Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Georgian beauty meets the modern age in South London.

A few of you may have noticed my renewed interest for English Neo-Classical architecture. While exploring new and old bits of London, I came across some rather interesting examples of Anglican Georgian architecture, one of them is St. Paul’s Church in Clapham.
St. Paul’s is located in a trendy bit of the London district of Clapham, older than the Doomsday Book, located just south of the river bank right in front of Chelsea, in Southwark Diocese. The area is serviced very well by public transport but it’s also one of London’s greenest and youngest areas, disseminated with lovely and cozy housing as well as independent coffee shops and the occasional Waitrose or M&S store. A short walk from Clapham Common tube station will take us to Rectory Grove.
St. Paul’s is still located in a charming green space which also serves as churchyard, the 18th and 19th century classical tombs covered in ivy prove to be an excellent and peaceful background to the church. Because of its quiet position it truly has the feel of a country parish, which also makes it perfect for weddings!

A place of Christian worship dedicated to the old English title of Saint Mary the Virgin stood on this site at least since the 12th century, during the later Middle Ages it fell under the influence of Merton Augustinian Abbey which appointed its ministers. After the Reformation, the Gothic building was rededicated to the Trinity. Like most south London churches it survived the fire of London, but by the 17th century the building was in a state of decay and was considered unstable. The church was finally demolished in the late 18th century when in 1774 an Act of Parliament authorised the construction of a new one. Because of the unhealthy nature of London living in the 18th century, the much healthier Clapham Green grew in population. Afterwards a new Holy Trinity church was built by Clapham Common in 1776, but St. Paul’s remained the main parish church, as it is today.

The church was rebuilt in the early 19th century by architect Christopher Edwards, a rather well known London architect of the time. The first service was held on 24th September 1815. The church designed in the classical style with London stock brick, had Greek Revival elements, such as its geometrical shape and a general sense of Georgian simplicity. It is perhaps one of London’s finest examples of late Georgian ecclesial architecture. It reflects the structure of pre-Tractarian high church worship, with its single-aisled single nave, gallery (two further galleries were taken down during the last century), and spacious windows. In 1875, the prominent Victorian architect Sir Arthur Blomfield, known for having designed Selwyn College Cambridge, extended the east-end of the nave. Thankfully, in my opinion, this was bricked up post-WW2 to make room for the parish hall, preserving the Georgian proportions of the nave. Also Georgian is the lovely rectory to the left of the churchyard, thankfully, also still used as such. In 1955, the church became a grade-II listed building.

The Lady Chapel also hosts a fine set of five 17th century Baroque memorials, originally found in crypt, near the original tombs. The memorials are of members of the Atkins family, the parents and children. They’re fine examples of English Baroque sculpture, the father is dressed in a beautiful ancient Roman armour, calling back to England’s renewed interest in classicism. The father was Lord of the Manor. In the nave there is a fine memorial to William Hewer, who was Samuel Pepys’ understudy in the Navy Office, and with whom he lived during his last years. 
St. Paul’s is a growing parish with a welcoming and inclusive charism centred in the liberal Catholic tradition of the Church of England, the present vicar only recently took his position here having previously held the prestigious position of Anglican vicar of Rome! He is preceded by a wonderful list of notable female clergy.

A wonderful testament to St. Paul’s inclusive history is a rather obscure fact, between 1799 and 1806 Clapham became home to a group known as the “Clapham Sect”, made up of key abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Buxton and Granville Sharp who set up an “African Academy” aiming at educating boys of African descent aged 10-17. Students learnt a variety of subjects, centred around a religious curriculum as the Clapham Sect was primarily a Church of England social reform organisation. Sadly, the school didn’t have a long life as most of them died as a consequence of a measles outbreak, only six children survived. Their bodies now rest in St. Paul’s churchyard, their stories are still recorded in the parish registers, making the church a fascinating part of British Black History. 

St. Paul’s is also renowned locally for offering a rather good Opera. Opera in a Georgian church and picnic in the greenery is about as English as you get. In July I was privileged to be invited by the vicar to attend an outstanding rendition of the Nozze di Figaro.
Whether it’s for good worship or good culture, St. Paul’s is the right place for this growing and vibrant young area of London, I’d definitely pop in if I were you!

Friday, August 9, 2019

Baroque rebirth and the emergence of the Anglican sanctuary: Wren's City churches.

I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson's little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge - this is an account of the Great Fire of London by the renowned diarist Samuel Pepys. The fire swept through central London for four nights between the 2nd and the 6th of September of the year 1666. It devoured over 13,000 houses, 87 parish churches as well as the Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. The fire easily consumed through the timber houses of what was still effectively Medieval London, only 16 people lost their lives, perhaps the fire saved more than it killed as London soon grew out of its wooden ashes, but this time in solid stone.

The apse at St. Bride's in Fleet Street.
Amongst the major losses of the fire was in fact the vast amount of Medieval architecture that was lost, among the endless number of churches only St. Bartholomew’s the Great, the Temple, and about seven others survived in the city and surrounding areas. London had been deprived not only of its housing but also of its temples, where people had always found refuge in time of trouble. There was the occasion for a new major task.

