Saturday, 23 April 2011

Waiting at the tomb on Holy Saturday (3)

The Taking down from the Cross

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 23 April 2011 (Holy Saturday):

Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham Co Dublin.

Reading 3:
John 19: 38-42.

Reflection 3: TS Eliot, Journey of the Magi (1927).

We have just been considering how Candlemas is a link, a bridge between Christmas and Easter, between birth and death.

The same link between birth and death can be found in the Feast of the Epiphany, although it first it may be difficult to contemplate because of the way we have conflated our celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany.

The link, of course, has been popularised in folklore and popular celebrations through our notions of the Twelve Days of Christmas. But the link between Epiphany and Easter has been expressed poetically by TS Eliot in his poem, Journey of the Magi.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens ... the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

Eliot wrote this poem after his conversion to Christianity and his confirmation as an Anglican on 29 June 1927. The poem was published in 1930 in Ariel Poems, along with our earlier poem, A song for Simeon. Later, Eliot became churchwarden at Saint Stephen’s in Gloucester Road, London, and he remained a lifelong Anglo-Catholic.

The Journey of the Magi is a truly Anglican poem, for the first five lines are based on the 1622 Nativity Sermon of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who oversaw the translation and publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible 400 years ago in 1611, and who is buried by the High Altar in Southwark Cathedral.

It was Lancelot Andrewes who summarised Anglicanism in the dictum “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.”

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In his sermon on the Epiphany at Christmas 1622, “Of the wise men come from the East,” Andrewes opens with the words:

“It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter’.”

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men. It picks up his consistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

But, instead of a being a celebration of the wonders of the journey, the wise man in the poem recalls a journey that was painful and tedious. He remembers how a tempting, distracting voice was constantly whispering in their ears on that journey that “this was all folly.”

At first, it appears, the Wise Man from the East was not impressed by the new-born infant. But he came to realise that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:

were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?

On the journey, they saw “three trees against a low sky” – a vision of the future Crucifixion. The Incarnation points to Cross. Without Good Friday and Easter Day, Christmas has no significance for us at all. The birth of Christ leads to the death of old superstitions and old orders.

The “running stream” may refer to the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, which is an Epiphany moment.

The “six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver” recall both the betrayal of Christ by Judas for 30 pieces of silver, and the dice thrown for Christ’s garment at the foot of the cross.

The empty wineskins recall the miracle at the Wedding in Cana, which is also recalled at Epiphany time.

The early morning descent into a “temperate valley” evokes three significant Christian events: the nativity and the dawning of a new era; the empty tomb of Easter; and the Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness.

In his old age, as he recalls these events, has the now-elderly Wise Man little left to do apart from waiting for his own death? A witness of historical change, does he manage to rise above his historical moment? With his material wealth and prestige, has he lost his spiritual bearings? Or has he had spiritual insights before his time?

The Adoration of the Magi ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Journey of the Magi – T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

King’s College, Cambridge ... John Rutter says the ideals of beauty and calm reverence he associates with King’s Choir “represent inspiration and hope in an often heart-breakingly cruel and disordered world” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Music 3: Pie Jesu, John Rutter, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, 3’ 32”.

Four our final musical reflection this evening, I invite us to listen to Pie Jesu, from John Rutter’s Requiem, and sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, directed by Stephen Cleobury and accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia.

The English composer John Rutter says the ideals of beauty and calm reverence he associates with King’s Choir “represent inspiration and hope in an often heart-breakingly cruel and disordered world.”

He has been director of music at Clare College, Cambridge, and is the founder of the Cambridge Singers. His compositions are chiefly choral, and include Christmas carols, anthems and extended works such as a Gloria, a Magnificat, and a Requiem. He is known in many circles in this country for his arrangement of the Wexford Carol.

Unlike most of Rutter’s work up to this point, his Requiem was not commissioned – a personal bereavement was the immediate reason for writing it.

Rutter’s Requiem was completed in 1985 and lasts about 40 minutes. It is a lyrical choral piece with an orchestral accompaniment, and contains many dissonant chords. Three of the pieces were written specially for King’s, and the full Requiem was first performed in 1985 in Dallas, Texas; movements 1, 2, 4, and 7 had been performed earlier in Sacramento, California. Rutter conducted both performances. The Lord is my Shepherd was first written in 1976 as a separate anthem.

