17 November 2021

A morning among the dead
of Venice on the cemetery
island of San Michele

Ballet shoes on the grave of the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev on the cemetery island of San Michele in the Lagoon of Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Venice is a collection of islands linked by canals and bridges, interconnected by narrow alleyways, squares of all shapes and sizes and the vaporetti or water buses. While tourists find their way from Rialto to San Marco, or from Cannaregio to Giudecca, few move beyond the main highlights found in their guidebooks.

More discerning visitors may spend a few hours in the islands of the lagoon, especially the Lido, Torcello and Murano and Burano.

But the smaller islands are generally missed, and few make it in any great numbers to the Isola di San Michele, a former prison island that takes five or ten minutes to reach by water bus, half-way between Fondamente Nuove on Cannaregio and the island of Murano on vaporetto routes 41 and 42.

Perhaps they are deterred by the name of the vaporetto stop for San Michele: Cimitero. For this has been Venice’s cemetery since the early 1800s, when the occupying Napoleonic forces told the Venetians to start taking their dead across the water instead of burying them in Venice itself.

It was all in the name of hygiene and because of a growing shortage of burial places.

The lagoon was once the preserve of fishermen and hunters, and the stories of the islands is shrouded in myth and legend. Murano is the island of glassmakers and Burano the island of lace, but other islands were monasteries, used as prisons and gunpowder factories, or serving as market gardens or cemeteries.

In the cloisters of the Church of San Michele (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Cimitero, with a large number of cypress trees and enclosed within high terracotta walls, was originally the two islets of San Michele and San Cristoforo della Pace.

The Hermits of the Camaldolese Order moved onto the island in the 12th century, and founded the Monastery of Saint Michael (San Michele di Murano), which became a centre of learning and printing. The famous cartographer, Fra Mauro, who drew maps that helped European explorers, was a monk of this community.

The landmark building on the island is the Chiesa di San Michele in Isola, designed by Mauro Codussi in 1469. This was the first Renaissance church in Venice, and the first church in Venice to be faced in white Istrian stone.

But the monastery was suppressed by French forces under Napoleon, in the course of their conquest of the Italian peninsula, and the monks were expelled in 1814. The Napoleonic administration had decreed that burial on the main islands of Venice was unsanitary, and these two small islands then became Venice’s major cemetery. The canal separating the two islands was filled in between 1837 and 1839, and the larger island became known as San Michele.

The cemetery church of San Cristoforo, designed by Gian Antonio Selva (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

At one time, coffins were carried to the island on special funeral gondolas. Earlier last week, two of us visited the old and new Jewish cemeteries on the Lido. So, one morning, we decided to see Cimitero, an island that we had given a miss before on the journey to and from Murano.

Jan Morris, in The World of Venice, compares the cemetery island to a ship where ‘the director stands as proudly in his great graveyard as any masterful cruiser captain, god-like on his bridge.’

The cemetery is wide and calm, with a series of large gardens, studded with cypress trees and cluttered with hundreds of thousands of tombs and graves. Some are lavishly monumental, with domes and sculptures and wrought-iron gates; many more are stacked in high modern terraces, like filing cabinets.

The graves of Igor and Vera Stravinsky on San Michele (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Most of San Michele is reserved for Catholics. Walls separate the different areas, and the graves lie in neat, tightly-packed, serried rows, separated by paths. Some graves are neglected, but most are well-tended and many had recently-laid flowers, perhaps there since All Souls’ Day earlier the previous week (2 November).

The island also has two smaller, separate graveyards for other Christians. Those who are buried in the Greci or Greek Orthodox cemetery include the composer Igor Stravisky (1882-1971) and the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929).

Venice has always had a sizeable Greek population, and here too are the graves of bishops, merchants and refugees who fled Smyrna in the 1920s.

The graves of Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

In the Evangelisti or Protestant graveyard, we found the graves of the American poet and critic, and fascist collaborator, Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who influenced the work of TS Eliot, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, and of Pound’s mistress, the violinist Olga Rudge (1895-1996). Here too are the graves of the Russian and American poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), and the German painter August Wolf (1842-1915).

