Blake: Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary

NPG 212; William Blake by Thomas Phillips

William Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807)

For years, Tate Britain has had a small room dedicated to the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827). Now until 2nd February 2020, Tate Britain is offering visitors the opportunity to experience Blake’s visionary art in his largest show in a generation. Detailing his life chronologically, 300 original works illustrate Blake’s talents, personal struggles, innovation and vision.

Blake’s art and poetry continue to influence and inspire many people regardless of profession, religion and nationality. Although produced during a period of unrest involving war, the British Empire and industrialisation, Blake’s work resonates with the present world and the struggles people face today.

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Portrait of William Blake, 1802

William Blake was born on 28th November 1757 at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in Soho, London, the third of seven children to James and Catherine (née Wright). His father, a hosier, and mother thoroughly encouraged Blake’s aspiration to become an artist. Although he attended school long enough to learn to read and write, he was educated from home by his mother after the age of ten. The Bible was an important aspect of his studies, which remained a source of inspiration for the rest of his life.

Blake was encouraged to practise his drawing ability by producing engravings of well-known artworks for his father. Alongside this, he attended classes at Pars’s drawing school in the Strand and explored the art of poetry, reading works by Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and Edmund Spencer (1552-99) as well as the Book of Psalms. In August 1772, Blake was apprenticed to James Basire (1730-1802), a significant British engraver, for seven years. By the age of 21, Blake was working as a professional.

In 1779, Blake enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts, which at the time was situated in Old Somerset House. He may have attended with one of his brothers, Robert, whose illustrations are briefly featured in the exhibition. The Royal Academy taught its students to draw by studying and copying classical sculptures, prints, live models and paintings, such as those by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Blake, on the other hand, rejected these teachings, preferring to use artworks by classical artists, such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520).

Despite rebelling against the traditional teaching methods, Blake participated in six exhibitions at the Royal Academy. Unfortunately, since he did not conform to the typical oil paint-format the Academy expected, Blake’s watercolours were often consigned to a smaller room.

Students were encouraged to paint serious subject matters, often resulting in portraits and landscapes. Blake, on the other hand, chose to focus on Biblical stories, for instance, the story of Joseph and his brothers. Written in the Book of Genesis, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. The series of events that follow result in Joseph having significant authority in the land of Egypt and, during a famine, his brothers end up begging him for help.

Blake produced three watercolours that express the latter part of the story of Joseph. In the first, the brothers, unaware who Joseph is, bow down before him, pleading for help to survive the famine. The second, Joseph Ordering Simeon to be bound, shows one of Joseph’s older brothers willingly being arrested for a crime he did not commit to spare the life of another brother. Noting that the attitudes of his brothers have changed since they sold him into slavery, Joseph reveals his true identity and welcomes his brothers with open arms, as shown in Blake’s third painting.

Similar to his Joseph paintings, Blake’s early work typically involved sweeping lines of ink or watercolour, revealing dainty characters full of grand gestures. These tended to have a strong visual impact, evoking emotion and communicating a message or story. Subjects were often drawn from Bible passages, although not necessary the well-known ones, and other literature, such as Shakespeare. As time went on, however, Blake’s works became more obscure and harder to decipher.

Shortly after Blake’s time at the Royal Academy, he met Catherine Boucher (1762-1831), the daughter of a market gardener in Battersea on the south side of the River Thames. At the time, Blake was suffering from a rejection of a previous attempt at love and Catherine proved to be a good ear to listen to his tales of heartbreak. This led to the pair falling in love and marrying on 18th August 1782 in St Mary’s Church in southwest London. The couple had a long, invaluable marriage with Catherine helping her husband to print some of his later works and Blake teaching his wife to read and write.

As well as illustrating existing stories, Blake began to write and illustrate his own, for example, the epic poem Tiriel, although this was never published. Blake borrowed ideas from Shakespeare, Greek tragedies and Gaelic stories to pen the narrative of an aged king, Tiriel, who had been exiled from his land. In the past, Tiriel enslaved one of his brothers and cursed his children and now seeks solace from his misrule and arrogance. Frail and blind, Tiriel tries and fails to make amends for what he has done, thus receiving his comeuppance for his acts of tyranny.

The illustrations Blake produced to accompany the poem Tiriel were engravings rather than paintings. Having trained as an engraver before joining the Royal Academy, Blake found this technique a preferable way of earning an income. Engravings involved copying or drawing an image with fine cuts onto a metal plate, which could then be inked, printed and reproduced several times. This was a technique Blake used for many commissions, such as those delivered to the print shop he temporarily opened with his friend James Parker in 1784. He also worked for a range of London publishers, including the radical Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), who published works by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) amongst other feminists and religious dissenters.

Etching and engraving were time-consuming and limited, which Blake found frustrating. In 1788, Blake developed what he termed “relief etching”, which allowed him to print in colour and combine text and images. Over time, Blake printed numerous books in this manner, many of which he had written himself and continue to be some of his most famous work. This style of engraving combined “both Letter-press and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered.” It was also a cheap and efficient method of printing, although the stories and poetry the illustrations accompanied often baffled Blake’s readers and supporters.

From 1790 to 1800, Blake and Catherine lived in North Lambeth, less than twenty minutes from his childhood home. Although the property has been demolished, a nearby tunnel of Waterloo Station is decorated with a series of 70 mosaics resembling illustrations from Blake’s illuminated books. These books reflect Blake’s thoughts during a turbulent time in Britain. Both French and American revolutions occurred during Blake’s lifetime, leading him to become vocal about freedom and liberty, and argue against slavery and the empire.

Despite his strong views, Blake was rather cryptic in how he portrayed his thoughts in his poetry and illustrations. Had his views been expressed more clearly, Blake would have been at risk of arrest, however, his symbolism was too obscure to attract the attention of the authorities.

Tate Britain displays a range of examples from Blake’s radical illuminated books including Visions of the Daughters of Albion, which condemns forced marriage and defends the rights of women. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell expressed Blake’s revolutionary beliefs using biblical prophecy as a basis. Rather than Hell being a place of punishment, Blake depicts it as a place of chaos and irrationality.

Blake also created his own mythology, for instance, The Book of Urizen, from which his recognisable illustration The Ancient of Days comes. Urizen, depicted as a bearded old man, is the personification of reason and law. Considering himself to be god-like and holy, Urizen traps people in webs of law and conventional society. He is often shown with some form of architectural tool, such as a compass, with which he creates his universe. Urizen’s only opposition is Los, who can be likened to a fallen angel, representing imagination. Blake’s myth is almost a reversal of Christian beliefs, with Urizen serving as a Satanic force.

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Little Girl Lost – Songs of Innocence and Experience

Amongst all the books represented in the exhibition is one of his most well-known works Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes the famous poem The Tyger. “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night…” Published in 1794, the book of poems is a combination of Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1793). Although the illustrations are suggestive of children’s books and the poems deal with themes of childhood, they also tackle morality, suffering and injustice, which are topics usually deemed unsuitable for that demographic.

Although Songs of Innocence and Experience is famous today, Blake only sold about 30 copies during his lifetime. For income, he relied heavily upon commissions and patronage, including fellow artists. John Flaxman (1755-1826) was a sculptor and draughtsman Blake met at the Royal Academy. Flaxman supported Blake’s publication of Poetical Sketches in 1783 and his wife, Ann, commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for the poems of Thomas Gray (1716-71).

A civil servant, Thomas Butts was one of Blake’s biggest patrons, purchasing over 200 different works. Many of these were watercolours on biblical themes. Whilst typical scenes involving Jesus, the crucifixion and well-known Old and New Testament characters were popular, Butts was also interested in Blake’s more imaginative works, representing the prophecies of Ezekiel or the Book of Revelation.

The Reverend Joseph Thomas (1765-1811) of Epsom, Surrey was another keen purchaser of Blake’s biblical work. He was also interested in the works of Shakespeare and John Milton and commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for various plays and poems. For Milton’s hymn On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, Thomas paid Blake two pounds for each drawing – a total of six – which was more than Butts paid for individual watercolours.

Thomas Butts also purchased a series of large coloured prints that Blake produced by experimenting with monotype. This involved using thick, tacky ink on the metal etching plates, which was then transferred onto paper by applying pressure. Once printed, Blake added watercolour and ink washes to finish the illustration. This gave the prints the initial appearance of a painting, however, many elements are impossible to achieve by hand.

The twelve large prints included in the exhibition relate to a range of themes. As usual, Blake depicted biblical scenes, for example, the madness of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, whose humiliating suffering was predicted in the Book of Daniel. Blake produced an illustration of God judging Adam, whereas most artists focus on Eve’s sin. Other biblical images include Lamech and his Two Wives and Noami Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab.

Amongst the prints is a portrayal of the famous English mathematician and scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727), albeit a rather young and muscular one. Unlike the older figure most people imagine when thinking of Newton, Blake drew Newton as a Michelangelo-esque character crouched naked on a rock. The figure’s attention is fully focused on a piece of parchment at his feet on which he draws a diagram with a compass.

Blake chose to illustrate Newton as a reproach rather than praise. The artist was critical of Newton’s scientific approach, which followed precise rules rather than taking in the bigger picture. The figure’s focus on the compass represent’s Newton’s methods, which makes him oblivious to the beauty in the colour of the rocks on which he is sitting.

In 1800, Blake and his wife moved to a cottage in Felpham, (West) Sussex, where he illustrated works for the poet William Hayley (1745-1820) until 1804. Hayley is best known for his biography of his friend William Cowper (1731-1800) whose work was among the poems Hayley wished Blake to illustrate. Mostly, however, Hayley expected Blake to produce miniature portraits, which was something Blake was not keen on due to the lack of inventiveness.

Hayley had recently established a new library in The Turret, his house in Felpham, and commissioned Blake to produce long canvases to decorate the room. Each canvas represented a famous poet, including William Cowper. In the centre, Blake reproduced a likeness of the poets based on existing portraits and engravings and used the remains of the canvas to be more creative. Other poets included William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Milton (1608-1674), Dante Alighieri (1265- 1321) and Edmund Spenser (1552-99).

As time went on, Blake began to resent Hayley, who he believed did not appreciate art. Fortunately, Hayley was still on Blake’s side and able to bail him out when he was arrested following a physical altercation with a soldier. After his acquittal, Blake returned to London.

In 1806, Blake began planning pictures for Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1343-1400) The Canterbury Tales. This is a collection of 24 short stories written by the “father of English literature”. Mostly written in verse like Blake’s own work, the tales tell the story of a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket (1119-70). Blake envisioned a frieze-like composition, which he completed in 1808 and published as an etching in 1810.

Unfortunately, Blake could not enjoy his work on The Canterbury Tales because he felt he was competing against two friends who were also producing work for the same book. He felt betrayed by these friends, believing that their work would overshadow his artistic vision. He claimed his so-called friends were more interested in making money than producing great art.

Around the same time, Blake was working on illustrations for the 1808 edition of Robert Blair’s (1699-1746) poem The Grave. The commission came from the newly established publisher Robert Cromek (1770-1812), and not wanting to let Cromek’s new career flounder, Blake took the project very seriously.

Blake was attracted to the poem’s themes of death and the afterlife, which were often topics of his own writings. He quickly produced twenty drawings for Cromek, which the publisher began to promote widely in public places, touring London, Birmingham and Manchester. Whilst this gave Blake the attention he deserved, he felt betrayed when Cromek employed someone else to print the illustrations.

