19 June 2024

How four generations of
the Skeffington family of
Fisherwick owned and
lost Comberford Hall

Comberford Hall … passed to four generations of the Skeffington family of Fisherwick for half a century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was discussing earlier this week how the Skeffington family of Fisherwick, near Lichfield, had intermarried with the Skeffington family of Leicester, and how they were a powerful political family in Leicestershire and Staffordshire from the late 16th century into the mid-17th century see 17 June 2024 HERE).

Sir William Skeffington of Fisherwick was High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1601 and again in 1623 in succession to his uncle, William Comberford (1551-1625) of Comberford Hall and the Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth. William Comberford was married to William Skeffington’s aunt, Mary Skeffington, and their grandson was Robert Comberford (1594-1671) of Comberford Hall.

Robert Comberford was a second cousin of two Skeffington brothers who played political roles in Staffordshire during the English Civil War: Sir John Skeffington (1584-1651), was a royalist colonel and had been MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme and was High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1637; Sir Richard Skeffington (1590-1647) was a Parliamentarian and was MP for Tamworth in 1625 and for Staffordshire in 1646-1647. Both brothers were baptised in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield.

After Robert Comberford died in 1669, his kinsman, Francis Comberford, the Quaker former magistrate of Bradley, tried but failed to claim Comberford Hall and the Comberford estate. Robert’s widow, Catherine (née Bates), continued to live at Comberford Hall for almost 50 years with her daughter Anne and grandson Comberford Brooke, until she died in 1718.

But the Comberford estates were heavily indebted and mortgaged, and the title to them appears to have passed to Sir Richard Skeffington’s son, Sir John Skeffington (1632-1695), who owned the neighbouring estate of Fisheriwck.

Fisherwick Hall was about 6 km (4 miles) east of Lichfield, between Whittington and Elford and immediately north of Comberford

Fisherwick Hall was about 6 km (4 miles) east of Lichfield, between Whittington and Elford and immediately north of Comberford. Fisherwick was in Saint Michael’s Parish, Lichfield, and many members of the Skeffington family of Fisherwick were baptised, married and buried at Saint Michael’s Church – the same church where the parents of Samuel Johnson were buried later.

Although Comberford Hall passed to the Skeffington family of neighbouring Fisherwick, whose members later held the title of Lord Masserene, the descendants of the Comberford and Brooke family continued to live at Comberford Hall into the early 18th century. When the Privy Council ordered a return by the parish clergy of Papists and reported Papists in 1706 , ‘with their respective qualities, estates and places of abode,’ 55 were counted in Tamworth, including Mrs Comberford of Comberford, with her three grandchildren and three servants.

This Mrs Comberford was Robert Comberford’s widow Catherine, and she and her family continued living at Comberford Hall as tenants of the Skeffington family until the mid-18th century, unable over the space of half a century to redeem the mortgages raised on the Comberford estates.

The Moat House Tamworth … Richard Skeffington, a second cousin of Robert Comberford, was MP for Tamworth in 1625 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Four successive generations and members of the Skeffington family owned Comberford Hall from the late 17th century until they too were forced to sell it in 1755.

Sir Richard Skeffington (1597-1647) of Fisherwick was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and was knighted in 1624. He was MP for Tamworth in 1625 and for Staffordshire in 1646-1647. When he died on 2 June 1647, he was buried at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.

1, Sir John Skeffington (1632-1695), 2nd Viscount Massereene, 4th Baronet, Sir Richard’s son, was the first member of his family to own Comberford Hall. He was born in Lichfield, but spent most of his life in Ireland in a political and military career. His strong Presbyterian views made him one of the leading Presbyterians in Ireland at the time, but were at odds with the High Anglicanism and Catholic sympathies of the Comberford family.

John Skeffington was born in Lichfield in December 1632 and was baptised in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield, on 27 December 1632. His father was a Parliamentarian or Cromwellian, and John identified as a Presbyterian from an early age.

He was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where his tutor was Samuel Morland and his fellow students included Samuel Pepys. He was 19 when he succeeded his cousin, Sir William Skeffington, as the fourth baronet in April 1652 and inherited the Skeffington estates at Fisherwick, near Lichfield. Two years later, in 1654, he married Mary Clotworthy, the eldest daughter of John Clotworthy, 1st Viscount Massereene and 1st Baron Lough Neagh.

