir sang as a Christmas Acclamation during the administration of Holy Communion words adapted by John Tavener from the Orthodox Great Compline for Christmas Eve:

God is with us. Hear ye people, even to the uttermost end of the earth. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. The people that dwell in the shadow of death upon them the light has shined. For unto us a child is born! For unto us a son is given! And the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful! Counsellor! The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Hear ye people, even to the uttermost end of the earth. God is with us. Christ is born! Christ is born! Christ is born!

In his last years, Tavener lived in constant pain, and a few months before his death he told the Guardian’s Tom Service in a his last major interview: “Having pain all the time makes me terribly, terribly grateful for every moment I’ve got.”

5, The continuing tensions in Islamic world:

The Halawa sisters and their brother Ibrahim Halawa ... Irish citizens detained in Cairo

The murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the attack on the shopping centre Nairobi, the attack on the Boston Marathon, and the continuing violence in Nigeria are sad examples of how Militant Islam continued to shape or mis-shape Western images of Islam throughout the year.

But this year also saw Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who survived a murder attack by the Taliban last year, address the UN General Assembly in July, accept the Tipperary Peace Prize in August, and come close to receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. She has a strong faith that defies those who tried to murder her, and she declares: “Islam says that it is not only each child’s right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility.”

This teenager is a living embodiment of the fact that Islam is not always a threat to non-Muslims, and that there are multiple expressions of Islam across the globe. All of us are rightly horrified by the attacks on Christians in many countries with Muslim majorities. But we should not forget that more Muslims are killed by Muslims on a day-by-day basis, whether we are talking about violence in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia or Nigeria.

For example, there has been a surge in sectarian violence in Iraq this year, in which more than 7,000 civilians have been killed – the highest annual number of violent deaths in Iraq for many years. But most of the attacks have targeted Shia civilians and the smaller Sunni population.

According to the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, the Syrian crisis is “feeding terrorism in the region.” The Syrian crisis has poured over the borders of Syria into neighbouring Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.

In Egypt, the largest Arab country, the Arab Spring has turned to an Arab Winter. Following weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets. The Islamist government of President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government were deposed by the same military forces that had once backed the Mubarak regime. The Islamists and those who wanted democracy have both lost, and the military have won once again.

Four Irish citizens, the sisters Somaia (28), Fatima (22) and Omaima Halawa (21), and their brother Ibrahim Halawa (17) were taken detained in August at the height of a protest in Cairo and clashes between security forces and supporters of Mohammed Morsi. The three sisters have since been freed but their brother Ibrahim Halawa is still in prison in the Egyptian capital.

The tensions between Christians and Muslims is also a contributing factor to the destructive civil war in the Central African Republic.

But the patience, courage and hope displayed by Malala Yousafzai, the persistent protests on the streets of Turkey by people who align themselves with neither Islamists not the military, and the election of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran offer hope that the voices of reason and fresh thinking can rise above the clamour of extremists and the sound of guns and car bombs in the Islamic world.

6, The persecution of Christians in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa:

At least 127 people were killed in the church bombing in Peshawar

Christians continue to suffer attacks and persecution in many countries where there are Muslim majorities. The British Muslim cabinet minister, Baroness Warsi, recently warned that a “mass exodus is taking place, on a Biblical scale,” in the Middle East. In some places, she says, “there is a real danger that Christianity will become extinct.”

Her words echo growing concerns throughout this year for the safety of Christians, especially in Middle Eastern countries in turmoil, and specifically Egypt and Syria.

On 22 September, 127 people, including 37 children, were killed and 170 people were injured in a bomb attack on All Saints’ Church in Peshawar. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the courtyard of the church as 600 or more people were exchanging greetings on the front lawn Memorial after a service. The church is a former Anglican church and now part of the Church of Pakistan This was the deadliest-ever attack on Pakistan’s small Christian minority, and it horrified even a country as hardened to violence as Pakistan.

On Christmas Day, at least 35 people were killed in two bomb attacks in Christian areas in Baghdad. A car bomb exploded outside Saint John’s Catholic Church in Dora as people were leaving the Christmas Day Mass, killing 24. An earlier bomb in an outdoor market killed 11 people in the mainly Christian al-Athorien district.

Iraq’s ancient Christian community has more than halved in recent years, from an estimated population of 900,000. Churches across the country have been targeted since the fall of Saddam Hussein ten years ago.

7, This Year in Jerusalem

I visited the Irish Jewish Museum in Portobllo with students (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In looking at religious stories of the year, there is a danger of emphasising events in the Christian and Muslim world, at the risk of ignoring the other great monotheistic faiths. In recent weeks, I have had interesting conversations about this very matter with two Sikh taxi drivers in Dublin. And, although I brought a group of students to visit the Jewish Museum in Dublin and celebrated a Seder-style Eucharist during Holy Week, there is a danger also of allowing interesting developments within Judaism to pass without notice.