The disappointments and supposed betrayals of the early 1800s led Blake to break contact with some of his friends and set up an independent exhibition in 1809. Using the upper rooms of his childhood home, now belonging to his brother James who used the lower rooms for his hosiery shop, Blake displayed several of his paintings, which were accompanied by a Descriptive Catalogue. It was a rather strange location for an exhibition – rather modest in comparison to Blake’s gigantic ambitions – and only a handful of visitors attended. In the only public review written about the exhibition, Blake was branded “an unfortunate lunatic”.

Tate Britain excels itself by recreating one of the rooms in the Blake family home, complete with fake flooring, ceiling, windows and walls, upon which a handful of paintings are hung. Many of Blake’s original paintings have been damaged over time, losing their colour and becoming dark and difficult to decipher. Every 20 minutes, two of the paintings are illuminated to appear as they would have done in 1809 and a disembodied voice reads out Blake’s words from the Descriptive Catalogue.

“The two Pictures of Nelson and Pitt are compositions of a mythological cast, similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo, and Egyptian Antiquity, which are still preserved on rude monuments, being copies from some stupendous originals now lost or perhaps buried till some happier age.”

Blake’s solo exhibition took place during a period of war and upheaval. Although his paintings appear to be disconnected from politics, featuring allegorical and spiritual elements, they are full of hidden meaning. Two paintings are based on national figures who had both led Britain in the war against France. These figures, the late Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806) and naval hero Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), are shown alongside biblical monsters, bringing chaos and destruction to the world. Blake likens these heroes to mythological and biblical characters, for instance, Hercules and cherubim. Although the paintings are representing destruction, Blake is hinting at the potential new freedoms and spiritual rebirth that could follow.

In the next room, a projection shows close up details of these two paintings. He had once dreamt that they would be executed on a large scale and displayed on public walls. After the failure of his solo exhibition, Blake knew this dream would never come to fruition and became increasingly withdrawn and bitter. Tate Britain tries to do Blake’s aspirations justice by showing the paintings at such a large scale.

Having withdrawn from society for a few years, Blake returned with a burst of creativity for the final decade of his life. In 1818, he met the artist John Linnell who provided him with moral and material support. During this time, Blake produced relief-etchings for new and old books for a variety of purchasers, including engravings for the Book of Job.

Throughout his life, Blake reportedly had visions of spirits with whom he conversed. Encouraged by a friend, Blake began to draw these spirits for a series he titled “Visionary Heads”. Over six years, Blake drew more than a hundred of these vision, often attending séance-like sessions to study the details of these characters. Whilst, on the one hand, some people believed in Blake’s visions, others debated whether they were real or a sign of mental ill-health.

One of Blake’s most bizarre characters was The Ghost of a Flea. Depicted as a muscular, nude figure – part-man, part-vampire, part-reptile – the Flea is using its tongue to drink out of a bowl of blood. In its left hand is a thorn and acorn, which are typical icons of fairies and similar mythical characters. Whether or not Blake saw this figure, his painting magnified a flea, which is usually associated with uncleanliness, into a monstrous, bloodthirsty creature.

As well as his personal monsters, Blake was commissioned by Linnell to illustrate the creatures in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The poem, which describes a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, leant itself to Blake’s typical style of illustration and preference of theme. Blake used dark, menacing colours to illustrate the depths of Hell, contrasting it with the luminous shades of Paradise.

Although he intended to illustrate the poem in its entirety, Blake passed away before he could finish. Another unfinished work was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, which was a popular religious text during Blake’s lifetime. Again, it suited Blake’s style, dealing with the realms of dreams, destruction, sins and heaven.

Before Blake’s death in 1827, he managed to complete and illustrate one final epic poem, which is probably his best-known work today. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion is the longest of Blake’s prophetic books and tells the story of the fall of Albion – Blake’s personification of Britain and the western world. The narrative, however, can be confusing and does not have a linear plot.

Jerusalem is not to be confused with the famous hymn of the same name with music written by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), which was used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1917. Although Blake wrote the words of this hymn, it comes from the preface of his epic poem Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

Blake’s magnum opus, on the other hand, is a 4500 lined poem that his first biographer called “a chaos of words, names and images.” Albion (England) has been infected by “soul disease” and her “mountains run with blood” as a result of the Napoleonic wars. Religion is being used to exploit the lower classes and those in charge of the country are full of greed. If Albion can be reunited with Jerusalem once more, then all humanity will survive and be bound together in love.

Jerusalem, like some of Blake’s previous works, summed up his philosophical thoughts, particularly concerning the Age of Enlightenment, which dominated Europe during the 18th century. Enlightenment focuses on ideals of rationalism and empiricism (the theory that knowledge comes from experience), which went against Blake’s beliefs that imagination was the most important human element. Previous paintings showed that Blake was opposed to the Newtonian view of the universe and unimpressed by the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and other members of the Royal Academy who looked at art with a “vegetative eye”. Jerusalem was Blake’s final attempt at expressing his strong views.

“I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.”
– Excerpt from Jerusalem

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William Blake Wearing a Hat – John Linnell

Blake spent his final years living with his wife at Fountain Court off the Strand, near to where the Savoy Hotel is situated today. It is reported that on 12th August 1827 Blake was working on his Dante series when he stopped, turned to his wife and insisted he drew her portrait. Afterwards, he sang hymns and recited verses of poetry until 6 pm when, after promising Catherine he would always be with her, he died. Five days later, on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Catherine buried her husband in Bunhill Fields, the same burial ground as his parents.

Catherine continued to sell Blake’s work until her death in October 1831 when an acquaintance took up the job. Although only a mere handful of his works sold during his lifetime, William Blake became posthumously famous and in 1949, the Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour. He is also recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and, in 1957, a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey for both him and his wife.

William Blake is the type of figure whose name is recognised worldwide and yet very few know much about him. His name is associated with various titles of books and poems but knowledge of his private life is less common. Tate Britain rectifies this by providing a chronological timeline of Blake’s life alongside his works. We learn who he was, how he lived, how he thought and what he believed. Although many will disagree with his philosophies and controversial ideas, Blake is an interesting character who is worth knowing about.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain is open until 2nd February 2020. Prices are £18 for adults, £17 for concessions and £5 for 12-18 years olds. Whilst under 12s may visit for free when accompanied by an adult, some of Blake’s work is unsuitable for younger children.

Jewish Britain

Founded in 1932 by Professor Cecil Roth (1899-1970), Alfred Rubens (1903-98) and Wilfred Samuel (1886-1958), The Jewish Museum has one of the world’s finest collections of Judaica. Featuring objects from all areas of Jewish life, the museum in Camden, London explores the public and private lives of communities throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. With both temporary and permanent exhibitions, the museum focuses on Jewish traditions and ceremonies, and the history of Jewish life in Britain: Judaism: A Living Faith and Jewish Britain: A History in 50 Objects.

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Mikveh

Before visitors reach either of the two main galleries, they are introduced to the oldest exhibit in the museum. Built into the floor is a mid-13th-century mikveh, which had been discovered by archaeologists on a London building site in 2001. A mikveh is a type of bath used for ritual cleansing as part of many ceremonies and Jewish traditions. For instance, in Judaism, menstruation is regarded as unclean, therefore, women must visit the mikvah once a month. Men, on the other hand, can have a ritual cleansing before holy occasions, e.g. the Sabbath or an annual festival. The bath is also used prior to marriage, after childbirth and as the closing stage of converting to Judaism.

Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world that is still practised today. The religion can be traced back over 4000 years, as far as the biblical land of Israel. Jewish societies consider themselves to be descendants of Abraham, who established the belief in one God – a belief now shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

As recorded in the Hebrew Bible, King Solomon (c.990-c.931 BCE) built the First Temple in Jerusalem in approximately 960 BCE, which became a religious centre for Jewish people. Centuries later in 586 BCE, the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews were taken into captivity. For the first time, the Jews were moved out of Israel.

Eventually, the Jewish population returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple, however, it resulted in a similar fate. In 70 CE, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans who were in power at the time, resulting in many Jews fleeing the land of Israel in search of safe homes elsewhere. Thus, Judaism began to spread around the world.

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The main teachings of Judaism can be found in the Torah, the first five books (Pentateuch) of the Bible: Genesis (Bəreshit), Exodus (Shəmot), Leviticus (Vayikra), Numbers (Bəmidbar), and Deuteronomy (Dəvarim). These contain 613 commandments that form the basis of the religion. Although Jewish customs have altered over time as they spread themselves out over the world, all Jewish communities use the Hebrew language of the Torah during prayers and celebrations.

On entering Judaism: A Living Faith gallery, visitors come face to face with a Torah scroll attached to 19th-century silver rollers. Scrolls such as these are the most precious object within any Jewish community and are used regularly during services in the synagogue. In traditional Hebrew fashion, the parchment scroll reads from right to left and would have been written by a scribe with a special quill and ink. After production, the scroll is considered to be holy and must not be touched with bare hands. In order to help people read the tiny script, they may use a yad (pointer) to keep their place.

The Jewish Museum owns a large number of Jewish objects from various locations and centuries, however, many of them are used for the same purposes despite the variation in their design. Take, for example, the ornaments that decorate the tops of the Torah rollers. These rimmonim, which literally means pomegranates, are all styled to resemble the fruit. Pomegranates are an important symbol in Judaism due to the misconception in rabbinic tradition that the fruit contains 613 seeds – the same number of commandments. Despite being inspired by the pomegranate, the designers have interpreted this in unique, contrasting ways. Whilst a 19th-century rimmonim from North Africa may be made of wood and decorated with paint, another may be silver and contain a number of bells.

Other objects of various design include spice containers and kiddush cups. Spices, which are used during ceremonies on the Sabbath, are kept in special, decorative containers that are shaped to resemble towers, often inspired by local architecture. An example from Schwäbisch Gmünd in Germany contains illustrations and gems as well as elaborate silver metal work. Similarly, the kiddush cups are also used on the Sabbath and are usually made from silver. An example from 19th-century England, however, was made from the shell of a coconut and carved with biblical scenes and Hebrew verses.

The life of an Observant Jew involves praying three times a day, including the Shema, the most important prayer. In order to say the Shema, which takes place in the morning and evening, a tzitzit (tassels) and tefillin (small boxes) must be worn, and a mezuzah (decorative scroll case) attached to the doorpost. These are items that remind the Jews of God’s presence and examples can be found in the museum.

When a male child is born, he is circumcised at eight days old and named during the ceremony. Baby girls, however, are given their names during a ceremony at the synagogue. The children are brought up to follow strict Jewish rules, for instance, only eating food that is kosher (fit to eat) and to attend the synagogue for the main Sabbath service on a Saturday morning. Later, at the age of thirteen, boys celebrate their barmitzvah (son of the commandment) and, at twelve, girls become batmitzvah. After these ceremonies, they are considered adults and, therefore, are expected to take responsibility for their own faiths.

Marriage ceremonies must also be performed as written in Jewish law. Wedding ceremonies take place under a huppah (canopy), a sheet supported by four poles, and the ketubah (“written thing”; marriage contract) is read and signed. This outlines the rights and responsibilities of the groom in relation to his bride.

Even with death, rules must be followed precisely. The body must be buried as soon as possible – cremation is a big no-no because the body is the “temple of the soul” – and relations must remain at home for a mourning period of seven days (shiva). Due to Jewish customs, the dead are never forgotten. Every year on the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) a memorial prayer is said and a candle is lit.