The first movement consists of the Introit from the Requiem Mass (Requiem aeternam) and the Kyrie. The second movement, Out of the Deep, is based on Psalm 130, often used at Anglican funerals.

The third movement is the motet Pie Jesu. It begins with a lyrical soprano soloist singing with a very light accompaniment, with only a slight involvement by the chorus echoing the words: “Dona eis requiem, Dona eis sempiternam requiem.”

Pie Jesu is a motet derived from the final couplet of the Dies Irae and it is often included in musical settings of the Requiem Mass and funerals. Requiems by Cherubini, Fauré, Duruflé, Rutter, Jenkins and others include a Pie Jesu as an independent movement. Of all these, by far the best known is Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Reuiem. Saint-Saens said of it: “Just as Mozart’s is the only Ave verum corpus, this is the only Pie Jesu.”

The original text, derived from the Dies Irae sequence, is:

Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem,
dona eis requiem.

Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem sempiternam

Kind Lord Jesus,
grant them rest,
grant them rest.

Kind Lord Jesus,
grant them everlasting rest.

Later, Rutter composed his Mass of the Children after the sudden death of his son, Christopher, while he was a student at Clare College, Cambridge – where Rutter himself had studied.

He describes the Pie Jesu in his Requiem as a personal prayer to Christ. He translates the Latin text as:

Blessed Lord Jesus, grant them rest.
Blessed Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest.

And so, we listen to our final piece of music this evening knowing that we can take our rest in Christ, who died, was buried, and rose again.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the third of three reflections for a service of readings, meditations, art poetry and music at the grave on Holy Saturday, 23 April 2011, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin.

Waiting at the tomb on Holy Saturday (2)

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Andrea Mantegna, 1460, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 23 April 2011 (Holy Saturday):

Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham Co Dublin.

Reading 2:
Matthew 27: 3-10.

Reflection 2: TS Eliot, A Song for Simeon (1928).

Our second painting this evening is The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), a North Italian Renaissance painter, a student of Roman archaeology, and the son-in-law of Jacopo Bellini. The painting, painted by Mantegna in 1460, in tempera on wood, is 67 x 86 cm, and is now in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.

Mantegna was born near Padua, but later worked in Verona, Mantua and Rome, and perhaps in Venice and Florence too. He died in Mantua in 1506. Like other artists of the time, Mantegna experimented with perspective. For example, he lowered his horizons to create a sense of greater monumentality. His flinty, metallic landscapes and his somewhat stony figures show an almost sculptural approach to painting.

Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ (1490)

His The Dead Christ, painted thirty years after his Presentation, in 1490, and now in Milan, may have later influenced Hans Holbein’s painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, which we have been looking at this evening, and shocked those who first saw it because of its brutal realism, achieved by foreshortening.

The subject of this earlier painting, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, is the story found in Luke 2: 22-40, where Mary and Joseph bring the Christ Child to the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth to dedicate him to God, according to the religious laws and traditions of the day.

As they brought the Christ Child to the Temple, they met Simeon, who had been promised “he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord” (Luke 2: 26). In the Anglican tradition, we continue to use Simeon’s prayer in Evening Prayer and Choral Evensong as the Canticle Nunc Dimittis.

In his prophecy about the Christ Child, Simeon said this child would be a light for revelation to the nations. The prophetess Anna, who was in the Temple too, also offered her prayers and thanks to God when she saw the Child Jesus. But Simeon also warned Mary that a sword would pierce her heart.

In the Church calendar, this Gospel story is recalled on 2 February, the Feast of Candlemas, the feast that moves us from Epiphany to Lent – that bridges the seasons of Christmas and Easter.

I cannot help but hold together the twin images provided from Simeon’s words to the Mary who cradled the Christ Child in her arms as she brought him to the Temple and the same Mary who cradles the Man Christ in her arms when is taken down from the cross.

I cannot look at Mantegna’s painting of the Presentation, or a similar, contemporary painting in Venice by his brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini, without thinking too of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Michelangelo’s Pieta in Saint Peter’s Basilica, completed almost 40 years after Mantegna’s Presentation

In Mantegna’s painting of the Presentation, Simeon is handing the Christ Child back to Mary, wrapped in the swaddling clothes that look like the grave clothes in which is body is wrapped after the Crucifixion, the shroud that is pointed to by the middle finger of the dead Christ in Holbein’s painting.

