09 December 2023

‘The Reading Girl’
has a permanent
home with her book
in Lichfield Library

‘The Reading Girl’ by the Italian sculptor Antonio Rossetti is now in Saint Mary’s, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During my visits to Lichfield last week and this week, I included a very brief isit to the library and arts centre at the Hub at Saint Mary’s in the former Saint Mary’s Church on the Market Square. There I bave been in search of some Christmas-themed images in the stained glass windows, the reredos and the altar.

Lichfield has long promoted itself as the ‘City of Sculpture’ and one of the most popular and best-loved works of sculpture in Lichfield is ‘The Reading Girl,’ a statue by the Italian sculptor Antonio Rossetti and now in Saint Mary’s.

Many people of my age in Lichfield have fond memories of this statue being in the entrance hall of the original Free Library and Museum in Bird Street. It later moved to the reception area of the library at the Friary. It is now in the chapel in Saint Mary’s Church, home to the Library, the Saint Mary’s performance space and to the local history service.

The marble statue is by the Italian sculptor, Antonio Rossetti, and is officially titled ‘Self-Help: the Reading Girl.’ The statue dates from 1883 and was gifted to the City of Lichfield in the 1940s by the benefactor Colonel Michael Swinfen-Broun (1858-1948) of Swinfen Hall.

Today ‘The Reading Girl’ is part of the Lichfield District Council museum collection. But there was controversy back in 2008 when the council decided to sell another Italian sculpture donated to the city by Swinfen-Broun.

The statue by Donato Barcaglia, known locally as ‘Old Father Time,’ was sold at auction at Sothebys in London for £150,000 in 2008. That statue had been without a permanent home for some time., and was stored in controlled conditions at a cost of £800 per month. Marble experts, fearing that the statue would deteriorate in storage, advised the work needed a new or more suitable home.

‘The Reading Girl’ is a delicately composed sculpture in white marble. It shows a girl sitting braiding her hair while she is lost in a book that rests on her lap. Rossetti records a moment of private captivation as the girl absent-mindedly toys with her hair while she is engrossed in her book.

Antonio Rossetti (1819-1889) was born in Milan on 31 October 1819. He studied first in Milan with Francesco Somaini, and from 1844 in Rome, where he worked until the end of his life.

Rossetti worked in white marble, and was known for his figurative and genre works. Many of his works featured characters inspired by fables or classical mythology. As a virtuoso carver known for carefully pronounced details and delicate female forms, Rossetti created genre and allegorical works under the tutelage of celebrated sculptors Giovanni Battista Lombardi and Francesco Somaini. As an exhibitor at the Exposition Universelle as early as 1867, Rossetti’s oeuvre found an international audience, especially in the US.

He was a hard and meticulous worker who created numerous sculptures in line with contemporary tastes, which he sold to the rich, earning him a considerable fortune. His sensual marble figures and groups were especially popular with foreign visitors.

Rossetti produced several versions of ‘The Reading Girl’. The first version, titled ‘Self Help’, was produced in 1871, presumably commissioned for an American patron of the artist’s studio.

The statue gained immediate popularity, and the Californian politician Milton S Latham commissioned another version of ‘The Reading Girl’ in 1874 for his private residence at Thurlow Lodge, a sprawling estate in Menlo Park. Later it was bought by the widow of Mark Hopkins, founder of the Central Pacific Railroad.

From this original work, Rossetti produced at least two other full-scale copies of ‘The Reading Girl’: one in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (1873), and the other in Lichfield (1883).

Antonio Rossetti died in Rome in 1889.

Daily prayers in Advent with
Leonard Cohen and USPG:
(7) 9 December 2023

Decorative spice-boxes in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in the countdown to Christmas in the Church since Sunday, which was Advent Sunday or the First Sunday of Advent (3 December 2023), the first day in a new Church Year.

I am back in Lichfield, for a short weekend visit and personal retreat, following the cycle of daily offices and prayer in Lichfield Cathedral. Before this day begins, I am taking time early this morning for prayer and reflection.

Throughout Advent this year, my reflections each day include a poem or song by Leonard Cohen. My Advent reflections are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on a poem or song by Leonard Cohen;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Two 18th century Sabbath spice boxes, part of the ritual of welcoming the Sabbath, in the Jewish Museum in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Songs and Poems of Leonard Cohen: 7, ‘Out of the Land of Heaven’:

The exhibitions in the two Jewish Museums in Vienna and in the Jewish Museums in Bratislava and Venice include interesting collections of spice boxes. When I see those spice boxes in those four museums, they remind me of Leonard Cohen’s second collection of poems, The Spice-Box of Earth, first published in 1961, when he was 27.

The title of the book is found in the poem Out of the Land of Heaven, which is dedicated to the artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985).

On the Sabbath, Jews say, the ‘Sabbath Queen’ or the ‘Sabbath Bride’ descends from Heaven to heal the sufferings of the Jews. The arrival and departure of ‘Her Majesty’ is marked by ceremonies. When she enters, everybody is happy; when she leaves, there is a strange sadness. But people take comfort in a symbolic ritual that includes inhaling the aroma of spices contained in an ornamental box, often made of silver, the spice box.

Spice-boxes are an essential part of Havdalah (הַבְדָּלָה‎, ‘separation’), the ceremony marking the symbolic end of Shabbat and ushering in the new week. Like kiddush, Havdalah is recited over a cup of wine. The ritual involves lighting a special Havdalah candle with several wicks, blessing a cup of wine and smelling sweet spices.

Havdalah engages all five senses: to feel the cup, to smell the spices, to see the candle flame, to hear the blessings, to taste the wine.

