Sunday, December 30, 2007

Today's gospel...

... reminded me of the following joke:
Father was visiting the infants' class and the children were showing him their Christmas drawings. One had drawn the baby Jesus, another the Wise Men and a third the shepherds. The fourth gave Father a picture of an aeroplane. "What's that?" he asked. "That's the flight into Egypt. There's Jesus, there's Mary and that's Joseph."
"Who's that up front?" the bemused priest asked.
"That's Pontius Pilot."

Friday, December 28, 2007

Medieval Nativity Scene?

Via The Times:
Books on medieval art will have to be rewritten after an ivory carving long dismissed as a forgery was confirmed as a masterpiece of the 12th or 13th century.
For more than a century, scholars could not believe that the exquisite Nativity and Last Judgment diptych was genuine. They assumed it to have been carved in the 18th or 19th centuries, when Gothic-style ivories were made. Carbon14 dating tests done in Britain and France have now placed it firmly in the 12th or 13th century.
John Lowden, of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London – where it will have its first public display next month – said: “There was nothing else like it, therefore it wasn’t medieval.”
Throughout the 20th century it was in a private collection. Its previous provenance is unknown. In 1924 it was published by the great scholar Raymond Koechlin, who thought it too architectural to be medieval.
Professor Lowden said: “If you accept as genuine something that’s a fake, you distort the historical record. If you reject something that is genuine, that does more damage to historical records. What you’re saying, in this case, is that because it’s so beautifully carved, it can’t be medieval. If it is medieval, we have to change our view of ivory carving. It is really beautiful, extraordinarily detailed and lively. It draws you in to construct a narrative.”
He pointed to details such as angels announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds, one of whom has been playing bagpipes: “He has taken the pipe out of his mouth and turned to express astonishment.” There are remarkable carvings of figures rising from tombs.
Two years after it was sold in Paris for €3,000 to the former owner of The Times, the late Lord Thomson of Fleet, it is now worth millions. Its first public show will be as part of an exhibition drawing on Lord Thomson’s magnificent collection formed over more than half a century. The display will feature about 45 of the finest medieval ivories.
There include statuettes of the Virgin and Child intended to stand on altars in chapels, small versions for the home and folding tablets or diptychs with scenes from the life of Christ, and a richly narrative 15th-century ivory comb, decorated with a carriage drawn by horse and mule, taking two couples to the fountain of youth.
A folding ivory tabernacle would have been used for personal devotion while travelling. Working with a block of ivory taken from the centre of the tusk, the sculptor cut away the material to form a standing Virgin and Child under a canopy supported on columns.
He then sliced thin panels off the sides and front of the block and carved them with scenes from Christ’s life in low relief. The hinged panels serve as small to protect the carved surfaces when closed and act as wings of a miniature altarpiece when open.
My scepticism about the media and their expertise means that I suspect the impact of this discovery is being somewhat exaggerated, however it's an interesting story. I'm also curious as to whether the Carbon 14 tests actually prove this to be medieval work.

On the Feast of the Holy Innocents

Herod was furious when he realised that he had been outwitted by the wise men, and in Bethlehem and its surrounding district he had all the male children killed who were two years old or under, reckoning by the date he had been careful to ask the wise men. It was then that the words spoken through the prophet Jeremiah were fulfilled:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loudly lamenting:
it was Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted because they were no more.
I've spent this morning in a mostly meditative mood because of today's feast. It seems to pose a lot of tough questions when we look at the overall picture. Certainly the Church venerates them as martyrs and for that reason we celebrate their entry into eternal glory, but I wonder whether we have the courage to face the awful reality that their martyrdom represents.
One might consider their birth into eternal life as being an example of predestination and wholly unmerited grace. These infants had done nothing in their lives to deserve the honour of martyrdom; they did not preach the Good News, they knew nothing of Christ, but in utter passivity they were baptised in their own blood as they died due to Herod's hatred and fear of the Infant Christ.
We see in their slaughter the fact that to those He has predestined for eternal life, God gives the means for salvation. But what means we see in the deaths of the Holy Innocents! If I might push the baptism imagery a little further, one might ask whether Herod's solders were the ministers of this Baptism, whether their sword thrusts were the form and the blood of the infants was the matter of this gruesome sacrament. I'm sure you can see how this is disturbing. To what extent can we describe the massacre of the Holy Innocents as being part of God's plan?
Consider the sorrow of their parents. It would have seemed to them fantastical, absurd and grotesque to argue that there was anything good about the deaths of their little ones. They would have seen simply the brutality of Herod and wept for their slain babies. However, we realise that these children have entered into Heavenly Glory with the unique dignity of having been slain in place of Christ.
I'm not sure what conclusions we should draw from all this. I think, however, that the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents should remind us that we should be very humble when we try to speak of providence, God's plan for us, and His ability to bring good out of the evil which surrounds us. We should be very careful about speaking too definitively about how we see or don't see God's hand at work in the world.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Death of Stephen; The Conversion of Saul