The main Jewish community centre in the synagogue is where not only prayer and worship occur, but education, celebrations and social events too. Originally based on the Temple in Jerusalem, the architectural appearances of synagogues have altered over time and vary from place to place, however, some things remain consistent. In Britain, synagogues should be built facing east towards Jerusalem and it is forbidden to display images of God within the building.

Another common feature is an Ark, which holds the Torah scrolls, and a ner tamid (eternal light), which hangs above it. The Jewish Museum owns a beautiful example of 17th-century Ark that is believed to have come from a synagogue in Venice. Made from walnut, it is decorated with marbled paintwork and Jewish symbols. A Hebrew inscription at the top reads, “Know before whom you stand.”

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A model of the interior of a synagogue helps visitors visualise Jewish services. This exhibit is child-friendly and people are encouraged to find the Ark, the ner tamid and the bimah (a desk that the Torah scrolls are read from).

Within Judaism, there are different religious groups who follow a mix of traditions. In Orthodox synagogues, the rules are strict: men and women are not allowed to sit together and may be separated by a mechitza (screen); the rabbi is always male. In Reform and Liberal synagogues, however, people are free to sit wherever they choose and, in some instances, the rabbi is female.

Whilst it is the centre of Jewish religion, not all worship takes place in the synagogue. According to the Hebrew Bible, God created the world in six days and “on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” (Genesis 2:2 NIV). The Jews call the seventh day Shabbat (the Sabbath) and believe it is a time of rest for everyone. “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all the work of creating what he had done.” (Genesis 2:3 NIV)

The Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and ends Saturday night. During this time, families and friends come together to relax and pray, often sharing a meal. The museum has set up a table with important objects and place settings so that non-Jewish visitors can get a sense of the peaceful atmosphere that is felt during this time of worship.

As with any religion, there are several Jewish festivals throughout the year. Most of them, at least by name, will be familiar to visitors, however, what they involve and the objects used may not. In the winter, while the majority of the world is preparing for Christmas – a holiday Observant Jews do not partake – Jewish societies are celebrating Hanukah, the winter festival of light. This festival observes the spiritual survival of the Jews under Syrian Greek rule in 165 BCE. Jewish practices were banned and the Greeks began worshipping their own idols in the Temple. In retaliation, a group of Jewish rebel warriors known as the Maccabees fought back and reclaimed the Temple. Naturally, much of the Temple had been damaged, however, the Maccabees were able to find enough oil to keep the menorah (candelabrum) alight for one day. Yet the menorah did not burn out as expected; it lasted for eight days by which time more oil had been sourced.

The Jews remember this miracle by celebrating an eight-day annual festival, which involves candle lighting and prayers every evening. Hanukah lamps, similar in style to the seven-branched menorah in the synagogue, have eight candles to represent the eight days the Maccabee’s menorah stayed alight. Also at this time, children receive gifts and everyone feasts on oily food, for instance, doughnuts and latkes (fried potato pancakes).

In the early spring, the Jewish celebrate Purim in memory of the survival of the Jews in Persia during the 5th-century BCE. As told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish queen of the same name saved her people from the king’s advisor, Haman, who intended to kill all the Jews. Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in the synagogue followed by fancy dress parties, plays and plenty of food and drink.

One of the most important Jewish festivals of the year is Pesach (Passover), which celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery, as told in the Book of Exodus. The well-known story recounts the experience of the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt then, after God sent ten plagues to persuade Pharaoh to free them, were led across the Red Sea by the prophet Moses. The Torah states that this story must be told to each generation, therefore, an eight-day festival is given annually for this purpose. During this time, people eat matzah, a form of unleavened bread, as a reminder of the flatbread the Israelites ate on their journey out of Egypt. During this period, leavened bread (hametz) or any food containing yeast is forbidden.

The history of Jews in Britain begins in roughly 1066 following the Norman invasion, which put William the Conqueror (1028-87) on the throne. The largest Jewish community settled in London, however, the law forbade them from owning land. Many Jews became moneylenders, which was a position that was forbidden to Christians at the time. Despite this, a Jewish name, Manasses, appears in the Domesday Book, a land survey commissioned in 1086.

More Jews arrived in England after the first Crusade, which took place between 1095 and 1099. This was the first attempt by Christians to reclaim the Holy Land. As a result, the Jewish community in London grew and by 1130, the Great Synagogue was founded in the Jewish quarter of London. Unfortunately, there was a lot of hostility towards the Jewish population and in 1144 the first European blood libel occurred in Norwich. By 1190, Jews were being forced to convert to Christianity, however, many decided to commit suicide instead.

Despite King John (1166-1216) granting Jews the right to live in England, he made their lives difficult by imposing huge taxes on their communities. In 1218, Henry III (1207-72) ordered that all Jews should wear a badge (sound familiar?) and attempted to persuade Jews to convert to Christianity. Then, in 1278, hundreds of Jews were accused of coin clipping resulting in the execution of more than 200 people.

By 1290, Edward I (1239-1307) had decreed that all Jews should leave England and have all their property confiscated. Nonetheless, there were still Jews in the country by the time the Tudor monarchs were on the throne. In fact, Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) most trusted physician was Rodrigo Lopez (1517-94), a Portuguese Jew (although he had converted to Catholicism). Unfortunately, he was later accused of treason and hung, drawn and quartered in 1594, an execution that was witnessed by a massive crowd who mocked him for being a Jew. It is believed that Lopez was Shakespeare‘s inspiration for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

It was not until 1656, with England being ruled by parliament, that Jews began to be welcomed back by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), although more for economic reasons than anything else. Nonetheless, the Jewish community once again began to grow, first with an influx of Sephardim Jews (from Spain and Portugal), shortly followed by Ashkenazim Jews (from Germany and Poland).

The end of the 18th-century saw Jews spread over all areas of society. They were particularly popular within the theatres as both performers and managers. Plays were often performed in Yiddish, a language spoken by most Central and Eastern European Jews. Plays ranged from comedies to tragedies, featuring folk tales, stories based on true life and adaptations of Shakespeare. The museum has a number of theatre posters on display as well as the opportunity to dress up in some of the clothing worn at the time, including a top hat.

Of course, Jews still faced discrimination, as did anyone who was not a member of the Church of England. In 1753, the “Jew Bill” allowing Jewish immigrants to become British subjects was repealed due to public outcry, however, protests during the 19th-century changed this. By 1874, Britain had its first Jewish-born Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), although he had converted to Christianity as a child.

Although Jews were finding acceptance in Britain, they were not so lucky in other European countries. In Russia and Poland, Jews were severely restricted in terms of occupation and housing, therefore, many were living in poverty. Due to the violence targetted at them, over two million Jews left their homes to seek a better life, 150,000 of whom arrived on British soil.

Those who already had relatives in Britain were able to move in with their families, however, the majority of the migrants were complete strangers, starving and penniless. As a result, the Jew’s Temporary Shelter was set up in London to provide food and a safe shelter for the immigrants whilst they searched for jobs and homes. The museum has an example of a deed box that Jews were invited to place their valuables for safekeeping.

The Jewish Museum explains how the new arrivals gradually began to fit into British society. Jewish schools and hospitals were set up as well as synagogues, which helped to make the Jews feel more at home in this foreign country. By the outbreak of World War One, the Jewish communities were as patriotic as the rest of the country and as many as 50,000 Jews served within the British armed forces.

War is difficult for everyone, but the Jews who joined the British ranks had another challenge on their hands. Britain was on the same side as Russia, the country many Jews had fled from. This caused friction within Jewish communities, however, the soldiers were welcomed back as heroes. Some of the Jews who fought in the war also received the Victoria Cross for their gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

The 1930s brought more European Jews to England due to the growing power of Nazism in Germany. 10,000 children arrived via Kindertransport, which the Museum had a temporary exhibition about at the beginning of the year (2019). As everyone should know, thousands of Jews lost their lives in Nazi Germany due to the policies of party leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The Holocaust caused the death of 6 million European Jews and it is estimated that in total, 17,000 million people fell victim to the Second World War. A survivor’s account of his time in a concentration camp is the main focus of a small exhibition within the museum.

“We are all human beings, whatever colour or race we are, everybody deserves respect.”
Ann Kirk, Kindertransport refugee

The Jewish Museum may not be on many people’s radar, however, it is an important museum to have in London. Non-religious people tend to shy away from things labelled “Jewish”, not due to discrimination, but because they think it is something only for Jewish people. This museum, however, is for everyone. It provides an eye-opening history of the Jewish religion as well as a shocking record of Jewish life in Britain. Whilst the Holocaust plays a large part in Jewish history, there is so much prior to that of which the majority of the British population will be unaware. There is information in this Museum that will never be taught in schools. After all, it is the winners that write the history books and the Jewish rarely were.

The Jewish Museum can be found in the heart of Camden Town, a mere 3 minutes walk from the underground station in Raymond Burton House, Albert Street. Opening hours are between 10am and 5pm on weekdays, except Friday, which closes at 2pm ready for the Jewish Sabbath. The entry fee is £7.50 for adults, £5.50 concessions and £3.50 for children between the ages of 5 and 16.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

It is not often that people of the past are able to tell their story in their own words, however, thanks to over 180 surviving treasures, predominantly of a written nature, the people of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms narrate their history in an exhibition at the British Library. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War explores over 600 years through surviving books and remarkable finds from excavations around the country. Although many items have not survived the passing of time, beautifully illuminated manuscripts illustrate the ways of life, wars, religions and the beginnings of the English language.

The Anglo-Saxons were migrants from Northern Europe who arrived in England during the 5th and 6th centuries. These Germanic-speaking people arrived in stages and are now combined into three groups: the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes. The term “Anglo-Saxon” did not actually appear until the late 8th century when the bishop of Ostia, travelled to England to attend a church meeting, reporting back to the Pope that he had been to ‘Angul Saxnia’.

 

 

The exhibition begins with two of the earliest remnants of the early settlers of the 5th century. Rather than exposing the way they lived, it explains how they dealt with their dead. Referred to as a Spong Man, an anthropomorphic urn lid reveals that cremation was their predominant custom for disposing of bodies, as does the cremation urn displayed beside it. Found during excavations at Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk, Spong Man is one of many pieces of pottery from the largest known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. The urn, however, was one of over 1800 found in an early medieval cemetery at Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire. It is believed that some of the runes carved into the surface spell out a female name, however, it is unknown as to whether this was a woman of high status. Also, it cannot be sure that the Spong Man indicates the wealth or importance of the owner.

It is likely that these cremation objects would have been a part of a pagan ceremony. Although the Romans had introduced Christianity to England prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the new settlers brought their pagan gods with them, for example, Woden, who may be synonymous with the chief Norse god Odin. Christianity returned to Britain in the 7th century with missionaries from Rome visiting with the intention of converting kings. England was made up of several smaller kingdoms and it is believed that King Æthelberht of Kent was the first to be converted.

 

 

The British Library displays some of the oldest, handwritten documents in existence, including the earliest letter sent from England and the earliest English charter. In the beginning rooms of the exhibition, however, the majority of the documents and manuscripts are religious. Along with Christianity came religious books, which were copied numerous times, each area having its own version. To begin with, only the Gospels were copied, which, although there are only four, would have taken a long time to write out by hand. On display are the St Augustine Gospels, the earliest Durham Gospel Book, the Echternach Gospels, the St Chad Gospels, the Bury Gospels, the Trinity Gospels and the Grimbald Gospels, to name a few.