In Mantegna’s painting, Mary holds and caresses the Christ Child, giving him a gentle kiss, just as she later holds his body taken down from the cross, gently weeping over him.

The Mary that must have wondered about the meaning of Simeon’s prophecies and promises about her son is soon reduced to weeping over his dead body.

How could she have known that death meant anything other than the end?

Could there be any hope after this?

We know there is. We live in the light of the Resurrection. The candles of Candlemas remind us why we have Christmas candles. There is no meaning to Christmas unless we understand the meaning of Good Friday. And Good Friday has no meaning unless we have Easter faith.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

That link between Christmas and Easter, enunciated by Simeon at Candlemas, is expressed with deep insight by TS Eliot (1888-1965) in his poem, A Song for Simeon, written in 1928, a year after he was baptised and confirmed an Anglican.

A Song for Simeon is spoken by an old man, the prophet Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem. But Eliot also draws on a Christmas sermon in which Bishop Lancelot Andrewes spoke of: “Verbum infans, the Word without a word, the eternal Word not able to speak a word.” In Eliot’s words, the old man sees a faith that he cannot inhabit in “the still unspeaking and unspoken Word.”

There are several examples of prophetic imagery in A Song for Simeon:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation …
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow …

These refer to the scourging of Christ at his crucifixion and his mother weeping as he was crucified.

This poem starts with a winter scene:

Lord, the Roman’s hyacinths are blooming in the bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.

In this poem, Eliot confines his comments on things of the past to four lines in the second stanza, and places his emphasis on the time that has been spent making an inner journey of faith:

I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.

We are aware too, that Simeon is very old. He is hanging on, waiting for God’s promise, so that he can die:

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.

Three times in the poem, Simeon asks for peace. Is he referring to the peace that will come with his own death? Or the peace of Christ that passes all understanding? As Christians, we don’t believe that death is the end of our journey. Even before death, Eliot marks his baptism and confirmation as, if not the end of, then a triumph on, his spiritual journey. He has come to a place of faith, and now he is encouraged to continue on his spiritual journey.

The poem can be read as a song for Simeon to sing, or as a song to be sung for Simeon. We can imagine ourselves listening to Simeon’s prophetic voice, or imagine the voice of a poet singing on Simeon’s behalf or in his honour at a later age, from a viewpoint and with insights denied to Simeon himself.

In the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, the old Simeon in prayer in the Temple in Jerusalem prays: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” By contrast, Eliot’s speaker sings: “Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls.” This is not prayer at all. Instead, it sets an unexpected scene. The flowers, protected from the winter cold, are Roman, the property and pride of the pagans. Hyacinths were named after Hyacinthus, the youth killed by mistake by Apollo when his rival, Zephyrus, turned the flight of a discus.

The winter sun creeps by the snow hills as the speaker waits for the death wind. Pagan flowers and the pagan myth of a young man’s death flourish in the world of Eliot’s speaker and provide the language for speaking of life and death and life beyond.

Voices are heard from the Christian future, which the blind Simeon will not see. He is still waiting for the wind to blow, imagines only the death wind that will bear him away.

“Grant us thy peace” – the speaker evokes the Agnus Dei from the liturgy. Here we have a prayer for the peace that the Eucharist will offer, although Simeon will never share in the Eucharist.

In the first stanza, he tells of his own death.

In the second stanza, he speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem, decades later, by Rome’s armies. We are pointed towards New Testament images of the foxes that have holes, while the Son of Man has nowhere to rest; of the speaker’s descendants, in flight from Jerusalem from foreign faces and swords, and who will have to occupy the foxes’ homes.

In the third stanza, that flicker of light becomes a blaze of allusions. This Christ will tie cords to drive the traders from the Temple, will be whipped and scourged, and hear the lamentation of the weeping women of Jerusalem on the way to his death on a hill, above the “abomination of desolation,” and to his mother’s sorrow: Stabat mater dolorosa.

Simeon’s death is imminent, but far more is to come, for with the birth of this child a whole world is passing away, ages old and with no tomorrow.

In Nunc Dimittis, Simeon pleads: “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” But the word will be fulfilled in a faith and in an age that Eliot’s speaker can see only in prophecy.

