Sunday, 30 September 2007

Nigerian Celebrations

The Nigerian community marked Independence Day yesterday, with a colourful and joyful Mass celebrated by Cardinal Anthony Okogie, Archbishop of Lagos. It was a great success, a testimony to the hard work and organisational skills of the wonderful Nigerian chaplain, Fr Albert, and to the faith of Nigerians in this country.

The choir, beautifully dressed, provided a delight to the eye and the ear! The music was compelling, and expressed a joy that we in the west perhaps forget should be at the heart of our worship.

The Cathedral was full; the atmosphere was bubbling with excitement. When the Cardinal asked the members of the congregation, "Are you happy?" they roared out "Yes!!" in a deafening chorus.

The Cathedral is blessed to be the venue for these events, and to bear witness to the great family of nations that is one in our faith.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Byzantine Roots - Mistra

If there is a more beautiful spot on earth, I should like to see it. Mistra (or Mistras, Mystras) was the last capital of the Byzantines on Greek soil, and the centre of their administration in the Peloponnese. Its rulers (termed 'Despots') were usually brothers of the Byzantine Emperor, and indeed it was at Mistra that Constantine Palaiologos succeeded his brother as Constantine XI, last Emperor of Constantinople. The modern town square boasts an imposing statue of him with, above, the citadel of medieval Mistra.

Following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Mistra soon followed, and was surrendered to the Sultan's armies by the fallen Emperor's brother Demetrios in 1460. Thereafter, it gently drifted into decline, until today it presents a spectacular ghost town, a 'Byzantine Pompeii', looking out over the Spartan plain.

As a stronghold of the Palaiologos dynasty, Mistra became in its last decades the centre of an intense flowering of the arts; many scholars were based in the city, and their exile to Italy after the conquest fuelled the Renaissance. In painting and architecture, too, Mistra was a glorious hymn to late Byzantine culture. Below, the Despots' Palace, in the upper city, which is being reconstructed. The courtyard before it was once busy with processions, festivals and the coaches of ambassadors:

Now Mistra stands silent, its churches still functioning, but its streets, squares, houses and palaces clad in ivy, a haunting testimony to a vanished civilisation. Below, the still-occupied convent of the Church of Panatanassa:

The convent Church itself occupies a lofty vantage point high up on the side of the mountain:

Within, spectacular examples of fresco. I was interested in this, which portrayes the 'Throne of Grace' - the empty throne waiting to be occupied by Christ in judgement. This is an ancient device for portraying Christ, and an image we have considered for one of the domes in Westminster Cathedral:

The galleries of the convent provide unforgettable views:

The well-preserved Cathedral (below) stands in the lower city:

It preserves a fine pulpit. In the gallery above, ladies of the Byzantine above would have looked down at the divine worship.

The nave floor preserves a plaque of a double-headed eagle where, it is said, the last Emperor of Constantinople was crowned (below). Sadly, this is unlikely to be true: Constantine was never crowned. The Patriarch (who alone could perform the ceremony) was not in Mistras, and was anyway a deeply unpopular Uniate, whose presence at such a ceremony would have undermined Constantine's reign at its very beginning. However, it is certain that the last Emperor of Constantinople worshipped here, and would have gazed at these same images.

For the rest, Mistra hugs the mountainside, and it is most pleasant simply to become lost in it, to turn into winding alleyways or broad streets, to stumble across a church or a chapel, and savour the phenomenal views of the Spartan plain glimpsed between arches or windows:

I had the city to myself: a few early coaches departed, and I wandered with the ghosts of Byzantium:

The art of fresco reached a pinnacle at Mistra, with a cross-fertilising with the early Italian renaissance. Figures have a dynamism and a solidity that reflects what Giotto was doing at about the same time:

Every archway was worth a diversion:

Lying about 8km from modern Sparta, Mistra is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and of ourstanding interest in seeking to understand Byzantine civilisation.

Friday, 28 September 2007

The Phoenix Reborn

Harry Potter fans will know all about this; the Phoenix, which (in pagan legend) lived for a thousand years until consumed by flames, was reborn from its own ashes. In the context of the Christian faith, the Phoenix has long been understood as a symbol of Christ. As the mythical bird arises to life after having died, so Christ conquers death in his resurrection.

The mosaic is one of the series executed by the Russian artist Boris Anrep in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

O Nata Lux

A small, but significant, victory today. About ten years ago, the tungsten lightbulbs in the Cathedral chandeliers were replaced with low energy bulbs. Financially - and environmentally - it was good sense. Aesthetically, it was a disaster. Bentley designed our light fittings for globular bulbs, which would imitate the pots of oil that burned in Byzantine churches. Their circular form was echoed in the spheres that decorate the chandelier hangings.
The new fittings (above) were relatively unobjectionable when alight, but ghastly when not illuminated; four plastic 'pegs' doing unutterable violence to the original design.

