06 September 2020

Death and dying in a traditional
icon and by the Bay of Naples

Patrick Comerford

The Church of England, in the Calendar in Common Worship, marks 15 August as a Holy Day with the simple designation ‘Blessed Virgin Mary.’ The Orthodox Church celebrates the day as the Dormition of the Theotokos, and for the Roman Catholic it is the Feast of the Assumption.

Although the Birth of the Virgin Mary is marked in the calendar of the Church of Ireland this month (8 September), many are uncomfortable about commemorations on 15 August, although we usually commemorate saints on the days they are said to have died. Perhaps this discomfort has less to do with post-Reformation debates and more to do with residual memories of how 15 August was used to counter-balance Orange celebrations on 12 July.

The icon of the Dormition was completed by El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) in Crete, probably before 1567

The Dormition and the Assumption are different names for the same event, the Virgin Mary’s death or departure from earth, although the two feasts do not necessarily have an identical understanding of the event or sequence of events.

But, while the Assumption is only a recent doctrinal innovation in the Roman Catholic tradition, decreed in 1950, the tradition of the Dormition is much older in the Orthodox Church, where the day is a Great Feast and recalls the ‘falling asleep’ or death of the Virgin Mary.

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

However, the first four Christian centuries are silent about the death of the Virgin Mary, and there is no documentary evidence to support claims that the feast of the Dormition was observed in Jerusalem around the time of the Council of Ephesus in 431.


An icon of the Dormition by Alexandra Kaouki nears completion in her workshop in Rethymnon, Crete

Traditional Orthodox icons of the Dormition depicting the death of the Virgin Mary incorporate many apocryphal elements or details from writings known as pseudepigrapha. Many icons show the apostles and other saints, including four early Christian writers, gathered around her deathbed, with Christ and the angels waiting above.

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

Alexandra Kaouki at work on her icon in her workshop below the slopes of the Fortezza in Rethymnon

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

She was creating this new icon for the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, or the Little Church of Our Lady, on a small square in the old town.

It was a careful, slow, step-by-step work in progress, based on El Greco’s celebrated icon. But, as her work progressed, Alexandra made what she describes as ‘necessary corrections’ to allow her to ‘entirely follow the Byzantine rules.’

The icon of the Dormition completed by Alexandra Kaouki for a church in the old town of Rethymnon

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

How many of the Twelve should be depicted?

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

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

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

A missed date with Mrs Fitzherbert

The Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire … the planned venue for the USPG conference in July (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

One of the casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown in Britain has been this year’s annual conference of the Anglican mission agency, USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel. I have been a trustee of USPG for over five years, and was a council member for many years before that.

In recent years, the conference has tended to take place in the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hertfordshire. But USPG was due to return to the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, from 20 to 22 July.

The conference, with the theme ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’: God’s People in God’s Mission, was timed to run into the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, from 23 July to 2 August, but that too has been postponed.

Mrs Maria Fitzherbert … went through a secret marriage with the future King George IV

The Hayes has been a Christian conference centre since 1911, and I first attended a conference there in 1976. The main house at Swanwick was once the home of the Fitzherbert Wright family, a branch of the Fitzherbert family whose members, by marriage, included the famous – or infamous – Mrs Fitzherbert.

Maria Anne Fitzherbert (1756-1837) was a twice-widowed Roman Catholic who secretly contracted a marriage with King George IV that was invalid under English civil law. They were married in 1785 when he was Prince of Wales, but the marriage had not received the consent of his father, George III, although her nephew-in-law from her first marriage, Cardinal Thomas Weld, persuaded Pope Pius VII to declare the marriage sacramentally valid.

Maria Fitzherbert was the eldest child of Walter Smythe of Brambridge, Hampshire. Her first husband, Edward Weld, was 16 years her senior and died just three months after their marriage in 1775. She married her second husband, Thomas Fitzherbert (1746-1781) of Swynnerton, Staffordshire, in 1778, but was widowed once again in 1781.


