02 February 2014

Romantic tales link Venice
with Dublin, Cambridge and
Oxford’s ‘Dreaming Spires’

The spires of All Souls’ College ... Matthew Arnold first named Oxford the “city of dreaming spires” in 1865 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Oxford is known as the “city of dreaming spires,” a term coined by the English poet Matthew Arnold in 1865. In his poem Thyrsis, Arnold describes the view of Oxford from Boars Hill:

And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening
Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!

Ralph Vaughan Williams later drew on portions of the poem for An Oxford Elegy. However, Arnold is often misquoted so that Oxford is also known as the “city of glittering spires.”

Merton College, Oxford ... TS Eliot was a postgraduate student for a short time (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I revisited the spires and towers, the domes and bridges of Oxford shortly before Christmas while I was visiting some of Oxford’s theological colleges, including Ripon College Cuddesdon and Wycliffe Hall.

Oxford has so many literary associations that it was impossible not to want to visit Merton College, where TS Eliot was a postgraduate student briefly, and Magdalen College, with its close associations with Irish poets and writers such as Oscar Wilde, who was a student, CS Lewis who was a don, and Seamus Heaney, who was a fellow of Magdalen while he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

Magdalen was also the college of the poet John Betjeman, who later blamed CS Lewis for the fact that he left Oxford without a degree having failed his divinity examination.

There was time too to visit the Eagle and Child, the pub where CS Lewis, Charles Williams, JRR Tolkien and the other ‘Inklings’ met regularly.

The University Church of Saint Mary’s ... birthplace of the Oxford Movement (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I first visited Oxford in 1970, and family connections kept me in touch with Oxford throughout the 1970s. Oxford has many intimate connections with the Church of Ireland, and the Oxford Movement traces its origins to 1833, when John Keble preached his Assize Sermon in the University Church of Saint Mary’s on “national apostasy” and government intervention in the affairs of the Church of Ireland.

The University Museum in Oxford was designed by the Irish architects Deane and Woodward and decorated by the O’Shea brothers from Callan, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The University Museum is an exceptional and stunning example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture. It was designed by the Irish architects Thomas Newenham Deane from Cork and Benjamin Woodward from Tullamore, who were strongly influenced by John Ruskin. Most of the Gothic carvings in the museum are by James and John O’Shea from Callan, Co Kilkenny, and their nephew Edward Whelan.

Tracing architectural inspiration

The new prize-winning chapel in Ripon College Cuddesdon has attracted acclaim throughout the architectural world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It was six years since I had visited Oxford, and because I have long felt comfortable in Cambridge it was good to renew my acquaintances with the “city of dreaming spires.” One of the great architectural pleasures of this latest visit was to experience the new Bishop Edward King Chapel in Ripon College Cuddesdon, a prize-winning design that has attracted worldwide media attention.

The older Gothic revival college buildings at Cuddesdon were designed by the architect George Edmund Street in the 1850s. In 2012, the last five sisters from two Anglican religious orders – Saint John Baptist and The Good Shepherd – moved to Cuddesdon. The Community of Saint John Baptist, also known as the Sisters of Mercy or the Clewer Sisters, was founded by Mother Harrier Monsell (1811-1883), from Dromoland Castle, Co Clare, a sister of the Irish patriot William Smith O’Brien. With their move to Cuddesdon, the sisters endowed the new, elliptical Bishop Edward King Chapel.

In Oxford, the dreaming spires associated with Matthew Arnold’s description include the pinnacles of All Souls’ College, the unique round Radcliffe Camera, and the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ at Hertford College.

It seems obvious to many that the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford was inspired by the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.

But was it?

I even began to wonder whether there were any architectural connections with similar bridges, including the bridge at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, and the bridge at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

A city of 400 bridges

The Bridge of Sighs, Venice ... received its name from Lord Byron in 1812 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Bridge of Sighs in Venice is an enclosed bridge built of white limestone, with two pairs of small, rectangular windows with stone bars. It is 11 metres wide and crosses the Rio di Palazzo, linking the New Prison to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace.

Venice has over 400 bridges crossing 100 or so canals and connecting 117 islands.

The Bridge of Sighs, built between 1600 and 1602, was designed by Antoni Contino, whose uncle Antonio da Ponte designed the equally well-known Rialto Bridge.