The spire of St. Mary-le-Bow.
Within two weeks from the fire, Baroque architect Sir Cristopher Wren (1632-1723), presented a new project for the city and the reconstruction of 51 of its major churches. Wren is today renowned for his works at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, the Royal Chelsea Hospital, Hampton Court Palace as well as churches such as St. James’ Piccadilly - but it is the legacy left by his churches in the City as well as the new St. Paul’s Cathedral which truly formed his astonishing legacy. Today, despite “19th century” vandalism and war destruction, 29 of them survive, (this number includes those where only the bell tower remains intact). 

St. Bride's iconic three-tier wedding cake spire.
Work began in the 1670s. Cristopher Wren is widely recognised as the Father of English Baroque, however, stylistically his is a more toned-down version of the Baroque architecture found in the Continent. Wren’s Baroque was in fact more rational and characterised by its penchant for the classical and rooted in a post-Palladian search for the order of antiquity. Wren’s subtle extravaganza is visible to a trained eye who can spot the likes of Borromini or Bernini in some of his architectural details. The interior of his churches was usually plain decoratively speaking, leaving the arts and furnishings to do the rest of the trick. His windows were usually in clear glass, but he was masterful in his juxtaposition of brick, Portland stone and stucco.

The sanctuary of St. Clement's Danes.
Wren’s churches, and their layout became an inspiration for all Anglican houses of worship until the early 19th century, inspiring later architects such as Nicholas Hawksmoor, known for St. Mary’s Woolnoth and St. George’s Bloomsbury, as well as James Gibbs, known for St. Mary’s-le-Strand and St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, both his pupils, but also the more rational Georgian architecture of the 18th century which then inspired the colonial churches of the new continent. Most of which were inspired by Wren’s tallest church: St. Bride’s in Fleet Street, with its spire; the first example of a three-tier wedding cake bell tower, or indeed the exuberant spire at St. Mary’s-le-Bow or the restrained Anglican elegance of St. Vedast-alias-Foster and St. Lawrence Jewry’s sanctuaries. Wren’s quintessentially English Baroque style, deeply rooted in the respect of classical rigidity and yet extravagant elegance is widely praised; the spires of his city churches, mostly completed in the 1690s, are a testament to his genius, it is in them that he truly gave his imagination full reign.

The orderly sanctuary of St. Vedast-alias-Foster.
However, liturgically speaking his churches, or in fact most Anglican churches or their interior arrangements between the late 16th and early 19th century are often denigrated to the status of “preaching boxes” - that happens when they're read through the deforming glasses of the Oxford Movement. This is unfortunately due to the recent trend of blaming the Tractarians for anything remotely catholic within the Church of England, as if the Oxford Movement triggered some sort of Renaissance from the post-Reformation “dark ages”, at the expenses of the soft Reformation of Elizabeth, the theology of Hooker, and the very 17th century Divines, some of whom, gave their life to preserve the historical policy and ideas of that English Church, long before the 19th century. Critique has seen the late 17th century to the early 19th century Church as a lethargic fossil - the truth is very different and those high churchmen are still awaiting for much awaited praise and fuller consideration, for preserving and fostering a proper Anglican high church tradition, that yes existed and that no, the Tractarians "didn't bring back to life".

The altarpiece at St. Lawrence's Jewry.
The Church of England always preserved its catholicism in its own way, and we must recognise the efforts of those who made this actually possible, it was all there in the first place. It is about time the general critique of the 17th and 18th century Church would change, this article aims at restoring that truth by praising Wren’s genius. This was a new English and Anglican catholic tradition, shaped in the language and ideas of the Book of Common Prayer. The English Church had always been catholic and certainly even without the “aid” of the Tractarians. Nowadays, most of these churches still offer Prayer Book services, most famously, St. James Garlickhythe, the headquarters of the PBS, a favourite of Prince Charles. Wren's churches are an important testimony of pre-Oxford Movement high church arrangements, mostly left unscathed by the Tractarians.

The spire of St. James' Garlickhythe.
It is in the 17th century high church Arminian tradition that we find Cristopher Wren and his churchmanship, his father, also Christopher, had been chaplain to Lancelot Andrewes, Charles I and Dean at Windsor, his uncle Bishop Matthew Wren, was a Caroline Divine and a great supporter of Archbishop William Laud. It is in Wren’s buildings, centred around the altar, but where the pulpit is also imposing, that we find the clues and ideas of how the Church of England and its historical form and ideas survived throughout history, not only the seed, but the "high church" substance was all there - according to its own Anglican tradition. These were not preaching boxes, but expressions of English catholicism as understood in the new vibrant tradition of the Book of Common Prayer. It is also at this time that we see a resurgence of figurative Christian art in churches.

William Snow's dome painting at St. Mary's Abchurch.
Wren’s churches were located in the City of London and as such, right after the Civil War and Restoration, one could possibly not have found a more “conformist” area in all of England, and as such Wren’s churches met all of the regulations of the time. Depending on the state of decay of the Medieval church he was going to substitute, Wren opted either for classical squared churches or sometimes he re-used the elongated shape of the Medieval naves, in either case, the seating was usually arranged in box-pews, either in the normal west-to-east fashion or sometimes, in a more collegiate fashion, such as at St. Vedast-alias-Foster. A large pulpit would often throne on a side to the chancel, in the new reformed tradition, a good sermon was of essential importance.

