07 March 2015

Church History (2014-2015, part-time) 4.2:
Field Trip 1, the National Gallery of Ireland

The collection in the National Gallery of Ireland includes an extensive, representative collection of Irish painting as well as works by Italian baroque and Dutch masters (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute:

Church History elective module (TH 7864)

Years I to IV, MTh part-time,

Saturday 7 February 2015:

Field Trip 1 (continued), the National Gallery of Ireland


Last night [6 March 2015], we had an introduction to art and music in Church History. This morning [7 March 2015], we are visiting the National Gallery of Ireland which houses one of the great collections of Irish and European art.

The National Gallery is located on Merrion Square, beside Leinster House, the seat of the Oireachtas (Parliament), although we are going to enter through the Clare Street entrance.

The National Gallery was founded in 1854 and opened ten years later in 1864. Its collection includes an extensive, representative collection of Irish painting as well as works by Italian Baroque and Dutch masters, along with 31 watercolours by JMW Turner which are exhibited only in January.

The masterpieces include paintings by Velázquez, Murillo, Steen, Vermeer and Raeburn. In all, the collection includes about 14,000 works, including about 2,500 oil paintings, 5,000 drawings, 5,000 prints and some sculpture, furniture, mirrors and other works of art.

1, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, ‘The Taking of Christ’

Caravaggio, ‘The Taking of Christ’ (1602)

Perhaps our main interest this morning is going to be in the once- lost Caravaggio, ‘The Taking of Christ,’ which was found hanging in the Jesuit house of studies in Leeson Street, in Dublin in 1990.

The Italian baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) completed this work in 1602. It is in oil on canvas, measures 135.5 x 169.5 cm, and is on indefinite loan to the National Gallery from the Jesuit Community through the generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson.

‘The Taking of Christ’ was originally commissioned by the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei in 1602. Throughout history, few artists have caused as radical a change in pictorial perceptions as Caravaggio, who was the most famous painter of his time in Italy. He painted ‘The Taking of Christ’ when he was at the height of his fame.

Breaking with the past, the artist offered a new visual rendering of the narrative of the Gospels, reducing the space around the three-quarter-length figures and avoiding any description of the setting. All emphasis is directed on the action perpetrated by Judas and the Temple guards on an overwhelmed Christ, who offers no resistance. The fleeing disciple in disarray on the left is Saint John the Evangelist.

There are seven figures in the painting: from left to right they are Saint John, Christ, Judas, three soldiers (the one farthest to the right barely visible in the rear), and a man holding a lantern to the scene. They are standing, and only the upper three-quarters of their bodies are depicted. The figures are arrayed before a very dark background, in which the setting is disguised.

The main light source is not evident in the painting but comes from the moon in the upper left. The lesser light source is the lantern held by the man at the right, believed to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio, and presumably, representing Saint Peter, who would first betray Christ by denying him – yet Saint Peter would go on to bring the light of Christ to the world.

At the far left, Saint John the Evangelist is fleeing. See how his arms are raised, his mouth is open and gasping, his cloak is flying and being snatched back by a soldier.

Consider how the flight of the terrified Saint John contrasts with the entrance of the artist (Saint Peter). Scholars claim that Caravaggio is making the point that even a sinner 1,000 years after the Resurrection has a better understanding of Christ than does his friend.

Two of the more puzzling details of the painting are, one, the fact that the heads of Christ and Saint John seem to visually meld together in the upper left corner, and, two, the fact of the prominent presence, in the very centre of the canvas and in the foremost plane of the picture, of the arresting officer’s highly polished, metal-clad arm.

Questions to ask:

Why is this painting so popular?

What does this painting say to you?

What does it say about light and darkness and your images of Christ, of Judas, of sacrifice and betrayal?

How do we betray Christ today?

Some of the other paintings we might look out for include:

2, Fra Angelico, Saints Cosmas and Damian and their Brothers Surviving the Stake, ca 1439-1442

Fra Angelico, Saints Cosmas and Damian and their Brothers Surviving the Stake, ca 1439-1442

Fra Angelico (ca 1400-1455) is one of the great Florentine Renaissance masters. In 1407 he entered the Dominican monastery of Fiesole, assuming the name of Fra Giovanni. Within a few years he had become the most acclaimed monastic painter in Italy.

This painting is in tempera on a wood panel, measures 37.8 x 46.4 cm, and was bought in 1886.

Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian were two physician brothers living in Asia Minor in the third century. They and their three younger brothers were Christians, and during the Diocletian persecutions they were compelled to prove their loyalty to the Roman gods with a sacrifice. When they refused, Lycias, the Roman consul, submitted them to a series of brutal tortures. Miraculously they survived the torments but, finally, the enraged consul ordered their beheading.

The episode in this painting tells of the failed attempt to burn the five brothers. A circle of flames surrounds them, but the fire turns against the torturers, under the incredulous eyes of Lycias and his dignitaries.

This small panel was part of the predella (lower register) of Fra Angelico’s most important altarpiece. Other parts of it are scattered in various galleries worldwide. The altarpiece was painted for the church of San Marco in Florence, and was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici. He shares the name of one of the brothers (Cosmas, Cosmo), and his family name echoes in the profession of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, for medici means “physicians” in Italian.