Rialto Bridge, Venice ... the more likely inspiration for bridges in Cambridge, Dublin and Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Legend says convicted prisoners snatched their last sight of Venice from the Bridge of Sighs, sighing at the scene through the windows before being taken to cells, or sighing stifled claims to innocence. Casanova once escaped from the bridge, and, in reality, the days of inquisitions and summary executions were over when the bridge was built and the cells below were used mainly for small-time criminals.

This is the only covered bridge in Venice. Unlike the Rialto Bridge which is open and lined with arcades of shops, the Bridge of Sighs is entirely closed, its narrow windows letting in little light through their stony wire netting, and providing only snatched glimpses of the Church of San Giorgio and the Lagoon.

Indeed, it was never known as the Bridge of Sighs to Venetians – or to anyone else – until the poet Lord Byron named it so in 1812 in his epic poem Childe Harold:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand;
I saw from out the wave of her structure’s rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand...

William Turner’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’ … when it was exhibited in 1840, Turner misquoted Byron

The legend persisted. When William Turner exhibited his painting of the bridge in 1840, he accompanied it with lines that misquoted Byron:

I stood upon a bridge, a palace and
A prison on each hand.

Thomas Hood used The Bridge of Sighs as the title of a poem in 1844 about a homeless young woman who threw herself from Waterloo Bridge in London into the Thames – although the bridge is never named in his poem.

John Ruskin referred to the Bridge of Sighs in The Stones of Venice in 1845, and Byron’s remarks gave rise to another legend that lovers will attain eternal love if they kiss on a gondola at sunset under the bridge as the bells toll in Saint Mark’s Campanile. The legend provided a plot line for the movie A Little Romance (1979).

The sighs of students

Punters under the Bridge of Sighs at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge was built in 1831. This covered bridge in Saint John’s College was designed by Henry Hutchinson and crosses the River Cam, linking the college’s Third Court and New Court.

Although it is named after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, the two have little in common architecturally, although both are covered. Queen Victoria is said to have loved the bridge more than any other place in Cambridge, and the bridge is now one of the main tourist attractions there.

Looking from the Bridge of Sighs towards the Kitchen Bridge at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The bridge was built after New Court was built in Saint John’s, giving rise to the need for a second bridge linking New Court and Third Court, in addition to the Kitchen Bridge designed by Sir Christopher Wren. A common myth claims students named it the “Bridge of Sighs” after the sighs of pre-exam students or students on their way to their tutors’ offices.

A ‘touch of genius’

The bridge linking Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the former Synod Hall was part of George Street’s restoration work in the 1870s.(Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The charming covered bridge linking Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the former Synod Hall was built in 1875 during the George Edmund Street’s restoration of the cathedral. At an early stage in his career, Street was influenced by Ruskin and The Stones of Venice, and he had also designed the college buildings at Cuddesdon.

Ripon College Cuddesdon was designed by George Street in the 1850s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This bridge has been compared with the Bridge of Sighs in Venice and the bridges in Cambridge and Oxford. Roger Stalley says it is Street’s “final touch of genius” in the restoration. But the bridge in Oxford was built almost 40 years later, and while the bridge in Cambridge has Perpendicular tracery, Street’s bridge in Dublin is designed in the First Pointed or Early Gothic style, with relatively simple arcades lining the walls.

A view down Winetavern Street and across the River Liffey from Dublin’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Street’s bridge spans Winetavern Street. The old Synod Hall stands on the site of the Church of Saint Michael and All Angels, and now houses the Viking multimedia exhibition “Dublinia.” But few visitors to the cathedral or Dublinia cross the bridge to see its stained glass windows or the views it offers across the River Liffey and the city to the north and of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the Dublin Mountains to the south.

Oxford’s aerial corridor

The Bridge of Sighs at Hertford College, Oxford ... celebrated its centenary in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

All three bridges – Venice, Cambridge and Dublin – long predate Hertford Bridge in Oxford, which is also known popularly as the Bridge of Sighs. This bridge, linking two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane, is a distinctive landmark in Oxford.

The bridge is often called the Bridge of Sighs because it is supposedly similar to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. However, Hertford Bridge was never intended to be a replica of the Venetian bridge, and it too has a closer resemblance to the Rialto Bridge.

There is a false legend that a survey of the health of Oxford students many years ago found the students at Hertford College were the heaviest, and the college closed the bridge to force them to use the stairs and get more physical exercise. However, if the bridge is not used, students actually climb fewer stairs than if they use the bridge.