From The Newman Reader:
When the blood of Stephen was shed, Saul, then a young man, was standing by, "consenting unto his death," and "kept the raiment of them that slew him." [Acts xxii. 20.] Two speeches are recorded of the Martyr in his last moments; one, in which he prayed that God would pardon his murderers,—the other his witness, that he saw the heavens opened, and Jesus on God's right hand. His prayer was wonderfully answered. Stephen saw his Saviour; the next vision of that Saviour to mortal man was vouchsafed to that very young man, even Saul, who shared in his murder and his intercession.

Strange indeed it was; and what would have been St. Stephen's thoughts could he have known it! The prayers of righteous men avail much. The first Martyr had power with God to raise up the greatest Apostle. Such was the honour put upon the first-fruits of those sufferings upon which the Church was entering. Thus from the beginning the blood of the Martyrs was the seed of the Church. Stephen, one man, was put to death for saying that the Jewish people were to have exclusive privileges no longer; but from his very grave rose the favoured instrument by whom the thousands and ten thousands of the Gentiles were brought to the knowledge of the Truth!

The Preaching of St Stephen (Carpaccio)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Wishing you the Blessings of Christmas

May the Infant Jesus make His home in the hearts of my readers this Christmas and may He bless you abundantly in the New Year.

In God's Name

We're used to associating the name 'Allah' with Islam, but that's because it's the Arabic word for 'God'. There are, in fact, a number of languages where the word 'Allah' means God and is used by Christians - a fact which sometimes surprises some anglophone Christians. However, this is the first time I've heard of this particular situation - Via CNA:
A senior government official in Malaysia has ordered a Catholic newspaper to drop the use of the word “Allah” in its Malay language section if it wants its publishing permit renewed, the Associated Press reports.
The Herald, published by Malaysia’s Catholic Church, has translated the word God as “Allah.” Che Din Yusoff, a senior official at the Internal Security Ministry’s publications control unit, has said this usage is erroneous because “Allah” refers to the Muslim God.
"Christians cannot use the word Allah. It is only applicable to Muslims. Allah is only for the Muslim god. This is a design to confuse the Muslim people," Che Din told the Associated Press.
Che Din said that the newspaper should use the general term for God, the word “Tuhan.”
Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, explained the newspaper’s usage of the controversial word:
"We follow the Bible. The Malay-language Bible uses Allah for God and Tuhan for Lord. In our prayers and in church during Malay mass, we use the word Allah," Father Andrew said. "This is not something new. The word Allah has been used in Malaysia for a long time. There is no confusion," he continued.
Che Din said that since Christians don’t use the word “Allah” in English-language worship, they shouldn’t use it in the Malay language. In addition to “Allah,” Che Din said three other Malay words ought not be used by non-Muslims: "solat" for prayers, "kaabah" for the place of Muslim worship in Mecca and "baitula" the house of Allah.
That comment about Catholics not calling God 'Allah' in English is a decided non sequitur. Someone should tell him that Maltese and Arabic-speaking Catholics do however call Him 'Allah'.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Crucified Santa

Via the Houston Chronicle:
BREMERTON, Wash. — Art Conrad has an issue with the commercialism of Christmas, and his protest has gone way beyond just shunning the malls or turning off his television.
The Bremerton resident nailed Santa Claus to a 15-foot crucifix in front of his house.
"Santa has been perverted from who he started out to be," Conrad said. "Now he's the person being used by corporations to get us to buy more stuff."
A photo of the crucified Santa adorns his Christmas cards, with the message "Santa died for your MasterCard."

Lessons in Pelagianism

A friend recently mentioned the 'blog of the Seraphic Single and reading through the archives I've found it to be some of the most thoughtful, reflective and witty writing in the Catholic Blogosphere. This post, amongst others, caught my attention:
This week the parish was celebrating the graduate students in particular, and so two graduate students gave short addresses. One was by a sweet young woman who said when she arrived in Cambridge she was 'just some kid from South Carolina' and was very intimidated. But then she found out that, thanks to a priest friend, a whole impoverished village in Latin America was praying for her every week. This was heartwarming. But then a sleek young man took over and lectured us on Success.

Standing a little to the side of a huge wooden crucifix, where Christ was dying the death of a slave, the speaker reflected on what had made him, the speaker, such a success. He told us about how impressed and proud he had been to be working in a top Manhatten office over the summer, but when his wife gave birth, he realized that he was more than a top Mahatten office worker but a Co-Creator. (Blah blah blah.) True Success comes about through Catholic Virtues, he told us, making Catholic Virtues sounding like the handmaids of Capitalism.