Eliot capitalises “Thee” for the one and only time, as his speaker looks forward to the praise offered by the Church: “They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation …”.

Simeon warns Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul also.” But we might ask whether the heart, Eliot’s speaker says will be pierced is God’s own heart.

The weary speaker concludes by praying:

Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation

At the very end of the poem, we seem to have arrived at the start of Nunc Dimittis. All that we have read so far is now seen in a new light, as a prelude to the canticle. The poet, now baptised, has the hope of a greater hope, having seen his salvation. He is tired of his former life, there is consolation as derision turns to glory. Baptised into the death of Christ, he has been born into new life.

The Presentation in the Temple ... a window by Catherine O’Brien of An Tur Glione in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

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 had 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 given and taken 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.

King’s College, Cambridge, King’s College Chapel and the corner of King’s Parade, Cambridge

Music 2: Nunc Dimittis, Herbert Howells, the Gloucester Service, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, 4’ 35”.

Our second piece of music for reflection this evening is the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, from the Gloucester Service by Herbert Howells, and sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Nunc Dimittis is the traditional Gospel Canticle of Night Prayer or Compline, just as Benedictus and Magnificat are the traditional Gospel Canticles of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. And so, for Anglicans, Nunc Dimittis became a traditional canticle in Evening Prayer or Evensong in the Book of Common Prayer from 1662 on.

Settings for this canticle in the Anglican tradition include a plainchant theme by Thomas Tallis, and settings by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins, Charles Villiers Stanford, Charles Wood and Herbert Howells.

The composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was born in Gloucestershire, and first studied the organ at Gloucester Cathedral with Sir Herbert Brewer, alongside Ivor Novello and Ivor Gurney. There he first met Ralph Vaughan Williams, who became his close friend and mentor. Howells later studied at the Royal School of Music under Stanford, Parry and Wood. During World War II, he was the acting organist at Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

His early upbringing inspired him to give the name The Gloucester Service to the service from which we hear this evening’s setting of this canticle. It was written in 1946, is richly nuanced and spiritually uplifting.

We listen to it this evening sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury, recorded in 1991. The organist was the organ scholar, Christopher Hughes.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the second of three reflections for ‘A service of readings, meditations, art poetry and music at the grave’ on Holy Saturday, 23 April 2011, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin.

Waiting at the tomb on Holy Saturday (1)

Hans Holbein the Younger (ca 1497-1543), The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (ca 1521), Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 23 April 2011 (Holy Saturday):

Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham Co Dublin.

Reading 1:
Luke 16: 19-31.

Reflection 1: Hans Holbein the Younger, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521).

The German painter, Hans Holbein the Younger (ca 1497-1543), is best known for his portraits of Erasmus, Thomas More, Henry VIII and The Ambassadors, in which the cross is placed at the edge of the world.

He lived through the Reformation in Germany, Switzerland and England, and although he was relatively young when death came at the age of 49, his work is an important contribution to the beginning of modern art, with an almost photographic realism in his figures, in his perspective and in his use of colour.

His starkest and most gripping work is The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, the subject of our first reflection and meditation this evening as we think of Christ’s body laying in the tomb on this day, the day between his Crucifixion on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter Day.

Holbein the Younger was trained as a painter by his father, the German painter Hans Holbein the Elder (ca 1460-1524). At an early stage, Hans Holbein the Elder took his son to see Matthias Grünewald’s altar-piece in Isenheim, where Holbein the elder worked on a number of commissions.

By 1520, Hans Holbein the Younger was living in the Swiss city of Basel, at a time when the Lutheran Reformation was about to make a major impact on the life of the city.

Like many artists of the early Reformation period, he was fascinated with the macabre, and in common with the religious traditions of the 1520s, this work, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, was intended to evoke piety.

Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ (1490)

Critics point out that this painting follows closely the intentions of Grünewald, who in his altar-piece in Isenheim set out to instil in the viewer feelings of both guilt and empathy. But Holbein may also have been influenced by Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ (1490).

A 14th century Epitaphios in the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki

I am also inclined to believe too that the iconographic origins of this evening’s painting may be traced to Byzantine works, for in many ways Holbein has adapted to western styles the Orthodox iconography of the Epitaphios, the bier of Christ.