One gravestone has an awkwardly-composed inscription: ‘In loving memory of Frank Justice Stanier of Staffordshire who left us in peace, Febry 2nd 1910.’ His family lived at Madeley Manor, Staffordshire, and at Moor House, Biddulph. Another gravestone is of Edward Douglas Guinness (1893-1983), a member of the banking branch of the family and a partner in Guinness Mahon.

In contrast to the formal, tended graves and gardens of graves in other parts of the cemetery, the Greci and Protestant sections have an atmosphere of rustic decay. Some tombstones are covered in moss, a few are leaning over, and some are collapsing.

The grave of Frank Justice Stanier of Staffordshire ‘who left us in peace’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Chiesa di San Michele in Isola was designed by Mauro Codussi and built ca 1469. This is the first Renaissance church in Venice, and the church and the monastery also served for a time as a prison.

The other churches and chapels on the islands include cemetery church of San Cristoforo, designed by Gian Antonio Selva (1751-1819), the Cappella Emiliana chapel, and a small Greek Orthodox funeral chapel.

If San Michele is not crowded by living tourists, it is certainly crowded by dead Venetians. It is so crowded that graves are on short-term leases. The bodies in each row of graves are allowed to decompose for 12 years, and are then dug up.

When families could not pay for reburial, the bones of the dead are taken to the ossuary island of Sant’Ariano, near Torcello. That island is described vividly by Michael Dibdin in his novel Dead Lagoon. Today, after a respectful passage of time, bones are transferred to small metal boxes in tall grey cement-block piles that look more like filing cabinets.

As we left the island and waited for the water bus, we agreed to go to lunch wherever the first vaporetto brought us: Murano or Cannaregio. When it arrived, the next vaporetto was going to Fondamente Nuove, and so we opted for lunch in the Ghetto.

The grave of the banker Edward Douglas Guinness (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
172, Saint Seiriol’s Church and Penmon Priory

Penmon Priory … the former cloisters are enclosed by the former refectory (left), the former prior’s house (centre) and Saint Seiriol’s Priory Church (right) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme on this prayer diary for the rest of this week is cathedrals and churches in Wales. As part of my reflections and this prayer diary this morning, my photographs today (17 November 2021) are from Saint Seiriol’s Church and Penmon Priory on the island of Anglesey.

The chancel of the Priory Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I went to the ends of Anglesey earlier this week to visit one of the earliest Christian sites in Wales. On the recommendation of the Rector of Beaumaris, the Revd Neil Fairlamb two of us travelled out east to the edge of the island.

Pemon is a short drive of only 5 km (3 miles) east from Beaumaris, and its name in Welsh means the end of Anglesey (pen, promontory; and Môn, Anglesey). It is at the eastern tip of Anglesey, looking out towards Snowdonia on the other side of the Menai Straits and out to the Irish Sea.

Penmon limestone was used to build Birmingham Town Hall and in rebuilding Liverpool and Manchester after World War II. The stone was also used in building the Menai Suspension Bridge (1826) and the Britannia Bridge (1850).

Saint Seiriol’s Church at Penmon may be part of the oldest remaining Christian building in Wales. According to tradition, a community grew up at Penmon around a monastery (clas) established in the early sixth century by Saint Seiriol on land provided by his brother, Saint Einion, King of Llyn.

Two friends, Saint Seiriol and Saint Cybi, founded monasteries at opposite ends of Anglesey. Saint Cybi’s monastery was on the north-west tip of the Anglesey at the heart of what is now Holyhead, whose Welsh name Caergybi recalls the saint. Saint Seiriol set up his monastery at Penmon, at the eastern tip of the island.

According to folklore, these two saints met weekly near Llanerchymedd, near the centre of the island. Saint Cybi would walk from Holyhead, facing the rising sun in the morning and the setting sun in the evening. Saint Seiriol, travelling in the opposite direction, had the sun to his back during his journey. And so they were known as Cybi the Dark, because he was tanned on his journey, and Seiriol the Fair.