"But what else brings Success?" he asked.

Being Catholics listening to a sermon, we waited obediently for the answer.

"Work!" he shouted.

"Acck!" I replied.

"He's a Pelagian!" I told Volker 2.

Volker 2, who had been well aware of my shifting and muttering, sighed sympathetically.

The reflection didn't get better than that. The theology was atrocious, and I began to really dislike this Rich Young Ruler. He counselled us to get to know our Faith better, and I imagined what would happen if St. Francis confronted him at the door, never mind St. Augustine. But then I also realized that I was envious of this young man. He has a very marketable degree. He has worked the classy office job. He has a beautiful wife. He has a beautiful baby. He really looks like he has everything---except a grasp of Catholic theology, of course.
Of course, this touches on an interesting problem for anyone who tries to live by and preach the Gospel - so much of being Catholic seems to be both good practical sense and yet also a particular sort of divine foolishness.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Blair Popes!

Via the Telegraph:
Tony Blair has completed his long anticipated conversion to Catholicism.
The former prime minister joined the faith at a service in a chapel in Westminster, after years of speculation that he would convert after leaving Downing Street.
Mr Blair, whose wife Cherie and four children are Catholic, met Pope Benedict XVI on an official visit in June - his third trip to the Vatican in four years.
Now a Middle-East peace envoy, he was reluctant to convert while in office because it could have caused a potential conflict with his role in choosing Church of England bishops.
His views on abortion, gay rights and stem cell research were also at odds with Catholic teaching, and his parish priest Fr Timothy Russ commented that he had “some way to go” on important moral issues.
Now, that's putting it mildly! I don't doubt the sincerity of Blair's desire to be Catholic, but he and the Church Catholic have been poorly served by ignoring the several elephants in the chapel and downplaying the extent to which his position on several issues put him outside the pale.
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has welcomed Mr Blair into the faith. He said: “For a long time he has been a regular worshipper at Mass with his family and in recent months he has been following a programme of formation to prepare for his reception into full communion."
The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has also wished the former Prime Minister well in his spiritual journey: "Tony Blair has my prayers and good wishes as he takes this step in his Christian pilgrimage."
Frankly, the whole thing leaves me speechless.
Damien Thompson comments:
Yesterday the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster received into the Catholic Church a politician who consistently voted in favour of abortion and, as Prime Minister, refused to countenance any reduction in the time limit for “terminations”. In the eyes of the Church, he has the blood of innocents on his hands.
Don’t ask me for an explanation: I simply don’t understand. Has Tony Blair changed his mind about abortion? If so, why has he not said so publicly?
I repeat: I do not understand what has happened. Can anyone enlighten me?

Edited to add:
I'm thinking that maybe my initial reaction doesn't do sufficient justice to the power of the Holy Spirit; I pray that the grace of Christ may work within Mr Blair. May he be a holy and faithful member of the Church.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Who is primary?

A Shakespearean take on a comedic classic - very mild bawdiness at the beginning.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Poor Rowan Williams

There's going to be a lot 'blogged about what the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury said on the radio yesterday. The Times headlines the story Archbishop says nativity 'a legend' and begins with the paragraph:
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, dismissed the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men yesterday as nothing but “legend”.
Damien Thompson's take on this is:
Does Rowan Williams EVER think before opening his mouth? He waits until the week before Christmas before describing the nativity as a “legend” and condemning the poor wise men, asses and oxen to the realms of fantasy.
Yes, it’s true that most biblical scholars agree with him. But really – has the Archbishop of Canterbury got nothing better to do than dismantle the Christmas story on Radio Five Live, for God’s sake? Can you imagine Pope Benedict XVI going on Simon Mayo’s show to chip away at the naïve beliefs of millions of Christians?
I agree with Thompson that Williams was certainly unwise in what he was saying, but I don't think the reportage fairly represents what he actually said. I would suggest actually reading a transcript of the interview in question before making up one's mind about him.
Firstly, note that the question he is being asked relates not to the accuracy of the infancy narratives in the Gospels, but rather the classical Christmas card images.
So, he points out that there's nothing in the Gospesl about the ox and the ass, and notes that the Wise Men and the shepherds probably weren't there at the same time and doubts that it was snowing. So far as I can see, he doesn't deny the historicity of the Magi.
Simon Mayo: And the wise men with the gold, frankincense, and Myrrh - with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason?

Archbishop of Canterbury: Well Matthew's gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from, it says they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' - that's legend; it works quite well as legend.

SM But would they have been there?

ABC Not with the shepherds, they wouldn't. So if you've got shepherds on one side and three kings on the other, there's a bit of conflation going on.