Some questions to consider:

Does a rich patron compromise the subject of religious art?

If so, what does this say about our stained-glass windows, family memorials, and other works in our churches and cathedrals?

Do you find this subject matter too gruesome and too removed from today’s way of thinking?

Does hold true for many other Patristic themes and topics?

What does martyrdom mean today?

3, Jacques Yverni, ‘The Annunciation,’ ca 1435

Jacques Yverni, ‘The Annunciation,’ ca 1435 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This panel is attributed to the French artist Jacques Yverni, who died ca 1435-1438, and is thought to have been completed shortly before his death. His only known signed work is a triptych in Turin.

This panel is a work in tempera on wood panel, and measures 151 x 193 cm. It was bought for the National Gallery in 1965 by the Shaw Fund. The picture was transferred at an early stage from its original poplar wood support to canvas, and as a result has suffered some damage, evident principally in the draperies. Before its acquisition it was transferred to a new panel.

We see against a gold background, the Virgin of the Annunciation kneeling at an altar. As she receives the message from the Archangel Gabriel, she raises her right hand to her throat, while her left hand points to her open book and the words: Magnificat anima mea Dominium, “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

A vase containing a tall lily stem, symbol of her purity, stands between them. Saint Stephen, who presents two donors, is dressed as a deacon. He holds the palm of martyrdom in his left hand, and the instrument of his martyrdom, a stone, can be seen on his head.

Above the archangel, God the Father appears in a celestial sphere, and emanating from the heavenly rays are the dove of the Holy Spirit and a tiny figure of the Christ Child.

Some questions to ask:

Why is the Virgin Mary painted in Deep Blue and Red, rather than light blue and white?

Does this make a difference?

How do you respond to the use of the words in a book?

Why is the Virgin Mary beneath a canopy and by an altar?

Why is Saint Stephen present in this painting?

How do you respond to the Trinitarian imagery in this work?

4, The Enthronement of Saint Romold as Bishop of Dublin (ca 1490)

The Enthronement of Saint Romold as Bishop of Dublin (ca 1490) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This painting is part of a series telling the story of a hermit said to have been martyred ca 775 AD at Mechelen in what is now Belgium.

His tomb at the cathedral in Mechelen became a shrine for pilgrims. Centuries later, a series of paintings about his life were commissioned, seven by this anonymous painter, and are painted in the meticulous style of early Netherlandish art.

This painting tells the legendary, if false, story that Saint Romold had been Bishop of Dublin.

Some questions to ask:

Why was this painting worked in this style?

What does it say about the claims of the mediaeval church?

How does it use Church History and for what end?

Why is the story of an eighth century bishop of Dublin a legend?

And what difference does that make to our understanding of Irish Church History?

5, Marco Palmezzano, ‘The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints John the Baptist and Lucy’ (1513)

Marco Palmezzano, ‘The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints John the Baptist and Lucy’ (1513)

The Italian painter Marco Palmezzano (ca1460-1539) was a pupil of Melozzo da Forlí, and for a long period he collaborated with and imitated his teacher. He was active in the north-east of Italy, and his prolific work very much reflects the established artistic tendencies of that region.

‘The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints John the Baptist and Lucy’ (1513) is an altarpiece that is typical of his work. It is in tempera and oil on wood panel, measures 218 x 188 cm, and is signed in the lower centre: “Marchus Palmizanus/ Pictor/ orolivi fecit/ MDXIII” It was bought in 1863.

Although it us dated 1513, it has a symmetrical structure and other elements commonly used on the Adriatic coast at the end of the 15th century. The scene presents the Virgin on a high throne holding the standing Christ Child, with an elegant canopy above their heads. Behind them, an arch opens onto a detailed wooded landscape with distant mountains and a church on the hill. The architecture is heavily decorated with classical bas-reliefs and grottesche motifs.

At the foot of the throne, a small angel is playing a lute, and beside him are the two patron saints, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Lucy. Although painted in a traditional manner and without any significant innovation, this Holy Conversation is appealing for its vivid colours and light effects.

6, Titian, ‘Ecce Homo’ (ca 1558-1560):

Titian, ‘Ecce Homo,’ ca 1558-1560

‘Ecce Homo’ was painted ca 1558-1560 by the great Italian artist, Tiziano Vecelli (ca 1488-1576), better known as Titian. This work is in oil on canvas, measures 73.4 x 56 cm, and was purchased for the National Gallery in 1885.

In the earlier part of his career, Titian had collaborated with Giorgione in Venice. Soon, however, he was fully independent and was recognised as the most talented artist in that city. His fame led him to become the favourite painter of the leading Italian families, as well as of Pope Paul III and of the Emperors Charles V and Philip II.

The episode of the Ecce Homo is a moment in the Passion of Christ. Having been scourged and ridiculed with a crown of thorns, Christ was presented by Pilate for the verdict of the people.

The image Titian offers of Christ in this painting is particularly moving. He appears powerless, in tears, and his tortured body is covered in blood. It is an image of real physical suffering, but it is also one of great spirituality.

The painting was carried out rapidly with fast dabs of paint. The speed of execution is evident in the number of visible readjustments, such as the repositioning of the sceptre.