Communion table and pulpit at St. Stephen's Walbrook.
Usually, communion tables were located at the east end of the church, encircled by an altar-rail as was customary since the time of William Laud (although some churches already had railings since at least Elizabethan times) - also in Laudian fashion was the fact that the sanctuary was usually raised by a few steps, these chancels usually decorated by Wren with rich chequered marble floors. The communion table was usually rather small and wooden but rather attractive, sometimes decorated with a carpet of satin, velvet or silk - at the time Anglicans would not receive more than twice a year, but this was true of the laity of the Church of Rome as well until the Pius X’s reforms in the 20th century, except that in the Anglican case, Matins became the main service, regular Communion remained a rarer affair (usually once a month), (except when it happened and due reverence would have been given, its frequency depended on how big a foundation the church was, in cathedrals and royal or university chapels it was mandatory to have it weekly), and the communion table became more elegant and evenly sized - above it, according to law, there would have been an altarpiece with the Lord’s Prayer, Creed and the Ten Commandments, the three texts that make up the catechism of the prayer book, or sometimes a suitable painting. 

The Anglican altarpiece with the Commandments, Creed and Lord' Prayer boards at St. Vedast-alias-Foster.
This was a way of complying with the new Canon Law of 1604 which made the boards with these texts to be made compulsory in every church so that they could easily be read by all of the congregation during services. Some Anglican reredos also contained pictures of Moses and Aaron on the altarpiece, the symbolic keepers of the Law - some others had proper paintings of scriptural subjects, such as most commonly, pictures of the Last Supper. Article LXXXII of the 1604 canons reads: 
Whereas we have no doubt, but that in all Churches within the Realm of England, convenient and decent Tables are provided and placed for the Celebration of the holy Communion, We appoint that the same Tables shall from time to time be kept and repaired in sufficient and seemly manner, and covered in time of Divine Service with a Carpet of Silk or other decent Stuff thought meet by the Ordinary of the place, if any question be made of it, and with a fair Linen Cloth at the Time of the Ministration, as becometh that Table, and so stand, saving when the said holy Communion is to be Administered. At which Time the same shall be placed in so good sort within the Church or Chancel, as thereby the Minister may be more conveniently heard of the Communicants in his Prayer and Administration, and the Communicants also more conveniently and in more number may communicate with the said Minister: and that the Ten Commandments be set up upon the East-end of every Church and Chapel where the people may best see and read the same, and other chosen Sentences written upon the Walls of the said Churches and Chapels in places convenient: And likewise, that a convenient Seat be made for the Minister to read Service in. All these to be done at the Charge of the Parish.

The altar at St. Stephen's Walbrook.
A great number of Wren’s City churches preserve the original 17th century arrangement of the chancel, perhaps the most beautiful examples survive at St. Mary’s Abchurch, St. Stephen’s Walbrook and of course St. Margaret’s Lothbury, where the delightful tiny communion tables take a place of prominence in the architecture of the church, a prominence exalted by the aforementioned altarpieces, in most cases carved by the great Grinling Gibbons, who often worked alongside Wren - and who was indeed highly appreciated also at court at the time. St. Margaret’s Lothbury is perhaps the most complete Wren sanctuary, it also includes a beautiful carved screen but in true Reformation style, topped with the royal arms rather than a rood. On the two sides to the altarpiece are two paintings with the prophets Moses and Aaron. 

The sanctuary at St. Margaret's Lothbury, with the Grinling Gibbons carvings in the screen and altarpiece.
At St. Mary’s Abchurch the beautiful dome is decorated with a stunning trœmpe-l’oeil by William Snow (1708) and it is a Baroque apotheosis cantered around the depiction of the Hebrew name of God the Father. The two churches are a triumph of Baroque and yet canonically classical architecture with their unsupported domes and truly express the genius of Wren, which I would personally define as perfectly English despite its “Baroqueness”: canonically perfect classical extravaganza.

The sanctuary at St. Mary's Abchurch with the Grinling Gibbons pulpit and altarpiece, and the William Snow dome painting.
Wren’s churches are a testimony to the forefathers of our Anglican faith - but not only that, they’re a stunning collection of delightful experiments in that bizarre rational form of Baroque which was its English expression. Wren’s architecture was inspired by the severity of antiquity, somewhat anglicised through the likes of architects such as Inigo Jones, and at the same time mitigated and scalded by some hot Roman wind that at times seems to have been fuelled in his direction by Borromini himself! Wren knew what was going on in the continent architecturally speaking and he made it all fit for purpose for Anglican England through the eyes of his genius by reinventing it all.

St. Vedast-alias-Foster and its Borrominesque spire.
An example of the latter would be the wonderful Italian-looking spire at St. Vedast-alias-Foster, the theatrical Baroque stage which is the church of St. Clement Danes, the exuberant façade of St. Martin’s-within-Ludgate with its Italian volutes, or the splendid domes of St. Mary’s Abchurch and St. Stephen’s Walbrook, the latter, possibly the most perfect building in Britain, clearly inspired by the Roman Pantheon, Wren’s preparatory design for St. Paul’s which was highly praised at the time, so much that Antonio Canova himself once said: he would like to return to England so that he could again see St. Paul’s Cathedral, Somerset House, and St. Stephen’s Church, Walbrook.