In Jewish tradition, spices are usually kept in decorative spice-boxes to beautify and honour the mitzvah, and are handed around so that everyone can smell the fragrance. In many Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, branches of aromatic plants are used for this purpose, while Ashkenazim have traditionally used cloves.

A special braided Havdalah candle with more than one wick is lit, and a blessing is recited. If a special Havdalah candle is not available, two candles can be used, and the two flames joined when reciting the blessing.

The central blessing of the Havdalah is:

Blessed art thou, God, our Lord, King of the Universe
Who distinguishes
Holiness from the everyday,
Light from dark,
Israel from the nations,
The seventh day from the six workdays.
Blessed art thou, God,
Who distinguishes holiness from the everyday

As people recite the words ‘Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, bo’re m’orei ha’esh,’ they hold their hands up to the candle and gaze at the reflection of the light in their fingernails.

As Havdalah concludes, the leftover wine is poured into a small dish and the candle is extinguished in it, a sign that the candle was lit solely for the mitzvah of Havdalah. In a reference to Psalm 19: 9, ‘the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes,’ some people dip a finger in the leftover wine and touch their eyes or pockets with it.

After the Havdalah ritual, it is customary to sing ‘Eliyahu Hanavi’ (‘Elijah the Prophet’) and to bless each other, Shavua’ tov, ‘Have a good week.’

The text of the Havdalah service exists in two main forms, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. The introductory verses in the Ashkenazic version (beginning הנה אל, Hinei El) are from the Books of Isaiah and Esther and the Psalms. In the Sephardic liturgy, the introduction begins with the words ראשון לציון, Rishon L’tsion, and consists of biblical verses describing God giving light and success, interspersed with later liturgical prose.

The four blessings over the wine, spices candle and praising God for separation between the holy and the profane are virtually identical between the traditions. The phrase בין ישראל לעמים‎, bein Yisrael l’amim, ‘between Israel and the nations,’ is based on Leviticus 20: 26.

The Spice-Box of Earth became the most popular and commercially successful of Leonard Cohen’s early books, established his poetic reputation in Canada, and brought him a measure of early literary acclaim.

My copy of this book, to paraphrase words in another Leonard Cohen song, ‘has grown old and weary,’ or, rather, it is battered, stained and dog-eared. As I read through it, I recall the poems I selected for poetry readings in Wexford in the early and mid-1970s, including ‘I have not lingered in European monasteries’ and ‘The Genius.’

In Out of the Land of Heaven, the poem that gives this book its title, Leonard Cohen writes:

Out of the Land of Heaven
Down comes the warm Sabbath sun
Into the spice-box of earth.

The poem seems to be a verbal invocation of one of Marc Chagall’s painting. The rabbi thrusts his hands into the ‘spice-box of earth’:

Down go his hands
Into the spice-box of earth,
And there he finds the fragrant sun
For a wedding ring
[for the Sabbath Queen]

And he tells them:

The Queen makes every Jew her lover.

The book concludes with ‘Lines from My Grandfather’s Journal’ and the final verse is an ‘Inscription from the family spice-box’:

Make my body
a pomander for worms
and my soul
the fragrance of cloves.

Let the spoiled Sabbath
leave no scent.
Keep my mouth
from foul speech.

Lead your priest
from grave to vineyard.
Lay him down
where air is sweet.

Following the success of The Spice-Box of Earth, Leonard Cohen retreated for several years to the Greek island of Hydra, where he worked on more poems and songs.

Praised are You, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, Creator of all kinds of spices.

Leonard Cohen, Out of the Land of Heaven:

Out of the land of heaven
Down comes the warm Sabbath sun
Into the spice-box of earth.
The Queen will make every Jew her lover.
In a white silk coat
Our rabbi dances up the street,
Wearing our lawns like a green prayer-shawl,
Brandishing houses like silver flags.
Behind him dance his pupils,
Dancing not so high
And chanting the rabbi’s prayer,
But not so sweet.
And who waits for him
On a throne at the end of the street
But the Sabbath Queen.
Down go his hands
Into the spice-box of the earth,
And there he finds the fragrant sun
For a wedding ring,
And draws her wedding finger through.
Now back down the street they go,
Dancing higher than the silver flags.
His pupils somewhere have found wives too,
And all are chanting the rabbi's song
And leaping high in the perfumed air,
Who calls him Rabbi?
Cart-horse and dogs call him Rabbi,
And he tells them:
The Queen makes every Jew her lover,
And gathering on their green lawns
The people call him Rabbi,
And fill their mouths with good bread
And his happy song.

‘Down comes the warm Sabbath sun / Into the spice-box of earth’ … spice-boxes in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 9: 35 to 10: 1 (NRSVA):

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

Paintings by Marc Chagall decorate the lobby in the Hotel Kazimierz II in the Old Jewish Quarter in Krakow … Leonard Cohen dedicated ‘Out of the Land of Heaven’ to Chagall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 9 December 2023):

The theme this week in the new edition of ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘The Hope of Advent.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (9 December 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for church leaders – lay and ordained. May they preach a gospel of love and hope.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

O Lord our God,
make us watchful and keep us faithful
as we await the coming of your Son our Lord;
that, when he shall appear,
he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service
and joyful in his praise;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Almighty God,
as your kingdom dawns,
turn us from the darkness of sin
to the light of holiness,
that we may be ready to meet you
in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Collect on the Eve of Advent 2:

O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power
and come among us,
and with great might succour us;
that whereas, through our sins and wickedness
we are grievously hindered
in running the race that is set before us,
your bountiful grace and mercy
may speedily help and deliver us;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honour and glory, now and for ever.

Paintings by Marc Chagall in the Hotel Kazimierz II in the Old Jewish Quarter in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

A variety of spices on sale near Rialto Bridge in Venice (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