All of these Gospels are rare and it is lucky that they have survived as far as the 21st century. Many have been lost during wars and invasions or during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Others have been destroyed by fire, for example, during the Cotton Library fire in 1731 once owned by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571–1631), to whom the British Library collection is indebted. In some instances, parts of books were salvaged, as can be seen in the exhibition, although rather singed at the edges.

Sir Robert Bruce Cotton’s library was the richest private collection of manuscripts ever accumulated, surpassing even the Royal Library. One of the most well-known treasures in his collection, at least by name, was the Lindisfarne Gospels, now owned by the British Library. It is believed that these were the first English translation of the Gospels and remain to be the most spectacular manuscript to survive. It is believed that they were written and illustrated by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, also called Holy Island, off the northeast coast of England between 698-721 AD. It contains all four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; as well as other traditional sections included in medieval texts, such as letters of St Jerome. As well as being an example of Anglo-Saxon religious texts, it is a phenomenal work of art with numerous illuminations, illustrations and coloured patterns on every page.

Another notable manuscript that may hail from Lindisfarne is the St Cuthbert Gospel. This was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert (d. 687) the bishop of Lindisfarne when it was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104. It is the oldest European book with its original binding intact and is thought to have been produced during the 8th century. Containing only the Gospel of St John, the small book has a wooden cover wrapped in red goats skin, decorated with a geometric pattern. In the centre of the front cover, a motif of a stylised vine sprouting from a chalice, which mirrors Mediterranean Christian imagery, represents the well-known verse “I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5)

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Codex Amiatinus

Of all the religious texts in the exhibition, there is none as impressive as the Codex Amiatinus. This is the first complete Bible to be written in Latin, containing both the Old and New Testaments. Originally, three were produced in the early 8th century but only one survives in full.

Those who see the Codex Amiatinus on display at the British Library will be impressed by its remarkable size. Made from 1030 pages, 515 of which have been identified as animal skin, it is over 1 and a half feet (49cm) high with a weight of over 75 pounds (34 kg). Historians initially believed it was an Italian book, however, it has since been proven to have been produced in England during the 8th century. In 716, Abbot Ceolfrith took this volume to Rome, intending it as a gift to the shrine of Peter the Apostle. Since then, until this exhibition, it has been looked after at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

 

 

For knowledge about the first half of the Anglo-Saxon period in England, historians rely strongly upon one particular manuscript. This is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed by the Venerable Bede in 731. Bede (673-735), also known as St Bede, was the greatest scholar of the time, who produced a number of works on a variety of subjects. Due to this particular publication, of which the British Library has a few examples, Bede is often regarded as the father of English history.

Modelled on the Ecclesiastical History by the Greek Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (260/265 – 339/340 CE), Bede tells the story of the development of Christianity in England beginning with the arrival of St Augustine in Kent in 597. He also explains the attempts to convert the kings of other areas, including Mercia, Sussex and Northumbria, thus painting a picture of the landscape and kingdoms of Britain.

Bede acknowledges that he referred to other sources (now lost) to write about the years long before he was born, however, no one can be certain of the accuracy of his account. Whilst Bede was ahead of his time in stating that the world was not flat but rather a globe, he also assumed the Earth was the centre of the universe. Nonetheless, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is one of the only written evidence of life during the Anglo-Saxon period, and it is thanks to the survival of his work that knowledge of that era can be ascertained.

 

 

 

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History also notes the changes in fortunes of the English kingdoms. By the mid-600s, Northumbria, which encompassed a large part of northern England, was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom. This period of time is referred to by the British Library as Northumbria’s “Golden Age”, however, by the early 8th century, things were beginning to change. With an aspirational king, Æthelbald, the kingdom of Mercia displaced Northumbria from its position as most powerful. Æthelbald went as far as to name himself “king of Britain”, although he did not have control of the whole of the British isle.

Mercia continued to sustain its supremacy throughout the 8th century, particularly during the reign of King Offa from 757 until 796. Offa was responsible for the building of a dyke fortification along the border of Wales, to keep the Welsh tribes out of England plus conquered other parts of the country, including Kent, Sussex and East Anglia. He also reintroduced the coinage system to Britain, such as the gold dinar and silver penny the Library has on display.

Unfortunately, the great efforts of King Offa were threatened by rival kingdoms and the hostile Vikings from Scandinavia who had begun raiding England in the 790s. As a result, much of East Anglia, Mercia and Northumberland became under the rule of Guthrum, the leader of the Danes. Nevertheless, the West and South Saxons consolidated their power under the leadership of King Alfred, perhaps one of the most recognised of the Anglo-Saxon kings – mostly due to the legend that he burnt some cakes! A jewel belonging to the king is on display in the exhibition. It is inscribed “ÆFLRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN” which translates as “Alfred ordered me to be made.”

During Alfred the Great’s reign (871-899), a peace treaty was agreed with the Vikings that England would be divided into two parts: the north and east would belong to them and the south and west to the Anglo-Saxons. At this time, Guthrum was persuaded to convert to Christianity and took the name Æthelstan at his baptism.

Æthelstan was also the name of Alfred’s grandson who reigned from 924-939. Initially, he was the king of the Anglo-Saxon section of the country, however, after the death of the Viking ruler in 927, he took back Northumbria and claimed land in south Scotland, making him the first “king of the English”. In Bede’s manuscript Life of Saint Cuthbert, Æthelstan is illustrated presenting a book to the saint. This is the earliest surviving representation of a king, thus the first royal portrait.

 

 

Whilst the Codex Amiatinus mentioned earlier is the most impressive manuscript in the exhibition, it is without a doubt that the Ruthwell Cross is the most remarkable non-book object. Although some may be disappointed that it is a digitally cut replica rather than the real thing, it is one of the best examples of Hiberno-Saxon art – a style that thrived after the departure of the Romans.

The original, found in the village of Ruthwell, Scotland, is a stone cross that reaches over five metres in height and is elaborately carved with scenes from the life of Christ. Although there are some debates about what these scenes are, most agree that they show characters such as Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and Christ himself. One carving may represent one of Jesus’ miracles, the healing of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52).

Believed to have been made in the 8th century, the cross features an unusual mix of Latin and Old English runes. Whilst it is odd to find both languages on the stone, the use of runes on a Christian monument was extremely rare. The runes spell out of a version of The Dream of the Rood, one of the oldest surviving Old English poems, which tells the story of the crucifixion of Christ from the perspective of the tree cut down to make the cross to which Christ was nailed. A written copy of this can be found in the late-10th-century Vercelli Book displayed nearby.

 

 

“At the present moment, there are the languages of five peoples in Britain … English, British, Irish and Pictish, as well as Latin.”
– Bede

Religious books were not the only genre written during the Anglo-Saxon period. As the English language developed, more people were learning to read and write. Poetry was inspired by the multicultural and multilingual societies and made easier to write with the introduction of the Roman alphabet. Although parchment was expensive, people were able to practice writing on whale-bone tablets. These were covered in wax and scratched into with a bone stylus.

In one display cabinet is an example of an Anglo-Saxon glossary, a precursor of the modern dictionary. Unlike the older books in the collection, the Old English language is written in the new alphabet and is, therefore, legible. The first word on the opened page is “anser”, which is the Old English for “goose”. This is followed by “anguila” meaning “eel”.

Surviving in full, although undated, Beowulf is the longest epic poem written in Old English. Judging by the handwriting, it is thought to have been written in the late-10th or early-11th century, however, its author remains unknown. Consisting of more than 3000 lines, Beowulf tells the story of its eponymous hero as he battles with a monster named Grendel and a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure. The manuscript in the British Library is extremely fragile as a result of being exposed to the flames of the fire at Cottons Library and poor handling during the following years. A brief audio clip of Beowulf is available to listen to during the exhibition.

As well as literature, there was a growing interest in the natural sciences, although no Old English word exists for this topic. It was a branch of scholarship that combined religion with the order of the universe. As early as the 7th century, people were looking up at the stars and contemplating what was out there. In De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things),  Isidore of Seville (d. 636) sought to combat superstition by offering explanations for natural phenomena, for instance, the planets of the solar system, as shown in one manuscript. This shows the ‘position of the seven wandering stars … called planets by the Greeks’ – the moon, Mercury, Lucifer, ‘which is also called Venus’, Vesper (or Mars), Foeton, ‘which they call Jupiter’, and Saturn – which all rotate around the Earth.

Most scientific texts were not written in England but imported from the continent and translated into Old English. These included books of remedies, particularly herbal remedies, which was the basis of medieval medicine. An example shown in the exhibition is lavishly illustrated with paintings of plants and animals, although these are not accurate enough to identify specific species.

“Books are glorious … they gladden every man’s soul.”
Solomon and Saturn, 10th Century

Naturally, books are the prominent feature of exhibitions at the British Library and it is through these that the major changes of Anglo-Saxon Britain can be determined. Religion remained a key theme throughout the exhibition, starting with the various versions of the Gospels as previously mentioned. After the conversion of the kings in the 7th century, the country became a deeply religious area, which helped to influence and strengthen the power of future kings.

King Edgar (959-75), the great-grandson of Alfred the Great, used the rising religious standards to his benefit. In control of the entire kingdom of the English, Edgar took the opportunity to reform and improve religious standards. Adopting the Rule of Saint Benedict written in the 6th century by Benedict of Nursia (480–550), Edgar reformed the way abbeys and monasteries functioned, for instance, separating monks and nuns into different establishments. As a result, the monasteries and nunneries began to prosper and become quite powerful.

“Nothing has gone well for a long time now … there has been harrying and hunger, burning and bloodshed.”
– Archbishop Wulfton

Whilst England was a wealthy and organised kingdom during the reign of King Edgar, its time of prosperity was not to last. The 980s brought more Viking raiders to the country and warfare was once again underway. As Archbishop Wulfton noted in The Sermon of the Wulf (1009), of which an audio excerpt is available, things were not going well for the Anglo-Saxons. By 1016, England had been conquered by Cnut (990-1035), the King of Denmark, who expanded his empire to include Norway and parts of Sweden. Cnut was a ruthless ruler and disposed of many of the aristocrats and governors of England, however, he allowed previous English laws to continue and supported the Church. He is most famous for the disputed tale that he set his throne on the seashore and commanded the tide to turn, which, of course, it did not.

After Cnut’s death in 1035, two of his sons, Harold and Harthacnut, had short reigns, eventually leading to the return of the royal English bloodline in the form of Edward the Confessor (1003-1066), the son of Aethelred II. Most people will know about the reign of King Edward, Harold Godwinson, the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror (1028-1087), and the Library mentions very little about the period.

 

The Coronation of William the Conqueror brought the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons to an end, however, the exhibition could not close without the inclusion of one of the most famous books in history. At the end of 1085, William ordered a detailed survey of his kingdom, which, completed seven months later, revealed the names of landholders, settlements and assets of England. Titled the Domesday Book, a total of 31 counties were accounted for and 13,418 settlements recorded. A brief video provided by the British Library explains the importance of this book and how it offers a snapshot of the wealth and landscape of the late Anglo-Saxons.

The British Library has made excellent use of all the surviving books to paint a mental picture of English life between the 6th and 12th century. Amongst the books are remains of ancient artefacts discovered during excavations, for instance, the Burnham and the Staffordshire hoards.

