Friday, 30 March 2018

Religious Symbols and their Meanings

courtesy wiki
Christ on the Cross by Albrecht Altdorfer
Easter is a good time to show some of the religious symbols I came across hidden within the carved pews in the Chapel at Stanbrook Abbey. The symbols are all connected with what is liturgically known as 'Christ's Passion' as set out by the Roman Catholic Church. 
I have long had an interest in signs and symbols found in art, and endeavour to understand and interpret their meaning. Some works of art carry hidden messages whilst others are more obvious. Two very good examples of paintings with hidden messages are The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, and The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck.
The pews at Stanbrook Abbey, which were used only by the nuns, are in an area of the chapel called 'The Choir'. They are carved with various exotic mythical beasts at their ends then topped with exuberant flourishes of acanthus leaves.
In Christianity mythical beasts can be representative of both the powers of good and evil, the virtues and vices of human nature, and the temptations into which humans fall. The acanthus leaves in Christianity represent pain, sin and punishment. Whilst I was admiring the acanthus leaves, I noticed that some had symbols hidden within the carving.
The ladder is one of the instruments connected with the Passion, and is often present in scenes showing the descent (deposition) of Christ from the cross after the crucifixion - as per the painting at the start of this post.
 Three nails that held Christ on the cross - three being the Trinity.
The seamless robe of Christ was said to have been worn shortly before the Crucifixion. According to medieval traditions the robe is now kept in Trier Cathedral, Germany. We visited the cathedral in 2012 and I wrote a post featuring the robe here. 
The dice represent the soldiers casting lots
"then the soldiers, took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top throughout, so they said to one another, let us not tear it, but let us cast lots to decide whose it should be" John.19, 23-24 
The first dice showing 'one' has several meanings; oneness of nature in God; one divine person in Christ; one true Church founded by Christ; one mortal life, one baptism, one death, and after death one judgement before eternity.
The second dice showing 'five' recounts the five wounds - two in Christ's hands, two in his feet, and one in his side.
The last dice showing 'four' represents the four evangelists who wrote the Gospels; and the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. 
I believe the object holding the dice represents a torch. A torch is one of the instruments of the Passion. Flaming torches were carried by the arresting Roman soldiers at the time of Christ's betrayal by Judas. The sun in the background is representative of the eclipse that occurred at the time of the Crucifixion.
The crown of thorns.
"when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee and mocked him, saying Hail, King of the Jews!' Mark 15.17
 Lance and Sponge
The lance was used by a Roman soldier to inflict the last of the five wounds into Christ's side.
A reeded sponge soaked in gall (myrrh) and vinegar was offered to Christ to quench his thirst and dull his pain, but he refused.
The whip used for the 39 lashes, the hammer drove the nails into Christ's hands and feet, and the pincers were used to remove the nails following the cruxifiction
The pillar used for the Flagellation of Christ, 
The rope being a symbol of the betrayal of Christ by Judas when he was arrested and bound.
and finally the 30 pieces of silver - the price of Judas' betrayal. They have been counted and are all there.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

History of Stanbrook Abbey


Although the Abbey is no longer a religious establishment it has been sympathetically refurbished into an hotel. There is a new stone exterior entrance, and in spite of the fact that the interior is now used differently it still retains its original character. The building was in a terrible state having had very little attention or maintenance done for 50 years.
Sister Charlotte's Restaurant
Breakfast is taken in what was once known as the Calefactory, or warming room. It was a common room for the nuns where they could gather to warm themselves and carry out tasks such as sewing. It housed a communal fire, and in the earliest days of the convent would have been the only room that was heated. 
In 2005, the Abbess decided that the Pugin designed Abbey must be sold, and that it would be best to relocate to somewhere smaller. The buildings were too large and extremely costly for the few remaining nuns to manage and maintain.
Now Stanbrook Abbey with its handful of Benedictine nuns have relocated to North Yorkshire. They commissioned an ethical and sustainable contemporary new abbey using the latest green technology. Completed in 2015, it has already won several architectural awards.
This particular order of Benedictine nuns traces its roots back as far as 1625. It was founded by eight, young, well connected, English Catholic women, living in exile in Cambrai, Flanders. At that time England forbade the setting up of Catholic religious houses. The chief foundress was 17 year old Helen Moore, who was the great, great, granddaughter of Sir Thomas Moore. 
Over 150 years later in 1793 French revolutionists, seized their property in Cambrai, and imprisoned the nuns near Paris where they lived under a harsh regime, narrowly escaping the guillotine.  The small handful that survived were eventually set free and returned to England. In 1838 they settled near Malvern having acquired 22 acres of land along with a Georgian manor house called Stanbrook Hall.
Sir Thomas More was a councillor to King Henry VIII, and the Lord High Chancellor of England. However, he strongly opposed the Protestant Reformation - a stance that led to him being executed. He was a leading and much venerated Roman Catholic who was canonised as a martyr in 1935 by Pope Pius XI. 