SM And pulling back further - snow on the ground?

ABC Very unlikely I think; it can be pretty damn cold in Bethlehem at this time of the year, but we don't know that it was this time of year because again the Gospels don't tell us what time of year it was; Christmas is the time it is because it fitted very well with the winter festival.

SM Just as a side issue on the kings and the wise bit; do you have a problem with astrologers being seen as wise men; there'd be many people in your church who would think, actually, astrology is bunk and should be exposed as bunk and the idea of saying that they are wise is somewhat farcical.?

ABC Well I 'm inclined to agree that astrology is bunk but you're dealing there with a world in which people watched the stars in order to get a sort of heads up on significant matters and astrologers were quite a growth industry; people who were respected and had a kind of professional technical skill and were respected as such., the thing here if course is what's the skill about? Well it's all bringing them to Jesus; it's not about fortune telling or telling the future, it's about a skill of watching the universe which leads them inexorably towards this event, so I don't think it's a justification of astrology.
It seems to me that what Williams is saying is that their depiction as 'three Kings, one of them from Africa' works well as legend; he doesn't say that the Magi themselves were legendary, and indeed continues to speak of them as though they did come to pay their homage.
It's worth reading what he has to say about the Virgin Birth as well. Again, this is an area where he will be misunderstood.
I'm certainly not one to see eye-to-eye with the Archbishop of Canterbury in many matters theological, but it really is unfortunate to see him misunderstood and pilloried because of this interview.
By the way, if you've ever wondered about the animals traditionally shown in nativity scences, the answer can be found in Is 1:3:
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood.
Some of the Fathers associate the ox with the people of Israel and the ass with the gentiles.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Name that Saves

Something stuck me about today's gospel. The Angel of the Lord appears to St Joseph and says to him: ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.’

The Fathers of the Church frequently commented on the significance of the name of Jesus. They saw in the figure of Joshua (the names are the same in Hebrew) a prefiguration of Christ, but more especially, they picked up on this fact which is recorded in St Matthew's Gospel that the name means Saviour.

Indeed, I seem to recall [I can't chase down the exact reference at the moment] that St Augustine accused one of his Pelagian opponents of forgetting that Christ (the anointed one) is also Jesus (the Saviour). He didn't think that Pelagian theology did justice to the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Now, Cardinal Ratzinger (as was) used to point out his discomfort with people referring to 'Jesus' whilst pointedly not calling him Christ. That, he pointed out, was frequently done to promote an inadequate low Christology. By speaking about Jesus, they were trying to obscure that very fact which makes Christ more than just 'one of us'. I agree with the Cardinal on this point and another one could be added. There's a certain natural reserve amongst the faithful about using the name Jesus. When we reflect on what the name means and the fact that it was divinely given, then this reserve seems fitting. The name of Jesus is sacred and casually using it as an implicit denial of His divinity is ironic, not to mention disrespectful. Thus, preferring to say Christ instead of Jesus mirrors the Jewish custom of not pronouncing the Divine Name. Now, I wouldn't suggest that we should never use Our Lord's given name. That wouldn't be right either. But we could certainly take care to see that we do so respectfully because today's Gospel tells us that there's something special about the Holy Name of 'Jesus'. It wasn't simply something that Our Lady and St Joseph plucked out of the 'big Book of Jewish Baby Names'. It was a name that was given by God and means 'Saviour'. Indeed, considered as a divinely given title, one could conceivably argue that 'Jesus'/'Saviour' is a higher and more crucial title than 'Christ'/'Anointed'.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Henry VIII's Bible

The Times has a fascinating article about an edition of the Bible that I'd not heard of before:
In July 1535 the industrious London stationer Thomas Berthelet, who also served as “King’s Printer” to Henry VIII, published a selective text of the Latin Old and New Testaments, in the Vulgate version of St Jerome: this seems to have been, perhaps surprisingly, the very first bible to have been printed in the British Isles.
Berthelet’s isolated novelty, a stout but handy small quarto, laid out in double columns, is titled Sacrae Bibliae Tomus Primus (ie, the first volume – only – of the Holy Bible); it consists of the Pentateuch, Joshua and Judges, Psalms, Proverbs and the Sapientia or Wisdom of Solomon (a late Greek text now consigned to the Apocrypha), plus the entire New Testament, including Revelation. A preface addressed to the devout reader, headed “Pio Lectori”, apologizes none too humbly for the apparent eccentricity of leaving out more than half the canonical Old Testament, and promises to collect all the omissions in a supplementary volume, which either never appeared or (far less likely) has perished.
One might assume at first that the writer of such a preface, who begins by routinely puffing the product – the Scriptures – as “true riches” valuable beyond any worldly goods, but also takes specific credit for its selection, arrangement and issue, was the publisher Berthelet himself, [...] However, a second look reveals that the author, hence the conceiver or designer of this idiosyncratic recension and its robust apologist, was not Thomas Berthelet, nor any of his corresponding or in-house scholars or “correctors of the press”, but his own royal patron, Henry VIII.
You know well”, the prefacer declares,
how our Lord God, whose words or scriptures we are discussing, ordered that when a king sat on the throne of his kingdom, he should write for himself the law of God, and having it with him, should read it every day of his life, so that he should thus learn to fear the Lord his God, and guard His words."
This is a reference to Deuteronomy 17:18–19, employed to justify (as only a king could) the present reordering and selection of scriptural materials, offered to the pious but perhaps obstinate reader who found any “departure, however slight, from ancient practice or established form . . . an offence to religious scruple”.