7, Titian, ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (ca 1545)

Titian, ‘The Supper at Emmaus,’ ca 1545

This second work by Titian, ‘La cenai in Emmaus’ or ‘The Supper at Emmaus,’ was painted ca 1545. It is in oil on canvas, measures 163 x 200 cm, and was bought for the gallery in 1870.

Some questions:

Have you never considered you the Disciples at Emmaus were?

What was their gender?

Does it matter?

8, El Greco, The Vision of Saint Francis (ca 1590-1595)

El Greco, The Vision of Saint Francis (ca 1590-1595) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco (1541-1614) was a Greek artist who trained as an icon writer in Iraklion in Crete, where the 400th anniversary of his death was commemorated last year [2014].

His work bridges the gap between East and West, between the Renaissance and Byzantine worlds, and he worked mainly in Spain.

This painting, which shows Saint Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata, dates from ca 1590-1595. It is in oil on canvas, measures 114 x 104 cm, and was presented to the National Gallery in 1914 by Sir Hugh Lane.

Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have experienced a mystical vision at Mount Alvernia in 1224, during which he received the Stigmata, or wounds of the crucified Christ.

This is one of a number of paintings by El Greco of the life of Saint Francis. Here we see Saint Francis looking heavenwards, as stormy clouds frame his body and seem to reflect his inner state. The marks of the stigmata are visible on his right palm. The skull acts as a physical reminder of human mortality.

9, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) ‘Kitchen Maid with the Supper of Emmaus’ (ca 1617-1622)

‘The Kitchen Maid’ by Diego Velázquez

‘The Kitchen Maid’ (in Spanish La mulata, La cocinera or Escena de cocina, Kitchen Scene) is one of a pair of domestic paintings by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez from his early Seville period. It may have been completed between 1617 and 1622.

The Dublin version was bequeathed by Alfred Beit in 1987. A 1933 cleaning revealed a depiction of the Meal at Emmaus on the wall behind the main figure. The other version is in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Some questions:

Who cooked the meal at Emmaus?

Who cooked and prepared the Last Supper?

Who prepared the other, countless meals with Christ in the Gospels?

10, Peter Brueghel the Younger, ‘A Peasant Wedding’ (1620)

Peter Brueghel the Younger, ‘A Peasant Wedding’ (1620) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This painting by the Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), dates from 1620 and is signed in the lower left: “P. Breghel. 1620.” It is a work in oil on wood panel, measures 81.5 x 105.2 cm, and was bought for the gallery in 1928.

This peasant feast was a very popular image and was replicated many times. Its attraction lies in its animated and amusing portrayal of Flemish peasants who are enjoying a country wedding. The bride looks down demurely at her dowry plate, as the old woman to her right grabs the money pouch from one of the guests.

The figures are deliberately caricatured and comical, as they dance and make love at the wedding reception.

It is argued that subjects like this were intended not just as comical genre scenes but as satirical images conveying a moral message. The crude carvings on the table-top include a windmill, a heart pierced with arrows, a wine flask, an owl and two intertwined fish. They may be symbolic, but many seem to be simply rough score marks.

Some questions:

Are the ideas the church and society hold about matrimony the same, overlapping, different?

Has it always been so?

Who defines marriage and matrimony?

Should the priest who officiates at a wedding also attend the reception?

Compare the imagery in this painting with a nearby painting depicting the Wedding at Cana.

11, Erskine Nicol (1825-1904): ‘The 16th, 17th (Saint Patrick’s Day) and 18th March’ (1856)

Erskine Nicol (1825-1904): ‘The 16th, 17th (Saint Patrick’s Day) and 18th March’ (1856) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Although for most people in Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day was still only a liturgical commemoration on 17 March, Nicol’s painting portrays it as an opportunity for commercial enterprise and revelry. A woman to the right, enjoying the amorous attentions of the man beside her, sits on a set of rosary beads, the pub is open and the church appears to be closed.

Some questions:

Do you enjoy Saint Patrick’s Day coming in the middle of Lent?

How is 17 March marked in the Church of Ireland?

Is this different in Northern Ireland and in parishes and dioceses in the Republic of Ireland?

Is it a day more for the pub than for the Church?

What do our celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day say about Irish identity?

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a field trip to the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, on 7 March 2015 as part of the elective model TH 7864 with part-time MTh students.

Church History (2014-2015, part-time) 4.1:
Field Trip 1, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... a living example of architectural church history (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute:

Church History elective module (TH 7864)

Years I to IV, MTh part-time,

Saturday 7 February 2015:

Field Trip 1 (Part 1), Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin


Christ Church Cathedral Dublin image was created with Inkscape by Blackfish, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Last night [6 March 2015], we had an introduction to architecture in Church History. This morning [7 March 2015], we are visiting Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and then the National Gallery of Ireland which houses one of the great collections of Irish and European art.

Christ Church Cathedral is the Church of Ireland Cathedral for the United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough. Its origins date to about 1038 when the Viking settlers built a cathedral on this site.

Christ Church Cathedral stands on a hillside above and the old Viking city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Looking at it from some distance, the cathedral seems to wander all over the hillside on which it is built. The cathedral stands in what was once the heart of mediaeval Dublin, next to Wood Quay at the end of High Street to the west and relatively modern Lord Edward Street to the east.