This painting, now on display in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung in Basel in Switzerland, was painted by Holbein around 1521, at a time when the Lutheran Reformation was having a major impact in Basel. The painting is in oil and tempera on lime-wood, and is especially notable for its dramatic dimensions (30.5 cm x 200 cm).

It is said that Holbein used a body fished out of the Rhine as a model for this work. But we do not know his reasons for painting this work. Was it a predella for an altarpiece? Was it intended as a free-standing work? Was it made to fit in a sepulchral niche? We may wonder. But it is more wonderful to meditate on this work, and to think of what the artist was trying to get us to think about.

Above Hans Holbein’s ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’ angels bear a Latin inscription

Above the body, angels holding instruments of the Passion bear an inscription in brush on paper inscribed with the Latin words in capital letters: “Iesvs Nazarenvs. Rex. Iudaeorum” (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”). But the rest of the work is entirely naturalistic, relieved of any sacred symbols, and with no pointers to suggest the transcendent meaning of the event.

In the work itself, Holbein shows the dead Son of God after he has suffered the fate of an ordinary human. We have here a life-size, grotesque depiction of the stretched and unnaturally thin, decomposing body of Christ, lying in his tomb.

The French philosopher and atheist Michel Onfray admits that “entering this work is like entering a coffin to see what’s happening inside.”

Christ’s rigid limbs and his flesh, green and swollen around the wounds, indicate the start of the corruption of his body. His body is shown as long and emaciated. His face, hands and feet, as well as the wounds in his torso, are depicted as realistic dead flesh in the early stages of purification.

At first, all we see in a dead body, a corpse – motionless, as if so for all eternity. The bones of his body push against the flesh like spikes emphasising the hollowness of his ribcage. String-like muscles press against the lifeless yellow skin.

But look carefully at the face of Christ which is slightly tilted towards us. Onfray points to how his mouth and his eyes are stretched open. You might just be able to hear, at least in a virtual sense, the final breath. You might guess the presence of the Holy Spirit.

We see Christ seeing. We see what death has in store. He is staring at the heavens, while his soul is probably there already. “No-one has taken the trouble to close his mouth, or to close his eyes,” Onfray notices. “Or perhaps Holbein wants to tell us that, even in death, Christ still looks and speaks.

There are three signs that indicate that this body is body of the crucified Son of God: the wounds in his side, on his hand and on his foot.

There are no wounds on his forehead, no traces of the crown of thorns. Holbein paints the right side of Christ. His left side, the sinistra, is in the shadow of the tomb, in the shadow of death.

His hair spills over the stone block which has been covered with a white shroud. Oskar Batschmann and Pascal Griener suggest the strands of hair “look as if they are breaking through the surface of the painting.” His beard points up towards the low roof of this wooden, box-like tomb.

Christ’s right hand balances on the edge of the dishevelled shroud. Notice how the sign made by this hand is at the exact point that divides this work into two parts – right and left. All but his middle finger is curled inward and we can almost feel the pain the dying Christ felt as his life ebbed away.

Detail from Hans Holbein’s ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’ ... is Christ’s middle finger pointing at the beholder, or pointing at his shroud?

Remarking on Holbein’s use of unflinching realism, Batschmann and Griener note that Christ’s raised, extended middle finger appears to “reach towards the beholder.”

Yes, the middle finger is outstretched, and the other fingers folded back into the palm. But could this be mistaken for a vulgar gesture?

Within traditional allegorical configuration, each finger has meaning. The hand represents the soul, the principle of life, while the fingers are used for spiritual exercises: the thumb, to give thanks; the index finger, to strive to reach the light; the ring finger, for suffering and regret, the little finger, to offer, to propose, to show, to present; and the middle finger, to examine, to weigh, a lesson in edification.

The extended middle finger in Holbein’s painting, at the epicentre of this work, is saying to us: “Look and conclude: examine.”

Examine what?

The middle finger acts as the punctum of the painting, the very tip, the flesh of the finger, marked by the nail like invisible writing.

It is the fingers of William Blake’s Ancient of Days pointing to the mystery of creation; it is the Finger of God pointing to humanity in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel.