This year in Jerusalem, the Women of the Wall demonstrated an increasing determination to pray as they wish at one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, the Western or Wailing Wall. They have been met with strong and sometimes violent resistance from Ultra-Orthodox male Jews, who have hurled insults, bottles and stone at the women. At first, police arrested the praying women, but since a court decision they have protected them.

In the US, a Pew report on American Jews prompted a debate about the definition of what it means to be a Jew, and the future of Jews in the US. The survey found that 32 per cent of Jews in the US say they have no religion, and 58 per cent of Jews have a non-Jewish spouse.

Jonathan Sacks retired as the British Chief Rabbi on 1 September. He had been Chief Rabbi for 22 years, having succeeded Immanuel Jakobovits, who had previously been Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1949-1958). He has been succeeded as Britain’s Chief Rabbi by the South African-born Ephraim Mirvis, who was also Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1985-1992) in succession to Chief Rabbi David Rosen; before that, he was the Rabbi of the Adelaide Road Synagogue in Dublin (1982-1985). During that time, he was the President of the Irish Council of Christians and Jews (1985-1992) and Chairman of the Irish National Council for Soviet Jewry (1984-1992).

The new chief rabbi is a fan of Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs have a long and cherished link with the Jewish Community ever since the Cable Street riots in the 1930s and the anti-semitic activities of Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts. But the new Chief Rabbi’s choice of football team is hardly going to be taken into consideration in the debate about whether it is appropriate for Spurs fans to call themselves the “Yid Army” and to chant: “We’re Tottenham Hotspur, we’ll sing what we want.”

8, ‘Polyester Protestants’

A tie with the logo of the Diocese of Cork on sale in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral .... 100 per cent polyester and made in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I never heard the phrase ‘Polyester Protestants’ until it was used by Archbishop Michael Jackson of Dublin in a feature in The Irish Times explaining his speech at the Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan Synod this year.

Both the speech and the term were hotly debated in the diocese, but for some focussing on the phrase avoided debating the substance of what he had to say.

At least the Archbishop challenged us to ask whether sectarianism, prejudice and intolerance had to be faced not only within the diocese but throughout the Church of Ireland.

9, The continuing rise in popularity of Cathedral Liturgy

I spent Easter weekend at Lichfield Cathedral ... there has been a rise in the popularity in cathedral liturgy throughout these islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The number of worshippers at cathedrals in the Church of England increased last year, continuing the growing trend seen since the Millennium. Total weekly attendance at the 43 cathedrals in the Church of England grew to 35,800, according to Cathedral Statistics 2012, published in August this year. This amounts to an increase of 35 per cent since 2002.

Along with occasional and special services, the regular worshipping life of cathedrals has proved more popular than ever over the past decade with cathedrals pointing to stronger community links attracting more people.

Easter 2012 saw the highest attendance in the last decade, at 54,700. The attendance at mid-week services grew most, from 8,900 in 2002 to 16,800, while Sunday attendance grew from 17,500 to 19,100.

The numbers of children and young people attending educational events was the highest for 10 years: 306,800 in 2012, compared with 265,100 in 2002. The number of volunteers in cathedrals continued to rise, reaching 15,570, up 30 per cent on the 11,930 in 2002.

Dr Bev Botting, who was involved in the research, says: “Cathedrals continue to flourish as worshipping communities while offering a valuable insight into our nation’s heritage. The statistics show people of all ages are increasingly drawn to cathedrals for worship, to attend educational and civic events, and to volunteer to ensure our cathedrals are open to all those who are drawn to visit and worship in these wonderful buildings.”

The report included three case studies from Liverpool, Ely and Truro.

Liverpool Cathedral is filled to capacity many times during the year. As well as the 400,000 tourists and visitors each year, nearly 100,000 people attended at least one service last year, with Christmas and Easter the busiest times. The innovative youth service “Night of the Living Dead” is an initiative taken by Archbishop Justin Welby when he was the Dean of Liverpool.

Ely Cathedral attracts nearly 10,000 students on education visits with a hugely popular “Holiday Drop In” every Monday and Wednesday during school holidays offering a range of activities including arts, crafts, and storytelling. The cathedral has a week-long business exhibition attracting thousands of people and more than 150 local businesses as exhibitors.

At the end of this year, over 750 people attended the traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Ely Cathedral. Reporting on the occasion, Andrew Brown wrote in the Guardian: “It was possible to understand the place of Christianity at the heart of western civilisation.”

