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

 

Cornish ramblings: Tremenheere, St Michael’s Mount and Way

Our Cornish ramblings continue, but work resumed this week, so they’ll probably subside now. We went on Monday to Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, near Penzance.

The name derives from the Cornish tre-menhir, ‘standing (or long-)-stone farm (or place)’.  Another site near St Keverne on the Lizard peninsula on Cornwall’s south coast has an actual surviving menhir; I can find no record of such a stone at the site of the current gardens – though there are many of them across the moors of Penwith in west Cornwall.

Before 1290 the lands were owned by the monks of St Michael’s Mount, in the bay below. My guess is that the Tremenheere family, who owned the estate where the gardens now stand, originated from the Lizard area and moved north, and bought the land from the monks. In the 15C it was the monastery’s vineyard.

Tremenheere

Tremenheere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tremenheere

Tremenheere

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minotaur

Minotaur by Tim Shaw

Black Mound

Black Mound by David Nash

The beautiful 20-acre site is planted with a wide range of mature trees, shrubs and flowers, with a network of winding paths connecting the sculptures by some noted figures, intended to blend with or comment on the landscape they stand in. The views at various points across the bay to the Mount are amazing – possibly the finest in Cornwall. For more on the origin and purpose of the gardens, see the website, which states that it’s intended as an ‘arcadian space blending the elements of landscape, planting and art to create a place for contemplation and wonder.’

 

Restless Temple

Restless Temple by Penny Saunders

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hope my pictures convey something of this quality. Information on the sculptures is also to be found at the garden website.

St Michael's Way exhibition

Flyer for the exhibition

Forthcoming events:

Exhibition ‘On St Michael’s Way’

St Michael’s Way is a 12.5-mile trail starting at the church of St Uny in Lelant, nr St Ives, passing through the gardens and ending at St Michael’s Mount, Marazion, next to Penzance. Because of its historical significance as part of the network of pilgrim routes that lead to the cathedral shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela, Spain, this is the only footpath in Britain designated part of the European Cultural Route.

More information on the official website.

It’s of very ancient, pre-Christian origins, but in the 5C became the preferred route for missionaries and pilgrims arriving by boat on the N. coast of Cornwall from Ireland (I wrote about St Piran, Cornwall’s unofficial patron saint, recently HERE) or Wales and heading for the holy site of the Mount.

A few decades ago the route was reinstated with the aid of Bredereth Sen Jago, the Cornish Pilgrims of St James, and other bodies.

Archangel Michael is popularly known as the ‘saint of high places’, hence the dedication of Christian sites on mounts and hilltops (like Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy). Miracles were said to have taken place at St Michael’s Mount in the middle ages, reinforcing its reputation as a spiritually significant location, standing as it does at the intersection of various ancient ley lines.

According to a 5C legend St Michael appeared to fishermen (he’s their patron saint) at this Cornish site, warning them of danger. Local Celtic legends state that the mount itself was constructed by the giant Cormoran, who tyrannised and pillaged the locality, and was killed by a local Marazion lad named Jack – source of the Jack the Giant Killer fairytale.

This giant’s cousin was called Trencrom. In local legends they are said to have hurled rocks at each other across huge distances, thus accounting for the many outcrops and boulders across west Cornwall. Trencrom Hill, above the Hayle estuary, is the site of a Neolithic hill fort, and has many such boulders.

St Michael’s Mount (Karrek Loos yn Koos in Cornish, meaning ‘grey rock in woodland’) is connected to the mainland by a man-made causeway of granite setts, making the island accessible on foot at low tide. In prehistoric times it may have operated as a tin-exporting port. More useful information at its official website.

It was probably the site of a monastery from the 8C, and a popular pilgrim site in the medieval period. The original 12C monastic church buildings were rebuilt in the 14C.

In 1659 it came into the possession of the St Aubyn family, who still own it in joint patronage with the National Trust, through whom most of the site is open to the public. The author Edward St Aubyn is a cousin of Lord St Levan, descendant of the Mount’s St Aubyns.

The chapel of St Michael is a 15C construction on the mount, while the castle houses a fascinating array of historical artefacts.

 

 

Skyspace

Tewlwolow Kernow by James Turrell

Another forthcoming event at Tremenheere Gardens, 9 September: special Skyspace evening (Tewlwolow Kernow) – James Turrell’s ‘Skyspace’ installation, with its extraordinary egg-like interior, has an elliptical space in the roof which forms a natural frame for some gorgeous skyscapes. Subtle lighting will enhance these unpredictable natural ‘pictures’ as dusk falls.

Camborne

By way of contrast, here’s an engine house seen on the edge of Camborne on our way home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PS: Local place names and church dedications reflect the activity of Irish and Welsh missionary saints in Cornwall from the 5C. Uny (or Euny) of Lelant, and Herygh or Erc (patron of St Erth village), were Irish brothers of St Ia (Cornish for ‘St Ives’ is Porth Ia) who all landed in the Hayle estuary. I posted recently about St Piran, whose legend relates how he floated miraculously across the sea from Ireland on a millstone (intended to drown him by irate local pagan kings); Ia is said to have crossed on an equally unconventional vessel: a leaf (or, in some versions, a millstone – probably indluenced by Piran’s legend – a typical hagiographical cross-fertilization).

PPS There’s a great spot at Marazion marshes, opposite the Mount, to see a huge range of birds (including the rare Cetti’s warbler), mammals and other fauna and flora: it’s a RSPB site – more HERE on their website.