Dubbed “by some distance, the most significant exhibition in London,” by the Evening Standard, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms surpasses expectations. Rather than being a display of books that most people can’t read due to the Old English language, it is a concise history of the Anglo-Saxons and an insight into how the world we experience today stems from the events of so many centuries ago.  The exhibition will appeal to a wide range of people from academics to those with a little interest in English history, although, it may not be overly exciting for young children.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will remain open until Tuesday 19th February 2019. Full price tickets cost £16, however, concessions are available. Members of the British Library can view the exhibition for free.

Christian Angelology​

Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying: “Glory in the heights above to God, and on earth peace among men of goodwill.
Luke 2:13-14

What are angels? A supernatural being found in various religions and mythologies? A humanoid of extraordinary beauty? A creature with wings and a halo? Something that is only seen at Christmas time in Nativity plays, cards and decorations? A guardian? A myth? The term angel has become so commonplace in the English language that it has almost lost its religious heritage. Today, the term “you’re an angel,” is often heard when someone performs a favour, whereas, in reality, they are merely human. So, what are angels?

The word angel derives from the Late Latin word angelusliterally meaning messenger, which in turn had derived from the Greek aggelos. In religion, particularly Christianity, the term was used to describe the celestial beings who acted as emissaries between God or Heaven and mankind.

The Christian idea of angels was inherited from Judaism, with Michael (who is like God), Gabriel (God is my strength) and Raphael (it is God who heals) being the most well-known in both the Abrahamic religious and secular world. Angels also appear in Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Neoplatonism, although, with slightly different manifestations.

“Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air.”
– Christina Rossetti

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The Assumption of the Virgin – Francesco Botticini

Angels in Judaism are categorised into ten hierarchies, the more important being in the top ranks. Likewise, Christianity has adopted this idea of a hierarchy, splitting the angels into three groups of three. This Christian angelic hierarchy was initially put forward by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (5th-6th century), an ancient theologian and philosopher, in his book De Coelesti Hierarchia (On the Celestial Hierarchy). This work inspired many scholars throughout the middle ages and medieval period to expand upon the idea of angel orders or “Angelic Choirs”, suggesting alternative classifications.

When writing De Coelesti Hierarchia, Pseudo-Dionysius referred to passages from the New Testament, as did Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), an Italian Dominican friar and Catholic priest, when tackling the same subject in his work Summa Theologica. Whilst the New Testament is fairly quiet on the hierarchy of angels, both writers used passages, such as Colossians 1:16, to develop a schema of three Spheres of angels, each comprising of three Orders or Choirs.

“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”
– Colossians 1:16 (NIV)

Due to the subject of angelology coming from sources outside of the Bible, not all Churches believe or accept Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas’ proposed hierarchy. It is viewed on a similar level to the communio sanctorum or the communion of saints, which is mostly associated with Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, the nine orders of angels are generally agreed upon, as recognised by Pope Gregory I (540-604) at the end of the 6th century:

  1. Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;
  2. Dominations, Virtues, and Powers;
  3. Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

 

 

Naturally, the first sphere contains the angels who are closest to God – those who serve as his heavenly servants. The first two orders, Seraphim and Cherubim are the most recognised titles throughout Christianity and beyond, mostly thanks to the popular Christmas poem-cum-carol In the Bleak Midwinter. Yet, what these terms mean remains a mystery to many.

Seraphim, meaning burning ones, are the highest order of angels and serve as caretakers of the Throne of God. The Seraphim or Seraphs are mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible in Isaiah 6:1-7. In a vision of the Lord, the prophet saw the Seraphim hovering above God chanting, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Interestingly, Isaiah’s description of their appearance goes against contemporary manifestations of the heavenly beings. “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.” (Isaiah 6:2 NIV)

Pseudo-Dyonisius maintained that Seraphim aided God to sustain perfect order, purifying those on Earth with their ” burning and all-consuming flame”. Around the throne of God, there is no day or night, the light comes from God himself and his Seraphim whose “radiant and enlightening power” dispell and destroy the “shadows of darkness”.

Another early Christian scholar and theologian, Origen of Alexandria (184-253), also wrote on the topic of Seraphim. In his treatise, On First Principles, Origen argues that the angels described in the Book of Isaiah are in fact physical representations of the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. As a result, he concludes the Seraphim are privy to the knowledge of God, thus elevating them to the top tier of angels.

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Putto on building in Ptuj, Slovenia

Whereas Cherubim are ranked ninth (second from bottom) in Jewish angelic hierarchy, Christianity places them directly below the Seraphim. Of all heavenly beings, Cherubs are mentioned the most in the Hebrew Bible and are traditionally believed to be the guardians of the Garden of Eden. “After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24 NIV)

Cherubim are highly revered throughout the Bible, for instance, God considered them important enough to feature as gold statuettes on either side of the cover of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:17-22). Carvings and statues of cherubim feature in the “Most Holy Place” mentioned in 2 Chronicles 3:7-14 (NIV) as well as in the sanctuary described in 1 Kings 6:23-28. It is also believed that Satan came from the Cherubim order before his fall from grace.

The physical appearance of Cherubim is written in the Book of Ezekiel and, similarly to Seraphim, go against contemporary conceptions. According to Ezekiel, the Cherubim were completely covered in eyes, both on their bodies and their wings, of which they have six, as Revelation 4:8 suggests.

“Each creature had four faces. The first was the face of a bull, the second a human face, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.” (Ezekiel 10:12-14 GNT) Whilst this sounds rather grotesque, it is said that each face has a particular purpose to represent the four dominions of God’s rule: domestic animals, humanity, wild animals and birds. These faces have since been adopted as symbols of the four Gospels: Luke, Matthew, Mark and John respectively.

In the western world, Cherubim have incorrectly become associated with putti or “baby angels”. Putti also derived from the classical Roman god Cupid, who was traditionally portrayed with a slender, youthful body. Putti can be typically found in figurative art, both with and without wings, in the form of small, plump male baby- or toddler-like beings.

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The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne – William Blake

The third order in the first sphere are the Thrones, however, there is some discrepancy as to who or what they are. Christian theologians describe them as adoring elder men who listen to the will of God and the prayers of men. These same theologians believe that the twenty-four men mentioned in the final book of the Bible come from the order of Thrones: “Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.” (Revelation 4:4 NIV)

Not including this verse in the book of Revelation, there is only one direct mention of Thrones in the Bible. Paul the Apostle writes about the Thrones in his letter to the Colossians: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16 NIV). There is, however, no physical description.

The idea that the twenty-four elders are Thrones has become generally accepted, however, some writers have other views. Rosemary Ellen Guiley (b.1950) is one of a handful who associates Thrones with Ophanim or Wheels mentioned in Ezekiel 10:16: “When the cherubim moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the cherubim spread their wings to rise from the ground, the wheels did not leave their side.” (NIV)

“The ‘thrones’; also known as ‘ophanim’ (offanim) and ‘galgallin’, are creatures that function as the actual chariots of God driven by the cherubs. They are characterized by peace and submission; God rests upon them. Thrones are depicted as great wheels containing many eyes, and reside in the area of the cosmos where material form begins to take shape. They chant glorias to God and remain forever in his presence. They mete out divine justice and maintain the cosmic harmony of all universal laws.”
– Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Encyclopedia of Angels (1996)

There is, however, very little evidence to support this argument, the strongest being that the Cherubim and their wheels carry the throne of God according to chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel. As a result, tradition states that Thrones are a separate body of angels from the Cherubim and are not purely material beings.

The angels in the Second Sphere, who work as heavenly governors of God’s creation, are much more difficult to comprehend and find Biblical evidence for their existence. The first of this trio is known as both Dominions or Lordships, which is also mentioned in Colossians 1:16 alongside Thrones: “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (ESV) The only other Biblical reference is in Ephesians: “Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come.” (1:21 KJV)

Depending on the translation of the Bible, Dominions or Lordships are sometimes not mentioned at all but when they are, their title depends on whether the text was derived from the Latin or Greek version. Dominions derive from the Latin dominationes, whereas Lordships stem from the Greek term kyriotēs.

Some theologians claim that Dominions look like divinely beautiful humans with a pair of feathered wings, much like the kind seen on Christmas cards, however, they rarely make themselves physically known to humans. Some claim the Dominions or Lords carry glowing orbs on the end of their sceptres or the pommels of their swords, but where this suggestion came from is unknown.

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The Virtues, late 15th century stained glass panels

The second order in the Second Sphere is Virtues or Strongholds. These also appear in chapter 1 verse 21 of Ephesians, however, in some translations are also referred to as powers. Aquinas opted to use the term Virtues in his Summa Theologica. 

Pseudo-Dionysius also wrote about the Virtues, stating that they signify “a certain powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their Godlike energies.” They are strong in character and never succumb to weakness, always having their sights set on the “Source of Virtue.” Little else has been recorded about this angelic order.

The final order in the Second Sphere is Powers or Authorities, not to be confused with the powers mentioned in some translations of Ephesians 21:1. Stemming from the Latin potestates and Greek exousiathis order is introduced briefly in Ephesians 3:10: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (NIV)

It is thought that the purpose of the Powers is to maintain order throughout the cosmos, supervising the movements of celestial bodies and making sure everything remains in order. Represented as soldiers wearing full armour and helmets, the Powers or Authorities use their shields, spears or chains to fight off evil spirits, particularly ones that threaten the equilibrium of God’s creation.

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The Principalities, late 15th century stained glass panels

The third and final sphere of angels contains those that act as heavenly guides, protectors, and messengers to humans. Whilst these are the lower ranks of angels, at least two of the orders are more familiar in today’s world.

The first, however, is as obscure as those of the Second Sphere. These are the Principalities or Rulers, sometimes referred to as Princedoms. Biblical acknowledgement of the order appears in both Ephesians 1:21 and Ephesians 3:10, along with those previously mentioned.

Principalities are responsible for the protection and guidance of nations or large groups of people, for instance, the Church. They are depicted wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre and follow instructions given to them by the upper sphere angels. As well as overseeing groups of people, these tasks involve bequeathing blessings upon the Earth. The Principalities or Rulers are also known as the educators and guardians of the people on Earth, often inspiring the study of the arts or sciences.

 

The second order of angels in the Third Sphere is perhaps the most famous: the Archangels. The name comes from the Greek archangelos, which translates into English as chief angel, which considering they come so low down the ranks, is a rather peculiar title.  The word only appears twice in the New Testament and, despite what many believe, only one archangel is named.

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”
– 1 Thessalonians 4:16

The named Archangel is Michael who appears in Jude 1:9, Revelation 12:7-9 and Daniel 12:1. In the latter, Daniel is informed that Michael will appear at the “time of the end”, i.e. the apocalypse, and in Revelation, Michael’s fight with Satan is recorded in a description of a war in heaven. In Jude, Michael is also recorded confronting Satan:  “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!'” (NIV)

Another named Archangel is Raphael, who is written about in the Book of Enoch. This book, however, is not included in Christian canons and, therefore, Raphael is not officially a Biblical character. He also appears in the Book of Tobit, however, since this book is deuterocanonical, it also does not count as a Biblical reference.

