Mrs. (Anna) Jameson.

Legends of the monastic orders, as represented in the fine arts. Forming the second series of Sacred and legendary art online

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or ought to be, artistically treated.

In a cycle of our early English saints, wherever they
are to be found, — whether in our old illuminated mis-
sals or in such decorations of our old churches as may
survive in sculpture or be released from whitewash and
plaster, — we should expect to meet with St. Helexa,
the mother of Constantine, and St. Alban, our first
martyr, taking precedence of the rest.

Of St. Helen (a. d. 328, Aug. 18) I will not say much
here, for her legendary history belongs to another place.
The early ecclesiastical writers fondly claim her as one
of our native saints : all the* best authorities are agreed
that she was born in England ; according to Gibbon, at
York ; according to other authorities, at Colchester ;
and the last-mentioned town bears as arms a cross with
four crowns, in allusion to its claim, Helena being in-
separably connected with the discovery or the " inven-
tion," as it is not improperly termed, of the Holy Cross
at Jerusalem. Some say she was the daughter of a
mighty British prince, King Coilus or Coel (I suppose
the " Old King Cole " of our ballads), and that in mar-
rying Constantius Chlorus she brought him a kingdom
for her dowry. Others — but they are denounced as


Jews and Pagans — aver that she was the daughter of
an innkeeper, and thence called Stabularia, literally
Ostler-trench ; while her Christian panegyrists insist that
she obtained the name of Stabularia because she erected
a church over the stable in which our Saviour was born.
But I shall not enter further into the dispute concerning
the birthplace and lineage of Helena. From remote an-
tiquity the English have claimed her as their own, and
held her in especial honor : witness the number of our
old churches dedicated to her, and the popularity of her
classical Greek name in all its various forms. In her
old age she became a Christian ; and her enthusiastic
zeal for her new religion, and the influence she exercised
over the mind of her son, no doubt contributed to the ex-
tension of Christianity throughout the empire. For this
she should be held in honor ; and cannot, certainly, be
reproached or contemned because of all the extrava-
gant, yet often beautiful and significant, fictions and
allegories with which she has been connected, and which
served to lend her a popularity she might not otherwise
have possessed. None of the old legends have been
more universally diffused than the " History of the True
Cross " ; and I believe that, till a darkness came over
the minds of the people, it was, formerly, as well un-
derstood in its allegorical sense as the " Pilgrim's Pro-
gress" is now. But this will be related in proper time
and place. St. Helena as an English saint should stand
in her imperial robes, wearing the earthly crown and the
celestial glory round her head, and holding the large
cross, generally much taller than herself; sometimes
she embi'aces the cross with both arms, and sometimes
she is seen in companionship with her son Constantine,
and they sustain the cross between them.

St. Helena is particularly connected with the Bene-
dictines, for it was believed that her remains had been
carried off from Rome about the year 863, and were de-
posited in the Benedictine abbey of Hautvilliers in
Champagne. The disputes concerning the authenticity
of these relics fill many pages of the " Annates " of

ST. ALB AX. 83

Mabillon. Every one who has been at Rome will rec-
ollect the superb sarcophagus of red porphyry in which
she once reposed, and which is now empty, as well as
her chapel in that lonely and beautiful church the
" Santa Croce di Gerusalemme." But of these I will
say no more at present.

St. Alban (a. d. 305, June 22), the famous Eng-
lish proto-martyr, was not a monk, but, as the shrine
dedicated to him became subsequently one of the great-
est of our Benedictine institutions, I place him here.

There is something particularly touching in the cir-
cumstances of liis death, as related by Bede. He lived
in the third century, in the reign of the emperor Aure-
lian. In his youth he had travelled to Rome, conducted
thither by his love of learning ; and, being returned
home, he dwelt for some time in great honor in his na-
tive city of Verulam. Though still in the darkness of
the old idolatry, he was distinguished by the practice
of every virtue, and particularly those of hospitality and
charity. When the persecution under Diocletian was
extended to the shores of Britain, a Christian priest,
pursued by the people, took refuge in his house. Alban
concealed him there, and, struck by the example of his
resignation, and enlightened by his teaching, he became
a Christian and received baptism. A few days after-
wards he had the opportunity of proving the sincerity
of his conversion. The stranger being pursued, Alban
provided for his safety ; then putting on the long rai-
ment of the priest, he surrendered himself to the sol-
diers ; and refusing equally to betray his guest or wor-
ship idols, he was condemned to death. He was first
cruelly tortured, and then led forth to be beheaded.
An exceeding great multitude, mostly Christians, fol-
lowed him to the place of execution near the city. To
reach it they were obliged to pass the river Coin ; but
so great was the multitude that it was impossible for
them to go over the narrow bridge : the saint stood for
a moment on the bank, and, putting up a short prayer,


