And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 30. juli 2011

Like those who read Medusa's mazeful head

As, to hold up a ceiling or a roof,
Sometimes you see, as a corbel, a figure
Whose knees are pressed up against his chest;

Which, though not real, provokes a real discomfort
In anyone who looks at it
- Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson)

Much more then would ye wonder at that sight,
And stand astonisht lyke to those which red
Medusaes mazeful hed.
- Epithalamion, Edmund Spenser

Whilst such specialist skill may have been held in great respect, the "mystery" of masoncraft could also be held in suspicion. The St Albans chronicler is scathing about the "carved work, unnecessary, trifling, and beyond measure costly" which was added "by the treacherous advice" of Master Hugh the Goldclif.
- Medieval Masons, Malcolm Hislop

In this blogpost I am returning to one of my very first subjects: faces carved in stone. This remains a fascination of mine mainly because it was an important part of visual communication in the Middle Ages, a time when most people were illiterate. Faces in stone served, therefore, a didactic purpose. Naturally, the grinning faces of demons or gentle, beautiful visages of angels would illustrate the dichotomy of good and evil very well, and larger spaces - such as tympanums - could contain entire scenes either from the Bible or Christian mythology (which, in my view, includes depictions of Hell). However, not every carving or adornment would be a part of the erudition of the illiterate masses, some of them were simply too far away from the eyes of the flesh to behold. Walking up the tower of York Minster I came across many carvings which are impossible to see from the ground, and this points to an interaction with a world not solely temporal or material. Many of these faces are grotesques, meant to ward off evil spirits which were, to the Medieval mind, as real as foxes, hawks or wainwrights.

In later ages adornments in stone served to a greater extent less educational or religious purposes, especially in the case of excessively crafted tombstones or caskets. In the Early Modern Period there came an increased awareness of the brevity of human life, following the failures of the ideals of Humanism. This awareness becomes manifest in literature, exemplified by Francis Bacon's poem Life and Sir Thomas Browne's Urne Buriall, and art, exemplified by the vanitas theme and its offspring "man is a bubble" which both became popular during the seventeenth century. As if in opposition to this sentiment, many men of high social standing sought to outlast their ashes, to paraphrase Sir Thomas Browne, by tombstones, cenotaphs and memorials, a feature common to men of all ages, but perhaps particularly extravagant in the Baroque era with its numerous cherubs and the like.

Below I present to you a number of stone carvings from various religious settings found in York. Some of them are Medieval, some of them are Early Modern and some are restored Medieval carvings. A little face-spotting when exploring the many beautiful churches of York is a nice way of coming across a vast number of curious little details.

St. Mary's Abbey and Yorkshire Museum and Gardens

The remnants of St. Mary's Abbey are found in the gardens of Yorkshire Museum and it is a popular place for people to spend some idle time, either for themselvs or in company. The abbey was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was established in 1088 as a refoundation of the monastery adjacent to Earl Siward's minster dedicated to St. Olave. A group of monks dissatisfied with the rule of its abbot left St. Mary's in 1132 to found Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian community, and this can be seen in relation to the reputed decadence of its abbots, quite likely one of the reasons why the abbey and its antagonistic abbots features in early ballads of Robin Hood. A number of beautiful carvings - some presented in the previous blogpost on this subject, Faces in Stone - are now stored in the Medieval section of Yorkshire Museum.

(...) Quickly, quickly, bend your knees:
It is the angel of God: put your hands together:
From now on you will see such officers.
- Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson) 

This little cherub is found on a stone casket in the museum garden.

The following array of stone statues depict important Biblical figures, but I sadly do not recall the identities of the middle two. Considering their iconography they are either evangelists or prophets, but I can not say with any certitude which evangelists or prophets they represent.

Statue depicting the apostle and evangelist John who was traditionally portrayed as a young, beardless man.

And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him.
- Exodus, 34:29

The above passage was falsely translated from Hebrew into Latin by Jerome, so in the Vulgate Moses was depicted as having horns. This came about because the similarity between the Hebrew word for "shining" or "resplendent" and the word for "horns".

St. Mary's Church

There are, to my knowledge, at least three churches dedicated to St. Mary in York. There are two south of the Ouse - junior and senior - and then there is this one, situated in Castlegate and now a place for contemporary art under the aegis of the Yorkshire Museums Trust. Originally an Anglo-Saxon church, the structure is chiefly 13th century with later alterations, and with its spire reaching 47 metres into the air, it is an easily recognisable feature of York when viewed from a certain height. I have sadly not yet been inside it, but I look greatly forward to do so.

With that they heard a roaring hideous sound,
That all the ayre with terrour filled wide,
And seemd vneath to shake the stedfast ground.
Eftsoones that dreadfull Dragon they espide
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser 

The green man of the woods, also known as a woodwose, one of my favourite creatures from Medieval folklore, as has been pointed out in an earlier blogpost.

I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.
- Job, 30:29

In reality the text is here talking about jackals, wich Jerome falsely translated into dragons in his vulgate. I decided to use the quote here anyway, since this head is surrounded by dragons, and probably also by owls.

(...) quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration
- It is a beauteous evening, William Wordsworth

Although traditionally a creature associated with evil, the dragons of St. Mary's are bound up in the classical paradox of all Medieval grotesques: although their features render them as typically evil creatures, especially according to the intertwined Medieval dichotomies of beauty and ugliness and good and evil, the grotesques serve goodness by warding of evil spirits and demons.

St. Michael le Belfry

A beautiful parish church situated by York Minster whose greatest claim to fame is the fact that Guy Fawkes was baptised here. The current structure was raised in the period 1525-37 and replaced an older structure on the same site. It is evidently not as well off as some of its neighbouring churches, since its carvings are badly weatherbeaten.

