St Michael’s Mount and St Mary of Egypt: an aside

 

During this school and college half-term holiday we’ve had the TDays grandchildren and their mum staying with us. Yesterday, their last full day in Cornwall, we took them to one of their (and our) favourite places: St Michael’s Mount.

St Michael's Mount

St Michael’s Mount seen from the beach at Marazion

Main buildings

The main buildings

Even on a cloudy day it looks fantastic – from any angle or distance.

Millennia ago it was probably inland, in a forest, but inundation turned it into an island. It’s accessible today by a causeway when the tide is low, otherwise – as we did, you have to catch a boat (but we were able to walk back).

There was probably a monastic settlement there from the 8C. Edward the Confessor gave it to the Benedictine order of Mont St Michel – which it resembles physically, though the Penzance Bay version is smaller. It was a priory of that Normandy abbey until the early 15C, when, because of Henry V’s war with France, it was deemed an ‘alien house’ and was presented to the Abbess and Convent of Syon in Isleworth, Middlesex (there’s a seal of that convent among the many exhibits in the present exhibition rooms).

Cannon

The site’s turbulent and often violent history is reflected in the prominence of cannon all round the battlements near the top

When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries St Michael’s Mount reverted to the crown. It was sold to the St Aubyn family in 1659, and their descendants still live there, although the National Trust, a British heritage charity, took over the administration of the site in 1954. The English novelist Edward of that name is a member of the family.

The archangel Michael is particularly associated with religious buildings sited on mountains and high places like this. Legend has it that he could be seen by fishermen, seated on his granite throne atop the Mount, from early times. Milton’s poem ‘Lycidas’ has its conclusion there.

There’s another tradition that links Jack the Giant Killer with the giant who was said to have resided on the Mount in early times.

Causeway

View back at the Mount as we walked towards Marazion and the mainland after our visit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Penzance harbour was developed and improved in the early 1800s, and the railway line was extended there in 1852, the thriving community on the island declined, its three pubs and schools eventually closed, and the population dwindled. It still has a fine harbour of its own.

Mary of Egypt assumption

The roundel of Mary of Egypt’s assumption

I was particularly excited by the discovery, as we toured the rooms full of fascinating exhibits of the building’s history and heritage, of a stained glass window panel that I’d not noticed on previous visits (unlike me). It depicted a female saint’s assumption to heaven, lifted there by angels.

As some readers of this blog may know, I’m a medieval hagiographer – my postgrad research involved a study of the Life of St Mary of Egypt. I decided that this glass image was not of her, but depicted the more famous Mary Magdalene, whose medieval European legend, as I’ve written in previous posts, took on many of the narrative contents of Egyptian Mary’s, including the long sojourn as a hermit in the desert, discovery by a wandering monk, and assumption to heaven when she died. The clothes of both saints were said to have rotted away over the years, so medieval artists usually depict them as young and attractive, their nakedness hidden by long wavy hair.

Magdalene by Gherarducci

Assumption of the Magdalene by Silvestro dei Gherarducci (1339-99) (National Gallery of Ireland, NGI.841) Wikimedia Commons

As I said, I was pretty sure this image was of the Magdalene, but one of the volunteer NT helpers in the room joined me as I took its picture and said it WAS Mary of Egypt – he’d seen it in the official guidebook to the site. He found us later and had kindly photocopied the relevant page. It reads:

The stained and painted glass in the north windows of the Chevy Chase Room…were brought to St Michael’s Mount by Sir John St Aubyn, the 5th Baronet, at the end of the 18th century.

The roundels, rectangular panels and fragments date from the 15th to 18th century. They are mostly Flemish or Dutch and were probably originally in small oratories in private houses. They were inspected and classified by Dr H Wayment of Cambridge University in 1978. …The central roundel is the Apotheosis of St Mary of Egypt being carried to heaven from the desert, French or Flemish, c. 1520.

Dr Hilary Wayment (1912-2005) was an academic who was a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge (later of Wolfson), and is best known for his scholarly work on the 16C windows of that college’s chapel. I wouldn’t assume to question his authority in identifying this particular roundel with Egyptian Mary. I had previously been aware of only a handful of other images in religious buildings in England (there are many more in MSS). Hence my excitement at this discovery.

Magdalene assumption

Another image of the Magdalene’s assumption, from a 16C window: image via Wikimedia Commons, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Why did I presume this was the Magdalene? Because she is usually distinguished in medieval iconography from her namesake by her attribute of an ornate ointment jar (the one she used in the New Testament story abouth anointing the feet of Jesus with costly unguents, thus shocking his disciples. He didn’t share their outrage).

Mary of Egypt’s attribute is the three round loaves her legend relates she bought as she left Jerusalem and entered the desert beyond Jordan.

Accurate identification of the saint in these assumption scenes is problematic, because the figure would not take her jar or loaves to heaven with her, so it’s only possible to be sure who the figure represents if we have other information about her identity. I can only assume the learned doctor had such information; it would be more usual to assume that an otherwise unidentified image of this type would be of the far more frequently represented Magdalene. Perhaps he had access to documentation of the provenance of the roundel.