A modern, major road building scheme around it separated it from the original mediaeval street pattern that once surrounded it, with its original architectural context (at the centre of a maze of small buildings and streets) lost due to road-building and the demolition of the older residential quarter at Wood Quay. As a result, the cathedral now appears dominant in isolation behind new Civil Offices along the quays, out of its original mediaeval context.

The cathedral was founded probably sometime ca1028-1030 after King Sitric Silkenbeard of Dublin made a pilgrimage to Rome. The first bishop of this new Diocese of Dublin was Dúnán or Donat, who was bishop from ca 1028 to 1074. He was probably consecrated in England, for at the time, the Diocese of Dublin was an isolated parcel of land surrounded by the much larger Diocese of Glendalough and for a time a time was dependent on the Archbishops of Canterbury rather than being an integral part of Irish Church structures.

The cathedral was built on high ground overlooking the Viking settlement at Wood Quay and King Sitric endowed it with the “lands of Baldoyle, Raheny and Portrane for its maintenance.”

The cathedral was originally staffed by secular clergy rather than clergy living by a monastic rule. The second Bishop of Dublin, Patrick or Gilla Patraic (1074-1084) was consecrated in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, by Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury. He introduced the Benedictines to the cathedral.

In 1163, Christ Church was made a priory of the Regular Order of Arrosian Canons (Reformed Augustinian Rule) by the second Archbishop of Dublin, Laurence O’Toole. Later, the Augustinian prior ranked as the second ecclesiastical figure of the diocese until 1541, when the Prior became the Dean, and the Augustinian canons the cathedral canons. This Priory of the Holy Trinity became one of the wealthiest religious housea in Ireland, holding over 40 sq km of property in Co Dublin alone, including three home farms at Grangegorman, Glasnevin and Clonken or Clonkene, now known as Deansgrange.

After its initial completion the building was extended lengthwise rather than upwards. In the grounds, we can see the remains of a chapter house dating from the Middle Ages, when this was a monastic church. Henry II is said to have attended the cathedral at Christmas 1171, which is said to have been the first time he received Holy Communion following the murder of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury.

The present building dates from 1172 when Archbishop Laurence O’Toole and the Anglo-Norman leader, Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, known as ‘Strongbow’ initiated the building work, replacing a wooden structure with a cathedral modelled on the lines of the great European Gothic cathedrals, with choir, choir aisles and transepts, the crypt and chapels named in honour of Saint Edmund, Saint Mary and Saint Lô.

A chapel to Saint Laurence O’Toole was added in the 13th century and much of the extant nave was built in the 1230s. Its design was inspired by the architecture of the English western school of Gothic, and its wrought stones of a Somerset oolite were sculpted and laid by Somerset craftsmen.

In the 1350s, a major extension was undertaken by John de St Paul, Archbishop of Dublin (1349-1362). By 1358, the nave was partly in use for secular purposes and a “long quire” was added, extending the old choir area by around 10 metres.

In 1562, The foundations of the nave, resting in peat, slipped, bringing down the south wall and the arched stone roof. The north wall, which visibly leans, survived, and largely dates back to 1230. Partial repairs were carried out but much of the debris was simply levelled and new flooring built over it until 1871. In this collapse, Strongbow’s tomb was smashed. The current tomb is a contemporary replacement from Drogheda. Alongside the main tomb is a smaller figure with sloping shoulders, suggesting a female figure, but wearing chain mail, which may indicate that it was a child. The tomb of Strongbow was used as the venue for legal agreements from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

The cathedral has undergone further restorations in 1829 and 1871. The cathedral as we see it today is mainly Victorian due to the extensive restorations and renovations carried out by the English Gothic revival architect, George Edmund Street in the 1870s. Until the 1700s, houses were built up against the cathedral on all sides and it was not until Street’s restoration that the grounds were cleared around the cathedral allowing it to be viewed unhindered.

Street’s restoration cost over £230,000. Just as the restoration of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral nearby was funded by the brewer Benjamin Guinness, the Victorian restoration of Christ Church Cathedral was funded by the Dublin whiskey distiller Henry Roe, who generously donated the entire cost of the work.

The interior of the cathedral is a mixture of architectural styles from the mediaeval Gothic to the Victorian Gothic revival (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The interior of the cathedral is mainly Victorian dating from the restoration by Street. The tower was rebuilt, the south nave arcade was rebuilt, and Street removed the original long choir. The flying buttresses were added as a decorative feature, the north porch was removed, and the Baptistry was built in its place. From this restoration, we see many fine Victorian features, including the floor tiles based on original designs found during the restoration and the many carved surfaces including the pulpit and the columns.

Street’s renovation saved the seriously decayed structure from collapse. However, it remains difficult to tell which parts of the interior are genuinely mediaeval and which parts are Victorian pastiche.

The cathedral is linked across Winetavern Street by an enclosed bridge to the former Synod Hall. Originally this was a separate church, Saint Michael’s, and it was connected to the main cathedral in the 1870s.

Outside, the most interesting feature is the fine Romanesque doorway on the gable of the southern transept. This original doorway dating from the 12th century is one of the external features not restored or replaced by Street, unlike the western doorway.

The Long Choir was demolished by Street and replaced with a smaller apse. The current office building to the north side of the cathedral was the Lady Chapel when the Long Choir existed.