Ralph Fitzherbert of Norbury … ancestor of the Fitzherbert family and father-in-law of Thomas Comberford

A miniature portrait of Mrs Fitzherbert was among the 1,100 lots auctioned earlier this year at Matthews Auction Rooms in Kells, Co Meath. The catalogue described her as a ‘member, through previous marriage, of the Meath landowning Fitzherbert family.’ It went on to say, ‘she was a beauty of her age and the wife of King George IV, [to] whom she bore two children.’

However this portrait came into the Fitzherbert family in Co Meath, they were not descended from Mrs Fitzherbert. Indeed, any Fitzherbert living in Co Meath at the time of her secret marriage to the future king could only have been a fifth or fourth cousin of her second husband, Thomas Fitzherbert.

The lake at Swanwick … the estate was once owned by the Fitzherbert Wright family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On the other hand, there are many interesting connections between the Comerford and Comberford families and the Fitzherbert family in Staffordshire. The supposed Comberford ancestor of my branch of the family was Judge Richard Comberford (1512-ca 1547), a brother of Canon Henry Comberford (1499-1586), Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral.

They were the sons of Thomas Comberford (1472-1532) of Comberford, who became a member of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist in Lichfield in 1495, a year or two before he married his second wife, Dorothy Fitzherbert, daughter of Ralph Fitzherbert of Norbury, near Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

This makes Richard Comberford a nephew of Thomas Fitzherbert, Precentor of Lichfield, William Fitzherbert, Chancellor of Lichfield, and Sir Anthony Fitzherbert, ancestor of Maria Fitzherbert’s second husband and of the Irish Fitzherberts.

There are signs and symbols of the Fitzherbert and Wright families throughout the house at Swanwick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are no portraits of Mrs Fitzherbert in the house at Swanwick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Fitzherbert Wright family of Swanwick was also ancestors of the Maynell family, who inherited a large painting once in Swanwick that was donated some years ago to USPG. The painting raised £550,000 and helped support work among refugees in Greece by USPG and the Anglican chaplaincy in Athens.

However, I don’t know if there ever was any portrait of Mrs Fitzherbert in Swanwick.

See Naples and … but don’t die

The Bay of Naples … who swims north of Naples when there is an ‘R’ in the month? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I heard once of a grand old lady who was asked late one year whether she had gone swimming that weekend.

‘No, my dear,’ she replied tersely. ‘I never swim north of Naples when there’s an R in the month.’

The saying ‘See Naples and Die’ is said to have been coined when the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – Naples and Sicily – was at the height of its golden age under the rule of the Bourbon dynasty.

Naples and Sicily experienced a ‘golden age’ during the rule of the Bourbon dynasty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Pompeii and Vesuvius are among the tourist attractions at the Bay of Naples (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The phrase was popularised in Northern Europe 200 years ago when it was quoted by Goethe in Italian Journey (1816/1817), where he quotes it as: Vedi Napoli e poi muori.

Goethe visited Naples and Sicily for three months, from February to May 1787, when he climbed Vesuvius, visited Pompeii, and travelled on to Taormina and other places in Sicily.

During that tour, Goethe was fascinated by the lifestyle of people: ‘Naples is a paradise; everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness, myself included. I seem to be a completely different person whom I hardly recognise. Yesterday, I thought to myself: Either you were mad before, or you are mad now.’

The phrase quoted by Goethe earned a new popularity in Italy with a 1950s B-rated movie with the same title.


I have seen the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius and Pompeii and travelled through Sicily, visiting Taormina and Mount Etna. But my planned visit to Italy this year was to neither. Instead, I had hoped to visit Puglia in June, with a few days in Bari – also known for its links with Saint Nicholas of Santa Claus fame.

I was booked to spend a night in one of the trulli or traditional dry-stone huts with conical roofs, in the town of Alberobello. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 travel restrictions frustrated those travel plans too – among many others – along with my hopes of swimming south of Naples before there was an ‘R’ in the month.