The dome at St. Stephen's Walbrook.
Wren invented the archetype of the high Anglican parish. All these fine buildings are a testament to one of the greatest architects of all time, perhaps they equal his masterpiece in terms of importance, the majestic and imposing building that is St. Paul’s Cathedral, the monument to a new England that for the first time crowned herself with the crown of classical architecture, an epitaph on Wren’s tomb there reads: reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.

The spire of St. Martin's-within-Ludgate on the left, with St. Paul's Cathedral in the background.

Friday, August 2, 2019

A little gem of Italian architecture in London.

Sometimes taking a stroll along the banks of the Thames can be a rather relaxing way to spend one's free time in London. As you may know, the Thames today doesn't look as it would have done 200 years ago, as many other European capitals, the river got embanked during the reign of Queen Victoria, with work starting in 1862. The reason behind such works was of course to prevent London from being regularly flooded, so it is important not to over-romanticise the past. However, we also know that nowadays systems of dams and containment basins would have prevented such events; the Victorian solution remains a perfectly fine engineering solution to the problem.

The mouth of the River Fleet in the late 18th century.
Before the construction of the embankments, the river was very different and in a way was much part of the life of London, its banks were scattered with beautiful neo-classical houses, some of which consisted of the York House complex in Westminster, docks, and a skyline dominated by the spires of Wren churches, as well as the beautiful Georgian canal at the mouth of the river Fleet at Blackfriars. London looked a bit like a Venice of the north.

The York Watergate and the York House complex in the late 19th century.
The York House complex was a string of thirteen 17th century mansions facing the strand on one side and with their gardens right on the Thames' banks - some of these houses had private access to the river. One of these mansions was the London seat of the Duke of Buckingham, George Villers, the 3rd Duke commissioned an Italianate watergate which still exists now some 130 meters away from the river, with its stone still scarred by the river waters. It is one rare example of Palladian architecture from the reign of Charles I, known for his interest in Italian art, it remains one of the few remaining examples of this in London - it was designed in 1626 by the first English neo-classical architect Inigo Jones. It remains as a sign of a post-Reformation England that knew what was going on in the continental scene in terms of art and which reclaimed for its national grandeur the art of antiquity. The watergate remains a testimony of this and of the Thames' charming past as a northern Venice!

The York Watergate today.

Monday, April 15, 2019

An Easter Sermon.

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, the day which marks the beginning of Holy Week during which we experience Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and have a foretaste of his Passion and Resurrection. 

At church we had a great time, the children produced wonderful banners, the evening service was also a great time for fellowship, followed by a rather jolly dinner for all those who worked hard to make such a day so special. 

Yet, this morning, on this Monday of Holy Week, reality hit me hard. We held a funeral in church, not that it is a new experience for me, as I have been involved in funerals before, both in family and at church, but I wasn’t quite ready for what I was going to expect. Far from me to sound emotionless, but I thought it would have been a classic funeral for a well loved elderly person. 

It wasn’t - it was the funeral of a well loved young dad who died of throat cancer within a year of being diagnosed. Dylan spent his life travelling the world with his band, some of his favourite pieces were played during the ceremony. 

His daughters’ and granddaughters’ eulogies at church and at the crematorium were absolutely moving, especially as some of the youngest girls got rather emotional. 

It rather reminded me of my mother’s funeral when I was 16, I can’t pretend to know how the children and family were feeling, but I couldn’t help but feeling how great the pain love can produce can be. 

Accompanying Dylan’s wife and best buddy in the car to the crematorium was one of the most intimate experiences I have ever had, a window into a family’s most private moment - I have witnessed people die before and I can never stop feeling humbled by being able to share such moments with people. Seeing their tears, listening to their deepest emotions, being there with someone who is not there anymore. 

The power of love can be an instrument of peace and it can be an instrument of torture. Funerals can leave us working with the families, feeling drained, sad and remindful of our own experiences with death, and yet we must keep professional and strong for those who are going through it. Let me tell you, it sounds like a difficult task, but really it is incredibly humbling. This is not even my first Holy Week funeral, and yet I can’t help but feel a strong connection with God right now, who sent his Son into this world to suffer and die for us. 

What pain did Mary feel when Jesus was taken away? I am always one who finds comfort in rationality and doesn’t like to utter empty phrases at those who mourn, but I can’t but think as Easter approaches, that there is always a Resurrection, the race is not complete and we will all finally join in heaven one day with our loved ones. 

We have all experienced grim moments in our lives, especially if we have loved, but hope is what can bring us back to common sense, the hope of the Resurrection is always there. Holy Week always ends with Easter, but we must keep fighting, and we mustn’t leave anyone behind, we must be able to recognise our failures and to recognise those who fail at getting up in the face of adversities to help them overcome their struggles. We must fight and help the weak to fight, we must be there for the grieving, the poor and sick, the sinner, whatever that means, and those who think they aren’t. If we can always aim at the common good and strive for justice, if we can all act together as a communal body to help each other, we will find that love is there, and where love is God himself is there. And where there is God, there is the Resurrection, the final joy and consolation to all our sins. 