The bridge links the Old Quadrangle and administrative offices on the south side and the New Quadrangle on the north and student accommodation on the north side. It was built after the site on the north side was acquired by Hertford College in 1898 and was designed by Sir Thomas Jackson. The proposals for the bridge were strongly opposed, particularly by neighbouring New College, but despite the objections it was completed in 1913-1914.

It features in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and has been celebrating its centenary in recent weeks. Today, it is one of the most photographed and visited sights in Oxford, partly because it is so close to the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theatre and the Radcliffe Camera.

Link between bridges

The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford ... James Gibbs based his circular plan for the library on Santa Maria della Salute (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Curiously, in Oxford there is more of a Venetian ambiance about the Radcliffe Camera. The circular library building was designed by James Gibbs in 1739-1749, and is his most adventurous and last major work. Gibbs based his circular plan on Santa Maria della Salute, a landmark church on the Grand Canal in Venice, designed in 1681 by Baldassarre Longhena.

There are bridges with similar names in other cities, including Lima, Frankfurt, Pittsburgh, Santa Barbara and Stockholm. But I imagine none is as romantic as any one of these four bridges in Dublin, Cambridge, Oxford or Venice.

Unlike the bridges in Venice and Cambridge, no water flows under the bridges in Dublin and Oxford. But it is worth retelling their romantic stories in these days leading up to Saint Valentine’s Day.

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal in Venice inspired the design of the Radcliffe Camera (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in the February 2014 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

Knowing ‘the certain hour of maternal sorrow’
and waiting ‘for the wind that chills’

The Presentation in the Temple, carved on a panel on a triptych in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/Lichfield Gazette)

Patrick Comerford,

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

Sunday 2 February 2014,

The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple,

11 a.m., The Cathedral Eucharist

Malachi 3: 1-5; Psalm 24: 1-10; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40.

Setting: Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809), Missa Brevis Sancti Johannes de Deo

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ. This feast has been known to the Church by several names over time, including the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and we talk too of Candlemas, celebrated with this evening’s Candlemas Procession here in Christ Church Cathedral at 5 p.m.

This feast, forty days after Christmas, recalls how the Virgin Mary presents the Christ-Child to the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. And, because of the poverty of this family, the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph bring two cheap doves or pigeons as their offering.

This is a feast rich in meaning, with several related themes running through it. We have the contrast between the poverty of this family and the richly-endowed Temple; the young Joseph and Mary with their first-born child and the old Simeon and Anna who are probably childless; the provincial home in Nazareth and the urbane sophistication of Jerusalem; the glory of one nation, Israel, and light for all nations, the Gentiles; the birth of a child and the expectation of death; darkness and light; new birth and impending death.

So Candlemas is a feast day with a “bitter-sweet” nature. It calls for rejoicing with all in the Temple celebrating the hope and the promise that this new child brings. Yet Simeon speaks in prophetic words of the falling and rising of many and the sword that will piece the Virgin Mary’s heart. His words remind us sharply that Christmas is meaningless without the Passion and Easter.

Candlemas is the climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season, the last great festival of the Christmas cycle. As we bring our Christmas celebrations to a close, this day is a real pivotal point in the Christian year, for we now shift from the cradle to the cross, from Christmas to Passiontide – Ash Wednesday and Lent are just four weeks away.

In this shift of mood, devotion and liturgy, we take with us the light of Christ, a sure promise that Christ is the eternal light and the salvation of all humanity, throughout all ages.

Traditionally, Candlemas is the final day of the Christmas season. The liturgical colour changes from the White of rejoicing to the Green of ordinary, everyday life. This is the day that bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent, that bridges the gap between a time of celebration and a time of reflection, a time of joy and a time for taking stock once again.

So let us take stock this morning of where we are. After six or seven years of the darkness of recession and austerity, the economists are trying to look for the light at the end of the tunnel.

For many of us, we moved long ago from a time of financial certainty that allowed us to celebrate easily to a time of reflection and uncertainty. The majority of people are still going through anxieties and uncertainties.

The lights of Christmas and its celebrations are dim and distant now, and by this Candlemas most people in Ireland continue to live their very ordinary days with uncertainty, trying to grasp for signs of hope, wondering how long we must remain in the dark.

Consumer reports tell us that many people are having their electricity cut off in their homes because they cannot pay their bills. Over 1,800 households or families have their gas or electricity supplies cut off every month as they find themselves under increasing pressure to make ends meet. As poverty hits home, the lights are going out across Ireland, the future remains uncertain.