Goethe visited Taormina in Sicily during his tour of the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples and Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

My GP tells me swimming is good for my sarcoidosis, a condition on my lungs first diagnosed about 12 years ago. The first symptoms included a persistent cough, minor infections on my legs and loss of breath and balance.

It was embarrassing to preside at the Eucharist in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, hoping not to break into an unexpected spasm of coughing, or to find myself bowed over in the chapel seats, unable to join in singing hymns. The symptoms were further complicated when I was diagnosed with a severe Vitamin B12 deficiency.

In the years since, I have been through what seems like every hospital south of the Liffey for tests and procedures. Thankfully, my GP and consultants have brought everything under control. Although I still take an inhaler twice a day, you might not notice any symptoms – though I still worries about a coughing spasm on flights or public transport that fellow passengers may fear is an indication of Covid-19.

Hopefully, my sarcoidosis symptoms remain under control. In the meantime, I hope the Coronavirus recedes and that a vaccine or an immunisation is found.

I suppose I shall have to wait until Christmas before I see Saint Nicholas of Bari. But it would be good to swim south of Naples again – whether or not there is an ‘R’ in the month from now on. And I still hope to see the Bay of Naples once again.

This feature was first published in the August 2020 edition of the 'Church Review', the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazine

‘When life gives you lemons’ … do not give up on returning to Naples (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sunday intercessions on
6 September 2020 (Trinity XIII)

Rathkeale No 2 National School … ‘we pray for children in our dioceses starting a new school year, that they may be safe, happy and grow in learning’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful’ (Psalm 149: 1):

Let us pray:

‘The Lord has pleasure in his people
and adorns the poor with salvation’ (Psalm 149: 4)

We pray for the nations of the world:

We pray for our own government and all governments
we pray for all dealing with this Covid-19 crisis,
and we thank God for the blessings
of wise decision makers and advisers …

We pray for the people of Beirut and Lebanon …
the people of the Middle East …

We pray for the local community:

We give thanks for frontline workers,
essential services that have kept working …
for our schools … the gardai …
for community volunteers …
for parents and carers of people with special needs …
for those who return to work … those who wait to return to work …
those who have no work to return to …
for business owners who try to keep going …
for those who work in difficult or oppressive working conditions …
for those who still live with fear …

In the Diocesan Cycle of Prayer, we pray this week
for children in our dioceses starting a new school year,
that they may be safe, happy and grow in learning.

In this time the Church calls Ordinary Time,
we continue to give thanks for all the ordinary things
that in the past we have taken for granted.

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

‘Where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am there among them’ (Matthew 18: 20).

We pray for the universal Church of God …

In the Anglican Cycle of Prayer,
we pray for the Anglican Church of Southern Africa,
and for the Most Revd Thabo Makgoba,
Archbishop of Capetown and Primate of Southern Africa.

We pray for the bishops of the Church of Ireland
and the staff of the diocese and the Church
who have continued to work throughout this crisis.

Throughout the Church of Ireland this month,
we pray for the Diocese of Meath and Kildare,
for Bishop Pat Storey,
and for the people and priests of the diocese.

We pray for our bishop, Kenneth,
and for his ministry, mission and witness …
for the Revd Bernie Daly, who is introduced this morning
as Dean’s Vicar in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick …

Christ have mercy,
Christ have mercy.

The Lord said: ‘I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you … This day shall be a day of remembrance for you’
(Exodus 12: 13-14)

We remember and pray for those in need:

In our hearts, we name individuals, families, neighbours,
care homes, hospitals, voluntary groups …

We pray for those who are sick or isolated,
at home or in hospital …
Alan … Margaret … Lorraine … Ajay…
We pray for those we have offered to pray for …

We pray for all who grieve and mourn at this time …
We remember, and give thanks for, the faithful departed …
may their families find comfort and support in the prayers of friends …
May their memories be a blessing to us …

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

A prayer for today in the Prayer Diary of
the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel):

Lord Jesus, you taught us to love our neighbour,
and to care for those in need as if we were caring for you.
In this time of anxiety,
give us strength to comfort the fearful,
to tend the sick,
and to assure the isolated of our love. Amen.