Massereene is a small townland on the shores of Lough Neagh, just outside Antrim town. The peculiar conditions in which the Massereene title was created made John the heir to his father-in-law and the name Clotworthy became a first or given name in successive generations of the Skeffington family.

John Skeffington eventually inherited that title as 2nd Viscount Massereene and 2nd Baron Lough Neagh on 23 September 1665. Meanwhile, he had become a key figure in political and military life in Ireland. He was the MP for Down, Antrim, and Armagh in the Third Protectorate Parliament in 1659. He was made the captain of a troop of militia in Co Antrim in 1660. He was elected as the MP for Co Antrim in the re-established Irish House of Commons from 1661 until he succeeded to his father-in-law’s title and estates in 1665, when he took a seat in the Irish House of Lords.

He was a justice of the peace in Antrim, but he continued to hold the strong Puritan views he held during the Cromwellian period. He was described in the early 1660s as ‘a rigid Presbyterian … his whole alliance Presbyterian,’ and he was removed from as a justice of the peace in 1663 in the aftermath of Colonel Thomas Blood’s foiled plot to install a Presbyterian administration in Ireland.

Despite this, Skeffington was appointed Custos Rotulorum of Derry in 1666, a member of the Irish Privy Council in 1667 and Governor of Derry in 1678. Skeffington was appointed Captain of Lough Neagh in 1680, in part owing to his expenditure in improving the fortifications at Antrim Castle.

Skeffington’s Presbyterian views were also a factor in managing his estates in Staffordshire, and William Palmer’s house in Fisherwick was licensed for Presbyterian teaching in 1672. Skeffington was zealous in his pursuit and persecution of Roman Catholic priests in Ireland, and in 1681 he alleged that many soldiers in the Irish army were either Catholics or married to Catholics.

In the aftermath of the Rye House Plot in 1683, Skeffington came under pressure from the Duke of Ormond to conform to the Church of Ireland, but he refused. James II excluded Skeffington from the Irish Privy Council upon his accession in 1685. Three days after the outbreak of the Williamite War in Ireland, on 15 March 1689, Skeffington fled his home at Antrim Castle home. The castle was captured the following day by Jacobite forces who looted £3,000 worth of his possessions.

After time in Derry and Scotland, he was in London by September 1689 where he was one of a committee chosen by Irish Protestant exiles to represent their concerns to the English Williamite government. He was attainted by James II’s brief Patriot Parliament in Dublin in 1689. Skeffington returned to Ireland following the war, and was readmitted to the Irish Privy Council by William III in 1692.

Meanwhile, Presbyterians continued to find support on the Skeffigton estate in Staffordshire, and in 1693 Fisherwick Hall was included in a list of houses licensed for dissenting worship.

When Skeffigton died on 21 June 1695, he was buried at Antrim. He was succeeded in his title and his estates by his son, Clotworthy Skeffington (1661-1714), 3rd Viscount Massereene.

A canopied Victorian Gothic Skeffington and Massereene monument in All Saints’ Church, Antrim (Photograh: Patrick Comerford)

2, Clotworthy Skeffington (1661-1714), 3rd Viscount Massereene, was the second generation of the Skeffington family to own Comberford Hall was born in Antrim in 1661, and was admitted to Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1679.

Clotworthy Skeffington shared his father’s religious and political outlooks. During the Williamite wars in Ireland, he joined the Earl of Mount Alexander’s Protestant militia in 1688 and received a commission as a colonel from William III in January 1689. He took part in the defence of Derry during the Siege of Derry from April to August 1689. Like his father, he too was attainted by James II’s Patriot Parliament in Dublin in 1689.

After the Williamite wars, Skeffington was MP for Co Antrim in the Irish House of Commons in 1692-1693. When he inherited his father’s peerage in 1695, he took his seat in the Irish House of Lords. He was appointed Governor of Derry in 1699.

He continued to support nonconformist and dissenting views on his estate in Staffordshire, and Robert Travers, the Presbyterian minister for the Lichfield area, baptised a child at Fisherwick in 1701.