As long as we will be there for Dylan, his family, for all who need it, God will be with us - it was a great privilege to be there this morning to give support to a family that needed it, not everyone is called to give support to people in the same manner, but we can all each find a way to do that in our own ways. 

As we approach the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday let us reflect on helping each other in sharing our burdens, and at the last to commend all our problems to God, who by dying for us aimed at our eternal felicity and salvation. There will always be those who will feel like their problems are the worst and cannot be solved but let us not lose hope, let us keep fighting the good fight. If we lose hope we will lose the great strength hidden in every each one of us, there is no shame in seeking help from those around us. The process of grieving for Dylan's family has just begun, the process of healing has not yet started. What can we do for them? What can we do for all those who mourn or suffer? We must be there.

Today’s experience was particularly draining for me, I won’t hide it, but it has also been a great privilege, it made me realise that it is what we are called here to do. There is no greater joy in life than causing those who are weeping to smile. It means that there is still hope. Let us fight our way through this Holy Week and our life, that at the end we may attain whatever it is that we strive for, we are here to stay. There is no magic medicine that can cure us from pain, but there are ways to cope and carry on, and once we’ll learn how to do it - we can finally aim at the final goal. Let us fight our way through this difficult life, and let us fight to reach that goal, that joy and serenity that will burst at Easter: The Strife is over, the battle done, the victory of life is won, the song of triumph hath begun… Alleluia! God will comfort us to the end of times, and his love lives in each act of charity and generosity that we do, we make God live in us, and we are his body that makes the Resurrection happen again each time, it’s a power that lies with in us. Let’s try and dig it out! If you don't feel like your life is a long battle, good! Help your neighbour to fight through her struggles! Keep positive and carry on! We are one body, one family, one Church.

After the Passion, there is always the Resurrection. I wish you a blessed Holy Week and Easter Day. 

What would Jesus say about it all? Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Tribute to the Pittsburgh victims.

Two days ago, on 27th October 2018, America sees another violent massacre at the hands of an American terrorist. This time the victims were 11 Jewish Americans attending a Saturday morning service at Or L'Simcha Conservative Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The attack occurred on the holiest day for Jews, the Shabbat, the day of rest, as they gather to give thanks to God at worship. This was the worst antisemitic attack ever occurred in America.

The sole suspect is a middle aged right-wing extremist whose goal, in his words, was to kill the Jews. This unfortunate event not only confirms a terrifying resurgence of antisemitism across the wider world, often ignored or derided, a resurgence that we would not want to see 70 years after the Holocaust, but also, an increase of antisemitism in a nation that has always been a safe haven for Jews, even at times where nowhere else was: the United States of America.
The history of Jews in the United States goes back to the 17th century, the first Jew born on American soil was a Sephardi man, Joachim Gans, in 1584, Elias Legarde, another Sephardic Jew, arrived in James City in Virginia in 1621, large Jewish communities flourished in New England and the Carolinas, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, built in 1759, is the oldest in the country, the Gomez Mill House in Marlboro, NY, dating to the 1710s, is the earliest surviving Jewish home in America. The history of Jews in the United States dates back to the very time during which the foundations of the nation were being laid.

By the time of the revolution, around 2,000 Sephardic Jews lived in America, they contributed to the war effort in large numbers, the Bill of Rights made sure that antisemitism would never become as prevalent as in Europe. George Washington wrote to the Newport community:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
During the 19th century, a substantial number of German Jews became among the first settlers of the new Old Wild West. Later in the century, with the intensification of the Eastern European Pogroms a massive immigration of Ashkenazi Jews from Poland, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Rumania began, a massive "aliyha" that would last until the early stages of the Nazi regime in the 1930s.
During the Civil War, about 3,000 Jews fought for the Confederates and around 7,000 fought for the Union, they were American young men. 
The massive wave of Jewish refugees to the East Coast of the United States, strengthened even more their presence in the United States, the influence on culture, art, science, even cuisine, today America is the 2nd largest Jewish country in the world, New York City being the largest Jewish city in the world.

The history of America is also Jewish, and Jews have enriched the history of the United States, as scientists, philanthropists, writers, artists, film-directors, politicians, activists, shaping every aspect of American culture, Jews fought in the two world wars valiantly and Jews have been and are American, and most Americans' friends, neighbors, coworkers, schoolmates, teachers, doctors.
To be Jewish is to be American, to be antisemitic is to be anti-American.
Shooting people during their worship gatherings, at Shabbat, on the holiest day of the week is a terrible act of terror, it is not the first time it happens in a house of worship, and we must pray and work for a more concrete solution to such hatred. How can we make our Jewish brothers and sisters feel safe after the worst antisemitic attack ever occurred in America? We will keep praying for the eleven victims of the Pittsburgh attack, that their memory may be a blessing, that America may continue to be safe haven for Jews and for all.
This Christian stands with you.

Mourner's Kaddish

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.

May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Review of the Mantegna & Bellini Exhibition at the National Gallery.