Merciful Father …

These intercessions were prepared for Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, on Sunday 6 September 2020 (Trinity XIII)

Why forgiveness and
love are at the heart of
what the Church must be

‘If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven’ (Matthew 18: 19) … the Cross of Nails in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 6 September 2020

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIII)

9:30 a.m.:
The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

11:30 a.m.: Morning Prayer (Morning Prayer 2), Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry

The Readings: Exodus 12: 1-14; Psalm 149; Matthew 18: 15-20.

‘Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone’ (Matthew 18: 15) … the sculpture ‘Reconciliation’ by Josephina da Vasconcellos in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

In this morning’s Gospel reading (Matthew 18: 15-20), Christ has just told the parable of the lost sheep, and how the shepherd goes in search of the one that goes astray, and rejoices over finding it (Matthew 18: 10-14).

So now, how should the Church respond to one member who has gone astray or who sins against other members of the Church?

The first response is to try taking that person aside to point out their fault. But that person should not be humiliated in front of others, and this should be done alone.

However, if you are not listened to, one or two others should be asked to be present as witnesses.

If the person still refuses to listen, the matter should be brought before the whole assembly of the Church, the ekklesia.

If the offender refuses to listen even to the Church, then, as a final sanction, that person should be treated as an unworthy outsider.

Christ then says that ‘you’ – the whole assembly of the Church, the ekklesia – have the authority to bind or condemn, to loose or to acquit, as if this is a decision that has divine authority.

Finally, Christ tells us that he is present in common prayer, study, and in decision-making, even when only two or three members of the Church are present. Christ is to be found in community.

There are only two places in all the four Gospels where Christ uses the word for the Church that is found in this Gospel reading, the word εκκλησία (ekklesia): the first time is in Matthew 16: 18, when Christ relates the Church to a confession of faith by the Apostle Peter, the rock-solid foundational faith of Saint Peter, which we heard about two weeks ago [23 August 2020].

His second use of this word is not once but twice in one verse in this morning’s reading (Matthew 18: 17).

It is a peculiar word for Christ to use, and yet he only speaks of the Church in these terms on these two occasions.

In total, the word εκκλησία appears 114 times in the New Testament (four verses in the Acts of the Apostles, 58 times by Saint Pauline in his epistles, twice in the Letter to the Hebrews, once in the Epistle of James, three times in III John, and in 19 verses in the Book of Revelation). But Christ only uses the word twice, in these incidents in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

How does Christ define the Church?

What makes up and defines the Church?

And why, throughout the Gospels, does Christ use this word to describe the Church only twice?

During the pandemic shutdown, when many of our church buildings remained closed, many of us comforted ourselves with phrases such as ‘the church is not a building’ and ‘people make the church.’

The Irish language expresses this in a different way. The Irish word eaglais, which comes from this same word εκκλησία, is usually used for a church building, although the word teampaill is used too, and eaglais is also used for the Church as institution, so that the Church of Ireland is called Eaglais na hÉireann in Irish.

But when referring to the Church as the people, the Irish language uses the phrase Pobal Dé, the ‘People of God.’

The English word ‘church’ we use in everyday English can be traced through Old English (cirice) and Old High German (kirihha) to a Greek word κυριακόν (kuriakón), that simply means ‘of the Lord.’

But the word εκκλησία (ekklesia) does not mean ‘belonging to the Lord.’ Even if that is implied, the word is different.

The word Christ uses in this reading, εκκλησία, means ‘called out,’ an assembly of people that is involved in social life, religion and government.

This word εκκλησία goes all the way back to classical Athens, when the city assembly or εκκλησία consisted of all the citizens who had kept their civil rights. From ca 300 BC, the ekklesia met in the Theatre of Dionysus, beneath the slopes of the rock of the Acropolis.

The powers of the εκκλησία were almost unlimited. It met three or four times a month, and it elected and dismissed judges, directed the policy of the city, declared war and made peace, negotiated and ratified treaties and alliances, chose generals and raised taxes.