Clotworthy Skeffington married Rachel Hungerford in 1680, and they were the parents of one son and three daughters. He died in Antrim in March 1714 and was succeeded by his son, Clotworthy Skeffington, who became 4th Viscount Massereene and inherited Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall, as well as a vast estate in Ireland centred on Antrim Castle.

The monument to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) by the West Door of Lichfield Cathedral … she jilted Clotworthy Skeffington in 1712 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

3, Clotworthy Skeffington, 4th Viscount Massereene, was the third generation in his branch of the Skeffington family to hold Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall when he succeeded his father in 1714. He is often remembered as the rejected suitor of Mary Pierrepoint, later Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), who instead married Sir Edward Wortley Montagu in 1712.

A year later, on 9 September 1713, the jilted Skeffington married Lady Catherine Chichester, a daughter of Arthur Chichester (1666-1706), 3rd Earl of Donegall, and they were the parents of seven children. The Chichester family gave their name to Donegal House in Lichfield, and her nephew, Arthur Chichester (1739-1799), 4th Earl of Donegall and 1st Marquess of Donegall, later acquired Comberford Hall and other parts of the former Skeffington estates in Staffordshire.

Skeffington’s main political and financial interests, however, were in Ireland. He sat in the Irish House of Commons as the MP for Co Antrim from 1703 until he succeeded to his father’s title and took his seat in the Irish House of Lords in 1714.

Meanwhile, Catherine Comberford, who had continued to live at Comberford Hall as a tenant of the Skeffingtons of Fisherwick, died in 1718. Comberford Hall then passed to the Skeffington family, although they never lived at either Fisherwick Hall or Comberford Hall, and continued to live mainly at Antrim Castle.

Clotworthy Skeffington died on 11 February 1738, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Clotworthy Skeffington (1715-1757), who inherited the family titles and estates and who was made Earl of Massereene in 1756.

A portrait of Clotworthy Skeffington (1715-1757), 5th Viscount Massereene and 1st Earl of Massereene (ca 1751 by Arthur Pond) … he was forced to sell his Staffordshire estates, including Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall

4, Clotworthy Skeffington (1715-1757), 1st Earl of Massereene and 5th Viscount Massereene, succeeded to his father’s titles in 1738 and took his seat in the Irish House of Lords. He was the fourth and final generation in his branch of the Skeffington family to hold Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall in Staffordshire.

He became a Member of the Irish Privy Council in 1746, and and in 1751 he was created a Doctor of Law by the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin). He was given a more senior ranking in the Irish peerage on 28 July 1756 as Earl of Massereene. By then, however, he had been forced to sell his estates near Lichfield, including Fisherwick and Comberford, perhaps to pay the debts of his wayward, gambling son, Clotworthy Skeffington.

Massereene married his first wife Anne Daniel on 16 March 1738. She died two years later; he married his second wife Anne Eyre from Derbyshire on 25 November 1741, and they were the parents of six children. A year after receiving his new peerage title in Ireland, he was killed in Antrim while he was out ‘fowling’ on 14 September 1757.

Capability Brown’s landscape at Fisherwick Hall, a painting by John Spyers (1786) … Fisherwick Hall was inherited along with Comberford Hall by the Chichester family, but was demolished in 1805

Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall had descended with the title of Viscount Masserene, until 1755 when the 5th Viscount Masserene sold his mortgaged estates – perhaps to pay the debts of his gambling son, Clotworthy Skeffington – to Samuel Swinfen of Swinfen Hall, in Weeford, near Lichfield, as the trustee of his neighbour Samuel Hill of Shenstone Park, who built Swinfen Hall in 1757.

After Hill died on 21 February 1758, Comberford and Fisherwick, along with the Tatton Park estate, were inherited by his nephew, Samuel Egerton (1711-1780). By then, Egerton had embarked on his grand rebuilding of Tatton Park in Cheshire, with its neoclassical façade and exuberant rococo interiors, and in 1759 he sold his Comberford and Fisherwick estates back to their former trustee, Samuel Swinfen.

Samuel Swinfen sold the estates once again in 1761, this time to Thomas Thynne, 3rd Viscount Weymouth (1734-1796), a descendant of the Duchess of Somerset, who was a beneficiary under William Comberford’s will. In 1756, Comberford Common was enclosed under an Act of Parliament.