The former chapter house can be seen alongside the transept. The present Chapter House contains cathedral offices, meeting rooms, choir school and other facilities.

Visiting the crypt

The crypt of Christ Church is the oldest surviving part of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The crypt of Christ Church is the oldest surviving part of the cathedral. It dates from 1172-1173, or from 1188, and is one of the largest mediaeval crypts in these islands. It stretches under the entire cathedral and is 63.4 metres (175 feet) long and a maze of huge stone columns supporting the cathedral above.

The crypt was renovated in the early 2000s, and many pieces of stonework and fittings are stored here, including pieces of stonework removed and replaced during the Street’s restoration by George Street, monuments to important families and carved stones from the demolished Long Choir. After the demolition of the Tholsel or old city hall in 1806, the statues of Charles I and Charles II and the Stuart coats-of-arms were moved here. The stocks made in 1670 and once kept in Christ Church Place, were moved here in 1870. They had been used for the punishment of offenders before the Court of the Dean’s Liberty, a small area that was subject to the cathedral’s exclusive civic authority.

The crypt exhibits include a tabernacle and set of candlesticks used when the cathedral for a short time when James II, having fled England, came to Ireland in 1690 to fight for his throne, and attended High Mass in the cathedral. Other exhibits include Communion plate from different eras, and different editions of the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.

The exhibit most children want to see is the “The Cat and The Rat” are displayed with an explanatory note.

The Synod Hall and bridge

The bridge linking Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the former Synod Hall, which was the venue for the General Synod for decades (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the west end of the cathedral is a fully integrated stone bridge, leading to the former synod hall, which was built on the site of Saint Michael’s, a prebendal church of Christ Church that was demolished by Street during his restoration of the cathedral.

This hall, which incorporates the old Saint Michael’s tower, was formerly used for general synods and diocesan synods. It is now home to the Dublinia exhibition about mediaeval Dublin.

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a field trip to Christ Church Cathedral Dublin, on 7 March 2015 as part of the elective model TH 7864 with part-time MTh students.

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(18): On Wenlock Edge, 6, ‘Clun’

Upper Clun valley, a little way out of Whitcott Keysett, the view towards Newcastle and the hills beyond. A light shower of rain drifts across the hills near Upper Spoad (Photograph: Geoff Cryer, CC BY-SA 2.0 creative commons licenses via Wikimedia Commons)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

Throughout this week, I am listening to On Wenlock Edge, a setting by Vaughan Williams of six poems from AE Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

This morning [7 March 2015], I am listening to ‘Clun,’ the sixth and final six setting by Vaughan Williams of these poems by AE Housman (1859-1936), published in 1896.

Perhaps the moment most characteristic of Vaughan Williams’s attitude to life comes at the end of this cycle, when his evocation of the calm of death inspires a vision of the Celestial City – something that was to come again and again in his later works.

Although this may be at odds with Housman’s grief and bitterness, Vaughan Williams’s mood of acceptance and fulfilment raises this cycle to a level of exceptional spiritual awareness.

On Wednesday, while I was reflecting on the third of these songs, ‘Is my team ploughing,’ I recalled how Vaughan Williams omitted the two football stanzas in that poem, to the great annoyance pf Housman, who wrote to his publisher, Grant Richards asking: “I wonder how he would like me to cut two bars out of his music?”

But in arranging his setting for this sixth poem, ‘Clun,’ Vaughan Williams also deleted Housman’s superscription to his fiftieth poem (L):

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.

The Clun Valley, view eastwards from under the bridge across the valley to May Hill and Saddle Hill (Photograph: Trevor Rickard, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons)

Housman was from Worcestershire and at first knew little of Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun in south Shropshire, to the west of Wenlock Edge. The settings in this poem welled up from his imagination, and he wrote most of the poems in A Shropshire Lad while living in Highgate, London, before ever visiting this part of Shropshire, although it is only about 30 miles from his boyhood home.

He presents Shropshire in an idealised pastoral light, as his “land of lost content,” and Housman creates a mythical, idealised Shropshire, similar to the Wessex of the novels of Thomas Hardy. He became so intimately associated with south Shropshire that when he died in Cambridge in1936 he was buried just outside Saint Laurence’s Church in the market town of Ludlow, which stands on a cliff above the River Teme.

Housman’s “Famous Four” in the beautiful Clun Valley can be reached in one long day’s walk along the Shropshire lanes and their verges. They sit in the beautiful Clun Valley in the Clun Forest, although visitors may be confused, for the Clun Forest has few trees and the name “Forest” refers to the area’s mediaeval use as a Royal Hunting Forest.

Clun is surrounded by the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, close to the 1200-year-old Offa’s Dyke and the Offa’s Dyke Path, a 177-mile long National Trail. Clun Castle overlooking the town is said to have inspired Sir Water Scott when he was writing The Betrothed.

The town is divided in two by the 15th century Packhorse Bridge, which has alcoves so people crossing on foot can avoid being trampled by the horses. The ancient part of Clun stands on the south side and the newer Norman town on the north, all set in the idyllic Clun Valley.

Saint George’s Church overlooks the river and the castle. The playwright John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, 1956), who lived nearby, was buried in the churchyard in 1994. The Trinity Hospital and Almshouses are Jacobean, built by the Earl of Northampton in 1614 in two quadrangles, to provide “charitable accommodation to 12 men of good character.”