Technology, as we hoped it would, has moved forward, and low wattage bulbs are now at last available in spherical form. Today we re-hung a chandelier with the new bulbs, which are exactly the same size and shape as the originals, and true to the architect's original vision!

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

On Guard

From his lofty eyrie, an eagle keeps an eye over the skyline from the top of the campanile.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Byzantine Roots - Piraeus

Piraeus, the ancient port of Athens, is now a city in its own right, just a short train ride from the main city. Ancient remains are few, medieval relics even more rare, but I did come across the most beautiful neo-Byzantine Church of the Holy Trinity, which bore more than a passing resemblance to our Cathedral.

The familiar lace-work capitals adorned the pillars at the entrance.
s Inside the architecture was pure Byzantine, the arches and galleries recalling those we know so well at Westminster. Only here no bare brick, but every surface covered with decoration - fresco, rather than mosaic. However, the effect is irresistible, and a heady reminder of what we hope one day to achieve.
s The volumes and forms hauntingly echoed those of our own Cathedral. It is often said by experts when considering the decoration of Westminster Cathedral that a full decorative scheme would confuse and hide the architectural forms. I certainly did not find so in this church.
s The decoration followed a strict hierarchy, just as we plan to do in our Cathedral, moving form the Old Testament to the New. Throughout the worksmanship was of the highest quality.

Above all soars the magnificent dome, decorated with the Christ Pantokrator and images of the ranks of angels and saints: truly this vast space seems suspended from heaven.
I wonder if we shall ever see the domes of Westminster decorated so magnificently and completely!

As ever, the apse bore the image of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, representing humanity redeemed through the sacrifice of her Son.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Bishops' speak

In a calm moment before a great Cathedral ceremony, Bishop Bernard Longley and Bishop Alan Hopes, auxiliaries in Westminster, share a quiet word in the sacristy.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

National Catholic Congress 1929

The National Congress of 1929, from 13 - 17 September, marked the centenary of Catholic Emancipation. On Friday evening, Cardinal Bourne (above) solemnly received the members of the English and Welsh hierarchy (below) at the Cathedral, and led them to the High Altar for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Toleration was a key theme. The homilist at the Opening ceremony on Friday 13 September declared:

"One hundred years ago, our faith was subject to all sorts of disabilities, it was despised and hated, it had to keep itself secret in order to live. Now we parade it before all the world, and scarcely anyone raises so much as a murmur of protest! What a change in the temper of the people of this country!"
The Inaugural address was given at the Royal Albert Hall later that evening by Cardinal Bourne, and was sternly entitled 'Religion and Morality'. The Cardinal addressed very contemporary issues of education, and the lack of religious instruction in Council (state) schools.

"However much the teachers in Coucil schools may be today be praised for zeal, comptence, efficiency, the fact remains that parents are obliged by law to send their children to schools wherein it is forbidden to to give those parents any guarantee that their children will be taught that Jesus Christ is truly and really God, or that the teachers themselv accept that bedrock doctrine of Christianity. Logically and inevitably such a state of things must ultimately lead to a non-Christian England."

Cardinal Bourne saw this state of affairs as one of the consequences of the Reformation, when "Englishmen abandoned their centuries-old allegiance to the Apostolic See" and with it "belief in a divinely safeguarded revelation."

The moral situation in the country, likewise, was in a perilous state. The Cardinal concluded his address, linking his themes to the mission of the Catholic church in England and Wales on the anniversary of Catholic Emancipation:

"This, then, it appears to me, is the special mission of the Catholic Church in this country in the second century of recovered freedom which is now opening out before us, namely to strengthen and uphold that Christianity which is based upon and rooted in belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ our Lord, and to maintian the tradition of Christian moral life."

In addition to well-attended rallies each evening at the Royal Albert Hall, there were sectional meetings held by various societies devoted to Catholic education, social work and communications.

The remainder of the Congress seems to have been more specifically devoted to celebrations of the centenary Catholic Emancipation. On Saturday 14 September, there was a great parade of children to celebrate the anniversary. "Coming from all parts of London and its environs" records the Cathedral chronicle, "children walked in their thousands to the Cathedral grounds. Most of them were dressed in white, and no prettier sight could be imagined than the lawn at the side of the Cathedral presented as its green sward was gradually covered with a living sea of white." These children (above) from Poplar, in the east of London, look very dapper. I like especially the 'Long Live the Pope' banner!
The culminating point of the Congress was High Mass celebrated in the Cathedral grounds on Sunday morning, where there was made solemn thanksigiving to God for the Catholic Emancipation Act, and the progress made in the century since. The Archbishopp of Birmingham was the celebrant, with the national hierarchy in attendance. The Cathedral chornicle records, "By a system of loud-speakers, the voices of the celebrant and his minsters, and of the Archbishop of Liverpool, who was chosen to give expresssion to the sentiments which animated all present, were easily heard by all in the grounds, which were full but not uncomfortably crowded."