Earlier this month, a new exhibition at the National Gallery has opened on two great masters of the Venetian Renaissance, the two brothers-in-law Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini. I have had the privilege to see it on the day of its inauguration, and I must say that it has been among the best exhibitions held here in London in the past few years, probably on pair with the recent one on Charles I and his collection.
In historiography it is always complicated to define chronological periods with absolute precision, and this is one of the reasons why I have always been absolutely avverse to dates. The Renaissance was a time of great cultural growth in all fields of human advancement. Slowly, by the end of the 14th century, when Italian economy began to grow, especially in Florence with the advent of modern banking, and later in Rome in the early 15th century, when Pope Martin V Colonna brought the papacy back to Rome, things began to change, not quickly, but swiftly: the aesthetics of the international Gothic slowly gave room to a new classical language, rediscovered through the new Humanistic thought, a new rebirth of Neo-Platonism brought back to life Rome’s classical past, and Renaissance art slowly began to evolve, with an art deeply rooted in Christianity, but now also based on and improved by the rediscovered marvels of ancient Rome, such as the Domus Area, which artists such as the early and more Gothic, Benozzo Gozzoli or Fra Angelico, or more humanist Botticelli or Ghirlandaio, tried to recreate. Religious and secular, Christian and Pagan or historical, themes began to coexist in art, commissions were often not only religious but also secular, they began to influence each other, the "new" wave of Classicism deeply inspired religious works, at least with its advanced perspective, order, realism and architectural features, and which the new Rome of the Popes and the Florence of the Medici tried to make their own, and soon this new vibrant energy spread to the entirety of the Italian peninsula, at the time connected, through trade and banking, much like today to the great cultural hubs of the north and of the east, and it is here that the role of Venice as the connecting vehicle between the two emerges.

Venice, a city strong of a majestic past as one of the major Italian maritime republics of the late Middle Ages, which made its fortune through trading and of course through the Crusades, the Venice of the Dogi had been developing a vast empire and even an important role as a trading hub for centuries. La Serenissima came into being in 421 AD as result of the development of the Byzantine empire, with which it always maintained good relations. The Venetian Empire ranged from the Greek islands to the Black Sea and to the Levant, mostly because of trade. Venetian merchants operated throughout Europe, much like the Medici and their Florentine emissaries had branches throughout the continent and even England. It is in this opulent setting that Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (1459-1516) lived and worked. 

Andrea Mantegna, was born near Padua to a carpenter, and as many artists at the time was trained in a local bottega to a local master known as Squarcione, in 1453 he broke the agreement and married into the great firm of the Bellini. His first great commission came in 1448, when he worked at the Eremitani Chapel in Padua, where he worked alternatively with Verona until his move to the court of the Gonzaga in Mantua in 1460. As a good humanist he had a scholarly interest in antiquity, in 1464 he notoriously dressed up as an ancient Roman for a boating excursion on Lake Garda with his friend Felice Feliciano. A great example of his style inspired by the Classical world is the “Triumphs of Caesar” series now at Hampton Court. His style was particularly good at aiming to represent antique sculpture realistically. His religious works also resent from the classical influence and are particularly admirable, he laid the early foundations to what would become the Venetian High Renaissance style and inspired artists to come, from Giovanni Bellini to Albrecht Dürer: he experimented with perspective, another important advancement of Renaissance art, but also with detailed landscapes and a dramatic rendition of human emotions. He died in 1506, at the end of a great career.

Giovanni Bellini lived and worked in Venice throughout his life and his 65 years long career. Unlike Mantegna, he is known for his tender and graceful pictures, his realistic portraits are known for an astonishing use of natural light. He was born into a long dynasty of Venetian painters, shaped by his father Jacopo, he was greatly influenced by Andrea Mantegna who happened to be his brother-in-law.  His early and most graceful works mainly focus on Christian themes such as the “Blood of the Redeemer” or the “Agony in the Garden” or indeed the beautiful depictions of the Virgin on countless panels and altarpieces, often set in mystic landscapes or geometrically exquisite architectural features derived from the Classical world, later in his career like Mantegna, his art was heavily influenced by the new Humanistic ideals and he executed a few secular narrative paintings such as the stunning “Feast of the Gods”. He was an incredibly gifted artist who brought to Venice those artistic characteristics that would later define the Venetian works of Titian or Tintoretto as such; the use of color, observed light, atmosphere, etc. His influential family background led him to be the artists of the Doge, the rulers of the Venetian Empire. Like Mantegna he influenced artists to come both in Venice and abroad. Indeed, even a renowned Italian cocktail was named in his honor.
The two artists lived and worked to serve among the most refined courts of their time, the Gonzaga at Mantua, where Mantegna painted the famous “Camera degli Sposi” and Giovanni Bellini who worked for the Doge of Venice, the imperators of the Venetian Empire, for whom Bellini painted altarpieces and portraits. They also worked for great chapels and churches, mainly in Padua, Verona and Venice respectively.

Exhibitions on Mantegna and Bellini are not something new, only recently the Louvre (2008/2009) and the Scuderie del Quirinale (2008/2009) offered two individual and rather excellent exhibitions on the two masters, in Paris and Rome respectively, which I have thankfully been able to see as a younger boy and which perhaps led me to undertake an art degree at university! 
The London exhibition for the first time unites rather splendidly and successfully, not only the works, but also the dramatic lives of these intricate characters. For seven years Mantegna and Bellini worked closely around Venice, almost in a mystic dialogue, the aim of the exhibition is to show that; a competition between masters characterised by mutual respect and which lasted for a lifetime.