In Enoch 10:4-6, Raphael is recorded defeating the fallen angel Azazel: “And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert …'”

The most famous story about Raphael is recorded in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. The Archangel appears to Tobiah, the son of Tobit disguised in the human form of “Azarias the son of the great Ananias.” Tobiah is on an errand for his blind father and Raphael keeps him company on the journey, protecting him in many ways, including defeating a demon in an Egyptian desert. The archangel only reveals himself as “the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord,” (Tobit 12:15) after healing the blind Tobit later in the story.

Uriel is another of the named Archangels, however, is only mentioned in the second apocryphal book of Esdras, therefore, most Christians dismiss him as a Biblical angel. Uriel, whose name means Light of God, is sometimes listed as a Cherub and, according to Abbot Anscar Vonier (1875-1938) stands at the Gate of Eden with a fiery sword.

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Virgin of the Rocks – Leonardo da Vinci

The angel in Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) painting Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6), which shows Christ and his mother being reunited with John the Baptist after their flight to Egypt, is thought to be Archangel Uriel. Some Christian sources claim that Uriel rescued Jesus’ cousin John and his mother, Elizabeth, from the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by King Herod.

Some Christians may argue that Michael is not the only Archangel mentioned in the Bible. The other is Gabriel, meaning God is my Strength, however, he is never referred to as an Archangel in the passages in which he features.

The most famous reference to Gabriel occurs in the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament making him a fundamental character in the Christmas story – and, therefore, the key reason for the cute, white-winged angels on Christmas cards. The angel Gabriel first appears to Zechariah, revealing the prophecy that he will have a son: John the Baptist. The second appearance occurs in Luke 1:26-38, in which similar news is delivered to Mary, telling her that she will have a baby.

“And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women … thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”
Luke 1:28-31 KJV

Due to the lack of the word Archangel in reference to Gabriel, some people believe he is only an Angel, the lowest of the ranks and the final order of the Third Sphere. Frustratingly, it is not certain why this order is named Angels, also the umbrella term for the entire three spheres, which can make explaining Christian Angelology rather confusing.

These Angels, or malakhim as they are known in Hebrew, whilst the “plain” angels, are the most recognised in the Bible. They are mentioned in numerous book of the Bible, including Psalms, Colossians and Hebrews. “Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2 GNT)

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Kristus i Getsemane – Carl Bloch

Angels of the third sphere variety are the ones who have the most contact with the affairs of men. Often, they are sent to Earth with messages, hence the belief that Gabriel is not an Archangel. They are also sent to guide and support people, for example, the angel who comforted Jesus in Luke 22:43 during the Agony in the Garden.

It is from this realm of angels that the idea of Guardian Angels has arisen. Those who believe in Guardian Angels claim that everyone has been assigned one, regardless of their religious affiliations. Although belief in Guardian Angels can be traced back to antiquity, there is no Biblical evidence of their existence.

So, in answer to the opening question – what are angels? – they are a lot of things. So many things that it requires around 3000 words to fully explain. There is no straightforward answer. One thing for certain is that they are not all the white-robed, feathery-winged, halo-wearing creatures in paintings, literature, Christmas ornaments, and so forth, however, it is much easier to imagine them as such, particularly at this time of year – Merry Christmas.

Christmas Card 2018

Christmas Card designed by me

Barking Abbey

“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!”
– Genesis 28:16

Citing from Bishop John Inge’s book A Christian Theology of Place, the Right Reverend Dr Trevor Mwamba opens his Barking Abbey guidebook welcome letter with “The place in which we stand is often taken for granted and ignored in our increasingly mobile society.” Over recent years, the demographics of London areas, particularly the East End, has rapidly evolved from locally-born people to a population made up of people from all areas of the world. As a result, the history of the towns and cities of Britain are gradually fading into obscurity. An example of this can be found in the ethnically diverse town Barking; once home to one of the most important nunneries in the country, Barking Abbey, the commercialised town has almost forgotten its former roots.

Situated at one end of Barking Town Centre Market, St Margaret’s Church, dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch (289-304 AD), was originally built within the grounds of the former royal monastery, Barking Abbey. It originated as a chapel for the local people, its oldest section being the chancel built during the reign of King John (1166-1216), eventually becoming a parish church in approximately 1300. The abbey itself, however, is thought to have been founded as far back as 666 AD.

Most of what remains of Barking Abbey is the buried layout on the north side of the church, now named Abbey Green, some of which has been reconstructed. Fortunately, one part of the abbey survives intact. This is the Curfew Tower that was once one of the abbey’s three gateways. Built in 1460, many repairs have kept the Grade II listed building standing, a remnant of the past. On the upper storey, a small chapel can be accessed up a set of stairs, although, this is not used so often nowadays.

Historically, Barking was once a fishing and farming area, as remembered in many of St Margaret’s stained glass windows. A window on the east side, however, depicts a traditional Crucifixion scene flanked by two saints, St Cedd (right) and St Erkenwald, the founder of the abbey (left). In the 7th century, Erkenwald founded two monasteries, one for himself in Surrey and one for his sister Ethelburga. These abbeys were intended to re-introduce Christianity to the British Isles. Whilst Christianity had been made legal during Roman rule in the 4th century, it had begun to fall out of favour.

Ethelburga, later Saint Ethelburga, became the first abbess of Barking Abbey with the intention “to be a mother and nurse of devout women.” (Bede, 731 AD) Ethelburga was a holy, upright woman, constantly concerned for those under her care. Later, she founded the church All Hallows Berkyngechirche (now known as All Hallows by the Tower) in 675.

Barking Abbey was initially a double monastery of nuns and monks who shared the church whilst living in separate quarters. Later, in the 10th century, all double houses were reformed into single-sex abbeys. For the next couple of centuries, many abbesses were appointed by the kings of England, for instance, Matilda of Boulogne (1105-52), wife of King Stephen (c1092-1154), and King Henry II’s (1133-89) daughter, Matilda (1156-89). This ended in 1214 when the Pope insisted the nuns should be allowed to elect their own abbess.

After the Norman conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror (1028-87) took refuge at Barking Abbey whilst he constructed the Tower of London. It is thought the king may have fled here after unfortunate misunderstandings during his coronation. Later, the abbey also became the holding place of Elizabeth de Clare (1295-1360), who was forced to surrender some of her property to Hugh Despenser the younger (1286-1326).

As with all abbeys, monasteries and so forth, Barking Abbey succumbed to Henry VIII’s (1419-1547) Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Following this, the abbey was gradually demolished until only the Curfew Tower remained standing.  A lot of the building’s material was reused, for instance, to repair the roof of Greenwich Palace and to construct a new manor for the king in Dartford, Kent.

ees11608Due to its almost complete destruction, it is not altogether certain what the layout of Barking Abbey was, however, many rooms have been identified during recent excavations. The abbey’s main church sat at the heart of the site, its size similar to a cathedral: 103 x 30.5 metres (337 x 100 feet).

As well as the church, various chapels would have been found in the abbey, including the one that has been developed into St Margaret’s Church. Three grave slabs, attributed to the abbesses St Etherlburga, St Hildelith and St Wulfhilda, mark the position of the Saints Chapel. Other rooms, including cloisters, parlours, dormitories and the Reredorter have also been identified.

There are so many buildings that have not been excavated and have since been built upon. It is thought that the land belonging to Barking Abbey stretched as far as the River Roding, a tributary of the Thames, as shown in a drawing by Sir Charles Nicholson (1867-1949) based upon an original sketch produced in 1500.

St Margaret’s Church was fortunate to survive the Reformation and remained a parish church when the abbey was dissolved. Throughout the years, changes have been made to the building, including the plastering of the ceilings during the 18th century. The building was grade I listed in 1954 and has since been extended to house an office and refectory.

45150956_250210462310684_4637149440711327744_nWithin the church are a number of items that help to preserve the memory of the abbey and the history of the land and building since the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Remnants of floor tiles from the original abbey are conserved in a glass display cabinet. From these, the quality and appearance of the masonry can be appreciated.

Other discoveries are also kept in this case, for instance, a Breeches Bible, which predates the King James Bible by approximately 50 years. This was a variation of the primary Bible of 16th-century English Protestantism and would have been read and used by people such as Shakespeare (1565-1616) and Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). It was the first mechanically printed, mass-produced Bible in England, thus the first made available to the general public. The reason for its name, Breeches Bible, is the wording of verse 7 in Genesis 3:

“Then the eies of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.”

The King James Bible, printed in 1611, changed the word “breeches” to “apron”.

dsc00485Also within the display cabinet are examples of more recent histories and gifts given to the church. One of these is a book of paintings presented in 2004 by local artist George Emmerson. For a decade, Emmerson had been producing watercolours of St Margaret’s Church, the Curfew Tower and grounds, of which this was the final result. He gave it as a gift to the church as a means of saying thank you for the kindness and help shown to him and it “is a tribute to the clergy and the many people who do voluntary work to keep the church alive and prosperous.”

St Margaret’s also pays tribute to the explorer Captain James Cook (1728-99) who was married to his wife, Elizabeth Batts (1742-1835) in the church on 21st December 1762. This year, 2018, has been a significant year for remembering Cook’s first voyage of exploration to the Pacific Ocean upon HMS Endeavour, which set sail 250 years ago. The church holds copies of newspapers about Cook’s demise in Hawaii and copies of the Marriage Register showing James and Elizabeth’s entry.

The church building itself is crammed full of history, from architecture to objects within the sanctuary. Although many renovations and extensions have occurred over the years, remnants of old decor can be seen in one corner of the ceiling where little cherub faces peer down at the congregation.

The timber beams and design of the roof over the North Aisle, which was built around the late 15th or 16th century, suggests the involvement of local ship-wrights. The Norman pillars in this section may have been taken from the abbey and the windows would have once been a traditional medieval style. In 1771, the windows were replaced with Georgian versions but the ones in place today were added in the 20th century.

Many bodies have been interred under the flagstones, which, unfortunately, are inevitably becoming illegible the more they are walked over. Some are now covered up by carpets and it is impossible to tell how many people are buried in total, nor their names. There are records of some of the people, for instance, William Pownsett whose tomb is more prominent. In his will, he asked, “to be buryed yn our lady chaple next unto my pew at Barking.”

On the walls around the building are monuments to those who had significant connections with the church. Some are more elaborate than others, a few including busts of the deceased. An impressive monument to Captain John Bennett (d.1716) remembers a wealthy man who became a captain in the Royal Navy at a young age. Another, featuring a skull, remembers the life of Sarah Fleming (d. 1715). Francis Fuller (d.1637), an official of the Exchequer who owned a number of estates in the parish of Barking is remembered in a monument featuring his bust in an oval niche.

During excavations of the abbey in 1912, an incised stone slab was unearthed in the Nun’s Cemetery. As well as words, it features an etching of a man named Martinus who was the first vicar of Barking from 1315 to 1328. This memorial stone is now kept in the sanctuary safe from the effects of harsh weather conditions that could permanently damage the inscription.

When renovations began in the late 1920s and 30s, George Jack (1855-1931) an architect, wood carver, stained glass artist and furniture designer for Morris & Co, became involved with the repair work. Jack was responsible for the fisherman’s stained glass window as well as a couple of memorial tablets and a pair of candelabra. For the Youth Chapel, Jack carved eight wooden figures of people with some association to the church. As well as two fishermen, these include James Cook, Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), St Ethelburga, St Nicholas, St James and St John. They are still in remarkable condition today.

dsc00465On the Youth Chapel screen below the wooden figures is a contemporary painting by the artist Alan Stewart, which was unveiled by the Bishop of Barking in 2005. Titled Early in the Morning, the painting shows a black Christ in 21st-century clothing surrounded by disciples from a range of ethnic origins. This is to reflect on the diverse population of Barking and those who worship at St Margaret’s Church. The scene depicts Jesus serving breakfast to his disciples by the side of Lake Galilee as told in John 21 after his resurrection.