the waters miraculously divided, and the whole multi-
tude passed dry-shod, to the number of a thousand per-
sons. On reaching the summit of the hill, a most
pleasant spot covered with bushes and flowers, St. Al-
ban, falling on his knees, prayed that God would give
him water, and immediately a living spring broke out
before his feet, in which he quenched his thirst ; and
then bending his neck to the executioner, the head of
this most courageous martyr was struck off, and he re-
ceived the crown of life which God has promised to all
who suffer for his sake.

Bede adds, that, in his time, there existed on the
spot a church of wonderful workmanship ; but in the
subsequent wars and ra Adages of Pagan nations the
memory of the martyr had almost perished, and the
place of his burial was forgotten ; until it happened, in
the year 793, that the same was made known by a
great miracle.

For when Offa, king of the Mercians, (Chauncey's
Hist, of Herts., p. 426,) was taking his rest on his royal
couch, he was admonished by an angel from Heaven,
that the remains of the blessed martyr should be disin-
terred and restored to the veneration of the people. So
King Offa came to Verulam, and there they found St.
Alban lying in a wooden coffin ; and there and then
the pious king founded a church, and in its vicinity
arose the great Benedictine monastery and the town of
St. Albans in Hertfordshire.

St. Alban being the first saint and martyr in England,
the Abbot of St. Alban's had precedence over all others.

In some old effigies which remain of St. Alban he is
represented like St. Denis, carrying his head in his
hand. His proper attribute as martyr would be the
sword, and a fountain springing at his feet ; not three
fountains, as in the effigies of St. Paul.

We have all learned in our childhood the famous le-
gend which makes Gregory the Great the father of


Christianity in England, which tells how he became in-
terested for the poor benighted islanders, our fair-haired
ancestors, (non Angli sed Angeli .') and represents St.
Augustine of Canterbury as the first Christian mission-
ary in this nation. But it appears to me that our mod-
ern artists, and particularly the decorators of our na-
tional edifices, are under a mistake in assuming this
view to be consonant with the truth of history. -St.
Augustine preached in England that form of Christian-
ity which had been promulgated by the Hierarchs of
the West. He was the instrument by which the whole
island was brought under the papal power. But Chris-
tianity and a knowledge of the Scriptures had shone
upon Britain three centuries at least before the time of

*e v

The old traditions relating to the first introduction
of Christianity into this land are in the highest degree
picturesque and poetical. As to their truth, I am rather
inclined to sympathize with the early belief in those an-
cient stories, which, if they cannot be proved to be true,
neither can they be proved to be false. Now, every-
thing that is possible may be true, and everything that
is improbable is not therefore false ; which being
granted, it is a great comfort to be emancipated from
the severe limits prescribed by critical incredulity, and
allowed for a while to revel in the wider bounds allowed
to a more poetical and not wholly h-religious faith.

" Some," says Dugdale, "hold that, when Philip,
one of the twelve apostles came to France, he sent Jo-
seph of Arimathea with Joseph his son, and eleven
more of his disciples hither, who, with great zeal and
undaunted courage, preached the true and lively faith
of Christ ; and when King Arviragus considered the
difficulties that attended their long and dangerous jour-
ney from the Holy Land, beheld their civil and inno-
cent lives, and observed their sanctitv and the severi-
ties of their religion, he gave them a certain island in
the west part of his dominions for their habitation,


called Avalon, containing twelve hides of land, where
they built a church of wreathen wands, and set a place
apart for the burial of their servants. These holy men
were devoted to a religious solitude, confined themselves
to the number of twelve, lived there after the manner of
Christ and the apostles, and, by their preaching, con-
verted a great number of the Britons, who became