The exhibition is divided into six rooms which aim at portraying the life-long relationship between the two artists through their work. The first room, named “Beginnings”, is dedicated to their early works, the two masters are introduced by their cities of Padua and Venice, through the different taste of their patrons. This room also presents a beautiful set of drawings by Bellini on loan from the British Museum. In the following room, named “Explorations”, the exhibition begins to present the mutual impact of each artist on their works, at around the time of the marriage that made them brothers-in-law. In this room are the two nearly-identical versions of the “Descent into Limbo” by the two masters and the beautiful “Crucifixion” by Mantegna as opposed to Bellini’s “Le Calvaire”, respectively on loan from the Bristol Art Gallery and the Louvre. The third room named “Pietà” focuses on a new distinctive Renaissance iconography, the Dead Christ supported by Angels, with examples by both artists. In the fourth room, named “Landscape”, the extraordinary contribution of Bellini to the history of art is shown through his glorious depictions of realistic landscapes, natural light and atmosphere, a a key element even to the meaning behind some of his religious works. This is also great chance to see the newly restored “Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr” for the first time. The theme of the room is also to revel the differences in approach to landscape between the two artists and how the two, in this case Bellini, influenced the other; his “Death of the Virgin” with a spectacular view of the city of Mantua on loan from the Prado is extraordinary. The fifth room, dedicated to “Devotional Paintings and Portraits”, an essential theme in the heavily Christian world of the Renaissance. We can see the development of the Sacra Conversazione, in which the Madonna and Child appear with other saints as if occupying the same space. In this room there are also beautiful depictions of the Holy Family and the Madonna and Child from Dresden, Venice, and Berlin. The final room is called “Antiquity”, and is dedicated to the most spectacular works of the two artists inspired by the ancient Greco-Roman world, among the highlights are the beautiful “Triumphs of Caesar” by Mantegna on loan from the Royal Collection at Hampton Court and Bellini’s realistic monochrome sculptural paintings, including an “Episode from the Life of Publics Cornelius Scipio” from the National Gallery at Washington D.C. Astonishing works that show the impact of Humanism on the arts of the Renaissance and of the ancient works of Rome, the effect is certainly breathtaking. This fascinating journey has to be experienced, because words can't equate the beauty of the works of these transcendental masters.

Perhaps the highlights of the exhibition are the splendid Presentations to the Temple of the two artists, whose realism and use of lighting are absolutely astonishing. This fantastic exhibition not only brings together some of the most beautiful Renaissance masterpieces ever depicted from the greatest collections in the world, from the Prado to the Louvre, from the Uffizi to the Staatliche of Berlin, but actually, for the first time, creates a “sacred conversation” between two brothers-in-law and masters who shaped the arts of the Renaissance and became history by influencing each other and by depicting with such realism and beauty that they became eternal and influenced not only the Venetians of the High Renaissance, but generations of artists to come. It is certainly a once in a lifetime exhibition that requires to be seen to be believed!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sermon on Saint John the Baptist.

Today I had the privilege to lead a service of worship and to preach in Rome's English-speaking Methodist church of Ponte Sant'Angelo, Pastor Tim Macquiban kindly welcomed me and allowed me to experience what it is to lead God's people in God's praises. This was my first time leading any Sunday service and I am indeed touched to have done so in a church whose tradition finds its roots in Anglicanism, through John and Charles Wesley, a movement whose aim was to bring God to the four corners of the world, by speaking of God's infinite grace and love but also through a splendid musical tradition, and indeed we sang some favourite hymns with joy and enthusiasm. I will always treasure this special occasion. Here is a transcript of that sermon I preached:

Whether you are a visitor, a long time resident of this city of Rome or a Roman; you surely have noticed the beauty that this city has to offer, in its churches, frescoes, paintings, galleries, palazzos, gardens, bridges, even the food, anywhere! But sometimes, the most exciting, beautiful places hide some dark secrets. Surely not a surprise for a 2,700 years old city. Sometimes what seems ordinary can hide gruesome details! If you take a stroll not too far away from here and head towards the Spanish Steps area, you may end up in the not so exciting piazza of San Silvestro, named after a church that still stands there, if you keep walking heading north, on the Via del Gambero, you may notice a tiny door along the church’s wall; the small door leads to a little chapel guarded by a charming Gothic-revival screen that hides what looks like a reliquary, the rather large object houses a mummified skull, that supposedly belongs to Saint John the Baptist. Surely, there are various skulls of Saint John, throughout the world, but the thought and faith is what counts, now the need of showing it openly, is something that we can talk about instead! But every time I pass by that alley, I reflect on a simple thought that comes to mind; are people walking outside, children eating gelato, adults holding hands, tourists doing some shopping, are they aware of this little, dark secret? Are they aware of how hard it is to be a Christian? To Fight the Good Fight?