This corridor called the Priest's Cloister leads from the original Georgian manor house into the chapel. The corridor allowed a visiting priest private access to the eastern end of the chapel only. From behind a screen he would then deliver his sermon to the nuns. The nuns would enter via a different corridor and sit in the main body of the chapel called the Choir.
The chapel has now been deconsecrated and is used for weddings.
The Georgian manor has several bedrooms where a bride along her party can stay and make their preparations for the wedding day.
Augustus Welby Pugin died when he was just 40 years old having designed many dozens of mainly eclesiastical Catholic buildings, but his most notable building must be the Palace of Westminster and the tower that holds Big Ben. 
  Is it possible to die from overwork?
Pugin achieved far more in his short working life than most could ever hope to do given a lifetime twice as long. He left behind a young family of eight children - the youngest was a baby and the eldest eighteen years old. I have previously written two posts about Augustus Welby Pugin entitled God's Own Architect and The Convent School should you wish to find out more about him.
 
When the work on Stanbrook Abbey began Augustus Welby Pugin was already dead, but three of his 8 children, Edward, Cuthbert and Peter all worked on the abbey. They adopted their father's Victorian Gothic Revival style with each one taking reponsibilty for different areas of the abbey. They were also assisted by their brother-in-law George Coppinger Ashlin.
Let's wander down some more gothic corridors until we arrive at the former nuns refectory where they would gather together to eat their meals.

The Crucis cloister has fourteen stone carved stations of the cross by Richard Lockwood Boulton, an English sculptor.
In the nuns refectory, stone family crests of the eight nuns who founded the order in 1625, act as base supports to the ceiling beams. A particular feature of this room were the oak fittings carved by Robert 'Mousey' Thompson famous for carving mice into every piece of furniture that he made. He made 14 refrectory tables and 80 chairs for the room in 1923, but these have now been relocated to the new abbey. Thompson also made a pulpit for the refectory along with some wall panelling which are still insitu. The pulpit bears the coat of arms of the community's original benefactors, and was designed by two of the nuns, Dame Werburg Welch and the abbess, Dame Laurentia McLachlan, the later was described by her good friend George Bernard Shaw as 'an enclosed nun with an unenclosed mind'. It is worth putting these names into google, where you will discover that they were both very talented and interesting women. Early Thompson pieces from the 1920's command very high prices. In December 2003 at Sotherby's, New York, a small Robert Thompson cabinet from the 1920s sold for $70,000.





The panelling
along with Robert Thompson's own ubiquitous little mouse.
Here we played 'hunt the mice' and with difficulty found six running up the bannister.
This is Robert Thompson's own signature mouse. The workshops in Kilburn, Yorkshire continue today with each craftsman using his own style of signature mouse. Although 'brown' furniture is generally in decline, 'mousey' Thompson objects and furniture still continue to be in demand.
The rose window at the eastern end of the chapel was designed by John Hardman, and depicts Our Lady of Consolation protecting the original eight founding nuns. Hardman was a long time collaborator with the Pugin family, most notably in the Palace of Westminster.
 
We had this wonderful building to ourselves. There were a few other guests staying, but we appeared to be the only ones exploring.