Wednesday 15 August 2012

and Hexham Abbey

I only managed to take adequate photographs of a fraction of the things to we saw, beginning with the obvious unique survival of the night stairs by which the Augustinian Canons would come down from their living quarters into the church...

... continuing with the Roman gravestone at the foot of those stairs (also visible on the right of the first photograph) with its conquered Britain beneath the feet of the Centurian's horse...

... and finishing with further re-used Roman stones in the Seventh Century crypt which is all that remains of St Wilfrid's original foundation, but, in truth, the others contents of the building would have been worth the journey even if these three things were not in it.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Vindolanda Bible Study

The name Onesimus emerges in First or Second Century records from Hadrian’s Wall as well as in Paul’s letter to Philemon, and apparently is quite a common name (particularly for a slave since it means ‘useful’ - so, perhaps, is something like calling someone ‘the help’). We visited the Wall on our way back from Scotland including these on-going excavation at Vindolanda which is where scraps of wooden notes inefficiently consigned to an administrative bonfire have been recovered and deciphered.

We saw some of the tablets ranging from an invitation to a birthday party to a report on how many soldiers were available for deployment on a specific day. I was sufficiently intrigued to buy the British Museum’s book about them which reproduces the most substantial and important. Another touching point with the biblical epistles was immediately apparent which is simply the way several letters finish with a few words in the sender’s own handwriting (and probably include on the birthday party invitation the earliest surviving female handwriting).

This much later building on the site is thought to have been a Christian church. In Philemon Paul (a Roman citizen) refers to Onesimus (a slave) as a brother, so I was particularly struck in the book to find writing from the same period in which Severus (a cornicularius - a sort of NCO) address Candidus (a slave) as brother. But now I’ve come home and explored the Oxford website for these texts, I find scholars there read things differently (isn't it always the way?) and reason exactly the other way around: ‘palaeographically, this reading could be defended - it is certain, however, that Candidus is a slave and we think it inconceivable that a cornicularius would address a slave with the word frater'.

Meanwhile a couple of miles away this Roman altar has been reused as a the font in the old church at Haydon where we stayed.

Monday 13 August 2012

Our Lady of the Burrell

Here she is learning to walk.  The picture (taken through glass at the Burrell Collection when we got up to Glasgow) is poor but it shows an impressive early baby-walker represented on a mediaeval vestment.

Here she is happily pregnant.  We liked the way she and her cousin Elizabeth are shown with their yet-to-be-born babies inside them, and the way John the Baptist jumps for joy at 'sight' of Jesus.

And here she is with her playful child pinching her chin.  An even worse picture, but included because we enjoyed the unusual statue so much.

Sunday 12 August 2012

New Lanark


How did a Cotton Mill owner come to be one of those who organised protests at the punishment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs?  During our stay at New Lanark we became intrigued by proto-socialist Robert Owen.  It turns out that he wasn't simply an elightened Mill owner but rather a social idealist who used his relatively isolated Mill to experiment in creating a more just community. His father-in-law had established the Mill where the Falls of Clyde provided natural energy.  Owen bought him out in 1800, later having Jeremy Bentham among others (this wasn't a Christian experiment) contribute to secure the investment.

He did things which he might not have been able to do if there were rival firms near by to put pressure on him - he reduced the workers hours, he provided schooling for their children (including the first Nursery School in the country, along with instructions that the children should have their natural curiosity satisfied and not be punished or rewarded), he maintained free medical care provision, and he provided a shop which was one of the the inspirations for the modern co-op movement.

So his mill, part of which is now developed into a hotel in a World Heritage Site, proved an unexpectedly intriguing place to stay, quiet apart from the pleasure of the rush of the Clyde beneath our window.  Owen wasn't unique and was in fact in part building on what his father-in-law had started.  His father-in-law was also behind the Blantyre Mill in which David Livingstone worked as a boy and young man, and, when we visited the museum around Livingstone's single room family home, we saw how Livingstone benefited from the education provided there including access to a significant library through which with astonishing self determination he prepared himself for medical school.    

Saturday 11 August 2012

Ruthwell Cross

'Heavily gazing at heaven's chieftan' were those who looked on Christ on the cross, the cross itself knowing whom it carried and saying 'bow me I durst not'.  The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest poems in English, and here lines from it are written in runes down the side (left in the picture) of the cross, the earliest record of the poem we have.

It is something we had long wanted to see, and were able to do so as we travelled from Carlisle towards New Lanark.  This face shows Christ in Majesty (standing on beasts, as the more conventionally written Latin inscription indicates), and the picture also shows how the cross now stands in its restored position behind the Communion table in Ruthwell Kirk.

As the Taliban had the Buddhas of Bamiyam blown up, so the seventeenth century Church of Scotland had most such crosses destroyed; later on our holiday, at Govan, we were shown another cross literally de-faced (its surfaces chiseled smooth) which drove home the sense of how much has been lost.  But at Ruthwell they saved their cross by burying it, so we can still find images on it like these Desert Fathers breaking bread together .

Friday 10 August 2012

Carlisle misericords

'Its laugh can only be wicked' is what the guidebook says of this human headed winged beast.  Carlisle was a first stopping point on our holiday and we enjoyed these carvings in its Cathedral's choir stalls dating from about 1415.

Biblical scenes are always in a minority among such carvings, but this is St Michael (beautifully feathered as Mystery Play actors in this part often were) subduing the devil (taking the  form of a dragon).

Mythical beasts are much more common, although this hyena may well be unique to Carlisle.  Mediaeval 'beasteries' catalogue these creatures and the hyena is characterised in them as having a rigid back and a diet of human corpses.