On 1 August 1789, Viscount Weymouth – who was about to become the 1st Marquis of Bath – and his son, the Hon Thomas Thynne, sold the Manors of Comberford and Wigginton, including lands in Hopwas and Coton, to Arthur Chichester (1739-1799), 5th Earl of Donegall, a nephew of Lady Catherine Chichester who had married Clotworthy Skeffington, 4th Viscount Massereene, in 1713.

Within a year, Lord Donegall had raised £20,000 from the banker Henry Hoare, using the Manors and Lands of Comberford and Wigginton as collateral security. Eventually, the Chichester family, crippled by the gambling debts of a profligate son, would find it impossible to pay off this loan, and would be forced to sell Comberford Hall and the manorial rights and lands that went with it.

Clotworthy Skeffington (1742-1805), the wayward and gambling son who appears to have forced the sale of Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall in 1755, spent almost 20 years in prison in France

As for Clotworthy Skeffington (1742-1805), the wayward and gambling son who appears to have forced the sale of Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall in 1755, he spent almost 20 years in prison in France, and only escaped in during the French Revolution in 1789, the year his father’s first cousin, Arthur Chichester (1739-1799), 5th Earl of Donegall, had bought the former Skeffington estates in Staffordshire.

This Clotworthy Skeffington was born on 28 January 1742, and he was styled Lord Loughneagh from 1756 until 1757, when he inherited his father’s titles as 2nd Earl of Massereene and 6th Viscount Massereene, and his estates in Co Antrim, although the Skeffington estates in Staffordshire had been sold off in 1755.

As a young peer, he entered Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1758. In his early days, it was said, he was a gambling dandy who ‘figured very considerably in the walks of fashion,’ and that he was vain, conceited and disagreeable.

Through his gambling and his speculation in salt imports from Syria or the Barbary Coast, he accumulated large debts in France of between 15,000 and 20,000 French livre. He was imprisoned in For-l’Évêque in Paris in 1769 for his debts. He maintained a lavish lifestyle in prison, employing a private chef and entertaining fellow prisoners and visiting prostitutes. In his first seven years in jail, his debts had risen to 1 million livres, and were growing by the day. He attempted to escape in June 1770, but his plan was foiled was those he owed fortunes to.

When For-l’Évêque was closed in 1780, Skeffington was transferred to La Force Prison. This second prison is known in literature for its fictional detainees, including Charles Darnay in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Lucien de Rubempré and Jacques Collins in Honoré de Balzac’s Illusions perdues and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, Thénardier in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and Benedetto in Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte-Cristo.

There, Skeffington’s debts continued to mount, rising to 3 million livres. He was freed with other prisoners by a mob on 13 July 1789, a day before the storming of the Bastille. He fled to England with Marie Anne Barcier, the 27-year-old daughter of the Governor of For-l’Évêque or Châtelet prison in Paris, and they were married in Saint Peter’s Cornhill, London, on 19 August 1789 – although some accounts say they had already been secretly married in Paris before that date in a ceremony of dubious legality.

From England, the couple made their way back to the Skeffington family seat at Antrim Castle. But his eccentric and erratic behaviour escalated and proved to be too challenging. The woman known as ‘the beautiful countess’ returned to France and died at the age of 38 in October 1800.

Skeffington married a second wife, Elizabeth Lane, also known as Mrs Blackburn, and said to have been a 19-year-old English chambermaid. When he died at Antrim Castle on 28 February 1805 he had no children. His widow married twice again, to George Doran and then to the Hon Hugh Massy, and died on 19 March 1838. The titles and the remaining estates passed to Clotworthy Skeffington’s younger brother Henry Skeffington, as the third earl, and then to youngest brother, Chichester Skeffington, as the fourth early.

The title of Earl of Massereene and the Skeffington title of baronet died out with the death of the fourth earl in 1816, while the tiles of Baron of Loughneagh and Viscount Massereene were inherited in another, distantly related family.

As for Antrim Castle, it was gutted by fire in 1922 and was finally demolished in the 1970s.