At the rear of the church is an octagonal stone font with a decorated wooden lid. This was painted during the renovations in the early 20th century. George Jack employed his daughter Jessie to help to paint his design onto the cover. Each of the eight segments features a bird and flowers on a blue background. Around the rim, carefully painted letters spell out the phrase “God hath given to us eternal life and this life is in his son”.

45192226_188526105356556_497570805895397376_nThe font, stained glass windows and wooden figurines are some of the most attractive objects in St Margaret’s Church, however, one carving often gets overlooked. In fact, people who attend services for years do not always notice it unless it has been deliberately pointed out.

At the end of each wooden pew is a distinctive carved design that, in some way, resemble leaves or a plant. Due to the similarities between each one, it is easy to miss the intriguing design at the end of one particular pew. Taking the same shape as all the others, this one features the heads of two dogs. The meaning of the carving is unknown but it is thought it could be a family’s coat of arms. This suggests that at one time wealthy members of the congregation may have paid to have their own pew where they would sit during every service they attended.

Although St Margaret’s Church may be tiny in comparison to the original Barking Abbey, its elaborate decor, architecture and age make it stand out from other churches in the area, particularly the more contemporary. It has also had a large share of notable clergymen, many of whom eventually became bishops. Even today’s vicar was once the Bishop of Botswana.

The Right Reverend Hensley Henson (1863-1947) was one of the many significant clergymen associated with St Margaret’s. Ordained in 1888, Henson was the vicar until 1895 when he became chaplain of an ancient hospice in Ilford. He was only 25, the youngest vicar in the country, when he joined the church, putting him in charge of an ever-growing working-class parish, whose population then stood at 12,000. Undaunted, Henson made a favourable impression on the congregation, a colleague later stating: “He came six months ago to a parish dead – 250 a good congregation in the church; and now, when he preaches, every seat is filled – 1100!”

St Margaret’s was only the beginning of Henson’s career; by 1900 he was appointed canon of Westminster Abbey. In 1917, he became Bishop of Hereford and it was only another three years before he also became the Bishop of Durham. During his final years, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) persuaded Henson out of retirement to resume his position as Canon of Westminster Abbey. It is said that Churchill was impressed with Henson’s strong views on ecclesiastical matters and his support of the Church of England.

Other vicars of St Margaret’s have gone on to be bishops including the Scottish Painter George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931), who went on to become Bishop of Sheffield, and William Chadwick (1905-1991) and James Roxburgh (1921-2007) who were both Bishop of Barking.

Today, St Margaret’s Church continues to welcome friends and strangers, inviting everyone to various services throughout the week and on Sundays. Visitors and regulars are also encouraged to enjoy tea, coffee, cakes and lunches in their cafe. Surrounded by a graveyard and the remains of Barking Abbey, the church is a beautiful, peaceful place to visit, both outside and within. It truly is a place of history and religion worthy of being used and remembered. It is thanks to places such as St Margaret’s that local history is recognised and commemorated.

Sunday Services:
8:30am – Said Eucharist
11am – Sung Eucharist
6:30pm – Evensong

Mantegna versus Bellini

A tale of two artists: family and rivalry is the theme for the National Gallery’s current exhibition organised by the National Gallery and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in collaboration with the British Museum. Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini are two of the greatest Italian painters of the Renaissance. Whilst it may appear the younger Bellini began his career by copying Mantegna, the already established artist, his work developed into groundbreaking paintings of which no one had seen the like before. With temporary loans of dozens of rarely seen artworks, the exhibition, Mantegna and Bellini, provides the opportunity to study the similarities and differences between two artists who shaped Italian art.

 

 

It started with a book. On entering the exhibition, visitors are faced with a glass display case containing the London Drawing Book of Jacopo Bellini. Although this does not contain the works of the two artists in question, it is a key object that links their stylistic development together.

Jacopo Bellini (c.1400-70) was one of the founders of the Renaissance style of painting in Venice and northern Italy. His sons, Gentile (c.1429-1507) and Giovanni (c.1430-1516) learnt the art of painting and drawing under his tutelage, however, it was not until Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506) joined the family, that the younger son, Giovanni, began to make his name known.

Mantegna was born in Padua and adopted by the artist Francesco Squarcione (c.1395 -c.1468) in whose studio he also worked. Unfortunately, the young artist believed Squarcione was exploiting his pupils and took him to court so that he could become an independent painter. As a result, Mantegna was free to go where he wished, marrying into the Bellini family in 1453.

After his marriage to Nicolosia Bellini (d.1460), Mantegna was able to study the drawings of Jacopo Bellini. As can be seen in the illustrations, Jacopo was interested in architecture and perspective, which inevitably rubbed off on his son-in-law and then his son.

Whilst Mantegna had already experienced life as an artist, having to work hard to make a living, Giovanni Bellini had grown up in an extremely wealthy family of Venetian painters and had not endured the same fate, nor yet developed his own style and place amongst Italian artists. Looking to his brother-in-law for inspiration, Bellini appropriated many of the established and highly inventive artist’s ideas, gradually forging a name for himself.

 

 

The first and most obvious example of Mantegna’s influence on Bellini is their similar versions of The Presentation at the Temple. These show the moment Mary and Joseph present their child, Jesus at the Temple, forty days after his birth. Here, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke 2:22–40, they meet prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna. Both paintings show the Virgin Mary tenderly holding the tightly swaddled Christ Child while Simeon comes forward to take him. In the background between these main figures, Joseph watches the proceedings.

In Mantegna’s version, which was painted shortly after his marriage, there are two figures stood either side of the painting. These are thought to be portraits of the artist himself and his wife, Nicolosia. The composition is rather claustrophobic, the framing being just enough room to hold the upper bodies of Mary and Simeon with their halos.

Bellini’s version, however, is observed from further away, allowing room for an extra character on either side. It has not been officially determined who these people represent. To produce this piece, Bellini traced Mantegna’s original, which had been completed over ten years beforehand, keeping the poses, facial expressions and types of clothing almost exactly the same. The changes appear in the colours of the fabrics, the brightness of the scene and the lack of halos upon the Holy Family’s heads.

To some, the paintings are so similar that Bellini’s version appears to be blatant plagiarism. On the other hand, there is enough difference to make it his own. It is as though Bellini is trying to say to Mantegna, “Look what I can do,” or perhaps even, “Anything you can do, I can do better!”

 

The Presentation at the Temple is just one of many examples the National Gallery uses to emphasise Mantegna’s influence on Bellini. Another is The Agony in the Gardenwhich Mantegna first produced at the end of the 1450s, inspiring Bellini to produce his own version at the beginning of the following decade. The paintings refer to chapter 14, verses 32-43 in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane while his disciples, Peter, James the Great and John the evangelist sleep.

It is thought that Mantegna was initially inspired by a drawing by Jacopo Bellini. This Bible passage was an unusual choice to represent at this time since many Biblical paintings came in sets, representing the birth, life and resurrection of Christ; The Agony in the Garden was the first stand-alone religious painting in western art.

Mantegna’s rocky terrain and sharp colours give the painting a harsh atmosphere and a portent of the events to come emphasised further by a dead tree and vulture on the right. A host of angels stand above on a cloud clutching Instruments of the Passion, another omen of Christ’s impending death. In the background is the city of Jerusalem from which a troop of soldiers follow Judas’ lead to arrest Jesus.

Although Bellini took inspiration from Mantegna, on this occasion his outcome is not a copy of his brother-in-law’s. The events depicted remain the same, however, Bellini has introduced his own interpretation. Bellini chose to include only one ghostly angel standing aloft on a wispy cloud carrying a cup and plate as symbols of the approaching sacrifice. The colours and the way Bellini portrays light in his composition gives the painting a more tender feel. Unlike Mantegna’s version, it suggests hope, a hint of the resurrection, a sign of prayers being answered.

 

 

Up until the 15th century, Biblical paintings showed the characters, Jesus, the Holy family and so forth as beautiful, angel-like beings. They were figures that personified the love of God and served as examples of the ideal human being. During Mantegna and Bellini’s careers, these notions began to change. Although traditional scenes of the nativity and the Madonna remained popular, artists began to change the way they portrayed the death of Christ. Instead of a peaceful, serene outcome, Mantegna and Bellini focused on painting the torture of Christ, revealing through him the sorrows of man.

 

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised …
– Isaiah 53:3

The National Gallery provides more examples of Bellini’s depiction of the “despised and rejected” Christ, however, both artists were keen to express the lifeless body and the grief on the faces of his mother and disciples.

 

Whilst Bellini was intensely impacted by Mantegna’s art and style, Bellini’s evocative landscapes and application of colour equally inspired Mantegna. As their careers developed, the landscape became an integral part of their paintings. Rather than spend all their energy painting the foreground and characters, the brothers-in-law paid equal attention to the backgrounds of their compositions.

Mantegna’s Death of the Virgin, for example, could simply have been portrayed in a room with bare walls. Instead, the artist has included a huge open window overlooking the city of Mantua, where he was currently residing. Likewise, Bellini in Madonna of the Meadow did not solely focus on the tenderness of the mother and child. In the background is a landscape complete with the buildings of a distant city. The inclusion of these structures maintains the original teachings of Jacopo Bellini who enjoyed sketching architectural drawings.

One of Bellini’s greatest examples of a landscape is Assassination of St Peter Martyr. This tells the story of Saint Peter, a Dominican friar, who was ambushed by assassins on the road to Milan. Saint Peter received a head wound and was repeatedly stabbed to death. This incident takes place in the lower left of the painting, leaving a huge amount of canvas that Bellini fills with an expressive landscape.

The death of St Peter takes place in a wooded area outside of a city; the buildings can be seen through the trees. Oblivious to the saint’s demise, woodcutters are chopping down branches for firewood, an intended allusion to the way in which the saint was killed.

The most impressive landscape the gallery displays by Mantegna is Triumphs of the Virtues. Unlike the first few rooms in the exhibition which show religions paintings, this is a mythological image that reveals Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, expelling the vices from the Garden of Virtue. Some of the other characters are identified as Diana, the goddess of chastity, escaping from a centaur who, in this case, is a symbol of lust and desire. In the sky, the three primary moral virtues, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, watch over the proceedings.

As well as expertly telling the mythological tale, Mantegna painted a magical landscape full of luscious green meadows and mountains. In the foreground, arches are made up of foliage and, in keeping with the whimsical story, the tree nearest Minerva is shown with a human head.

 

Despite the familial connection and the clear influence they had on each other, Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini only worked in close proximity briefly before Mantegna took up the post of court painter to the Gonzaga family in Mantua. Although the artistic style of work is close enough to be mistaken for the other, the direction they went with themes and purposes gave them individuality within the art world.

Mantegna had a great interest in antiquity and attempted to recreate ancient Rome in some of his paintings. Three of nine large canvases covered the walls in the final room of the exhibition of the Triumphs of Caesar, which shows the arrival of Julius Caesar in Rome. These are thought to have been commissioned by Francesco II Gonzaga (1466-1519), the 4th Marquis of Mantua, although, they were later acquired by Charles I in 1629 and now remain in the Royal Collection.

