Friday, April 19, 2019

O Sacred Head Surrounded

Fra Angelico, Head of Christ
Italian, c. 1430-1440
Livorno, Church of Santa Maria del Soccorso
On Deposit with Museo Civico Giovanni Fattori

"O Sacred Head surrounded By crown of piercing thorn!
O bleeding Head so wounded, Reviled and put to scorn!
Death’s pallid hue comes o’er Thee, The glow of life decays,
Yet angel hosts adore Thee, And tremble as they gaze.

I see Thy strength and vigor All fading in the strife,
And death with cruel rigor, Bereaving Thee of life:
O agony and dying! O love to sinners free!
Jesus, all grace supplying, O turn Thy face on me.

In this, Thy bitter passion, Good shepherd, think of me,
With Thy most sweet compassion, Unworthy though I be:
Beneath Thy cross abiding, Forever would I rest;
In Thy dear love confiding, And with Thy presence blest."

Passion Hymn attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (12th Century)
English translation by Henry W. Baker (1861)

For many years I have been struck by a variant of the Man of Sorrows theme that focuses just on the head of Jesus, wounded and wearing the crown of thorns.  It reminded me forcefully of the hymn "O Sacred Head Surrounded" that has been a favorite since I learned it as a child during my pre-Vatican II parochial school's mandatory rehearsal every Wednesday morning for the Children's Mass which we were all expected to attend on the coming Sunday.  And we sang!  While many of the hymns we learned in those groggy morning sessions have faded from use, this one has not.  It remains a staple of just about every Christian church's Lenten experience.

Holy Face
Italian or Spanish, 15th Century
Paris, Musée du Louvre

For many months I have collected images and background information on the various images of the Sacred Head and a fascinating image it is.  However, both in 2019 and 2020 my good intentions for an essay have gone out the window.  In 2019 we witnessed the disastrous fire at Notre-Dame de Paris and in 2020 the terrible ordeal of the COVID-19 pandemic, which stiffled my ability to think at the same time as it has confined me to my apartment.  This current year of 2021 has been little better due to bouts of arthritic pain occasioned by lockdown induced inactivity.

Petrus Christus, Head of Christ
Flemish, c. 1445
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

It is, however, appropriate that I share at least some of the images with you this week.  For, one of the great treasures of Notre-Dame is the relic of the Crown of Thorns itself.  

Antonello da Messina, Head of Christ
Italian, c. 1470-1479
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Doubtless many readers will scoff and say "Crown of Thorns, really!  Is she really serious about that?"  And, once upon a time I shared in that skepticism.  It seemed wildly fanciful to suppose that such a thing could possibly have been real.  However, on more mature consideration I think that it is not completely improbable that certain items associated with the death of Jesus were reverently preserved at the time and specially valued after the Resurrection.  

Aelbert Bouts, Head of Christ
Flemish, c. 1500-1525
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Is it so difficult to believe that someone picked up the crown of thorns when it was removed from his head and kept it?  We know from the Gospels that there were people there at the cross who loved him, starting with his mother.  Might someone have kept it for her?  It seems a very human thing to do.  

Sebald Beham, Head of Christ
German, 1520
London, British Museum

There was once a belief that the description of his being nailed to the cross was an invention, until evidence was found in  the skeleton of another crucified individual of the nails used to fix his feet to the cross on which he died.  Consequently, might not the nails drawn from Jesus' hands and feet have been preserved by his family?  
Ankle bones of man crucified in 70AD
Jerusalem, Israel Museum
The Crown of Thorns and the Nail kept in Notre-Dame were obtained by Saint Louis/Louis IX in Constantinople, which became the repository of many of the most treasured relics from Palestine and Syria as those areas were overrun by Muslim invaders in the seventh century.  Once they arrived in Paris, we know where they were and we also know that thorns from the Crown were removed and given to this church or that abbey all through the medieval period, so that what remains today is the twined branches, denuded of the thorns and encased in a glass and gilt reliquary.  Nevertheless, there is really no reason to doubt that the Crown we see today is the same one brought to France by Saint Louis and little reason to doubt that it once was pressed on the head of Jesus.  Certainly, the firefighters who fought to retrieve it from the burning church on April 15, 2019 did not.  

On Good Friday 2020 (April 10, 2020) the relic was displayed for an hour of veneration in the ruins of Notre-Dame.  Due to restrictions on public gatherings due to the pandemic, veneration had to be televised.  The event was recorded and may still be available on the KTO-TV YouTube channel.  

The Crown of Thorns in its reliquary
Paris, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
So, I present today a selection of the larger group of images of the Sacred Head Surrounded by Crown of Piercing Thorn.

Correggio (Antonio Allegri), Head of Christ
Italian, c. 1525-1530
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum

Guido Reni, Head of Christ
Italian, Early 1630s
Detroit, Institute of Arts
Wenceslaus Hollar, Ecce Homo
Czech, 1647
London, British Museum

Head of Christ
Italian, Early 18th Century
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
Ivory Head of Christ
French, 19th Century
Private Collection

The full essay I was planning will have to wait a bit.