Antrim Castle was gutted by fire in 1922 and was finally demolished in the 1970s

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
41, 19 June 2024

The Virgin Mary depicted in the Dormition of the Theotokos, an icon in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Third Sunday after Trinity (Trinity III, 16 June 2024). Today the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers Sundar Singh of India (1929), Sadhu (holy man), Evangelist and Teacher of the Faith.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary in the new iconostasis in the Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look sombre, like the hypocrites, for they mark their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

A detail in the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary in the new iconostasis in the Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 4: The Dormition of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary):

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates facing the people is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

Other icons on this tier usually include depictions of the patron saint or feast day of the church, Saint John the Baptist, one or more of the Four Evangelists, and so on.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

The icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos or Virgin Mary, the first icon to the left in the first tier in new iconostasis in Stony Stratford, bears the lettering Η Κοιμησις τησ Θεοτοκου, or ‘the falling asleep of the Theotokos’.

In the Calendar of the Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Dormition (Κοίμησις) or the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary is on 15 August. For Roman Catholics, it is the Feast of the Assumption. In the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship, 15 August is marked simply as ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary’, without any indication of any event in her life or any commemoration.

A reflection in the parish leaflet in Stony Stratford and Calverton last year described the Assumption as ‘the taking up of Mary into the glory of the Resurrection.’ It added, ‘In sharing in the fullness of God’s life and love, we remember that the same promise is made to all believers, as we turn to the Lord for grace and mercy.’

In his guidebook, The Holy Land, the late Jerome Murphy-O’Connor points out that two places in Jerusalem are traditionally associated with the end of the Virgin Mary’s earthly life: a monastery on Mount Zion is the traditional site of her death or falling asleep; and the basilica in the Garden of Gethsemane is said to be the site of her tomb.

Since the end of the 19th century, however, Mereyama, 8 km east of Selçuk, near ancient Ephesus and the coastal resort of Kuşadasi, has been venerated by many Roman Catholics as the site of her last earthly home. This tradition is based not on tradition or history, but on the writings of an 18th century German nun and visionary, Sister Catherine Emmerich, who never left her own country, and the interpretation of her visions by some late 19th century French Lazarist priests who were living in Smyrna (Izmir). The pilgrim industry was boosted by a papal visit in 1967.

The Feast of the Dormition is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. However, this belief has never been formally defined as dogma by the Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox Church teaches that the Virgin Mary died a natural death, like any human being; that her soul was received by Christ when she died; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her burial and was taken up into heaven, so that her tomb was found empty on the third day.

The death or Dormition of Mary is not recorded in the New Testament. Hippolytus of Thebes, writing in the seventh or eighth century, claims in his partially preserved chronology to the New Testament that the Virgin Mary lived for 11 years after the death of Jesus and died in the year 41 CE.

On the other hand, Roman Catholic teaching says she was ‘assumed’ into heaven in bodily form. Some Roman Catholics agree with the Orthodox that this happened after her death, while others hold that she did not experience death. In his dogmatic definition of the Assumption in 1950, Pope Pius XII appears to leave open the question of whether or not she actually underwent death and even alludes to the fact of her death at least five times.

In the Orthodox tradition, Mary died as all people die, for she had a mortal human nature like all of us. The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary was subject to being saved from the trials, sufferings, and death of this world by Christ. Having died truly, she was raised by him and she already takes part in the eternal life that is promised to all who ‘hear the word of God and keep it’ (Luke 11: 27-28). But what happens to Mary happens to all who imitate her holy life of humility, obedience and love.

In the Orthodox tradition, it is said that after the Day of Pentecost, the Theotokos remained in Jerusalem with the infant Church, living in the house of Saint John the Evangelist. That tradition says she was in her 50s at the time of her death. As the early Christians stood around her deathbed, she commended her spirit to God, and tradition says Christ then descended from Heaven, taking up her soul in his arms. The apostles sang funeral hymns in her honour and carried her body to a tomb in Cedron near Gethsemane. When a man tried to interrupt their solemn procession, an angel came and cut off his hands, but he was healed later.

The story says that the Apostle Thomas arrived on the third day and wished to see the Virgin Mary for the last time. The stone was rolled back, and an empty tomb was discovered. Orthodox tradition says that the Theotokos was resurrected bodily and taken to heaven, and teaches that the same reward awaits all the righteous on the Last Day.