" Upon this ground," says another writer,* " the am-
bassadors of the kings of England claimed precedency
of the ambassadors of the kings of France, Spain, and
Scotland in several councils held in Europe ; one at
Pisa, a. d. 1409; another at Constance, a. d. 1414;
another at Siena, a. d. 1424 ; and especially at Basle,
A. D. 1434, where the point of precedency was strongly
debated : the ambassadors from France, insisting much
upon the dignity and magnitude of that kingdon, said,
' 'T was not reasonable that England should enjoy equal
privileges with France ' ; but the ambassadors of Eng-
land, insisting on the honor of the Church, declared,
that the Christian faith was first received in England,
Joseph of Arimathea having come hither with others,
in the fifteenth year after the assumption of the Virgin
Mary, and converted a great part of the people to the
faith of Christ : but France received not the Christian
religion till the time of Dionisius (St. Denis), by whose
ministry it was converted ; and by reason hereof the
kings of this land ought to have the right of prece-
dency, for that they did far transcend all other kings in
worth and honor, so much as Christians were more ex-
cellent than Pagans."

Such is the legend of Glastonbury, that famous old
abbey, whose origin is wrapt in a wondrous antiquity ;
where bloomed and still blooms the " mystic thorn,"
ever on the feast of the Nativity, when, amid the snows
of winter, every other branch is bare of leaf and blos-
som ; where sleeps King Arthur " till he comes again " ;
— where Alfred found refuge when hunted by his Dan-

* v. L'sher, De Primo Eccl. Britt. p. 22.


ish foes, and matured his plans for the deliverance of
his country. And not at Glastonbury only, but at Ban-
gor and mauy other famous places, there were, before
the coming of St. Augustine, communities of religious
men and women, who lived according to the Eastern
rule, as the Essenes of Palestine and the Cenobites in
Egypt, of whom I have spoken in the lives of St. Paul
and St. Anthony. (Sacred and Legend. Art.)

But Augustine the monk, whom the English call St.
Austin, was undoubtedly the first who introduced the
order of St Benedict into England. The Benedictines
number St. Gregory as one of their order : it is not cer-
tain that he took the habit, but he placed the convent
which he had founded at Rome on the Celian Hill under
the rule of St. Benedict ; and out of this convent came
the monk St. Augustine and his companions, whom
Gregory selected as his missionaries to England. In
those days the coasts of England were, to the soft Ital-
ians, a kind of Siberia for distance and desolation ; and
on their journey these chosen missionaries were seized,
we are told, with a sudden fear, and began to think of re-
turning home rather than proceed to a barbarous, fierce,
unbelieving nation, to whose very language they were
strangers ; and they sent Augustine to entreat of their
holy father, the Pope, that they might be excused from
this dangerous journey. We are not informed how St.
Gregory received Augustine : we only know that he
speedily sent him back with a brief but peremptory let-
ter, beginuing with these words, " Gregory, the servant
of the servants of God, to the servants of our Lord. For-
asmuch as it had been better not to begin a good work
than to think of desisting from that which is begun, it
behooves you, my beloved sons, to fulfil the good work
which, by the help of our Lord, you have undertaken."
So Augustine, being constituted chief and bishop over
the future converts, they continued their journey, and
landed in the Isle of Thanet in Kent.

Now, the men of Kent had been, even from the ear-
liest times, the most stiff-necked against the Christian


faith, so that it was an old saying to express the non-
existence of a thing, that it was not to be found " either
in Christendom or in Kent." Notwithstanding, the Sax-
on King Ethelbert received St. Augustine and his com-
panions very graciously, persuaded thereto by his wife
Bertha, who was a Christian ; and they entered by his
permission the city of Canterbury, carrying on high the
holy cross and the image of our blessed Saviour, and
singing Hallelujahs.

Then they preached the Gospel, and King Ethelbert
and his subjects were baptized and became Christians.
It is recorded that the first Kentish converts received
the rites of baptism and confirmation in a chapel near
Canterbury, which the French princess Bertha had
dedicated to her native saint Martin of Tours.