Near Clunton, the fort on Bury Ditches Hill, with its ramparts and ditches towering above the slopes, has been described as one of the finest hill forts in Britain.

Neighbouring Clunbury celebrated the centenary of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad in 1996 with an 1896 weekend. As part of the programme, Christopher Train of Holland House, Clunbury, spoke in Saint Swithin’s Church on Clunbury at the time Housman wrote this poem.

Housman described these neat and quiet Shropshire villages as “the quietest places under the sun.” By 1896 this was certainly true for Clunbury, which had lost its pub – The Raven or Pig and Whistle, which is now Dutch Cottage with its thatched roof – after the last tenant, James Harding, died in 1879.

In his lecture, Christopher Train noted that the parishioner who wrote of the Clunbury entry in the Clun Valley parochial magazine at the end of the 19th century regularly laments the fact that he has nothing of significance to report. For example: “There are no stirring events to record as having happened in Clunbury last month. It has always had the name of being ‘one of the quietest under the sun.’ A stranger passing the other day on the road to Clun and looking down upon our little village enquired of the driver of the conveyance what happy looking, peaceful sunshiny place it was.”

He notes that the Revd William Jellicorse retired as Vicar of Clunbury in August 1896 after 40 years. That year, Matins were said daily in the Parish Church at 10 a.m., there were two or three services each Sunday, and one of the highlights of life in Clunbury was the annual entertainment of the choir and bell-ringers.

Clungunford in south Shropshire is near the border with Herefordshire. Saint Cuthbert’s is the village parish church and the Rocke Cottage, formerly the Bird on the Rock, was named by the UK Tea Guild as Britain’s top tea place in 2011.

Knighton, which also features in this poem, is a small market town about seven miles south of Clun. It stands on the River Teme, straddling the border between England and Wales, so that the main part of the town is in Powys, within the historic county boundaries of Radnorshire, while a small part of the town is in Shropshire.

Knighton-on-Teme is a village in the Malvern Hills District in Worcestershire, about 14 miles east of Ludlow. It too stands on the banks of the River Teme.

6, Clun

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun,
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.

In valleys of springs and rivers,
By Ony and Teme and Clun,
The country for easy livers
The quietest under the sun,

We still had sorrows to lighten,
One could not always be glad,
And lads knew trouble at Knighton
When I was a Knighton lad.

By bridges that Thames runs under,
In London, the town built ill,
’Tis sure small matter for wonder
If sorrow is with one still.

And if as a lad grows older
The troubles he bears are more,
He carries his griefs on a shoulder
That handselled them long before.

Where shall one halt to deliver
This luggage I’d lief set down?
Not Thames, not Teme is the river,
Nor London nor Knighton the town:

’Tis a long way further than Knighton,
A quieter place than Clun
Where doomsday may thunder and lighten
And little ’twill matter to one.

Tomorrow: The Lark Ascending

John 3: 14-21, ‘For God so loved
the world that he gave his only Son’

Nicodemus visiting Christ in the dark ... where did the light shine through?

Patrick Comerford

Sunday week [15 March 2015], is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The readings provided in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) are: Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2: 1-10; and John 3: 14-21.

A previous typographical error in the Church of Ireland Directory 2012, which gave the Old Testament reading as Numbers 24: 4-9, has been corrected this year, and the correct reading is also given in The Book of Common Prayer (2004) (see p. 36), and on the Church of Ireland website.

However, there are other provisions for Sunday week. The lectionary provisions for Mothering Sunday are: Exodus 2: 10 or I Samuel 1: 20-28; Psalm 34: 11-20 or Psalm 127: 1-4; II Corinthians 1: 3-7 or Colossians 3: 12-17; Luke 2: 33-35 or John 19: 25-27.

I am enough of a realist to realise that many parishes are going to opt for those readings, and some may even use the readings provided for Saint Patrick’s Day (17 March), although it falls two day later: Tobit 13: 1b-7 or Deuteronomy 32: 1-9; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 31-38.

But if either of these sets of readings is used, then we miss the opportunity for continuity in our Lenten readings and the opportunity for continuity in Lent itself.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent is also known as Laetare Sunday because of the incipit of the traditional Introit: Laetare Jerusalem, “O be joyful, Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66: 10, Masoretic text).

The full Introit reads:

Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae.

Psalm: Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Domini ibimus.

Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.

Psalm: I rejoiced when they said to me: “we shall go into God’s House!”

This Sunday is also known as Refreshment Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday (in French mi-carême), and Rose Sunday. On this Sunday, mediaeval Popes blessed a golden rose to send to Catholic sovereigns.

In many parts of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church, rose-coloured vestments are worn on this Sunday instead of the violet or purple colour of Lent.

For our Bible study in our tutorial group this morning, I have prepared notes on the Gospel reading provided for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, John 3: 14-21.