This is this painting’s lesson. And for Onfray, Christ’s finger is pointing to his shroud, saying: “See this shroud, it is the sign of the death of death if, and only if, you live as a penitent Christian, imitate the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

For five centuries, the painting has fascinated and captivated. The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was totally overwhelmed on first seeing it in 1867, so much so that his wife had to drag him away, fearing its grip on her husband might induce an epileptic fit. She wrote that he could never forget the sensation he experienced gazing at the painting, which continued to haunt him.

Two years later, Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot (1869), in which he refers to this painting many times. He thought it posed a terrible threat to faith in Christ, and Prince Myshkin, having viewed the painting in the home of Rogozhin, declares that it has the power to make the viewer lose his faith.

Yet, the Cambridge-educated writer and popular historian Derek Wilson, who has written a biography of Holbein and more recently a study of the King James Bible to mark its four-hundredth anniversary, says: “No other picture expresses more eloquently the faith of the Reformation, the Christocentric faith of many humanists, the faith of those for whom the Bible has become a living book.”

Later, we shall reflect on the death of Christ through the poetry of TS Eliot. At the end of East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets, Eliot says:

Home is where one starts from …
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter ...

Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
… In my end is the beginning.

As I look at this painting of Christ I am reminded too of Eliot’s words at the end of Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets:

What call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from ...
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
And all shall we well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are infolded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

The shroud has been folded for the past twenty centuries, but this fabric still speaks today. Even in death, Christ still speaks today. Contrary to the impression this painting made on Dostoevsky, this work is far from the product of an atheistic mind. Rather, it is intended to convey the message of belief, that from the decay of the tomb Christ rose in glory on the third day.

Lichfield Cathedral ... the Lichfield Cathedral Choir, directed by Philip Scriven, with Martyn Rawles on the organ, recorded Mozart’s ‘Ave verum corpus’ at Lichfield Cathedral in 2008 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Music 1: Ave verum corpus, words 14th century, music: WA Mozart (1791), sung by Lichfield Cathedral Choir, 2’ 59”:

As we think about Christ’s body in the grave, on that slab, on that shroud, we listen to our first piece of music, Mozart’s Ave verum corpus. The title of the hymn, Ave verum corpus, means “Hail, true body,” and is said to have originated in a poem first found in a 14th-century manuscript from the Abbey of Reichenau on the shores of Lake Constance.

As a hymn it has been attributed to Pope Innocent III, Pope Innocent IV, and Pope Innocent VI, and during the Middle Ages it was sung at the elevation of the host at the Eucharist following the words of institution.

This short hymn that has been set to music by many composers, including Mozart, William Byrd, Franz Liszt, Saint-Saens, Sir Edward Elgar, and many others.

This evening we listen to Mozart’s setting, composed in 1791, shortly before he died, for the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi in the church in Baden, south of Vienna.

The Latin words are:

Ave verum corpus, natum
de Maria Virgine,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine,
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.
O Iesu dulcis, O Iesu pie, O Iesu, fili Mariae.
Miserere mei. Amen.

In English, the hymn says:

Hail, true body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet]
in the trial of death.
Oh dear Jesus, Oh merciful Jesus, Oh Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me. Amen.

The version I invite you to listen to is sung by Lichfield Cathedral Choir, directed by Philip Scriven, with Martyn Rawles on the organ, and recorded at Lichfield Cathedral in 2008.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the first of three reflections for ‘A service of readings, meditations, art poetry and music at the grave’ on Holy Saturday, 23 April 2011, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin.

To celebrate or not to celebrate Saint George

Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin ... one of only 14 churches in Ireland that have been dedicated to Saint George (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Today [23 April] is normally marked in the Church Calendar as Saint George’s Day (photograph right, Saint George in a stained glass window in the Baptistery in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin).

However,Saint George’s Day is not being marked in the Church of England today because it falls on Holy Saturday. Instead, his feast day has been transferred to 2 May.

However, the Church of England may be fighting an uphill battle in its efforts to persuade English people not to celebrate Saint George’s Day today. Churches in Ireland faced the same problem a few years ago when Saint Patrick’s Day fell close to Holy Week.

I know that there are plans for a variety of free events and market stalls on Market Square and Market Street in Lichfield, for example, to celebrate Saint George’s Day today. There will be opportunities to watch English folk dancing, to help Saint George hunt for his lost dragon around the market stalls, and to meet “Welephant,” the mascot for Lichfield Fire Service.

