17 June 2023

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (20) 17 June 2023

The mediaeval fresco of the Holy Trinity in the south choir aisle in Lichfield Cathedral was severely damaged by 17th century Puritans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the First Sunday after Trinity, which we celebrated on Sunday (11 June 2023). The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (17 June 2023) remembers Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, Social Reformers (1913 and 1936).

I am on my an early flight from Dublin to Birmingham this morning after a few days working on a documentary programme with a television station based in Montenegro. Before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.

Over these weeks after Trinity Sunday, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at relevant images or stained glass window in a church, chapel or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Holy Trinity in the Herkenrode windows in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Images of the Trinity, Lichfield Cathedral:

My Trinity reflections this week conclude this morning (17 June 2023) with photographs and images from Lichfield Cathedral.

As well as prayer and reading, I have found it is helpful in preparing sermons to look at images that focus my attention on my sermon topic. When preparing for Trinity Sunday in the past, these images have included a fresco on the wall of the south choir aisle in Lichfield Cathedral depicting the Holy Trinity.

This scene, showing the Trinity flanked by two censing angels, was probably painted in the mid-15th century, although it may even date earlier to the 14th century.

Although the painting has been damaged severely in the religious strife of later centuries, it is still possible to look closely and to see how it originally depicted the Holy Trinity.

As I look at it closely I can just make out the representation of God the Father sitting on a yellow or golden throne, his knees clad in a red robe.

God the Father is holding his crucified Son, God the Son, Jesus Christ, before him. Originally, this mediaeval fresco would have shown a full depiction of the Crucifixion. However, all that can be seen today are the legs of Christ, with his feet nailed to the Cross.

The representation of God the Holy Spirit, traditionally depicted as a white dove, is now missing from this work. But comparisons with similar paintings from this period suggest that this representation was placed in this painting in Lichfield Cathedral between the head of God the Father and the head of Jesus Christ.

On either side of the Holy Trinity stands an angel, each holding and swinging a censer or incense burner, offering large amounts of incense before the throne of God.

The notice accompanying this mediaeval work in Lichfield Cathedral quotes a passage in the Book of Revelation:

‘Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel’ (Revelation 8: 3-4).

In Christian thinking over the centuries there has always been an element of uneasiness about representing God pictorially. Sometimes this was completely forbidden in Judaism and Islam, because of fears that the images might become objects of worship instead of God.

In Christianity, a theologically unhealthy exaggeration of these reservations lead to the iconoclast heresy. This resurfaced among the English Puritans in the 16th and 17th century, and this fresco depicting the Holy Trinity was severely damaged when it was painted over by Puritans during the English Civil War.

Traces of this mediaeval wall painting were restored in 1979. Today, its condition remains a reminder not only of the cultural dangers of theological extremism and the aesthetic vandalism it encourages, but also that we can never see fully the mystical truth behind the truth of the Trinity – we cannot work it out ourselves, but we need to spend time in contemplation and prayer.

A second New Testament quotation is on the accompanying notice in the south choir aisle in Lichfield Cathedral: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you’ (II Corinthians 13: 13).

A second striking image of the Trinity is in the recently-restored Herkenrode windows in the Lady Chapel in the cathedral. It contains a wonderful collection of 16th century Flemish glass, most of which originated in the abbey of Herkenrode before it was forcibly closed at the French Revolution. The glass was brought by Sir Brooke Boothby and installed in the cathedral in 1805, filling seven of the nine expansive windows at the east end. The other two windows are filled with restored glass from Antwerp.

The glass was taken out and sent to the Barley Studio in York for conservation over many years, and returned to the cathedral in 2015.

The Cistercian convent of Herkenrode, near Liege, was one of the largest and richest in the Low Countries. The great windows were installed between 1532 and 1539 when the abbey was perhaps at the height of its popularity and power.

The abbey was stripped of its possessions in 1793 and put up for sale in 1796. When the 16th-century windows were put up for sale, they were bought by Sir Brooke Boothby of Ashbourne, Derbyshire, who supervised their shipment to England. Boothby had close connections with Lichfield: he was a member of the Lichfield Botanical Society and a friend of Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward.

When Boothby’s only daughter Penelope died in 1791 and his marriage broke up, he found consolation in travel. He spent much of the rest of his life wandering Europe, and came across the Herkenrode windows in 1802. He wrote to the Dean of Lichfield, ‘I have contracted for the purchase of 17 windows of what appears to be the finest painted glass which I have almost ever seen.’

Boothby sent the windows to Rotterdam and on to Hull, from where they were sent by river to the Midlands. Some of the glass ended up in Saint Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury, but the rest arrived in Lichfield. Lichfield Cathedral later repaid Boothby his costs. But, next to the windows of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, this is the finest Renaissance glass in an English church setting.

Visitors to Lichfield Cathedral often come only to see the Herkenrode windows, but often miss Boothby’s memorial window, discreetly placed in the south quire aisle. The centre piece of this window is also a depiction of the Trinity, with God the Father supporting the dead body of the Crucified Christ, while the Holy Spirit can be side to the viewer’s left.

Boothby also had a family connection with the Moat House, the former Comberford family home on Lichfield Street in Tamworth. He was descended from Sir William Boothby (1638-1707), of Ashbourne Hall, Derbyshire, who bought Moat House for £1,540 in 1663.

A fourth image of the Trinity is found in the Chapter House in Lichfield Cathedral, currently the venue for the exhibition ‘Library and Legacy,’ showcasing the collections in the cathedral library.

The chapter house was decorated with frescoes and stained glass in the late 15th century by Thomas Heywood, Dean of Lichfield in 1457-1492. The frescoes have disappeared except for fragments over the doorway, where faint signs of the representation of the Ascension still remain, with a depiction of the Trinity.

This fresco may have formed part of Dean Heywood’s decoration, but it is more likely of an earlier date. It has been suggested that it was placed there in the early 15th century by Thomas Burghill, Bishop of Lichfield in 1398-1414. Burghill was a Dominican, and a Dominican friar is included in the group in adoration.

In addition, there are many reproductions on hassocks throughout the cathedral of a popular image of the Trinity, associated with churches named Holy Trinity throughout the Diocese of Lichfield.

The Trinity in Sir Brooke Boothby’s memorial window in the south quire aisle in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 5: 33-37 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 33 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’

The Trinity depicted in the surviving fragments of a mediaeval fresco in the Chapter House in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) has been ‘Opening the World for Children through Learning.’

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (17 June 2023) invites us to pray:

Let us give thanks for the life of Bernard Mizeki, African missionary and martyr. Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyr Bernard Mizeki: Grant unto us your servants a similar faith and power of love that we, who rejoice in his triumph, may profit by his example through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.


O God,
the strength of all those who put their trust in you,
mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you,
grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts:
may our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

A Trinitarian image on a hassock in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Herkenrode windows in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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