John 3: 14-21

[ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ,]

14 καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς ὕψωσεν τὸν ὄφιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, 15 ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

16 Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλ' ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ. 18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται: ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ. 19 αὕτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ κρίσις, ὅτι τὸ φῶς ἐλήλυθεν εἰς τὸν κόσμον καὶ ἠγάπησαν οἱ ἄνθρωποι μᾶλλον τὸ σκότος ἢ τὸ φῶς, ἦν γὰρ αὐτῶν πονηρὰ τὰ ἔργα. 20 πᾶς γὰρ ὁ φαῦλα πράσσων μισεῖ τὸ φῶς καὶ οὐκ ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα μὴ ἐλεγχθῇ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ: 21 ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα φανερωθῇ αὐτοῦ τὰ ἔργα ὅτι ἐν θεῷ ἐστιν εἰργασμένα.

Translation (NRSV):

[Jesus answered him,]

14 ‘[And] Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’


The full story that provides the context for this reading, John 3: 1-21, is one that contains two of the most oft-quoted passages in Saint John’s Gospel: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (or “born again”) (verse 5); and “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (verse 16).

The placing of this story in Saint John’s Gospel is one of the keys to understanding it.

Already, in this Gospel, we have heard about the incarnation and the Word made flesh; John has borne witness to him as the Lamb of God; Christ has begun to gather disciples as witnesses to him as the Messiah; the first sign, at the wedding in Cana, presupposes the transcendence of all the established religion of the day in the self-offering of the Lamb of God, symbolised in the Eucharist; and the cleansing of the Temple shows that the sacrificial system is being replaced by the one true sacrifice in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Now we have an encounter with someone whose immediate concern is with the interpretation and the application of the law, for Nicodemus is both a Pharisee and a member of the ruling Sanhedrin.

Saint John’s Gospel is the only Gospel to tell the story of Nicodemus. He is not mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels, although some commentators have tried to identify him also with the rich young ruler in Saint Mark’s Gospel (see Mark 10: 17 ff) or with other figures in the synoptic Gospels.

The setting:

Verse 1: Nicodemus, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων, is a leader of the Jews, in other words a member of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court made up of seventy priests, scribes and elders, presided over by the High Priest.

Verse 2: Nicodemus comes to Christ by night. Perhaps, as a leading member of society, a very worldly figure perhaps, he did not want to be seen consulting this newly-arrived rabbi who has already caused a stir in Jerusalem. But remember the poetic and dramatic way in which John draws on contrasting images: heaven and earth, water and wine, seeing and believing, faith and understanding, truth and falseness. Here we have the contrast between darkness and light. The world that is in darkness is being brought into the light of Christ.

Nicodemus opens the conversation by referring to the signs, an important theme and key to understanding the Fourth Gospel. And he confesses a simple faith in Christ as a teacher sent by God. But John the Baptist has already been described as a man sent by God (John 1: 6). So that is not enough – that is simply an understanding of Christ without the crucifixion and the Resurrection. At this point, Nicodemus has seen but he does not believe; he has insight but does not have faith.

Verse 3: The reply from Christ puts the emphasis back on faith rather than understanding, on believing more than seeing. The Kingdom of God is not entered because of moral achievement, but because of transformation brought about by God.

There is a contrast between what Nicodemus sees and what those of faith may see. To “see” the Kingdom of God is not possible literally at that moment in time. For Christ, in this saying, to see is to experience. To experience the world in the light of the insights of the New Testament is so radically different an experience that it is like being born anew, being born once again.

The key word here is ἄνωθεν which as the double meaning of “from above” and “again.” The words translated as “being born from above” in the NRSV (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) could also be translated as “born anew” (RSV). Or it may mean “from the upper country” (physically or geographically) or “from above,” “from heaven.”

A new birth, a second birth, getting a whole new take on life, a new beginning, a fresh, refreshing start … what do you think is meant here? What has been your experience?

Verse 4: As we go on in the story, we see how difficult it was for Nicodemus to understand what Christ was saying.

Verse 5: Entry into the kingdom experience, birth into the new order, is through water, or baptism (see John 1: 33; Ephesians 5: 26), through the Spirit (see Ezekiel 36: 25-27), and through water and the Spirit (Titus 3: 5-7). These are not separate actions – remember how the Spirit descended and remained on Christ at his Baptism by John (see John 1: 32-34).

Verse 6: Like begets like.

Verse 7: You – the Greek pronoun here (ὑμᾶς) is in the plural, or as it might be written in Dublin slang, “yous.”

Verse 8: The wind (πνεῦμα): the Greek word here means both spirit and wind, while the word “sound” can also be translated as “voice.” See Ezekiel 36: 25-27, where it says: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”

Verse 9: Nicodemus has floundered around, he really fails to grasp what Christ is saying and its implications. His question is phrased “How can this be?” (RSV) or “How can these things be?” (NRSV). Others suggest his question should be translated as: “How can these things happen?” or even more literally: “How is it possible for these things to happen?”

Verse 10: A teacher ought to be aware of the truth. But Nicodemus is behaving like a weak pupil.

Verse 11: In this verse, the first use of the word “you” is singular … “you yourself” as opposed to “yous,” but the second use is plural. Notice how Christ moves from the second person singular to the first personal plural, from you to we, then you (plural) and our. Who is the “we” here, who owns what is “our” testimony?

Verse 12: We have here a contrast between earthly things, such as the parable of the wind (see verse 8), and heavenly things, as in supreme spiritual realities. And Nicodemus is offered choice. Which choice does he make?