But Augustine was not satisfied with converting the
Saxons : he endeavored to bring the ancient British
Church to acknowledge the Pope of Rome as its spirit-
ual head, and himself as his delegated representative.
The Britons were at first strongly opposed to what ap-
peared to them a strange usurpation of authority ; and
their bishops pleaded that they could not lay aside their
ancient customs and adopt the ceremonies and institu-
tions of the Roman Church without the consent and free
leave of the whole nation. (For before the time of
Augustine the British Church acknowledged no obe-
dience to Rome, but looked to its own metropolitan,
the Bishop of Caerleon-on-Uske (Glastonbury), and
derived their customs, rites, and ordinances from the
Eastern Churches.) "Therefore they desired that an-
other synod might be called, because their number was
small. This being agreed to, seven bishops and many
learned men repaired thither ; and on their way they
consulted a certain holy and wise man who lived as an
anchorite, and who advised them, saying, ' If Augustine
shall rise up when ye come near him, then he is a ser-
vant of God, and ye shall listen to his words ; but if he
sit still and show no respect, then he is proud and
cometh not from God, and is not to be regarded.' And


when they appeared before Augustine, and saw that he
sat still in his chair without showing any courtesy or
respect to them, they were very angry, and, discoursing
among themselves, said, ' If he will not rise up now
unto us, how much more will he condemn us when we
are subject to him ? ' Then Augustine exhorted them
to receive the rites and usages of the Church of Rome ;
but they excused themselves, saying that they owed no
more to the Bishop of Rome than the love and broth-
erly assistance which was due to all who held with them
the faith of Chi'ist ; but to their own bishop they owed
obedience, and without his leave they could not alter
the ordinances of their Church. Then Augustine de-
sired their conformity in three things only : 1. In the
observation of Easter. 2. In the administration of
baptism. 3. In their assistance by preaching among
the English Saxons. And neither in these things could
he obtain their compliance, for they persisted in denying
him all power over them." (I cannot but think that
this conference between St. Augustine and the ancient
British clergy would be a capital scene for a picture,
and much better than the trite subjects usually chosen
from this part of our history. To understandably the
conduct held by Augustine on this occasion, we should
remember that it was then a question which divided the
whole Christian world, whether the Eastern or Western
patriarch should be acknowledged as the head of the
universal Church, and whether the Greek or the Roman
ceremonial was to prevail. If it had not been for the
obstinacy of St. Augustine, we might all have been now
Greeks or Russians ; — dreadful possibility ! But to con-
tinue the story.) " Notwithstanding the opposition of
the Bvitons, and contrary to the directions of his great
and wise master St. Gregory, Augustine carried things
with a high hand, and deprived the British bishops of
their sees, which they had possessed for nearly four
hundred years, and this of his own will and power, and
without any crime or sentence of a council. Further,
he is accused of having incited the Saxons to rise up


against the British Christians, and to have been the
cause that Ethelfred, king of Northumberland, went up
against the people of Chester and slew the monks of
Bangor, twelve hundred in number, and utterly de-
stroyed that glorious monastery, in which were deposited
many and precious records and monuments of British

(The massacre at Bangor, which is described with
picturesque circumstances by Bede, took place in 607,
or later ; and Augustine, who had received the pallium
as first Primate of England in 601, died in 604.)

" This Augustine," saith Capgrave, " was very tall
by stature ; of a dark complexion ; his face beautiful,
but withal majestical. Pie always walked on foot, and
commonly visited his provinces barefooted, and the skin
on his knees had grown hard, through perpetual kneel-
ing at his devotions ; and farther, it is said of him, that
he was a most learned and pious man, an imitator
of primitive holiness, frequent in watchings, fastings,
prayers, and alms, zealous in propagating the church of
his age, earnest in rooting out paganism, diligent in re-
pairing and building churches, extraordinarily famous
for the working of miracles and cures among the people.
Hence his mind may have been puffed up with human
vanity, which caused St. Gregory to admonish him."

To this description I will add, that he ought to be
represented wearing the black Benedictine habit, and
carrying the pastoral staff and the Gospel in his hand,
as abbot and as missionary. After the year 601, he
may be represented with the cope, pallium, and mitre, as
primate and bishop of Canterbury. The title of Arch-
bishop was not in use, I believe, before the ninth century.

The proper companion to St. Augustine, where he
figures as chief saint and apostle of England, would be
St. Paulinus ; who, in 601, was sent from Rome to as-
sist him in his mission. Paulinus preached through all
the district north of the Humber, and became the first
Primate of York, where he founded the cathedral, and


afterwards died very old at Rochester, in 644. His
friends and 'converts, King Edwin and Queen Ethel-
burga, may be grouped with him.