Although Saint Seiriol later moved offshore to a hermitage on Puffin Island, Saint Seiriol’s Monastery prospered and grew in size. By the 10th century, the monastery had a wooden church building, and two crosses that probably stood at the entrance to the monastery complex.

After Penmon was destroyed during Viking raids in 971, the church was rebuilt in stone, and Penmon survived the initial Norman invasion of Gwynedd between 1081 and 1100, when it was defended by Prince Gruffudd ap Cynan of Gwynedd.

During the 12th century, the Priory Church was rebuilt in stone under Gruffudd ap Cynan and Owain Gwynedd, from 1120 to 1123, and the oldest parts of the Priory Church today date from 1140. This is the most complete building of its age in north-west Wales.

In the 13th century, under Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, the monasteries in Wales were reorganised under the Augustinian rule. Penmon became an Augustinian priory, the church was enlarged and new conventual buildings were built.

Penmon Priory expanded and survived the English conquest of Wales during the reign of King Edward I. There are records for the election of Priors back to 1306, when Iowerth the Prior is named.

The dining hall was on the first floor, with a cellar below and dormitory above. In the 16th century, a kitchen and a warming house were added at the east of the building. The eastern range of buildings has gone, but the southern one, containing the refectory with a dormitory above, still stands.

Llywelyn Fawr and his successors made the church wealthy with generous grants of land. However, in the period immediately before the Reformation, Penmon Priory was already in decline, and by 1536 the community included only the Prior and two other members.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the priory was dissolved in 1538, and the buildings and land became the property of the Bulkeley family of Beaumaris, a prominent local family who used most of the land for a deer park and built the dovecote near the church.

However, the church survived the Reformation and Saint Seiriol’s Church, which was the centrepiece of the monastery, remained in use. Much of the church was rebuilt in 1855, and the chancel now serves as the parish church, while the transepts and nave remain part of the church complex.

The church has a typical cruciform arrangement. The nave, which is the oldest part, was completed ca 1140. The transepts and the tower were built in 1160-1170, and the chancel was added in 1220-1240 during the rule of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), who convinced the monasteries in North Wales to reorganise under the Augustinian Order.

A refectory was built around this time, with a large dining hall, cellars and a dormitory. This three-storey building is now roofless.

The building between the refectory and the south transept was the prior’s house, probably built in the 16th century. It is now a private house. The area in the middle was the cloister, and there may at one time have been another building on the eastern side, enclosing the cloister.

Inside the church, the nave is quite plain, with small, high windows. The squat, conical tower is a well-known landmark. At ground level, the crossing has richly carved pillars and Romanesque arches. The decorative work suggests skills that may have come from Ireland.

The south transept is embellished with a blind arcade of chevron-decorated Romanesque arches. A series of carved stones found during restoration have been reset in the south transept, where the small window contains fragments of mediaeval glass.

The three-light East Window in the Chancel of Penmon Priory Church depicts the Ascension and dates from 1912. The centre window depicts Christ in glory, holding the chalice and the host, with rays of light emanating from the wounds in his hands and feet. He is surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists.

This window, with its Anglo-Catholic sacramental imagery, was given in 1912 in memory of Henry Owen Williams and his wife Sarah (Holborn) of Tre-Castell, near Beaumaris, by their children. Their children included the Revd Raymond Owen Williams, who was presented to the Vicarage of Fisherton Delamere in Wiltshire by Athelstan Riley (1858—1945), the Anglo-Catholic hymn writer and hymn translator.

In the left-hand light window, Sarah Williams is shown with the women and children being blessed by Christ. Henry Williams is depicted in the right-hand light, in a scene depicting the blessing and distribution of the loaves and fishes.

Fragments of the original East Window in the Priory Church can be seen in a small stained glass window that is the east window of the south transept. This window depicts the Priory’s founder, Saint Seiriol, watching Saint Christopher carrying the Christ Child across a river.

The head of Saint Christopher, his right hand, Christ’s orb, and the right hand of Saint Seiriol with parts of his staff are mediaeval. These were worked into a new window ca 1855 by David Evans (1793-1861), who imitated mediaeval styles in the remaining work in the window. A second window by Evans in the Priory Church from the same time shows Saint Catherine and a bishop.