Ely Cathedral, which has typical Sunday congregation of 200-300, also hosted a special musical celebration at the end of the year that included the grand final of BBC Two’s The Choir: Sing While You Work.

Truro Cathedral has seen an increase in numbers at services, particularly at Christmas and Easter. Family events include a Cushion Concert with the Choristers, several Free Family Fun Days and an ice skating rink in winter.

The cathedrals of the Church of England came under scrutiny in a new trilogy on BBC Four, Cathedrals, in which Richard Alwyn looked at daily life and music in three cathedrals – Wakefield, Wells and Southwark – and how they attract pilgrims and seek to remain relevant in modern, secular life.

During the year, I took part in services in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Saint Finn Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, and Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, and visited Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford, Saint Fethlimidh’s Cathedral, Kilmore, Co Cavan, and the ruins of Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Annaghdown, on the eastern shores of Lough Corrib, Co Galway, and Saint Declan’s Cathedral, Ardmore, Co Waterford, as well as cathedrals in Sorrento, Ravello, Amalfi and Capri in Italy, and Rethymnon and Iraklion in Crete.

Of course, I also visited Lichfield Cathedral throughout the year, and spent Easter weekend in retreat there, being refreshed and renewed spiritually as I followed the daily cycle of prayer, reaching its crescendo with the Easter Eucharist.

Perhaps the return to the popularity of cathedral liturgy in the Church of England is beginning to be experienced in the Church of Ireland: 365 people were at of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Christ Church Cathedral this month, 459 attended the Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve, and 378 people were at the Festal Eucharist on Christmas morning.

10, The closure of the church in Comberford

The Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford … closed in October (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

But if we glory in the splendour and majesty of the great Anglican cathedrals, we should not forget the place of small parish churches at the heart of village life. And so my tenth religious story of the year is one of personal idulegence.

At a personal level, I was sad that this year saw the closure of the Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford and I was sorry not to be present for the final closing service in October.

The small, picturesque Staffordshire church, east of Lichfield and north of Tamworth, was donated to the people of Comberford by Howard Francis Paget (1858-1935) of Elford Hall. The first stone was laid at a special ceremony in 1914 and the building was completed in 1915.

The Paget family’s interest in the area continued for generations. Howard Paget’s daughter, Charlotte Gabrielle Howard Paget, married Joseph Harold Hodgetts, and died in Lichfield in 1979. Their son, the late Harold Patrick Hodgetts, lived nearby at Model Farm in Elford, and Pat Hodgetts was proud that his grandparents had given the church to the village.

A letter written on behalf of members of the congregation and published in the Tamworth Herald said: “It is a great pity that the church is to shut when it is so close to its centenary.”

One resident of Comberford, Dr Joanne Cliffe, told me: “If I had been allowed the challenge I would have made the church a success! We had a growing visible and active presence in the church but the bottom line is they don’t want it and they don’t want to know.”

For many generations, my family continued to regard Comberford as our ancestral home, despite some complicated details in the family tree. My great-grandfather, James Comerford, had a very interesting visit to Comberford and Tamworth at the end of the 19th or in the early 20th century, visiting the Peel family who lived there … he probably had his heart set on consolidating those family links.

I first visited Comberford and Comberford Hall in 1970 and have been back many times since then. I have written before how – when my mind and imagination go wild – I think of how nice it would be to buy back Comberford Hall, and in the past I have dreamt in idle moments of using that grand old house as a retreat centre or as a centre for spirituality and the arts, with the village church close at hand, across the fields at the end of a public right-of-way footpath.

Comberford Hall, with an asking price of £850,000, was back on the market with estate agents Paul Carr, and as I write it appears it has been sold. Meanwhile, the future of the church that has served the village for almost a century is unknown.

Tomorrow: Goodbye to 2013 (Part 2) and my top ten personal stories of the year.

Art for Christmas (6): ‘The Holy
Family with a Shepherd,’ by Titian

‘The Holy Family with a Shepherd,’ by Titian

Patrick Comerford

The year is drawing to a close and a new year approaches. But this is still the season of Christmas, and my choice of a work of Art for Christmas this morning [30 December 2013] is ‘The Holy Family with a Shepherd’ (ca 1510), by the great Venetian Renaissance painter, Titian.

This early work by Titian in the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, and is part of the Holwell Carr Bequest (1831). It is in oil on canvas, and measures 99.1 cm x 139.1 cm.

Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio, known generally as Titian (ca 1488/1490-1576), was the greatest painter in 16th-century Venice, and the first painter to have a mainly international clientele. During his long career, he experimented with many different styles of painting that reflect the development of art at that time.