" But to remote Northumbria's royal hall,
Where thoughtful Edwin, tutored in the school
Of sorrow, still maintains a heathen rule,
Who conies with functions apostolical ?
Mark him, of shoulders curved, and stature tall,.
Black hair, and vivid eye, and meagre cheek,
His prominent feature like an eagle's beak : —
A man whose aspect doth at once appal
And strike with reverence." — Wordsworth.

This portrait of Paulinus, from the description left
us by an eyewitness, may be useful to artists : the epi-
thet " thoughtful Edwin" as well describes the king.

The conversion of Coin, the Druid and high-priest
of Thor, is the most striking and picturesque incident
in the life of St. Paulinus of York. " King Edwin gave
his license to Paulinus to preach the Gospel, and, re-
nouncing idolatry, declared that he received the faith
of Christ ; and when he inquired of the high-priest who
should first profane the altars and temples of the idols,
he answered, 'I! — for who can more properly than
myself destroy those things which I worshipped through
ignorance ? ' Then immediately, in contempt of his
former superstitions, he desired the king to furnish him
with arms and a horse, and mounting the same, he set
forth to destroy the idols (for it was not lawful before
for the high-priest to carry arms or ride on any but a
mare). Having, therefore, girt a sword about him, with
a spear in his hand, he mounted the king's charger, and
proceeded to the idols. The multitude beholding it,
concluded that he was distracted ; but he, when he drew
near the temple, cast his spear into it, and, rejoicing in
the knowledge of the true God, commanded his com-
panions to destroy the idols with fire."* Here would

* The scene took place at Godmundham, in Yorkshire. Stukely
says, in his Itinerary, "The apostle Paulinus built the parish
church of Godmundham, where is the font in which he baptized
the heathen priest Coifi."


have been a fine subject for Rubens ! I recommend it
to our artists ; only they must be careful to preserve
(which Rubens never did) the religious spirit ; and in
seeking the grand and dramatic, to avoid (as Rubens
always did) the exaggerated and theatrical.

From the time of St. Augustine, all the monasteries al-
ready in existence accepted the rule of St. Benedict, and
those grand ecclesiastical edifices which rose in England
during the next six hundred years were chiefly founded
by or for the members of this magnificent order. They
devoted their skill in art, their labor, their learning, and
their wealth to admirable purposes ; and as in these
present more civilized times, we find companies of spec-
ulators constructing railways, partly for profit and expe-
diency, and partly, as they say, to give employment to
the poor, so in those early times, when we were only
just emerging from barbarism, we find these munificent
and enei'getic communities draining the marshes of Lin-
colnshire and Somersetshire, clearing the midland and
northern forests, planting, building, and transcribing
Bibles for the honor of God and the good of the poor ;
and though their cultivated fields and gardens, and their
cloisters, churches, libraries, and schools, were laid
waste, burned, and pillaged by the devastations of the
Danes, yet the spirit in which they had worked sur-
vived, and their institutions were afterwards restored
with more extensive means, and all the advantages af-
forded by improved skill in mechanical and agricultu-
ral science. I feel disappointment and regret while
writing this, to be obliged to confine myself to the ar-
tistic representations of the early English Benedictines ;
yet, even within these narrow limits, I find a few who
must be briefly commemorated ; and I begin with one
who is connected in an interesting manner with the his-
tory of Art in our country.

In the year 677, Benedict, or Bexnet Biscop
(St. Bennet of Wearmouth), of a noble family in



Northumberland, founded the two Benedictine monas-
teries of St. Peter's at Wearmouth, and St. Paul's at
Jarrow, which became in process of time two of the
most flourishing schools in England.

St. Bennet seems to have been a man not only
learned and accomplished as an ecclesiastic, but en-
dowed with a sense of the beautiful rare in those days,
at least among our Saxon ancestors. Before his time
there were scarcely any churches or chapels built of
stone to be found in England. Glass in the windows

Online LibraryMrs. (Anna) JamesonLegends of the monastic orders, as represented in the fine arts. Forming the second series of Sacred and legendary art → online text (page 8 of 41)