David Evans was born at Llanllwchaiarn near Newtown. He worked in partnership with Sir John Betton of Shrewsbury (1765-1849) from 1815 as Betton & Evans, and I am familiar with some of their windows in Lichfield Cathedral (1819).

Evans retained the name of the firm after Betton retired in 1825. Examples of Evans’s work in Wales can also be seen in Bangor Cathedral, including three of the Evangelists – Saint Luke, Saint Matthew and Saint Mark – three prophets, Aaron, Moses and David, and three Epistle writers, Saint Peter, Saint John and Saint Paul.

The church also shelters two 10th century High Crosses that once stood at the entrance to the mediaeval monastery, as well as a decorated font that also survived the Viking raids in the late tenth century.

The larger cross in the nave is badly weathered having stood outside in the deer park until 1977. It is almost complete except for about 30 cm between the top of the shaft and the head. The cross has inter-lacing decorative patterns and a pictorial scene showing the temptations of Saint Anthony, as well as a probable hunting scene.

The smaller cross, in the south transept, is much less weathered. One arm of the cross was cut off when it was used as a lintel for the refectory windows. The cross is mainly decorated with knot-work along with two animal heads on the sides, and has a modern stone base.

The baptismal font at the end of the nave is decorated with three panels of very similar fret decoration, and originally may have been the base of another, third High Cross. It too has a modern base.

All three pieces belong to a school of sculpture that absorbed stylistic traits from northern English, Viking and Irish art. They date from the late tenth or early 11th centuries, perhaps from the relatively peaceful reign of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, and the sculptors who created them may have had close connections with Cheshire.

Below the church, Saint Seiriol’s Well was believed to have healing powers. The well is at the end of a path past a fish pond built by the monks. The well is enclosed within a small building, most of which is brick from 18th century rebuilding work, although the flooring and lower parts of the wall are probably older.

It is said that the lower stone walls near the well were part of Saint Seiriol’s church in the sixth century. If so, this would make it the oldest remaining Christian building in Wales.

Sir Richard Bulkeley of Beaumaris, who owned the monastery lands after the dissolution, built the dovecote near the church ca 1600. The dovecote was built to house pigeons, who were valued for their eggs and meat. The square building has a large domed roof with a cupola that allowed the birds to fly in and out. Inside, there were 1,000 nesting boxes. A pillar in the centre of the dovecote supported a revolving ladder that gave access to the nesting boxes.

Penmon was one of the settings in The Fever (2004), a film starring Vanessa Redgrave and Angelina Jolie. Filming took place at the Priory and the dovecote was used to depict a deserted church. Penmon Priory has also been used for the BBC programme Songs of Praise, and for filming the television show Danger Man (1960) starring Patrick McGoohan.

Penmon Priory is now part of the Rectorial benefice of Beaumaris in the Diocese of Bangor. Penmon Priory remains the finest and most complete example of a church of its period in Gwynedd, and is worth going to the ends of Anglesey to see and explore.

Saint Seiriol’s Church survived the Reformation and remains in use as the parish church of Penmon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 19: 11-28 (NRSVA):

11 As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. 13 He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, “Do business with these until I come back.” 14 But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to rule over us.” 15 When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading. 16 The first came forward and said, “Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.” 17 He said to him, “Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.” 18 Then the second came, saying, “Lord, your pound has made five pounds.” 19 He said to him, “And you, rule over five cities.” 20 Then the other came, saying, “Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” 22 He said to him, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” 24 He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” 25 (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) 26 “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence”.’

28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

The Romanesque arches linking the crossing with the chancel and the south transept (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (17 November 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for the Diocese of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, their Sunday School ministry and their Chaplaincy programme.

The larger cross in the nave (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Saint Seiriol’s Well may include parts of the oldest remaining Christian building in Wales (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

The three-light East Window was given in memory of Sarah and Henry Owen Williams in 1912 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Christopher and Saint Seiriol … a window by David Evans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)