Friday, 26 February 2016

Seven Saints

"What a monumental piece of architecture! How long did it take to build this beautiful place?" 
"Oh my, this is quite breathtaking. Is there anything modern as beautiful.....?"

...just two of the comments about St Albans Cathedral received after my last post. In a sense they are still building it, as they have been since the first church was erected on the site over 1500 years ago. Lets look at one of the latest additions....

In April 2015 something happened here for the first time since the Reformation: seven painted statues were installed in the Pulpitum or Rood Screen niches. The sculptor, Rory Young, has been five years working on the project. The screen itself was erected in 1349-50 and appears to have been built in a hurry; it was the time of the Black Death and it seems that the monks were anxious to keep themselves very separate from the common people and pilgrims who visited the church and the Shrine of St Alban.

There have been statues in these niches before - the originals were smashed during the Reformation. Although the new statues fit in perfectly and are timeless in their beauty and craftsmanship, there are two wearing modern spectacles and the friar second from the left is holding some playing cards. Just exactly who are these seven?

St Alban: Back in the third century AD a Romano-British citizen called Alban gave shelter to a man fleeing persecution. The man was a Christian priest and Alban was so impressed by his courage and conviction that he asked to be taught more about his faith. Soon the authorities started to close in on the priest, whose name was Amphibalus. Alban insisted that they swap clothes to allow the priest to escape.

Alban was arrested instead and the judges, who were less than pleased to realise that they had been fooled, ruled that Alban should receive the punishment due to Amphibalus. Alban refused to renounce his new-found faith and was taken to be executed. The first executioner refused to do the deed and a replacement had to be found. It is said that the latter's eyes dropped out when he cut off Alban's head.

Alban thus became England's first Christian martyr. Once Christianity had been established in England, the site of his death became a place of pilgrimage and the old city of Verulamium became known as St Albans. 

St Amphibalus: The name of Amphibalus is not mentioned in early accounts of Alban's story and first occurs in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, around eight hundred years later. He may well have misunderstood a Latin text, as amphibalus is a name for a priest's robe. 

After Alban's death Amphibalus is said to have returned to his native South Wales where he converted many more to his faith. However it was at Redbourn, four miles from St Albans, that he was eventually caught and stoned to death. 

Some 800 years later St Alban is said to have appeared to a monk called Robert in a vision and led him to the site of Amphibalus's grave. Miracles are said to have occurred on the spot and his bones were removed to St Albans where a shrine was built to him. It was destroyed during the Reformation but the fragments were rediscovered during nineteenth-century renovations and were reconstructed in the Cathedral.

George Tankerfield was a cook from York who burned at the stake as a Protestant martyr in 1555 in St Albans. He was originally a Catholic but, seeing the cruelties inflicted on those of Protestant faith, he became a Protestant himself.

His wife was tricked into bringing Tankerfield to his persecutors and Foxe, in his Book Of Martyrs, records that the good woman attempted to run the captor through with a meat skewer. When unsuccessful in this attempt Foxe writes, with some satisfaction it seems, that she then managed to throw a brick and hit him squarely between the shoulders.

Tankerfield's main crime was an inability to keep his mouth shut, if he had he may well have survived as many others undoubtedly did. However, unlike many who like the sound of their own voices, Tankerfield was as courageous as he was outspoken and died a heroic death.

The book which the statue holds is an exact reproduction in paint of a Bible printed in 1550, such was the amount of research that went into this project.

Alban Roe: Just as you think you're getting the measure of these martyrs - a brave, pious but rather dour lot - up pops the relentlessly cheerful cantankerousness of Alban Roe. Roe was born in Suffolk in 1583 and was one day trying to convert a Catholic to the Protestant cause when he found himself being defeated in every argument and was surprisingly converted to Catholicism himself. He entered a college in France to prepare for the priesthood, but despite being popular, he managed to fall out with the authorities in an argument about, of all things, some cupboards near his bed. From there, having been expelled, he entered a Benedictine Priory. Having been ordained he returned to join the Missions in Britain and was immediately deported. 

He returned twice more and was eventually imprisoned in The Fleet Prison for 17 years. The regime was remarkably relaxed and Alban was able to wander off out of the jail during the daytime as long as he returned to his cell at night. As he had no church he set about converting the lost souls he encountered in the inns and taverns. In order to befriend them he would play cards with them. This outraged the Puritans who would have had him thrown into jail were he not already a prisoner! 

While still in prison he contrived to have several religious tracts translated and printed. Eventually all his "extra-curricular activities" could be disregarded no longer and he was thrown into the much more secure Newgate Gaol and charged with treason. Clearly he had done nothing treasonous in the normal sense but, since the monarch is the head of the Church of England, all Catholics of the time ran that risk. He became something of a celebrity prisoner and had many visitors, one of whom smuggled items into the jail so that he might celebrate Mass. 

At his trial Roe made a complete mockery of the court by refusing to enter any plea and then refusing to be tried by "ignorant men". It seems that the judge may have feared that there might be unrest if Roe were sentenced to death and tried to have a quiet word with him to defuse the situation. However this did not go well and in the end the jury took only a minute to find him guilty. 

Even at Tyburn, the site chosen for his execution, Alban Roe preached a jovial sermon to the assembled crowd about the meaning of his death, then further held up proceedings by asking the Sheriff if his life might be spared if he became a Protestant. When he was told that it would, he pointed out to the crowd that his crime was clearly not one of treason but merely the result of religious intolerance.