Another example of Mantegna’s interest in antiquity can be seen in The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome commisioned by Francesco Cornaro (1478-1543), a Venetian nobleman, in 1505. Rather than painting a life-like illustration of the scene, Mantegna painted a sculptural relief. Although the background is coloured a red marble or wood, the stone figures are completely monochrome. This goes to show Mantegna’s skill with the paintbrush; producing a black and white painting is only half the challenge, making figures look like stone is a true success.

 

Unlike Mantegna, Bellini remained in Venice his whole life, often completing commisions in many Venetian and religious buildings. Despite being away from his brother-in-law, they remained in contact and had similar interests. Bellini was also interested in antiquity, finishing commissions Mantegna left incomplete after his death. At this time, however, the term antiquity also referred to events written in the Old Testament, such as the story of Noah.

The Drunkenness of Noah was completed about a year before Bellini’s death and shows the daring and revolutionary ideas of the artist. Traditionally, Biblical paintings reveal positive stories and messages, however, this painting based on Genesis 9:20–23 reveals Noah’s vices rather than his virtuosity. Noah is lying naked on the floor in drunken slumber whilst his sons, Shem and Japheth, attempt to cover him with a red cloth. His third son, Ham, however, laughs at the sight of his father.

Bellini also received commissions for portraits, however, he much prefered to paint portraits of characters rather than real people. The most beautiful of these is Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene which, unlike his other paintings with expressive landscapes, has a black background; the characters are lit from a light source outside of the frame.

Although not overly elaborate or detailed, Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene attracts attention with its chiaroscuro effect and the glossy finish to the painting – an element that is lost looking at the image online or on paper. Mantegna’s medium of choice was egg tempera, which Bellini initially used before developing a preference for oil paints. Oils allowed for deeper colour and contrast in shading.

There is no doubt that Mantegna and Bellini were two of the greatest painters in Italy during the 15th century, however, for an exhibition expressly about the pair, very little is alluded to about their lives, personalities or whether the brothers-in-law got on well together. This exhibition does not let Mantegna and Bellini’s personalities come through. It eliminates them in preference for detailed comparisons about how they painted and drew the same subjects, such as The Agony in the Garden and The Presentation at the Temple.

Of course, it is interesting to see the similarities and difference between the two artists, but on leaving the exhibition, visitors remain none the wiser about who the two painters really were. Did they have happy lives and happy marriages? Do their paintings reflect their personalities? Did Mantegna mind Bellini copying his work? Were they rivals or is this a label art historians have assumed? So many questions …

Despite these misgivings, it is incredible to see all these paintings in one place, especially as many belong to private collections and are rarely lent out to other organisations. It is interesting to see the famous paintings as well as the lesser known and to be able to witness the growth from early career to pioneers of the Renaissance. Although Mantegna and Bellini’s lives are not much revealed, the history, development and changes in paintings from the 15th century is fascinating.

Mantegna and Bellini is in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery until 27th January 2019. Tickets are between £12-16 and can be booked online or bought on the day. 

 

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

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© Victoria and Albert Museum

After the success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, the Victoria and Albert Museum has moved on to a completely different genre of music. Using the newly opened Sainsbury Gallery, the V&A are taking visitors on a journey through four centuries of European history, demonstrating the evolution of opera music and performances leading up to its contemporary interpretations of the 20th and 21st-centuries. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics focuses on seven particular premieres in seven different European cities whilst it not only celebrates the exceptional style of music but explores its effects on society, politics and the changes in the developing world.

In a darkened display room with dramatic lighting, the exhibition weaves through corridors of temporary walls decorated with relevant images, original artworks and a wealth of information. With striking typography, information is presented in an exciting manner, revealing the history of opera and the countries involved.

Opera first came on the scene in Italy during the 17th century, particularly in the cultural city of Venice. Unfortunately, as a result of a plague which killed off 30% of its population, Venice was struggling to maintain its maritime trade and political status. Despite this, it still remained a popular destination for tourists and pleasure seekers, also attracting artists and revolutionaries. Its international status brought a wealth of different cultures to the realm, offering entertainment such as carnivals and gambling.

Initially, opera was a production of spectacular costumes, dances and music, which were put on to impress visiting public figures and to show off the wealth of the theatre owners. The stories acted out were usually mythological retellings that contained parallels with the present day, thus placing current rulers in a positive light. However, in order to boost the Venetian population, opera was opened up to the public as a means of attracting more tourists and visitors.

The first public opera that was not restricted to courtly audiences was L’incoronazione di Poppea, with music composed by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and a libretto written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello (1598-1659). Premiering at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1642, the opera describes the ambition of Poppaea, the mistress of Roman emperor Nero, to be crowned Empress. This was the first opera to recall a historical event rather than a fictionalised story and focused on morality and virtue. Full of problematic characters, it glorified lust and ambition.

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View of Venice, print, Frederick de Wit, Netherlands. Museum no. E.1539-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Italy, opera quickly caught on in London due to its influx of foreign visitors. The Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII brought thousands of refugees to the city along with international influences. Covent Garden, in the west end of London, was an artistic community full of coffee houses where many would come to be entertained or partake in political debates. It was only natural for opera to find a home here amongst the existing artists and performers.

As indicated in large letters on the painted walls of the gallery, “G. F. Handel – young German composer takes city by storm”. At the young age of 26, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed the music for the first Italian language opera written for the London stage. Translated from Aaron Hill’s (1685-1750) English version by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi, Rinaldo is a story about love, war and redemption set at the time of the First Crusades (1095-99) demonstrating the conflict between the Saracens and Christians. For the English audience, this would have felt familiar after the not so distant antagonism between Catholics and Protestants.

Impressively, Handel composed the music within a couple of weeks and Rinaldo was opened to the public on 24th February 1711 at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket. At this point in the exhibition, the V&A excels itself with a scenographic wooden installation representing part of the 18th-century theatre. A short puppet-like show performs intermittently whilst visitors listen to Il Vostro Maggio – an aria performed by mermaids during Act II of Rinaldo – on headsets provided by the museum.

As with any innovation, opera received its fair share of criticism from the public and became a topic of debate in the neighbouring coffee houses. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) illustrated the fears many had about the foreign genre becoming a threat to traditional British Theatre, particularly Shakespeare. These etchings are displayed as part of the exhibition.

The V&A fast forwards seventy-five years to Vienna where another young musician is making his name known. This was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). In the late 1700s, Vienna was the heart of European music and opera, which was encouraged by the “musical king” Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg (1749-90).

The philosophical movement, known as the Enlightenment (or the “Age of Reason”), was changing the way Europeans thought, particularly in regard to individual rights. This, along with the Vienesse love of music, made Vienna the perfect location to perform Mozart’s society-questioning opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic opera in four acts with an Italian libretto. It contains a range of characters from all classes of society and radically gives servants a central role. Previously, domestic workers were absurd figures to be laughed at, whereas this opera tells the story of Figaro and Susanna, two servants who succeed in getting married despite the corrupt efforts of their philandering employer.

“O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost! O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!”

Hebrew Chorus, Nabucco

The exhibition moves on to Milan, which in the 1840s was still under Austrian rule. Throughout the 19th century, the political and social movement Risorgimento or Italian Unification was gradually reunifying Italian states to consolidate the Kingdom of Italy. The famous opera house La Scala was often used as a venue for political discussion about independence and, therefore, was an ideal location for the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Nabucco.

Based on the biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews facing abuse from the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II). Despite the historical context, the audience would have been able to relate to the passion about national identity and fight for freedom, thus strengthening their own resolve.

With the rise of Nationalism affecting many European countries, new operatic styles began to develop. Two examples appeared in France in the mid-19th century, “Opéra Comique” and “Grand Opéra”. The former was an amalgamation of spoken word with sung arias and became popular with the public. The latter combined expressive scenery, singing and ballet. Richard Wagner’s (1813-83) Tannhäuser followed the form of Grand Opéra, however, he began to challenge tradition by blending orchestra and voice instead of having several different aria performances.

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, to use its full title, was first performed at the Parisian Théâtre le Peletier on 13th March 1861 much to the delight of radical thinkers. It was not only Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art form) that upset the traditional audience, it was the choice of themes. Sexuality, spirituality and personal struggle were concepts that disagreed with bourgeois tastes. Tannhäuser combines two legends and focuses on the struggle between sacred and sacrilegious love, naturally causing much discomfort amongst spectators.

It is the 20th century that really radicalised the opera genre, as graphically demonstrated in this exhibition. New ideas in psychology and feminism brought new themes for composers to experiment with, much to the audience’s dismay. In Dresden, the Fin de siècle culture was changing the perceptions of women, an attribute that Richard Strauss (1864-1949) took hold of and ran with it his psycho-sexual opera, Salome. The Semperoper opened the revolutionary opera in 1905 with an orchestra of over one hundred instruments. Salome only lasts for one act, but the snippet the V&A shows on a digital screen suggests this is more than enough – particularly for those with a more sensitive stomach.

“Salomania” had affected artists and poets for a number of years before Strauss brought it to the opera house. Salome is the biblical character best known for her desire for the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” at the end of the story – a term first used by Oscar Wilde – contains erotic dancing and copious amounts of (fake) blood. Strauss’s version of Salome emphasises the passion and hysteria in the women contesting their suppressed status at the beginning of the 1900s.

The final destination on the V&A’s opera tour is Leningrad at the commencement of Stalin’s dictatorship. With avant-garde experiments being all the rage, the young Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) composed his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District sharing the writing of the libretto with Alexander Preys (1905-42). Based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), the opera covers themes of rural life, adultery and murder (obviously, since it is derived from the original Shakespearean character).

A common theme between the seven operas explored by the V&A is the discomfort and unrest they caused for some of the spectators. This was no different for Lady Macbeth, however, the person it upset the most was the infamous Stalin who only wanted Socialist Realism depicted in any art form. The heroine did not match Stalin’s ideal Soviet woman, therefore Shostakovich’s opera was condemned to political censorship.

Comparing the first public opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with this 20th-century composition goes to show the major metamorphosis the genre has undergone in a period of 400 years. The V&A have presented this exhibition in an outstanding way, combining visual and audio to creates a seamless journey from 1642 to 1934.

Paintings from well-known artists provide glimpses into the way opera goers dressed and behaved in the past centuries, which gradually transform to photographic examples as the exhibition nears its end. Objects from original manuscripts and Mozart’s piano, to modern stage props, are located around the exhibition, adding to the historical aspect and providing more to look at than screens and walls.

Before the exit, although accessible from other areas of the gallery, is a large space full of enormous screens showing clips from a range of operas. With the audio headset, visitors can pick up the music and sit and listen to the various compositions. This video-audio experience uses a selection of 20th and 21st-century operas to quickly take viewers from its origins in Renaissance Europe to the global phenomenon it is today.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is an extraordinary feat on behalf of the V&A. The amount of time, effort and research that has gone into its construction is evident in the amazing outcome. Educational from both a historical and political perspective, this exhibition will excite opera fans and interest those that are new to the genre – although not suitable for younger visitors.

After attending this exhibition, opera will no longer merely be a form of entertainment. Who knew how political and socially challenging a seemingly harmless production could be? Opera: Passion, Power and Politics certainly challenges opinions and reveals that it is not only about music and singing.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on now until Sunday, 25 February 2018. Tickets are £19.00 and advance booking is recommended.