In addition, there will be story-telling, face-painting and live music from various performers, and “Shakespeare in the Park,” is also part of the programme.

The historic Saint George’s Court, an Ancient Manorial Court dating back to 1548, will be held in the Lichfield Guildhall from 12 noon to 1 p.m. The court is held in a light-hearted and entertaining manner with the Mayor of Lichfield, as Lord of the Manor, presiding, assisted by the Town Clerk as Steward of the Manor.

The Court Baron and View of Frankpledge, commonly known as Saint George’s Court, is an ancient manorial court. The manorial rights of the Barony of Lichfield were transferred by Charter of Edward VI in 1548 to the Bailiffs, Burgesses and Commonalty of the City, which in today’s terms mean the Mayor, councillors and citizens.

The Court is now held in a light-hearted manner but still appoints the ancient officers of the manor: two High Constables, seven Dozeners (or petty constables), two Pinners and two Ale Tasters.

The High Constables report on their work during the previous year, and a jury is empanelled and then imposes fines on those who have rejected the summons to attend, after first hearing their amusing excuses.

The George Hotel, Lichfield ... began as a coaching inn hundreds of years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The George Hotel in Bird Street is one of the oldest hotels in Lichfield. In the 19th century, the hotel’s sign depicted Saint George and the Dragon, and – despite changes over the years – the name George has been retained in the hotel name.

The George and Dragon on Beacon Street ... this corner of Lichfield feels like a rural village

Just outside the city centre, the George and Dragon on Beacon Street is a friendly local pub with stunning views of Lichfield Cathedral from the historic garden behind, including the site of Prince Rupert’s Mound, an important battle location from the Siege of Lichfield during the English Civil War in the 1640s. Today, this quiet corner of Lichfield has a quaint, semi-rural atmosphere about it.

All this entertainment and fun in Lichfield today is being organised in celebration of “England’s most noble patron saint.” Only the most pedantic critic would point out that Saint George is not English at all – after all, the English might then end up laying claim to Saint Patrick.

Archbishop John Sentamu of York has renewed his campaign for a bank holiday in England on Saint George’s Day: “As someone who is inspired by Saint George’s refusal to renounce his discipleship of Jesus Christ, I have long campaigned for us to have a special holiday where we can celebrate our patron saint and all that is great about our wonderful nation.”

I wonder: is it the way Saint George and Saint George’s Day have been hijacked by some far-right elements in England that prevents more English people from enjoying Saint George’s Day in ways similar to the celebrations marking Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland?

And is it due to lingering Irish antagonism towards England – unspoken but for all that no less distasteful – that Saint George’s Day is never marked in Ireland, not even in churches that bear his name?

We have North Great George’s Street, and South Great George’s Street in Dublin; there is a George’s Street in Wexford; and I imagine there are similarly named streets in most Irish cities and large towns. When did George stop being a popular name to give to children in Ireland?

In his new book, Churches of the Church of Ireland Dedicated to Saint George, Duncan Scarlett records how the cult of Saint George was popular in the Pale until the Reformation. He points out that that there has never been a liturgical provision for the Feast of Saint George – not even in the period when the Church of Ireland the Church of England were united, from the Act of Union in 1801 to disestablishment in 1871.

The pediment of Saint George’s Church, Hardwicke Place, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Duncan Scarlett notes 14 churches in the Church of Ireland with this dedication – not counting Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in Cathal Brugha Street, off O’Connell Street. These are in Ardclare, near Tulsk, Co Roscommon; Balbriggan, Co Dublin; Ballygarth, near Julianstown, Co Meath; High Street, Belfast; Brigown, Mitchelstown, Co Cork; Crilly, near Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone; Hill Street, Dublin; Hardwicke Place, Dublin; Goresbridge, Co Kilkenny; Kilcommick, Kenagh, Co Longford; Kiltoghert, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim; Pery Square, Limerick; Richardstown, near Ardee, Co Louth; and Tubbercurry, Co Sligo.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the Discovery Choir in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin

Many of these are Georgian churches, and he surmises they may have been named not in memory of Saint George but in honour of one the Hanoverian monarchs, usually King George III or King George IV.