Mary of Egypt

Sforza Book of Hours, 1490. Assumption of Mary Magdalene, supported by angels; I couldn’t find an image of a similar scene with Mary of Egypt in Fitzwilliam MS 19, a Book of Hours from Chartres

I’ll be happy to take it as my saint’s image.

This last one came from my post on Mary of Egypt’s day in April earlier this year.

I discovered another glass window image of Mary of Egypt at the V&A Museum in February of this year, as I posted then

V&A Mary of Egypt

The V&A image, made in Cologne c. 1670

 

Obsessive reading and podcasts

Summer has finally arrived in Cornwall, and I’ve finished teaching for a few months; consequently I can write about a wider range of matters than usual.

My last post about obsessive, even addictive behaviour among book acquirers and readers elicited a number of comments, most of them from avid readers who recognised the traits I described. Claire (of the Word by Word book blog), however, provided a corrective: addiction is perhaps an inappropriate term to have used. I was picking up on Belinda’s use (in her Bii’s Books blog) of the term ‘sugar addict at the end of Lent’ to refer to a book-buying splurge she indulged in after her #TBR20 project ended. No offence was intended when I likened bookish obsessions to addiction; I should have been more circumspect with my imagery.

Today I’d like to depart in another direction from my usual run of thoughts about what I’ve been reading. I’ve been leafing through an old notebook – one of my obsessions also noted in my previous post: stockpiling and writing random findings about books and culture in these notebooks; I suppose they’re my equivalent of those 18th and 19th century ‘commonplace books’.

I tend to keep a record in these notebooks of peripheral literary/cultural material: newspaper reviews, online articles and so on. I also listen to a lot of podcasts on such matters, especially when walking to work – just over half an hour is perfect for most podcasts. I looked up what I’d written in this one from three years ago. Here’s what I found in this notebook’s entries from June 2012.

Eleanor Wachtel: Wikipedia image

Eleanor Wachtel: Wikipedia image

One of my favourite literary podcasts is this one by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC): Writers & Company, hosted with intelligent warmth by Eleanor Wachtel (link to its website HERE). The focus is on good writing from all over the world. Recent episodes (all available from the website) include interviews with Irishman Donal Ryan, André Aciman (Francophone Egyptian-Turkish-American), and a series entitled ‘Reimagining the Balkans’: writers, film-makers and others who are expressing what’s happened since the terrible wars of the nineties. Three years ago this is what I’d single out from my notes on what I’d been listening to from this podcast:

Edward St Aubyn (broadcast 25 March 2012), the Melrose novels. Why listen to such podcasts? They throw light on what one has already read, enriching that experience, through Ms Wachtel’s deceptively soft-toned but incisive, probing interviews with authors of books. They also provide recommendations for what to read in the future. It took me over a year to get around to reading these astonishingly raw, witty, viscerally disturbing novels, but they were a searing, brilliant read.

Edith Wharton photographed in 1915: image via WikiCommons

Edith Wharton photographed in 1915: image via WikiCommons

A broadcast of 22 April 2012 featured an interview with Hermione Lee on the subject of Edith Wharton, about whom she’d written a biography a few years earlier (there’s an excellent review of it by Hilary Spurling in the Guardian HERE). I found this podcast interesting because of my passion for the work of Henry James, with whom the scary New York socialite had an intriguingly weird relationship.

Next I’d written about the BBC Radio 4 podcast of its long-running cultural programme ‘In Our Time’. There’s a link to its homepage HERE, where its complete archive can be accessed; this can be broken down into categories: Culture (including literature), Philosophy, Religion, Science. Recent topics covered range from Prester John to Utilitarianism; the Lancashire cotton famine during the American Civil War to the poetry of Tagore and the fiction of Fanny Burney.

The item I’d listened to in June 2012 was broadcast on 14 Oct. 2010; it was on the topic of ‘Sturm und Drang’: the short-lived German proto-Romantic aesthetic movement of the late 18th century initiated by Klinger and adopted by Herder, Goethe (his ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, which I’d recently read in June 2012), Lessing, etc. It raised some curious points about masculinity and suicide, among others.

The host, Melvyn Bragg, is sometimes lampooned in the British media for his implausibly luxuriant hair and adenoidal northern English accent. This probably says more about the snobbish prejudices of the English media than it does about Lord Bragg.

Another time I’ll try to recommend some other book-based podcasts that I’ve found rewarding to listen to. They’re the audio equivalent of book blogs, I suppose. When they feature author interviews, however, they often provide insights unavailable to those of us who simply write about our own responses to what we read.

I’ve dug out these notebook-archived pieces deliberately because they still resonate with me when I re-read them now, and attest to the quality of content in these programmes that persists today. I’d urge you to investigate and subscribe to the podcasts mentioned here. They’re all free.