St Elisabeth Romanova: The daughter of Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse, Elisabeth was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe and had many suitors. She eventually married a Russian Grand Duke, much to the displeasure of her grandmother, Queen Victoria.

Her husband Sergei was instrumental in expelling 20,000 Jews from Moscow. In 1905  he was assassinated by Socialist Revolutionaries. Elisabeth spent a long time in prayer and as a result visited the assassin in prison and told him she forgave him. 

She then sold all her possessions and with the money raised she set up a convent. She opened a chapel, a school, a hospital, an orphanage and a pharmacy in its grounds and dedicated the rest of her life to helping the poor of Moscow.

Despite her good works she was still, in Lenin's eyes, a member of the aristocracy and in 1918 she was arrested. Later the Bolsheviks took Elisabeth and her fellow prisoners and threw them into a pit, tossing a hand grenade in after them. Later the singing of hymns was heard from the pit so another grenade was thrown in and then a brushwood fire was ignited over the pit. 

When the sculptor was creating her statue a curious event is said to have occurred: a butterfly came into the studio and settled on her, refusing to move. Some time afterwards the sculptor discovered a photo of Elisabeth wearing a butterfly broach, which was said to be one of her favourite jewels.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and 
theologian. His many written works on theology are however overshadowed by his involvement in anti-Nazi campaigns in Germany.

He was one of the first to speak out against Adolf Hitler. As early as 1933, when the Nazis had first come to power, he made an address on the radio warning of the dangers of a cult surrounding the Fuhrer. His speech was cut off in mid-sentence and it's not difficult to surmise who pulled the plug.

Bonhoeffer was one of the few churchmen who roused himself from indifference and fear to continue the fight against Hitler's regime throughout the war. His activities included infiltrating the German secret service where he acted as a courier passing information to the resistance movement. In this position he was able to find out the scale of Nazi atrocities which only deepened his resolve the overthrow the regime.

He certainly knew about the plot to assassinate Hitler and he was arrested and placed in a concentration camp. He was executed by hanging along with co-conspirators in 1945.

Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, was shot and killed by gunmen while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel in 1980. He had been a vocal opponent of injustice and political repression in San Salvador.

He was born in 1917, the son of a carpenter, and after three years schooling was trained in that trade by his father. However those who knew him were not surprised when he asked to train for the priesthood.

By the time of his assassination he was a huge celebrity in El Salvador, his weekly radio sermons were broadcast across the country and attracted huge audiences. Each week he read out a list of all those who had been killed, tortured, imprisoned or who had "disappeared"; it was the only source of information of what was happening for most of the population.

Romero's funeral was the biggest demonstration that El Salvador had ever seen with a quarter of a million mourners from all over the world. He was finally made a saint by the church in 2015.

So there we are - seven saints and martyrs spanning 1,700 years of human history, half the world and many branches of Christianity. They all died as a result of intolerance and intimidation. They are represented here to remind us all, Christian or otherwise, of humanity's inhumanity and in the hope of future reconciliation, understanding and peace.

Take care.


  1. Incredible workmanship and inspiration! Thank you!

  2. I love that line of Saints John, and isn't it marvellous how well they fit in as though they had been there for ever, and yet with a modern touch. Brilliant.

  3. It has never been easy to be a saint in any faith, and it is not getting any easier. Much food for thought here.

  4. Thank you for taking us through history along with the photos.

  5. Oh my word John, I'm not a very good follower of blogs but whenever I do get round to reading yours I am always in awe, I love your posts and photographs. Those Saints are a beautiful work of art, the new blends in very well with the old. I also enjoyed reading about St Albans Cathedral, it is an impressive masterpiece, and once again your photos are stunning. It's many years since I visited St Albans and had forgotten just how pretty the town is, I think I will visit again in the summer.

  6. Great and varied collection of saints

  7. Fascinating, John. Well researched - and your photos are always so clear.

  8. Interesting stories about the lives of these saints.

  9. This is a marvelous story in every way! After reading your post, I spent a good long time reading more about the sculptor and the process of creating these pieces. Also, the significance of installing such statues "post-Reformation." From conception to creation, it's all just staggering, isn't it? I especially love the description of the statues as " a powerful statement that sanctity is not the possession of any one faith or denomination" (Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans).
    Thank you so much for this excellent post!

  10. What a unique situation - new carvings in an old rood screen! Both the sculptures and the atories are very well done!

  11. I really enjoyed this...they really are works of art, and was glad to have the stories that go with them.

  12. I love that our cathedrals continue to update themselves and I have seen lots of very good modern sculptures in them. Never seen a project like this though, how interesting.

  13. So unlike the "heroes" of popular culture. It's good the cathedral has chosen to remember these truly inspiring people.

  14. I've just caught up on your posts on St Albans John and thoroughly enjoyed them. I was here a couple of years ago for work so had a tour of the Cathedral (always with the comparison of Peterborough Cathedral in my mind!). I am not sure of the design of the saints and martyrs but the concept is really interesting. Enjoy work!

  15. Yes, even though I was drooling over the medieval paintings below I did spot these 'newbies' above. It's amazing to think that a hundred years in the future these will be well integrated into the history of St Albans.

  16. I learned a lot reading your post; the martyred people, their statues and the honor paid them are beautiful.

  17. What skill to be able to create these statues. Bonhoeffer's story is the only one with which I am familiar.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).