Verse 13: Christ descended from heaven to bring eternal life, participation in God’s life. This is the first of John’s three sayings about the Son of Man being lifted up, comparable to three passages in Saint Mark’s Gospel on the Son of Man’s passion (see Mark 8: 31; Mark 9: 31; Mark 10: 33).

The Sunday Gospel reading:

Verse 14: The word “lift up” refers to both Christ being lifted up on the Cross and Christ being lifted up into heaven … the cross is the first step on the ladder of the ascension. For the imagery being drawn on here see the Old Testament reading provided for the same Sunday (Numbers 21: 4-9). The writer of the Book of Wisdom calls the serpent a symbol of salvation (Wisdom 16: 6). But this verse also recalls the earlier remark to Nathanael that he would see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (see John 1: 51).

“God so loved man (humanity)” ... Guizhou Theological Training Centre in Guiyang Province in central China (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Verse 16:

For many, this verse is a summary of the whole Gospel. Martin Luther called this much-quoted verse “the Gospel in miniature.”

This passage is a favourite inscription to place on the outside walls of churches in China. But it is often translated in Chinese as “God so loved man (humanity) …” It is not that God so loved the saved, or even all of humanity, or even the world, but that God so loved the cosmos (κόσμος), the whole created order, that he gave, or rather sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

The statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris (1989) on the harbour front in Pythagóreio on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Pythagorean thinking – and remember that John was in exile on Patmos, the neighbouring island of Samos, where Pythagoras was born – the cosmos (κόσμος) includes the arrangement of the stars, “the heavenly hosts,” as the ornament of the heavens (see I Peter 3: 3); it is not just the whole world, but the whole universe, the whole created order; it is earth and all that encircles the earth like its skin.

And this love is the beginning of Missio Dei, God’s mission – he sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

To perish and to have eternal life are absolute alternatives.

By now the dialogue has become a monologue.

Verse 17:

The same Greek verb (κρίνω) can mean to separate, to select or to condemn, and to approve and to judge. God’s purpose is not to condemn but to save.

Verses 18-19:

Individuals judge themselves by hiding their evil deeds from the light of Christ’s holiness.


So what happened to Nicodemus?

This is his first of three appearances in this Gospel. We shall meet him again a second time when he states the law concerning the arrest of Christ during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:45-51).

Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea claim the Body of Christ before dark falls

The third time follows the Crucifixion, when he helps Joseph of Arimathea in taking the body of Christ down from the cross before dark, and preparing the body for burial (John 19: 39-42).

So in the story of Nicodemus, we find birth is linked with death, new birth is linked with new life, and before darkness falls Nicodemus really comes to possess the Body of Christ, to hold the Body of Christ in his hands.


Nicodemus comes to Christ in the darkness, and is brought into the light. In this reading we come across, once again, the Johannine theme of the seeing and believing.

What would you miss if you could not see? What would you miss if you were blind?

So often, we take for granted not just our health and well-being but our physical senses too – our sight, speech, hearing, sense of smell and touch.

Many grieving and suffering mothers in our churches on Mothering Sunday may find themselves wondering why their children are suffering and wondering how or whether their suffering and the suffering of their children fit into God’s plans for the fullness of creation.

Indeed, many of us turn aside from the needs of other people in their plight, and how many of us still believe that those in poverty and deprivation simply need to “pull themselves up” or “to see the light”?

Christ’s compassion, caring and non-judgmental stance are in stark contrast with some who would like to claim the ground for conservative evangelicalism today, but who ignore the example of Christ. Recently, in what looks like an interview with himself – the ultimate verbal equivalent of a “selfie” – Professor Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School arrogantly argued: “Christians who by their failure to proclaim the Christ of the gospel of the kingdom while they treat AIDS victims in their suffering here and now show themselves not really to believe all that the Bible says about fleeing the wrath to come. In the end, it is a practical atheism and a failure in love.”

Practical Christianity is reduced to practical atheism in this sharp judgment without any reference to the example of Christ in the Gospel.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Christ reminds Nicodemus that he has come into the world not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. He puts this into practice into the way he heals the sick, feeds the hungry, brings sight to the blind, comforts those who mourn, putting into action what he has proclaims in the synagogue in Nazareth immediately after his temptations in the wilderness, as being the heart of the Gospel:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4: 18-19)

He sees their plight, and responds by showing what the Gospel truly means, what the Kingdom of God is truly like.

But so often, we take for granted not just our health and well-being but our physical senses too – our sight, speech, hearing, sense of smell and touch.

Meanwhile, it is worth asking again: What would you miss if you were blind?


Lord God
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

through your goodness
we are refreshed through your Son
in word and sacrament.
May our faith be so strengthened and guarded
that we may witness to your eternal love
by our words and in our lives.
Grant this for Jesus’ sake, our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible Study with part-time MTh students in a tutorial group on Saturday 7 March 2015.

A module on Church History

The ‘Church of Ireland Notes’ in The Irish Times (p 22) this morning [7 March 2015] includes the following:

This weekend in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute there will be a study weekend for the part-time MTh students and intern deacons. Dr Andrew Pierce and Dr Phil Groves, of the Anglican Communion Office, will lead a module on reconciliation studies and Canon Patrick Comerford will lead a module on church history. Dr Katie Hefflefinger will facilitate sessions on biblical exegisis.