The Cause of Nennolina Advances

The Holy Father authorized the promulgation of various decrees of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Of especial note is the following:
le virtù eroiche della Serva di Dio Antonia Meo (detta Nennolina), Fanciulla; nata a Roma il 15 dicembre 1930 ed ivi morta il 3 luglio 1937.
The heroic virtues of the Servant of God Antonia Meo (called Nennolina), young girl; born in Rome the 15th of December 1930 and died there the 3rd of July 1937.
The age of this young Servant of God is astounding, and this declaration means that the recognition of a miracle through her intercession would lead to her beatification. I know that Don Marco of Vultus Christi has a special devotion to her, having spent much time in the Monastery of S. Croce in Gerusalemme where she is buried. He mentions her in this post:
Here in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme we have the tomb of the little Servant of God Antonietta Meo, fondly known as Nennolina. Nennolina was born on December 15, 1930. She was a lively and joyful child, quick to join in games at school. One day she fell while playing in the schoolyard and injured her knee on a stone. The pain did not go away: the doctors diagnosis was osteosarcoma. Her leg was amputated. A long way of the cross ensued. Hospitalized, she suffered atrocious pain. Nennolina died on July 3, 1937. She was not seven years old.
Nennolina left behind a diary and more than one hundred letterine (little letters) addressed to Jesus, to the Madonna, and to God the Father. Nennolina's letters reveal an extraordinary mystical union with Jesus Crucified. Her tomb, at the entrance to the Chapel of the Sacred Relics of the Cross and Passion in our Basilica, has become a place of pilgrimage. If canonized, Nennolina will be the youngest saint, not a martyr, in the history of the Church.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Life in Italy (for Italians)

I'm frequently asked by visitors about the Italian economy and the standard of living of Italians. Shelly has written a really insightful post about this.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sentamu cuts up dog collar

An interesting form of protest by the Anglican Archbishop of York. Via the Telegraph:
The Archbishop of York has cut up his dog collar live on television in protest against the human rights violations of Robert Mugabe.
John Sentamu pledged not to wear the symbol of the clergy until the Zimbabwean president steps down and urged others to "pray, march, protest and collect money" for the cause of his people.
With Mr Mugabe enjoying the global limelight at the EU's Africa summit in Lisbon, the Archbishop spoke out against the destruction of Zimbabweans' identities.
"Do you know what Mugabe has done? He has taken people's identity and literally - if you don't mind - cut it to pieces," Mr Sentamu told BBC1's Andrew Marr show.
"As far as I am concerned, from now on I am not going to wear a dog collar until Mugabe is gone."

French want Boney III Back

From the Telegraph:
He was the last emperor and the first president of France but for 120 years the Emperor Napoleon III's remains have lain in England.
Now the French want them back. Tomorrow Christian Estrosi, the secretary of state for overseas territories, will arrive in Britain to request the return of the remains of the exiled emperor and his wife, Empress Eugénie, which lie in a crypt in St Michael's Abbey in Farnborough, Hampshire.
Mr Estrosi said: "This trip will be for me an occasion to send a clear message to the British - to thank them for all they did for the imperial couple in exile but also to remind them that we have some rights over them."
But Father Cuthbert, the Benedictine monk who heads the abbey, is unlikely to agree to Mr Estrosi's request to return the remains of Napoleon III, who sought refuge in England with his family and a few faithful followers after his defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.
The monk said he hoped the minister was coming to ask forgiveness for having left the monastery so long without news or support.
Bravo Fr Cuthbert!