Titian was born ca 1488/1490 in Pieve di Cadore, a small town near Belluno at the foot of the Dolomites on the Venetian side of the Alps. The Vecellio family had lived in Cadore since the 14th century. His older brother Francesco was also a painter.

When he was about 10 years old, Titian arrived in Venice, then one of the wealthiest and most prosperous cities in the world. His training as an artist began in the mosaic workshop of Sebastiano Zuccato’s. Later, he worked briefly with Gentile Bellini in his workshop. When Gentile died in 1507, Titian joined the workshop of his brother, Giovanni Bellini, then the most important workshop in Venice.

In 1508-1509, he worked with Giorgione on the decoration of the external walls of the ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi’ in Venice. After Giorgione’s death in 1510, and Sebastiano del Piombo’s departure for Rome in 1511, Titian began an independent career in Venice, and found himself without rivals.

In 1511 Titian painted his celebrated frescoes in the ‘Scuola del Santo’ in Padua. He then became famous as a portrait painted and as the painter of many secular subjects.

His skills drew the attention of Italy’s intellectually ambitious political, church and aristocratic leaders, who commissioned him to paint public and religious works. His success in Venice came with his altarpiece for Franciscan Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. His ‘Assunta,’ depicting the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is almost seven metres high and first went on show in 1518. The dynamic, three-tier composition and colour scheme established Titian as the pre-eminent painter north of Rome.

He continued to work in this church until 1526, painting his celebrated Pala Pesaro, an asymmetrical composition that strongly influenced the painting of altarpieces in Venice well into the 18th century.

Meanwhile, in 1516 Titian began his professional relationship with Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and spent time in his castle. The duke wanted Titian to create a private room, the camerino d’alabastro (the alabaster room), decorated with mythological scenes from classical poetry.

The other painters commissioned for this project included Raphael, Fra Bartolomeo and Dosso Dossi. After Raphael and Fra Bartolomeo died, Titian became increasingly involved in the project. Some of the scenes he executed are now in the Prado, Madrid, and the National Gallery, London.

Titian also worked for the court of Mantua. In 1523, he began painting for the future Duke of Mantua, Federico II Gonzaga, a nephew of Alfonso d’Este.

In 1525, he married Cecilia and they had three children, Pompeo, Orazio and Lavinia, before her tragic death in 1530.

That year in Bologna, he met the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and painted full-length, life-size portraits of the Emperor and his son, King Philip II of Spain. He became the principal painter in the imperial court, and was in demand in courts throughout Europe. From 1531, he painted celebrated mythological series of paintings or poesie for Philip. His portrait of Philip II was sent to England and helped secure Philip’s marriage to Queen Mary I.

In 1532, Titian started to work for the Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere, and his successor, Guidobaldo II. In the 1530s, he was also working for Pope Paul III, but his only visit to Rome was in 1545-1546, when met Michelangelo and was made a citizen of Rome.

Starting from the late 1550s, Titian developed a much freer use of the brush and a less descriptive representation of reality.

In the late 1560s and early 1570s, in his old, age he moved towards abstraction in a style that has been defined as “magic impressionism.” His work at this time included his Pietà, originally designed for his own tomb in the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari but now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

He died of the plague on 27 August 1576. He was the only victim of the Venice plague to be given a church burial, and was buried in the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. His contemporaries referred to him as “The Sun Amidst Small Stars,” recalling the final line of Dante’s Paradiso.

Last year, the National Gallery in London celebrated the recent acquisition of Titian’s Diana and Callisto by hosting an exhibition of this influential work (Titian’s Diana and Callisto, 1 March to 1 July 2012) and a second exhibition of Titian’s The Flight into Egypt (4 April to 19 August 2012).

My choice of painting this morning, The Holy Family with a Shepherd, is an early work by Titian. By the 1520s, gatherings of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and saints in a landscape had become one of the most popular themes in Venetian paintings. But Titian had completed this painting a decade earlier when he was in his early 20s, and it shows the influence of Giovanni Bellini and of Giorgione on the work of Titian.

In this painting, Titian shows only one shepherd in adoration. But the other shepherds can be seen to the right in the distance, hearing the Good News of the Incarnation as they tend their sheep in the fields, by daylight.

In one way, Titian is telling us that the Good News of the Incarnation comes to us both individually and collectively. But as I look at this painting, I also think of those people who have been on their own, or have felt lonely and abandoned at Christmas this year.

How does the Good News of the Incarnation come to you afresh this year? And how do you share it with others?

If you have felt lonely this Christmas or have felt an outsider, Christ comes to you in particular this Christmas and tells you that you are no longer on the margins. If you have felt unloved this Christmas, the coming of Christ tells you that you are truly loved and that you are worth loving.

Tomorrow: ‘Carols’ by Nikiphoros Lytras.