15 February 2018

Feasting and fasting in Lent with
Samuel Johnson in Lichfield

‘1709 the Brasserie’ at 3-5 Lombard Street recalls Samuel Johnson’s birth in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

On a bright sunny morning last month, I found myself admiring a row of 18th century, timber-framed houses on Lombard Street, Lichfield.

I soon realised that the name of ‘1709 the Brasserie’ refers not to the date the house was built, still less to the date the restaurant began business. Instead, it refers to Samuel Johnson, Lichfield’s most famous literary figure, was born.

The ‘1709’ at 3-5 Lombard Street is housed in an attractive, mediaeval, timber-framed building, with low beams, creaky floors and timber framed walls. There are chunky wooden tables and chairs and a good mix of contemporary and traditional furnishings.

The proprietors first opened a bistro on this site in 1999 and called it Pastiche Bistro. They sold it in 2005, but they bought it back again in November 2008 and opened in December 2008 as 1709 the brasserie.

The menu is simple and stylish, with an emphasis on locally sourced and homemade produce, and the menus change every four to six weeks.
Although the fa├žades of the buildings on this row of houses may date from the 18th and even the 19th centuries, they have earlier timber frames that probably date from the late 16th century.

There are tiled roofs, brick stacks, moulded cornices and fascias, recessed entrances, canopies, oriel windows, casement and sash windows, two canted oriels, blocked entrances and openings, gabled half dormers and rear gables.

My Lenten meditations each morning this year are looking at Stations of the Cross in Longford, Millstreet and Lichfield. But some years ago, I reflected each day in Lent on appropriate passages from the writings of Samuel Johnson.

Samuel Johnson bemoaned the fact that the observance of Lent had fallen into neglect in his time, and in Abyssinia he wrote: ‘During the great Lent, they eat neither butter nor milk, not any thing that has had life. They fast all Holy Week upon bread and water; … Thus Lent is observed throughout Abyssinia, men, women and children fasting with great exactness.’

On the other hand, he noted in contrast: ‘Abstinence from lacticinia [milk foods], which included butter, cheese, and eggs, was never strictly enforced in Britain, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries because of the lack of oil and other products that could serve as substitutes.’

Johnson’s diaries show that such fasting was a regular practice for him, including the anniversary of his mother’s death (23 January 1759), during Lent, and from Good Friday until Easter morning. His biographer, James Boswell, notes that Johnson fasted so strictly on Good Friday that ‘he did not even taste bread, and took no milk with his tea; I suppose because it is some kind of animal food.’

So, I wonder what Dr Johnson would make of this fine restaurant in Lichfield that is named after the year of his birth. In his Dictionary, Johnson defines lunch, pleasingly, as being ‘as much food as the hand can hold.’

But even in Lent, this can sound a little meagre.

Following the Stations
of the Cross in Lent 2:
Introducing the
Longford Stations

Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, has been restored following a devastating fire … the Stations of the Cross by Ken Thompson were commissioned for the restoration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Each morning in Lent, as part of my meditations and reflections for Lent this year, I am being guided by the Stations of the Cross from three locations.

The idea for this series of morning Lenten meditations came from reading about Peter Walker’s new exhibition, ‘Imagining the Crucifixion,’ inspired by the Stations of the Cross, which opened in Lichfield Cathedral yesterday, Ash Wednesday [14 February 2018], and continues throughout Lent.

Throughout Lent, my meditations each morning are inspired by three sets of Stations of the Cross that I have found either inspiring or unusual. They are the stations in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, at Saint John’s Well on a mountainside near Millstreet, Co Cork, and in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

In my meditations, I plan to draw on a portion of the Stabat Mater, the 12th century hymn of the Crucifixion (‘At the cross her station keeping’) attributed to the Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi. Some prayers are from the Book of Common Prayer, and other meditations and prayers are written by Canon Frank Logue and the Revd Victoria Logue. He is Canon to the Ordinary in the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, assisting the Bishop of Georgia in overseeing the clergy and congregations across coastal and south Georgia.

For the next two weeks, I am going to look at the 14 Stations of the Cross in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, sculpted in Bath stone by Ken Thompson of Co Cork.

Work on building Saint Mel’s as the cathedral of the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise began in 1840. But this work was delayed by the Great Famine, and the main body of the cathedral was not completed until 1856. It is a neo-classical design by the architect Joseph Benjamin Keane, and after his death in 1849 the work was continued by his assistant John Bourke.

The neo-classical portico was designed by George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921) and completed in 1889 with its pediment and tympanum sculpted by George Smyth depicting the enthronement of Saint Mel as Bishop of Ardagh along with three statues above the pediment.

But the entire building was destroyed on 25 December 2009 in a devastating fire that began accidently and spread quickly on Christmas morning.

After five years of work by many expert disciplines using traditional methods, the cathedral was completely refurbished. Two Harry Clarke Studio windows – Saint Anne (north transept) and the Resurrection (south transept) – were salvaged and restored by Abbey Stained Glass of Dublin. Other replacements, including the wooden pews, altar, stained glass, Stations of the Cross, pipe-organ, fixtures and fittings, were all made in a modern style using the best materials and craftsmanship.

The 14 Stations of the Cross were carved in Bath stone with chisel and mallet by Ken Thompson from Co Cork, with lettering inspired by the work of Eric Gill and haloes picked out in gold leaf.

Unusually for Stations of the Cross, the text at the foot of each panel is not descriptive, but allusive. ‘I like to let people work things out for themselves,’ he told The Irish Times, ‘and I thought, why not use this space not to say the obvious – that is contained in the imagery – but to put in inscriptions?’

Ken Thompson chose two lines of scripture for each panel, cut them in his classical Roman lettering inspired by Eric Gill, and highlighted them in terracotta, one of the two colours used in the otherwise plain Bath stone.

The other colour is blue, which he uses to give a background dimension that works almost like a shadow in itself, impelling the foreground figures into greater relief and enhancing the 24-carat gold leaf haloes. These establish not only the central image of Christ but also those of his mother or a half-hidden disciple.

The sequence makes an impressive narrative: pillar and arches convey the passage of the condemned Christ through the city of Jerusalem.

In Station V, and again in Station XIII, a mouse appears as a reminder of a tradition that as a carpenter Saint Joseph made mousetraps – the mousetrap can be seen in Station XIII. But there is a less benign legend in which a mouse appears as the devil in disguise, and Thompson weaves this reference into an almost textual example of sermons in stones.

In Station VI, an owl hovers above the head of Saint Veronica as an omen of death. The angel with the filled cup in Station IX, and the chalice that is seen again in Station XIII, recall both the Last Supper and Gethsemane. In Station XII, we see the Crucified Christ between the two thieves on either side. When Christ is laid in the tomb in Station XIV, the panel is luminous, the lidded grave finished like a tablecloth.

Ken Thompson first prepared the sketch for each panel as a graph. But, as The Irish Times noted, this does not conceal the wrenching physicality of the Crucifixion as the story of the Stations comes to its climax. The impact is only mellowed subsequently by the gesture of the Virgin Mary as her son is taken down from the Cross, her cheek resting against his limp arm.

It is a human story that is both timeless and poignant.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tomorrow: Station 1: Jesus is condemned to death.

Yesterday’s reflection