© M. Duffy, 2019, updated 2020 and 2021.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Two Events at The Met in Wake of Notre-Dame Fire

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that two events have been planned in reference to the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris.  The first is this afternoon at the Cloisters, the specialized medieval museum that sits at the top of Manhattan, about an hour north of the main Fifth Avenue building.

The second will take place next Monday afternoon.   See the text of the press release below.

Two Events at the Met in Wake of Notre-Dame Fire
Following the recent disastrous fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is offering two occasions for the community to gather:

At The Met Cloisters, on Thursday, April 18, at 2 p.m.,   a bell in the Museum's tower will toll for one minute, coinciding with the ringing of bells scheduled to take place across the UK, during which time visitors may observe a minute of silence.

At The Met Fifth Avenue, on Monday, April 22, at 4  p.m., an informal program will take place in the Medieval Sculpture Hall, where Met experts who are familiar with Notre-Dame Cathedral will speak briefly about its importance. On special display for this occasion will be a mid-15th-century manuscript by Jean Fouquet, The  Right  Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against the  Demons, that depicts Notre-Dame. 
Jean Fouquet, The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful Against Demons
From The Hours of Etienne Chevalier
French, c.1452-1460
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lehman Collection
Also nearby will be The Met's 12th-century Head of King David— originally part of the rich sculptural decoration program of Notre-Dame, but decapitated during the French Revolution. 
Head of King David, From Notre-Dame de Paris
French, c. 1145
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

And Johan Barthold Jongkind's The Pont  Neuf (1849–50), in which the skyline is punctuated by the cathedral's towers, will also be on view in European Paintings Gallery 812.
Johan Barthold Jongkind, The Pont Neuf
Dutch, c. 1849-1850
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Speakers will include:

Daniel Weiss, President and CEO, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Max Hollein, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art 
Barbara Drake Boehm, Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior urator for The Met Cloisters
Lucretia Kargère, Conservator, The Met Cloisters
Nancy Wu, Senior Managing Educator, Public Programs, The Met Cloisters

Press Contact: or 212-570-3951

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Medieval Architects Could Build!

The Virgin of Paris as I saw her last.
French, Early 14th Century
Paris, Notre-Dame de Paris

If one every doubted the genius of the medieval architects who built the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, any doubts were laid to rest today.

After watching in horror as the entirety of Notre-Dame de Paris went up in flames on Monday I was forced to leave the house for an appointment.  The last image I saw on my TV screen was of a drone flight over the stricken building.  It looked entirely hopeless.

Drone view of the burning Notre-Dame.  The west end, with the bell towers, is at the left of the picture.  The rounded apse at the east end is to the right.  The building seems to be completely engulfed.
However, returning home some hours later a glimmer of wonder greeted me.  What had burned, tragic as it was, was only the roof!  In spite of the dramatic fall of the great 19th century spire and the destruction of the roof, the interior was virtually intact!

For this we have to thank those 12th and 13th century men who planned and built the bones of this great church with little more than a basic understanding of geometry, practical experience and manual construction skills.  The wonderful structure of stone which they created with their minds and hands had withstood the collapse of the wooden and lead roof.  In a few places it seems to have given way, as photos taken inside revealed, but in the main it had held the building secure as it was meant to do.
View showing damage to two of the vaults, with the fire still raging above them.  One can just make out the red hot structure of the wooden beams supporting the roof, which provided the fuel for the fire.
One hopes that the vaults will continue to hold the building steady in this damaged state.  Stone, especially limestone, can be weakened by high temperatures and the future depends on how much of it suffered sufficient heat, as this interview with one of the professors from my alma mater points out.

However, for now the great news is that the interior is largely intact, in so far as the stone structure is concerned.  A view of the altar area, underneath the crossing of the nave and transepts, which would have been directly underneath the spire shows some serious damage to some of the wooden furnishings.  And, according to the cathedral authorities, some of the large 17th century paintings could not be moved out of harm's way.  Some may have suffered burn damage, but some may have been protected by their placement in side chapels.  Therefore, all is not gone, though there was presumably at least smoke damage and, probably water damage as well.
The Crossing area of Notre-Dame during the fire.  It is clear that something has fallen into the area (probably the spire) and is smoldering all around the altar area.  While the pulpit on the far right seems unscathed, as does the Virgin of Paris (you can just about make the statue out attached to the pier on the right hand side of the crossing), I am not sure that the wooden choir stalls and organ console have survived.  The cross and the grand marble monument with the Pieta in the background seem to be unharmed as well.
Also hopeful was news that most of the precious relics, including what may be the Crown of Thorns, were saved, appropriately enough by the chaplain of the Sapeurs Pompiers (i.e., firefighters).