Ancient Roman Medicine

From the Telegraph:
An ancient doctor's surgery unearthed by Italian archaeologists has cast new light on what a trip to the doctor would have been like in Roman times. Far from crude, the medical implements discovered show that doctors, their surgeries and the ailments they treated have changed surprisingly little in 1,800 years.
Sore joints were common, patients were often told to change their diets, and the good doctor of the seaside town of Rimini even performed house calls.
Archaeologists have spent the past 17 years at the Domus del Chirurgo - House of the Surgeon - painstakingly excavating the site and compiling the world's most detailed portrait of medical treatment in Roman times. Their discoveries go on public display for the first time on Tuesday.
"This is the largest find of surgical instruments anywhere," said Dr Ralph Jackson, the curator of the Romano-British collection at the British Museum and an expert in ancient medicine.
Among the 150 different implements is a rare iron tool used to extract arrowheads from wounds, which suggests the doctor had experience as a military surgeon.
"It tells us a great deal of how he worked and the range of procedures he undertook because of its completeness. All previous finds have been only partial," Dr Jackson said. "The healer almost certainly concocted anaesthetic preparations of white mandrake, henbane and opium poppies."
Perhaps the most unexpected find was a piece of equipment that would delight a modern podiatrist: a ceramic hot water bottle in the shape of a foot, into which oil or water could be poured when the foot was inserted.
"Joint problems were the single most common complaint in Roman times, and they were probably treated with heat and cold," said Dr Jackson.
The discovery suggests that the doctor used diet as a first approach to treating a disease, then drugs prepared from plants in a pestle and mortar, and finally surgery. That could include anything from pulling teeth - dental forceps were part of his equipment - to opening a patient's fractured skull to remove bone fragments.
"One of the most exciting finds was a lenticular, a small chisel used for opening the skull safely after gouging a channel into it with another instrument," said Dr Jackson.
Ome of the thoughts that occasionally crosses my mind is whether there's anything we could learn about Roman physicians and their patients' perceptions of same which would refine our understanding of the use of the image of Christ as physician in the writings of the Latin Fathers.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Mad King Ludwig Murdered?

From the Telegraph:
A century-old mystery surrounding the fate of the “Mad King” who built Bavaria’s celebrated fairytale castles has taken a new twist after an historian claimed that he was murdered.
The allegation comes from an art expert turned sleuth who claims that contemporary portraits of Ludwig II prove that far from killing himself in a fit of melancholy, he was assassinated to put an end his extravagant spending.
Ludwig’s body was found on June 13, 1886, in the knee-deep waters of a lake not far from Neuschwanstein Castle, his most fanciful creation, whose soaring towers and turrets now draw tourists from all over the world.
After a cursory investigation, the death was declared suicide by drowning - a verdict fiercely protected by his successors, who have forbidden any modern scientific examination of his remains.
But art historian Siegfried Wichmann now claims that he can prove that Ludwig was murdered, after an investigation that has taken up half his life and has drawn upon his own wartime experience. “I can say that, professionally, I have never been wrong in all my career,” said Mr Wichmann, who is the leading authority on Bavarian paintings from the late 19th century.
A secret Bavarian society known as the Guglmänner, whose members dress in capes and hoods and claim to be guardians of the German monarchy, has long questioned the official version of his death. But the calls for Ludwig’s body to be exhumed and given a modern autopsy have now grown louder. Last month, Detlev Utermöhle, a Bavarian banker, made a sworn statement claiming that he had seen the coat Ludwig was wearing on the day of his death, and that it contained two bullet holes.

A man who is worth provoking...

A had a friendly dig at Don Marco for 'blogging about the Collect for the Friday of the First Week of Advent when the proper Collect for today's Mass is that of St Ambrose. Well, Don Marco replied with this short but wonderful Ambrosian post:
Saint Ambrose invites us to seek the Face of Christ in his mysteries, that is to say, in the Sacred Liturgy. When the Church opens the Lectionary, it is to discover the Face of Christ shining from its pages. When, in obedience to the command of the Lord, she breaks the Bread and offers the Chalice, all her joy is in the contemplation of His Eucharistic Face.

I Have Found Thee in Thy Mysteries
When I had the opportunity to choose a text for the card commemorating my ordination to the priesthood, I didn’t hesitate. Immediately, the words of Saint Ambrose came to mind: “Face to face, thou hast made thyself known to me, O Christ; I have found thee in thy mysteries.”
Go and read the whole thing!
Thank you Don Marco.

More Leonardo Tomfoolery...