I'm not sure if the carving is meant to depict a harpy or some similar creature. One of the problems of identification in these matters is that many grotesques are not picked from a bestiary, but a product of the mason's - or perhaps the patron's - own imagination.


St. Olave's Church

This little parish church just outside the walls of the museum gardens is one of my favourite churches in York. This has nothing to do with its dedication to St. Olaf, but because of its beautiful architecture, typical of English stone churches. The first seminal steps of the process resulting in its current shape can be traced back to the alterations starting in 1466, but much of the structure dates from after the Civil War since the roof was turned into a gun platform during the Siege of York in 1644. 

  (...) I saw that I was
In air upon all sides, and saw extinguished
Every seen thing except the beast itself.
- Inferno, Dante Alighieri (translated by David Sisson)


York Minster

Dedicated to St. Peter this magnificent Gothic structure was instigated by archbishop Walter Gray in 1220 and completed in 1472. Walter Gray initially transformed the existing Norman church which had in turn replaced an Anglo-Saxon stone church. Since the Minster is a metropolitan church there are naturally numerous details to chronicle for an eager spectator, but I'm afraid it will have to suffice with a minor selection. The carvings are recent in age as the Minster is currently undergoing a massive restoration project, but I trust they at least are Medieval in aspect.

Why then dooth flesh, a bubble glas of breth,
Hunt after honour and aduauncement vaine,
And reare a trophee for deuouring death,
With so great labour and long lasting paine,
As if his daies for euer should remaine?
Sith all that in this world is great or gaie,
Doth as a vapour vanish, and decaie.
- The Ruines of Time, Edmund Spenser

(C) Terje Breigutu Moseng

 It was already the time when the air grows dark,
Yet not so much that, between his eyes and mine,
There were not revealed things which had been concealed.
- Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson)

 The recycling of building stone also appears to have been common practice later in the Middle Ages. A considerable number of sculptural fragments made in the twelfth century for York Minster were recovered during the excavations of the nearby College of the Vicars Choral, where they had been used as building rubble.
- Medieval Masons, Malcolm Hislop

I chose to use this quote not because the picture above shows a detail from the College, but because it serves as a reminder of the transience of sculptures and carvings. And because I like to show off by quoting books.

Here he twisted his mouth and stuck out his tongue
As an ox does when he is licking his nose.
- Inferno, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson) 

mandag 25. juli 2011

Te Lucis Ante Terminum

Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
- Psalm 141:1-2

The hour when the new pilgrim's heart is pierced
With love, if he hears the far-off bells
Which seem to weep for the dying day
- Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson)

Te Lucis Ante Terminum is the title of a hymn for the Hour of Compline, the last service of the day, in the Roman breviary. The line translates to "To you [God] in the light before the darkness" or "To you before the ending of the light". It is found in an Irish hymnary from the late 8th or early 9th century and is according to some sources ascribed to St. Ambrose of Milan, but this provenance is contested and most likely false. I find the expression very beautiful and poetic, and I decided it was a proper title for this compilation of photos. Originally I had intended to name this blogpost after the Middle English term "evynlyghthus" which I came across in the romance Sir Degrevant and which I also find very beautiful.

I am nostalgic of character, prone to melancholia in certain circumstances and I therefore have a particular fondness for the evening, both due to its poetic qualities but also because evenings are swaddled in the most beautiful of lights possible. Evenings are of strong symbolic character, a reminder of transience, a quotidien memento mori which alerts us not to the fear of death but to the length of life since one life may span so many evenings. Some lives are unfortunately denied this and evenings should therefore also be a reminder of our loved ones who are no longer with us. We should seek history in a sunset, history and comfort, and therefore I dedicate this blogpost to the victims in Oslo and Utøya July 22 2011, whom we must now remember at eventide and whom must remain in our prayers and hearts.

  My first sunset in York, seen from St. Mary's.

Thus may you flie from dull and sensuall earth
- To all vertuous Ladies in generall, Aemilia Lanyer 

My pictures blacken in their frames
As night comes on
- Death of the Day, Walter Savage Landor 

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
- The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T. S. Eliot 

 In the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night 
- Proverbs, 7:9

To Thee, before the close of day
Creator of the world, we pray
that with Thy wonted favor, Thou
wouldst be our Guard and Keeper now.
- From J. M. Neale's rendition of the hymn Te Lucis Ante Terminum. It should be noted that this is not so much as a translation as an attempt of rendering the lines to fit a rhyming English. 

Syr Egrivaunt at evynlyghthus
Armed hym at al ryghthus,
And callyd to hym tow knyghthus,
That pryvest were ay.
- Sir Degrevant

Now hath the Sunne with his lamp-burning light,
Walkt round about the world
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser

Adieu sweet Sun
Thy night is neare
- Urania, Lady Mary Wroth

The hour when the new pilgrim's heart is pierced
With love, if he hears the far-off bells
Which seem to weep for the dying day
- Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson)

Abrupt, as Spirits vanish, he is sunk!
A soul-like breeze possesses all the wood.
- A Sunset, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 Immortal transience, a "kind
of otherness", self-understood,
BE FAITHFUL grows upon the mind
as lichen glimmers on the wood.
- Te Lucis Ante Terminum, Geoffrey Hill (after Paul Celan)

Personally I treasure greatly Tudor composer Thomas Tallis' version of Te Lucis Ante Terminum, and I find it very suitable music for evanescence of any kind, especially a sunset.

Pax et Dominus vobiscum.