The bells of Saint George’s in Hardwicke Place were rung throughout the afternoon of 23 April at one stage in the 19th century. But it appears Saint George’s in Belfast is the only one of these churches to celebrate this feast day liturgically – and then only since 23 April 1928.

He mentions the icon and stained glass window in Saint George’s, Belfats, and the stained glass windows depicting Saint George in Saint Mary’s Church, Julianstown, Co Meath, and Saint Brigid’s Church, Castleknock, Co Dublin. However, he misses two stained glass windows depicting Saint George in Christ Church Cathedral – one in the apse and the other in the baptistery.

Saint George’s Anglican Church in a quiet corner of Salamanca in Madrid (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

So, then, who was Saint George? Was there ever such a person? Can we separate an historical George from the mythical George of the stories of George and the Dragon? And why is he so popular universally – part from Ireland?

The name Γεώργιος (Greek, Geōrgios (Greek), Latin, Georgius) means “worker of the land.” It is likely that Saint George was born to a Christian noble family in Lod, south-east of present-day Tel Aviv, in the late third century, sometime between about 275 AD and 285 AD, and that he died in Nicomedia, present-day Izmit, about 100 km east of Istanbul in modern Turkey.

It is said his father Anastasios, according to Eastern account, or Gerontius, in Western accounts, was a Roman army official from Cappadocia, and his mother, Theobaste or Polychronia, was from Palestine. They were both Christians and from noble families of Anici, and the child was raised a Christian.

At the age of 14, George’s father died, and his mother died a few years later. George then decided to go to the imperial city of Nicomedia, that time, to ask the Emperor Diocletian to accept him for a career as a soldier. Diocletian welcomed him with open arms, and by his late 20s George was promoted to the rank of tribunus, attached to the imperial guard in Nicomedia.

In the year 302, Diocletian issued an edict that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and every other soldier should offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods. But George objected and with the courage of his faith approached the Emperor.

Diocletian was upset, not wanting to lose his best tribune and the son of his best official. George loudly denounced the emperor's edict, and in front of his fellow soldiers and tribunes declared himself a Christian and proclaimed his worship of Christ.

Diocletian attempted to convert George, even offering him gifts of land, money and slaves if he made a sacrifice to the Roman gods. But George declined all the offers from the emperor.

Accepting the futility of his efforts, Diocletian ordered his execution. Before the execution, George gave his wealth to the poor and prepared himself. After being tortured, George was beheaded before the city walls of Nicomedia on 23 April 23 303. A witness of his suffering convinced the Empress Alexandra and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to become Christians, and they too were martyred.

Saint George’s body was returned to Lydda or Lod for burial, and Christians soon began to honour him as a martyr. He is honoured by the Eastern Orthodox Church, which refers to him as a “Great Martyr,” and in the Oriental Orthodox Churches, with his feast day on 23 April (6 May). The Coptic Orthodox Church describes him as the “Prince of Martyrs.”

San Giorgio dei Greci (Saint George of the Greeks) in Venice

Saint Edward the Confessor, who died on 5 January 1066, was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 116. For some reason, he is commemorated on 13 October by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, and he was regarded as the patron saint of kings, difficult marriages, and separated spouses. From the reign of Henry II until 1348, he was revered as the patron saint of England. However, during the reign of Edward III he was replaced as patron by Saint George, although Edward has remained the patron saint of the British royal family.

Saint George was mentioned among the martyrs by Bede. His feast day soon gained widespread popularity throughout England, especially with the Crusades. Saint George’s flag, a red cross on a white background, was adopted by England and the City of London in 1190 for ships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the Genoese fleet during the Crusades.

In 1222, the Synod of Oxford, declared Saint George’s Day a feast day throughout England. The English were heard invoking Saint George as a battle cry on several occasions during the Hundred Years’ War.

Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church in Comberford, Staffordshire

When the English Reformation severely curtailed the saints’ days in the calendar, Saint George’s Day was one that managed to survive. Nevertheless, it is still surprising that England’s patron saint was never selected from a list of English saints that includes Saint Alban (died 209, 251, or 304, feast day 22 June), Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (died 687, feast day 20 March), Saint Edmund the Martyr (870, 20 November), Saint Edward the Confessor (1066, 30 November) or Saint Thomas a Becket of Canterbury (1170, 29 December).

But then April is a far better time for a celebration than November or December – the weather is usually better at this time of the year.