There's something about Leonardo da Vinci that brings out the cranks. Via the Telegraph we have the lastest crackpot theory:
A new storm is brewing in the world of Da Vinci theorists after a mysterious group claimed it has used mirrors to uncover hidden biblical images in some of the great master’s most famous works.
In recent years, art history scholars have unveiled Templar knights, Mary Magdalene, a child and a musical script hidden in the Italian’s paintings.
I'm tempted to say that 'scholars' is too strong a word.
It is well-documented that Da Vinci, who lived between 1452 and 1519, often wrote in mirror writing, either in an attempt to stop his rivals stealing his ideas or in a bid to hide his scientific theories, often deemed as subversive, from the powerful Roman Catholic Church.
There we go! A Leonardo story wouldn't be complete without a reference to the powerful Church... so powerful that 'mirror writing' would befuddle her secret agents.
But now a group known as The Mirror of the Sacred Scriptures and Paintings World Foundation believes that he applied the same technique to some of his best-known creations, including the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, to conceal mysterious faces and religious symbols.
When applied to the sketch The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, which hangs in London’s National Gallery, the authors say the mirror image reveals the ancient Old Testament god Jahveh, who "protects the soul of the body’s vices" and wears the Vatican’s crown.
Their theory would explain why many of Da Vinci’s characters seem to be pointing or staring into space, as if searching for the Divine.
The group claims they are indicating where the mirror should be placed to reveal the painting’s secrets.
I see. And what's the result? Darth Vader lives in Mona Lisa's sleeve.
According to the group, the same technique was used by Michelangelo and Raphael, in artwork exhibited in the Vatican, and Renaissance artists including the neoclassicist Jacques Louis David. Similar images have also been found in famous paintings and sculptures of Buddha.
Yes! It's a giant conspiracy, including not only Michelangelo and Raphael, but the much later French artist David and those crazy Buddhists.
The study’s authors wrote to the Vatican last year to explain their discovery, but received a lofty reply saying that while their findings would no doubt be the object of much discussion in the art history world, their ideas required "solid proof" and needed to be supported by a general consensus among art critics before they could be taken seriously.
A lofty reply, eh? They've reproduced it on their website. Not especially lofty, in my opinion. Maybe they were expecting the Pope to write back with pictures of himself traipsing around the Vatican museums with a mirror.
The latest theory, expounded by The Mirror of the Sacred Scriptures and Paintings group, whose website, is owned by the Sacred and Divine Reason and Foundation Corp, follows the revelation in July by an Italian amateur scholar that the Last Supper contained a hidden image of a woman holding a child.
The figure, he said, appeared when the fresco was superimposed with its mirror image and both were made partially transparent.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Imagine the disappointment...

at finding one of these in your Christmas stocking. [Biretta-doff: At Home in Rome]
(Although, I'd quite like one of these.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Mystery Photo

Of what is this a picture?
I'm sure that most of my readers are regulars at the Shrine of the Holy Whapping. Well, they've posted the above picture and are trying to establish the context. It was taken in the Cathedral in Fort Wayne and given the unusual costumes and so on, they're stumped as to what it might depict.
Pop over to their site for more information or if you can help.

Why does the Vatican get blamed for everything?

From the Telegraph:
Saints by phone service condemned by Vatican
An Italian company that is sending virtual prayer cards to the mobile phones of the faithful was accused of blasphemy yesterday by the Roman Catholic Church.
Hmmmm... Well, the first thing is to note that 'The Vatican' and 'The Roman Catholic Church' are not synonyms. If a reporter says 'The Vatican' said or did something, it should mean that one of the Curial Offices in Rome or one of the Pope's senior curial assistants has formally/officially acted in some capacity. It should not, as happens so frequently, be used with reference to an unofficial comment of a Vatican bureaucrat or a teacher in a Pontifical University, as I've seen in the press previously.
For three euros (£2) a week, subscribers will be able to receive up to three images of saints and great figures of the Church, including Pope John Paul II, Padre Pio and the Virgin Mary when the service starts today.
Hmmmm... a little tacky... but there's plenty of tack to be seen in Rome's souvenir shops.
But the Italian bishops' conference last night accused McKay & Sisters, a Milan-based communications company, of offending Catholics by "exploiting" their faith. "This is a poor show and has nothing to do with faith," said Bishop Lucio Soravito De Franceschi, a spokesman on doctrinal matters. "It is exploiting the faith, lowering it to banality with no sense. It is a blasphemous idea that will horrify the true faithful.
"For the Church a saint is someone of great heroic virtue, not someone to be commercially exploited."

Okay... how does a spokesman of the Italian Episcopal Conference represent the Vatican?