Icons of the Dormition date from the 10th century. In traditional icons of the Dormition, the Theotokos is shown on the funeral bier. Christ, who is standing behind her, has come to receive his mother’s soul into heaven. In his left arm, he holds her as an infant in white, symbolising the soul of the Theotokos reborn in her glory in heaven.

Greek icons of the Dormition follow a 1,000-year-old tradition that some say dates back to early texts.

Behind the bier, Christ stands robed in white and – as in icons of the Transfiguration, the Resurrection and the Last Judgment – he appears surrounded by the aureole, or elongated halo, depicting the Light of his Divinity and signifying his heavenly glory.

Christ receives the soul of the Mother of God, but here the imagery reverses the traditional picture of mother and son, as he holds her soul, like a child, in his arms.

The Twelve Apostles are present; sometimes they are shown twice: grouped around the bier, and transported to the scene on clouds accompanied by angels. The Apostles are usually seen on either side of the bier – the group on the left led by Saint Peter, who stands at the head of the bier; the group on the right led by Saint Paul, who stands at the foot of the bier.

Many icons include four early Christian writers, identified by their bishops’ robes decorated with crosses – James, Dionysios the Areopagite, Hierotheos and Timotheos of Ephesus. In the background, mourning women are a reminder of the women who wept when they met Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, or the women who arrived at his tomb early on Easter morning ready to anoint his dead body.

The cherubim in blue, the seraphim in red and the golden stars in these icons refer to the hierarchy of cosmic powers. Archangels are present in the foreground in the lower left and right corners. In the centre foreground, the Archangel Michael threatens the non-believing Jephonias who dared to touch her bier in an attempt to disrupt her funeral. The story is told that his hands were cut off but that later they were miraculously restored when he repented, was converted to Christianity, and was baptised.

The best-known version of this icon is by El Greco, or Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), created in Crete probably before 1567.

The icon of the Dormition by Alexandra Kaouki for the Church of Our Lady of the Angels in the old town of Rethymnon in Crete

It was my privilege in Crete some years ago to watch a new icon on this theme in Orthodoxy being shaped and created by Alexandra Kaouki, perhaps the most talented and innovative iconographer in Crete today, as she worked in her studio, then below the Venetian Fortezza in the old town of Rethymnon.

She was creating this new icon for the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, or the Little Church of Our Lady (Mikri Panagia), on a small square in the old town. It was a careful, slow, step-by-step work in progress, based on El Greco’s celebrated icon. But, as her work progressed, Alexandra made what she describes as ‘necessary corrections’ to allow her to ‘entirely follow the Byzantine rules.’

We discussed why El Greco places three candelabra in front of the bier. Perhaps he is using them as a Trinitarian symbol. However, Alexandra has returned to the traditional depiction of only one to remain true to Byzantine traditions.

How many of the Twelve should be depicted?

Should Saint Thomas be shown, or was he too late?

Why did she omit stories from later developments in the tradition, yet introduce women?

Alexandra completed her icon in time for the Feast of the Dormition in Rethymnon on 15 August that year.

The three icons to the left on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict (from left) the Dormition, Saint Stylianos and the Theotokos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Wednesday 19 June 2024):

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), is ‘Windrush Day.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with reflections by the Right Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett, Bishop of Croydon.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (19 June 2024) invites us to pray:

Help us Lord, to commit to standing up for justice, equity and dignity, and against anything that denies the image of God in human beings.

The lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford, with the central doors open during the Divine Liturgy, and the icon of the Dormition to the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts
whereby we call you Father:
give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought
to the glorious liberty of the children of God;
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 Prayer:

O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining
and whose power we cannot comprehend:
show us your glory as far as we can grasp it,
and shield us from knowing more than we can bear
until we may look upon you without fear;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Additional Collect:

God our saviour,
look on this wounded world
in pity and in power;
hold us fast to your promises of peace
won for us by your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Christ holding his mother’s soul wrapped like a new-born baby … a detail from Alexandra Kaouki’s icon of the Dormition as it neared completion

Saturday’s introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A fresco depicting the Dormition of the Virgin Mary in a church in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.