It was a city assembly in which all members had equal rights and duties, and all citizens took part, regardless of class or status. It had the final say.

When Christ is talking about the church as εκκλησία then, he is talking about all the members of the church community, who have equal rights, equal power, equal duties and an equal and respected say in what is going on.

Baptism makes us all equal, without discrimination, in the Church.

And the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, is the lived continuation of our Baptism.

There is only one Body of Christ, and so there is only one Baptism and only one Eucharist.

For the Apostle Paul, the Church is one body, the Body of Christ, where there is no discrimination among those who are baptised and who share in the sacramental mysteries (see I Corinthians 12: 12-13 and Ephesians 1: 22-23).

And what Christ does in this Gospel reading is not to give power to the Church but to warn us as the Church about the power we already have as εκκλησία and the consequences of how we use that power.

A few verses earlier, in verses we do not read this time (see verses 10-13), Christ reminds us not to despise the little ones, to go after the one sheep from among the 99 that might go astray, to make sure that not even one of the little ones is left to be lost.

Now he tells us that in the Church there is no room for us to refuse to talk to one another, to bear grudges, to refuse to listen to one another.

And he warns us against the real dangers of trying to use the powers that the Church has in the wrong way.

In the culture and context of the Greek-speaking world of the East Mediterranean, people would know that the εκκλησία, this very particular type of assembly, had the last and final say.

For Christ to say that what the Church approves of or disapproves of has implications of the highest order is not Christ endowing the Church with supernatural powers. Rather, it is warning us of making decisions, going in directions, exercising discrimination, in the Church that will have not merely temporal and worldly but eternal and spiritual consequences.

There can be no petty divisions in the Church, if we are to be true to the meaning of Baptism and the Eucharist which form and sustain us in one body, the Body of Christ. And the Church has to be a haven for those who are the victims of division, discrimination and disaster. Our haven can be their heaven.

When we discriminate against others, the consequences are not just for them, or even for us, but for the whole Church.

In recent months, there have been protests across the United States against police use of brutality and proclaiming ‘Black Lives Matter.’ But the silence of many megachurch and evangelical leaders who have supported President Trump has been hauntingly deafening in these recent months when it comes to racism, and the use of troops on city streets, and other pressing issues such as climate change. In many places, that part of the Church that claims the moral high ground has been found to be morally impoverished.

The first reading (Exodus 12: 1-14), , difficult though it may be to read in our culture today, is a story that people used to recall that in the midst of death and destruction, God could still look down at a people who are oppressed and enslaved, hear their cry, and want them to be free.

Who are the people who are enslaved and oppressed among our neighbours today? The new arrival in direct provision, the immigrant, the homeless family, the people living on their own, those who cannot find meaningful employment after the pandemic lockdown, those who struggle to keep a shop open or to keep a farm going, those who truly have no friends or no-one to listen to?

Would they see that we have taken to heart Saint Paul’s advice that we might have heard to this morning’s Epistle reading (Romans 13: 8-14), ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law … Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another’ (Romans 13: 8) … old pennies in a bar in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 18: 15-20 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

‘Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven’ (Matthew 18: 18) … paper or origami chains in the shape of cranes, a Japanese symbol of peace and reconciliation, in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green (Year A)

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
who called your Church to bear witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
Help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Collect of the Word:

O loving God,
enliven and preserve your Church
with your perpetual mercy.
Without your help we mortals will fail;
remove far from us everything that is harmful,
and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation,
through Jesus Christ our Saviour and Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God our creator,
you feed your children with the true manna,
the living bread from heaven.
Let this holy food sustain us through our earthly pilgrimage
until we come to that place
where hunger and thirst are no more;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘Father Forgive’ … the Cross of Nails in Coventry Cathedral … ‘If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven’ (Matthew 18: 19) … (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


525, Let there be love shared among us (CD 30)
517, Brother, sister, let me serve you (CD 30)

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

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The ekklesia in classical Athens met in the Theatre of Dionysus, beneath the slopes of the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)