Barbara Labate, a director of the company, dismissed the Church's response. "I had the idea from my mother who always puts a prayer card in her bag before travelling," she said.
"I don't think it is scandalous or blasphemous at all. We have had saint and prayer cards for more than 600 years and we will always continue to have them.
"What we are doing is moving with the times," she added.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Origen the Liturgist

Origen's treatise On Prayer has an interesting section at the end about the formalities of prayer which give an interesting insight into 3rd century practices.
On standing and praying
Of all the innumerable dispositions of the body that, accompanied by outstretching of the hands and upraising of the eyes, standing is preferred—inasmuch as one thereby wears in the body also the image of the devotional characteristics that become the soul. I say that these things ought to be observed by preference except in any special circumstances, for in special circumstances, by reason of some serious foot disease one may upon occasion quite properly pray sitting, or by reason of fevers or similar illnesses, lying, and indeed owing to circumstances, if, let us say, we are on a voyage or if our business does not permit us to retire to pay our debt of prayer, we may pray without any outward sign of doing so.
But kneeling has its place as well
Moreover, one must know that kneeling is necessary when he is about to arraign his personal sins against God with supplication for their healing and forgiveness, because it is a symbol of submission and subjection. For Paul says; For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father from whom is all fatherhood named in heaven and on earth. It may be termed spiritual kneeling, because of the submission and self-humiliation of every being to God in the name of Jesus, that the apostle appears to indicate in the words: that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
It should not be supposed that beings in heaven have bodies so fashioned as actually to possess knees, since their bodies have been described possibly as spherical in form by those who have discussed these matters more minutely. He who refuses to admit this will also, unless he outrages reason, admit the uses of each of the members in order that nothing fashioned for them by God may be in vain. One falls into error on either hand, whether he shall assert that bodily members have been brought into being by God for them in vain and not for their proper work, or shall say that the internal organs, the intestine included, perform their proper uses even in heavenly beings. Exceedingly foolish will it be to think that it is only their surface, as with statues, that is human in form and nothing further underneath.
A very literal ad orientem
A few words may now be added in reference to the direction in which one ought to look in prayer. Of the four directions, the North, South, East, and West, who would not at once admit that the East clearly indicates the duty of praying with the face turned towards it with the symbolic suggestion that the soul is looking upon the dawn of the true light?
Should anyone, however, prefer to direct his intercessions according to the aperture of the house, whichever way the doors of the house may face, saying that the sight of heaven appeals to one with a certain attraction greater than the view of the wall, and the eastward part of the house having no opening, we may say to him that since it is by human arrangement that houses are open in this or that direction but by nature that the East is preferred to all the other directions, the natural is to be set before the artificial. Besides, on that view why should one who wished to pray when in the open country pray to the East in preference to the West? If, in the one case it is reasonable to prefer the East, why should the same not be done in every case? Enough on that subject.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

You know you're in Rome when...

... you go to one of your regular hang-outs for supper and you notice that there's at least one priest in each of the 7 or 8 groups who have already been seated.

My Patrons for the Year

The Tomb of Sts Henry and Cunegunda
I was delighted to get an e-mail from Lucy this morning letting me know that she'd chosen my two patron saints for the new liturgical year:Your patron saints are:
Sts Cunegunda & Henry

Pray for those in public office

"And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." [Mt 25, 40]
*Doffs biretta at Lucy*
Now, I must confess that I knew next to nothing about my new saints. Actually, I'd never even heard of St Cunegunda and presumed that she was probably one of those doughty Saxon princess-saints. I was therefore surprised to learn that she was from Luxembourg and was St Henry's wife. So, what do we know about this pair?
St. Henry, son of Henry, Duke of Bavaria, and of Gisella, daughter of Conrad, King of Burgundy, was born in 972. He received an excellent education under the care of St. Wolfgang, Bishop of Ratisbon. In 995, St. Henry succeeded his father as Duke of Bavaria, and in 1002, upon the death of his cousin, Otho III, he was elected emperor. Firmly anchored upon the great eternal truths, which the practice of meditation kept alive in his heart, he was not elated by this dignity and sought in all things, the greater glory of God. He was most watchful over the welfare of the Church and exerted his zeal for the maintenance of ecclesiastical discipline through the instrumentality of the Bishops. He gained several victories over his enemies, both at home and abroad, but he used these with great moderation and clemency. In 1014, he went to Rome and received the imperial crown at the hands of Pope Benedict VIII. On that occasion he confirmed the donation, made by his predecessors to the Pope, of the sovereignty of Rome and the exarchate of Ravenna. Circumstances several times drove the holy Emperor into war, from which he always came forth victorious. He led an army to the south of Italy against the Saracens and their allies, the Greeks, and drove them from the country. The humility and spirit of justice of the Saint were equal to his zeal for religion. He cast himself at the feet of Herebert, Bishop of Cologne, and begged his pardon for having treated him with coldness, on account of a misunderstanding. He wished to abdicate and retire into a monastery, but yielded to the advice of the Abbot of Verdun, and retained his dignity. Both he and his wife, St. Cunegundes, lived in perpetual chastity, to which they had bound themselves by vow. The Saint made numerous pious foundations, gave liberally to pious institutions and built the Cathedral of Bamberg. His holy death occurred at the castle of Grone, near Halberstad, in 1024. His feast day is July 13th. He is the patron saint of the childless, of Dukes, of the handicapped and those rejected by Religious Order.