Today’s readings were, to say the least, quite unusual, sometimes the Word of God, isn’t easy to digest, isn’t it? First, Paul tells us of God’s infinite grace, shown in his son Jesus Christ, as tricky as this passage may seem, and surely throughout the centuries there have been extreme interpretations of these words, what really is the meaning is that God predestined all of mankind to be saved and the incarnation of his Son Jesus Christ, who redeemed us all in his sacrifice of blood and love, is its very sign. In love, he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will - to the praise of his glorious grace which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. 

God who first revealed himself to the people he freed from Egypt, finally in his revelation to the world he made himself incarnate in order not to save someone, but to save all of humankind - in order to extend his salvific mission to everyone of us, denying that, would be denying the sacrifice of many. As Christians, Paul also gave us the key in order to make our communion with God stronger, in Ephesians he continues: and you were also included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the Gospel of your salvation. When you believed you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit. It is by Christ we have been saved, with the grace of God, bestowed by the Holy Spirit, this holy and blessed Three, glorious Trinity, Wisdom, Love, Might; boundless as ocean’s tide, rolling in fullest pride, through the earth far and wide, let there be light. It is this Trinity, this mysterious communion of love that is God, one in three and three in one, that can save us, that can give us light. And we just have to understand and be thankful for such an act of love that transcends ages, time, space, the very limits of our universe and understanding of what surrounds us. 

If God, entrusted us with such a responsibility, if God believed we as creatures made in his own image, were to be worthy of the time to be considered for salvation we must take our faith and make it grow, we have to cultivate our daily thanksgiving to this boundless love, we must Fight the Good Fight. I have to say, I am partly thankful, that I managed to be here, when one of the most difficult Gospel readings from the Church’s year were to be read: the death of John the Baptist. Here in Rome and in Italy in general, as an art historian to be, I have always been fascinated by the spectacular Renaissance art works, that portrayed the Baptist as a little child playing with baby Jesus or as an adult baptising Jesus, even in England, the beautiful and yet simple Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, in London’s National Gallery, truly holds a strong message, the message that this saintly man was chosen by Christ to baptise him, so that he could baptise everyone and open the kingdom of God to all believers, so that, that grace given to us by God could really make its way among us. It is no surprise that our Muslim sisters and brothers in the faith regard the Baptist as an important prophet that announced the coming of Christ, there is even an ancient Middle Eastern tradition within Judaism that sees the Baptist as a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah, as our Gospel today also states. 

As for the little relic in the tiny chapel near the Spanish Steps, hidden from the bustling life of this city, the Renaissance depictions of an adorable Baptist as a baby or as a humble preacher in the Baptism scenes, hide the fact that this holy man was slaughtered for having stood up to tyrants in order to follow his faith and God’s grace. If there is an example out there of how strong faith can be, that is it, the example of the first Christian! He taught us how to Fight the Good Fight.

Sometimes, everyone of us feels too let down by God, I am the first, there are moments when there isn’t even anything serious going on and you’re just tired to pray, but not enough to watch some tv series or to eat a snack. Yet, the first Christian wasn’t afraid of standing up for God when he had to, does that mean we all have to be slaughtered? No! But I think it is important to be a living testimony of God’s love as Christians, to hold strong to his faith and to be good examples of human beings. People throughout the world still die for their faith or for human greed, even in more brutal ways than the Baptist, for the sole fanaticism or enjoyment of others, to Fight the Good Fight means to take conscience of this, to fight this and to try and make an impact on the world, in Jesus’ name! Faith is what saves us all, believing and God’s grace is what saves us, but what makes us whole is making this world a better place. We must Fight the Good Fight.

Today we read of how as for Jesus, Herod was too afraid of killing John the Baptist, he was too afraid of laying a hand on someone who was carrying a testimony of faith that clearly made an impact on the monarch. And yet, in order to follow his earthly promise, a promise requested by greed and jealousy, Herod agreed to the request: the head of John the Baptist, and so that was it. Do I feel as I should judge Herod for his decision? I am not sure. This decision is only up to God, but to be honest I do not feel like it. What if the little child eating gelato would find the gruesome head in San Silvestro? What if Herod had the courage to stand up to his pride, not make the mistake of agreeing to that promise, not offer to make any promise as a ruler with certain duties and responsibilities? What if we could stand up to the injustice we witness day by day? What if we could put our own interests aside and aim for the common good? What if we would Fight the Good Fight?

It is not our duty to judge, for example the first Christian man, the Baptist, couldn't even sweeten Herod up; people make mistakes, though not as great as his perhaps, but at the very least, we should stop asking and asking, we should stop and think that perhaps it’s time to give, it’s time to be thankful, it’s time to forgive and not ask for anyone’s head on a platter. Why did the Baptist die? For his faith. For a common belief in Jesus Christ who died to save us all. We have incredible hardships to go through in our lives, we are all saints, and it is because of Christ’s incredible act of love that we know any hardship can be overcome. We have to have the courage to find what’s hidden, it may be much better than a mummified human skull. Let us be thankful in the Baptist’s sacrifice and testimony of faith, let us go out into the world with new eyes. The Baptist showed us that being a Christian is not easy, let us remember whenever we are feeling a bit under the weather, being us is not easy, but Jesus is always by our side and in our hearts. We simply have to Fight the Good Fight!

Fight the good fight with all thy might;
Christ is thy Strength, and Christ thy Right;
Lay hold on life, and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally.