An ancient church with a turbulent history

I visited Holy Trinity church, tucked away off the medieval streets of York – a beautiful building that hides a turbulent history.  It had a modest beginning in the 11th century looking more like a large, thatched stone walled hut than anything you might call a church.  But in the 13th century – the height of the Templar order – the south east chapel was built and tiles replaced the thatch.

It dates back to the Saxon period but with the invasion of the Normans in 1066, the church came under the powerful Durham Priory.  Most of the church you can see today was constructed in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries but traces of a much older building do survive.  A squint or “hagioscope” was built into the wall at some point in the medieval period allowing the chantry priest to see mass being celebrated at the main altar.  In 1316, William de Langetoft was allowed to put up some houses nearby called Lady Row and amazingly these cottages still stand!

The church was originally a riot of colour including stained glass – some of which survives.  But in the 16th century – a massive upheaval would see images of the Virgin Mary torn down, the altar replaced with a simple communion table, saints removed from the rood screen, the walls whitewashed and a bible in English (not Latin) available for all to read. By 1553, the church had removed all signs of having once been Catholic – it was now 100% Protestant.

That development took a further leap forward with the introduction of box pews – and unusually for England, they survive in this church. Good Protestant families would face each other inside these closed boxes and the idea of everybody facing a priest was condemned as being too close to what Rome and the pope wanted.

This is a gorgeous church and I thoroughly recommend you visit.


Christmas: How to show a God being incarnated

From the start of Christianity, there had been stormy debate about the nature of Christ’s divinity and his humanity. Early Christians were bitterly divided over whether he was all human, all divine or a bit of both. Some thought he started out human but was then “adopted” into the Godhead. Others thought he was divine but inferior to God the Father. And on top of this confusion was the question of Mary. Mother of Christ? Mother of God? Virgin or not?

The idea of a holy person being born of a divine father and earthly mother went right back into Egyptian mythology and was nothing particularly new. But the concept was a difficult one to grasp and Christians certainly wrestled with the mechanics down to a minute level.

Here is a statue from 1300 made in the Rhine valley. It has two little doors and when closed shows the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus and a dove representing the Holy Spirit. But when it opens, there seated in majesty is God the Father within the body of Mary. I can’t help feeling that this image throws up more questions and dilemmas about the concept of the virgin birth.

IMG_0994 IMG_0993 IMG_0995

Christmas: The Visitation – a medieval depiction

This is one of a series of Christmas posts showing medieval depictions of the birth of Christ and an insight into how a Knight Templar might have celebrated the season. So here goes with The Visitation – the event sacred to Catholics when the Virgin Mary visited Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Both women were pregnant with the son of God and the Baptist respectively. According to the church, the unborn baby John knew Jesus was in the other womb and leaped for joy. Elizabeth, suffused with holiness, announced that she knew Mary was going to have a very special birth.

The statue was made in about 1310, shortly after the destruction of the Knight Templar order. Look closely at it. There are two cavities on each woman’s tummy covered in rock crystal. In the past, it’s believed that there were images of the babies under the crystal. This kind of imagery was not uncommon in German speaking Europe where this statue came from.

A medieval depiction of The Visitation
A medieval depiction of The Visitation

Saint James – patron saint of crusaders

MatamorosJames, often known as Saint James the Greater, was a fisherman from Capernaum. He needs to be distinguished from James the Just, the brother of Jesus, who was another apostle. This James came from a well-to-do family. He had a burning hatred of the Samaritan community and when they failed to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, he suggested raining fire down on them from heaven. This suggestion was firmly turned down by Jesus.

The martyrdom of James is recorded in the New Testament. He was killed at the orders of Herod Agrippa. In the centuries that followed, stories began to emerge that James had found his way to what is now the province of Galicia in Spain, in the north-western corner. Opinions are divided whether he was alive or dead. Either his body was taken there for burial or he preached the gospel there.

Why did such a story develop? Well, what is now modern Spain and Portugal had been invaded by Muslim armies in 711CE. But slowly, small Christian kingdoms developed in the north of the Iberian Peninsula initiating a 700-year process of military re-conquest called the “Reconquista”. At the outset, these kingdoms came under relentless attack from the caliphate to the south, which was richer and better resourced. But slowly they pushed forward. Being the Middle Ages, these crusaders needed divine inspiration and they got it by adopting Saint James as THEIR apostle.

The town of Santiago de Compostela was designated as the true burial place of James. The saint appeared as a vision to armies before battle. Miracles were attributed to him. And slowly but surely a basilica complex developed over his grave and the pilgrims began to swarm in from all over Europe. In fact, the cult of Saint James was second only to Jerusalem in the Templar period.

I’ve been twice to Santiago and the pilgrims are still coming journeying along the Camino de Santiago. They climb the stairs behind an enormous statue of the apostle to kiss his gold and jewel encrusted shoulders. They worship before statues of him trampling on the enemy Moor.

He’s not the only biblical figure believed to have journeyed very far after the death of Jesus. There’s also:

  • Joseph of Arimathea went to Glastonbury to convert the ancient Britons
  • Thomas the apostle went to India to spread by the Christian faith
  • Mary Magdalene fled to France with the child of Jesus

Desposyni – the blood line of Jesus

jesusDid Jesus have a real flesh and blood family and therefore descendants?

It’s surprising how long this debate has been going for.  Right back in to the early persecuted church during the Roman Empire.  Possibly as far back as the first generation of Christians – especially those who did not fall in to line with Paul.

From the early years, there was a split between Christians who saw the new religion as an extension or fulfillment of Jewish scripture and those who saw it as something distinct from Judaism and universal in application.

The former group, that included sects like the Ebionites, saw Jesus as a Jewish messiah and tended to conceptualize him in human terms.  The latter group, that included groups like the Marcionites, took the view that Christianity could be spread to the gentiles and saw Jesus as a more spiritual, almost disembodied entity.  The latter group even rejected the wrath filled and very Jewish god of the Old Testament.

The former strand of Christianity was capable of holding the notion of a bloodline – indeed, Jesus was believed to have come from a royal Jewish bloodline and his descendants were very real and amongst us.  This was anathema to what became the Catholic church.  Why?  Well, think about it – who’s the real vicar of Christ on earth, the pope in Saint Peter’s or the bodily descendant of the messiah?

Paul wrenched Christianity away from its Jewish roots, though a Jew himself, and took it to the Greeks and Romans.  He set in train a process whereby Christianity was adopted by the very people who had crucified the messiah.

Paul hated any whiff of competition from those in Palestine who had known Jesus – which Paul hadn’t.  So he emphasized the godly and spiritual nature of Jesus, a nature that he could know more about than those pesky disciples in Palestine who had walked with the man himself.  He could even know more about Jesus than the messiah’s very own brother – James – who we believe became a leader of the new sect in Jerusalem after the crucifixion.

Jesus did have brothers and sisters, mentioned in the gospels, but the church soon found a way of downgrading their importance.  Without any grounding in scripture, they inferred through various dogmas and doctrinal statements that these siblings were in fact the children of Joseph and an earlier wife – not the by now virginal Mary.  They might even be cousins, some suggested.

Mary as a perpetual virgin was key to removing the Desposyni – descendants of Jesus – from the Christian equation.  In spite of reports that two Desposyni were brought before the Roman emperor Domitian, the bloodline of Jesus was swept under the theological carpet.

Bizarre and unpleasant relics of saints!

The Blood of Christ – in the Middle Ages, churches across Europe claimed to have several foreskins of Jesus – left over from the circumcision!

The Templars were as much, if not more, in to relics as all good Christians of the Middle Ages.  They had a penchant for the brutally martyred variety of saint.  Tied to a wheel and rolled down a hill or cut to pieces in the arena – that was the kind of saint a Templar wanted a bone from.

But it’s often forgotten that bones were not the only medieval relics of saints.  Bamber Gascoigne in his book ‘The Christians’ details St Elizabeth of Hungary lying serenely in state after her death.  Around her, mourners prayed fervently for hours on end.  Hmmm…take a closer look if you will.  Because said mourners were actually busily clipping off her hair, nails and according to Bamber – her nipples!!   All taken away to be venerated in churches all over Christendom.

The intrepid Bishop of Lincoln was shown a bone of Mary Magdalene on his travels and while nobody was looking, bit a fragment off and walked tight lipped back to a very grateful Lincoln.

Jesus presented a problem to relic hunters of the Middle Ages having ascended bodily in to heaven.  No corpse in the tomb if you recall.  Bamber describes how the medieval mind got round this little conundrum.  Jesus must have left fingernails, his own tears, blood, milk teeth and….wait for it…his foreskin from the circumcision.   Oh no, surely not.  Oh yes, I’m afraid so!  Indeed, there were several foreskins of Jesus doing a brisk trade as Gothic cathedrals soared upwards.

I’m always amused by the twig from the Burning Bush and a crumb from the Last Supper.  Years ago, I went with a friend to Prague who, unlike me, had not been subject to a Roman Catholic upbringing.  I had to explain that yes, the little house in the middle of a cloister really was Mary’s house transported brick by brick from the Holy Land overnight by a team of very obliging and presumably muscular angels.  He didn’t get it.

Closer to our own time, the church has still shown an ability to collect the most bizarre bits of saints.  Teresa of Avila can be venerated by worshiping the sole of her sandal, a phial of her blood or a stick she used to walk with.  Saint John Vianney (died 1859) is preserved, much like Lenin, in a casket.  He used to sleep two hours a night and was visited frequently by the devil.

The True Cross is the relic that has always intrigued me.  There’s a lot of fragments of the True Cross around.  I’m inclined to think that if they were all put together, then Jesus was crucified on a California Redwood.