I am reminded today of how Elizabeth was promised by her husband, Zechariah, that the child of her cousin Mary would, in the tender mercy of our God, be a light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and would guide our feet in the way of peace (Luke 1: 78-79).

How Mary must have wept in her heart as in today’s Gospel story the old man Simeon hands back her child and warns her that a sword would pierce her heart (Luke 2: 35).

How many mothers are weeping in their hearts and clinging onto the rock of faith just by the end of their fingertips as their hearts, their souls, are pierced by a sword?

Mothers whose lives were held in slavery by fear (see Hebrews 2: 15).

Mothers who see their special needs children denied special needs assistants in our schools.

Mothers who see their children waiting, waiting too long, for care in our hospitals.

Mothers who see their graduate daughters and sons unable to find employment in our economy.

Mothers whose silent weeping is not going to bring their adult emigrant children home from Australia.

Mothers whose gay sons and lesbian daughters are beaten up on the streets just for the fun of it and are afraid if they come out that our Church can only offer tea and sympathy, at best, but moralising prejudice most of the time.

Mothers whose husbands are on low pay or dismissed as mere statistics in the figures for long-term unemployment.

Mothers whose adult children are caught up in substance abuse and have lost all hope for the future – for a future.

They know what TS Eliot calls “the certain hour of maternal sorrow.” Like the Prophet in his poem A Song for Simeon, they “Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.” And they know too how true Simeon’s words are for them this morning: “and a sword will pierce your soul too.”

If Mary had known what grief would pierce her soul, would she have said “Yes” to the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation?

And in the midst of all this heartbreak, these mothers still cling on to the edge of the rock of faith by the edges of their fingernails. Wondering who hears their sobbing hearts and souls.

If they had known what grief would pierce their souls they would still have said yes, because they love their children, and no sword can kill that. They know too their children are immaculate conceptions, for their children too are conceived in a love for their world, our world, that is self-giving and sinless, and they continue to see the reflection and image of Christ in their children as they look into their eyes lovingly. Is that too not a truth and a hope at the heart of the Incarnation?

So often it is difficult to hold on to hope when our hearts are breaking and are pierced. So often it is difficult to keep the lights of our hearts burning brightly when everything is gloomy and getting dark. But Simeon points out that the Christ Child does not hold out any selfish hope for any one individual or one family ... he is to be a light to the nations, to all of humanity.

And as our leaders – political, social, economic and financial leaders – search in the dark for the hope that will bring light back into our lives, let us remind ourselves that this search will have no purpose and it will offer no glimmer of hope unless it seeks more than selfish profit. This search must seek the good of all, it must seek to bring hope and light to all, not just here, but to all people and to all nations.

Who will speak out like the Prophet Micah in this morning’s Old Testament reading “against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien,” and do not fear the Lord God (Micah 3: 5)?

But, oh, so often these mothers bear their grief in silence, are reluctant to bare their souls to the Church and Church leaders. So often we can pronounce and preach and teach. But do we always know the suffering in the dark behind closed doors? And do we teach and preach in a way that moves beyond being enlightening to actually bringing the light of hope, the light of the Suffering and Risen Christ to the broken-hearted Marys and Josephs all over this land?

Yet our Epistle reading this morning is a call not just to all in ordained ministry but to all in the Church to be “merciful and faithful” like Christ the “high priest in the service of God,” to be sacrificial in the service of those who are suffering and “are being tested” (see Hebrews 2: 17-18).

This feast of Candlemas bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent; links the joy of the Christmas candles with the hope of the Pascal candle at Easter; invites us to move from celebration to reflection and preparation, and to think about the source of our hope, our inspiration, our enlightenment.

The candles of Candlemas link the candles of Christmas with Good Friday and with the Easter hope symbolised in the Pascal candle. And so to paraphrase the words of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn that draw on Simeon’s prophetic words in the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, as we watch and wait in our faithful vigil for Christ’s glory in that Easter hope, may our doubting cease, may God’s silent, suffering people find deliverance and freedom from oppression, may his servants find peace, may he complete in us his perfect will.

And now, may all praise, honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple ... a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Almighty and everliving God,
clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the temple
in the substance of our mortal nature:
May we be presented to you with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God, for whom we wait,
you fulfilled the hopes of Simeon and Anna,
who lived to welcome the Messiah.
Complete in us your perfect will,
that in Christ we may see your salvation,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

The Revd Canon Professor Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. This sermon was preached in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin, on the Feast of the Presentation, Sunday 2 February 2014.

A Song for Simeon, TS Eliot

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.