While it looked bad for the famous rose windows of the transepts, there is  happy news there too.  Only the smaller windows that are at the roof line were damaged, and that damage was severe.  The stone tracery is intact, but there is no glass left within it.  But the bigger, more important windows survived intact.

Roof line rose window of one of the transepts, empty of glass.  
This is fortunate for, while a window can be reconstructed, a reconstruction is just that, a remaking.  And, no matter how good, it is not quite the same as the real thing.

I rejoice that much has been preserved, however, and that so far as we know no lives were lost.

May the Blessed Virgin watch over this greatest of the cathedrals named in her honor and may she and the many saints of Paris and of France watch over the people who live there.  May the faith of those who responded to this tragic day with prayer and hymns inspire the world who watched.

It is my hope that once again the cathedral can open its arms to the world with the Easter song of Alleluia, for death has not conquered and will not.
This photo of the crossing area, taken the day after the fire, show the charred remains of the spire and the roof and the stone blocks from the broken vaulting.  The wooden choir stalls, which stood on each side of the crossing are gone, presumably burned to ash.  However, the structure of the central piers withstood the shock, the apse area seems complete, the old high altar area with its signature image of the Pieta and the Virgin of Paris can be seen, blackened by smoke, but largely intact, as is the large metal cross and the old altar frontal.  The Virgin of Paris appears to have lost her right arm, which held an unopened lily (a fleur-de-lys).  However, I would be surprised if this is the first time that has happened.  The newer altar survived (it can be seen in the above earlier picture, taken during the fire), but is buried under the debris..
The priority for now is to make the structure safe to prevent further damage, but we can be very thankful that our medieval forebears built for God and the ages, not for profit.

Saints Genevieve, Denis, Louis, Peter Julian, Jean Marie, Therese, Mary Magdalene, Francois de Sales, Anne, Bernard, Vincent de Paul, Jeanne d'Arc, Martin of Tours, Bernadette, Margaret Mary, Catherine and all the numerous other saints of France pray for us all.

In the middle of the 12th century the cathedral of Chartres burned down.  All that was left of the church was a newly constructed west facade and the crypt.  Out of that experience, the first great Gothic cathedral was born.  Notre-Dame de Paris was the second one, may its near destruction today be the seed for something great to emerge as well.

© M. Duffy, 2019

Photo credits to Reuters with the exception of the first image, of the Virgin of Paris, which is my own.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Something you don't see everyday!

Reposting an article from a happier day as I watched the destruction of Notre Dame with pain in my heart.  Originally posted on February 3, 2013.  Reposted April 15, 2019.  May God preserve Notre-Dame de Paris.

Here's something you don't see every day and that hasn't happened for centuries -- the dedication of nine new bells for the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris!  The new bells are displayed in the center aisle of the historic building and will be on display until February 23rd, when they will be moved to the bell towers.  They will ring out over Paris for the first time on Palm Sunday, March 24.

The video is worth watching as the each of the huge bells is named and rung for the first time by groups of adults and children. The new bells are named:

  1. Jean-Marie (in honor of the late Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger of Paris, who died in 2007)
  2. Maurice (in honor of Bishop Maurice de Sully, the bishop who was the force behind the great cathedral and laid the cornerstone of the building in 1163)
  3. Benoit-Joseph (in honor of Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger)
  4. Etienne (in memory of the first church on the site, which was dedicated to St. Stephen the first martyr)
  5. Marcel (in honor of St. Marcel, ninth bishop of Paris, in the fifth century, who was beloved for his charity to the poor and sick)
  6. Denis (in honor of St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, a martyr in 250 and the most famous of France's early saints)
  7. Anne-Genevieve (in honor of St. Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus, and of St. Genevieve, the sixth century saint, best known as the protectress of Paris)
  8. Gabriel (in honor of the Angel Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation)
  9. Marie (in honor of Mary, the Mother of God).  Marie is a "great bell" or bourdon and will join the current bourdon, Emmanuel, the surviving bell from the old ring, named for Jesus, God with us. 
According to the Associated Press report, the new bells are the first since 1856, when four temporary bells of inferior materials were cast.  The new bells will join the oldest bell, the bourdon Emmanuel, cast in 1680, which survived the destruction of the other bells during the French Revolution, and will replace the 19th century bells that have now gone out of tune.  They will also restore the cathedral bells to the complement in existence up to the French Revolution. 

Bells traditionally carry inscriptions on their shoulders and around their mouths, expressed in the first person, and Marie is no exception.  On one side she carries the words of the Hail Mary.  On the other side she tells her own story.  In addition to giving her current history, with details about her casting and her dedication in the jubilee year celebrating the 850th anniversary of the cathedral, the inscription on her shoulders says (my translation):  "I bear the name of the first bourdon of Notre Dame, cast in 1378, recast for the last time in 1472 by Thomas de Claville and destroyed in 1792".   In a nutshell, Marie's inscription tells the story of much of the artistic patrimony of France.

Long may the new bells ring over Paris, reminding people of the presence of God!