With the coming of Easter comes the opening of the triptych at the High Altar. During Lent it is closed, and an explanation of the painting which shows in the closed position was given. Now that it is once more opened until Lent begins again, here is an explanation of the painting which forms the reredos for most of the liturgical year.
THE TRIPTYCH OPENED
THE SIDE PANELS
It was through the mystery of the Annunciation that the Light, Who is Christ, came into a sin-darkened world. Thus the interior of the triptych is bathed in color and light.
On the side panels, four large saints turn their attention to the figure of Christ seated in majesty on the clouds of Heaven: Alban the first Martyr of Britain, Bede the Venerable, Gregory the Great, and Augustine of Canterbury. With each of these saints are smaller, signature saints—saints who further enhance the spiritual significance found in the painting. The saints located in the tracery are a Carmelite saint, Bernard, Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas Moore, Christopher (the Christ-bearer), Philip the Apostle, John Fisher, and Paulinus of York. These figures, done in enameled copper, also include attributes of each of the larger saints. The saints depicted were chosen for a deeper significance that will be explained later. Close examination of the figures will reveal that the colors in the flooring match the colors of the flooring below the larger figures, and that even the slant of the floor matches the slant of the floor below.
Beneath each of these signature saints is a copper-enameled seraph, that is, an angel with six wings. Seraphim are traditionally thought to be found closest to God in heaven. Each angel carries a shield with the coat of arms of Pope John Paul II: a white cross with the large letter “M” honoring Mary and her role in the atoning sacrifice of the cross. The coat of arms reinforces a theme of this painting, the thanksgiving being offered by the congregation of Our Lady of the Atonement for the pontificate of John Paul II.
The background of the interior panels, including the main panel, were crafted by applying two layers of gold leaf on the boards. A staining agent was then applied to the gold leaf. After drying, the upper layer was cut through to reveal the bright gold behind it. The green outline of this gold pattern, the “Tree of Life” pattern, are rosettes, stylized roses based on the Tudor rose. Each of these rosettes has a center of enameled copper. The colors used in the centers, and in the rosettes, reflect the colors of the flooring.
The gothic tracery is enameled copper, patterned on the oldest existing gothic tracery pattern, found on a silk grisaille painting now located in the Louvre.
The red and blue colors were chosen for their close association with the British nation, but they are symbolic also of other mysteries. Red is the color of martyrdom and death, e.g., Christ’s sacrifice on the cross; blue is the color of his mother, the Virgin Mary. Thus in these two dominant colors is the symbolic name of the parish of Our Lady of the Atonement.
Before looking in detail at the four large saints, we should note the close relationship that existed between them. Saint Alban, the first Martyr of Britain, was instrumental in making the Catholic Faith part of the English experience. One of his biographers was Saint Bede.
As pope, Saint Gregory was interested in the conversion of the English nation. It was at his insistence that Saint Augustine came to Canterbury from the monastery that Gregory had founded in Rome.
These saints enjoyed a relationship with one another, and were influential in one another’s lives, and through their relationships they have affected all of us. We could say that Alban laid the groundwork that Gregory built upon by sending Augustine. Bede was the recipient of all the work that Augustine had done in Gregory’s name, based on the faith that Alban had planted, rooted in the atoning service of Christ.
SAINT ALBAN (C. 209)
Saint Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People tells us about Saint Alban, protomartyr of the English Catholic Church. According to Saint Bede, Alban sheltered a priest during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. This priest converted Alban to the Faith, and when soldiers came to arrest the priest, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and offered himself in place of the priest. The virtue of Saint Alban converted his first executioner. Then, as Alban’s head rolled from the block, the eyes of his second executioner fell out and landed in a holly bush.
In this painting, Saint Alban is depicted as a triumphant warrior for the Faith. He wears the purple cloak of the priest – purple is the color of nobility – and stands next to his emblem, the holly bush. The eyes of his executioner can be seen on top of the bush. Saint Alban also wears the Order of the Garter of Saint George. This chivalric order, here executed in both the collar and garter, is one of the most coveted in Great Britain. It is given to those who have contributed greatly to the life of the nation. It is fitting that Alban should wear these emblems because he gave his life for the Faith, which has given much to the English people.
THE SIGNATURE SAINTS OF SAINT ALBAN
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the great reformer of the Cistercians was, like Alban, a warrior for the Faith. He brought about a great spiritual revival in the world of his time. At his fee is a bee hive, one of his symbols, recalling the honeyed eloquence of his preaching. He carries a symbol with a dual meaning. The gray enamel tablets are reformed rule, but they can be seen also as the stone tablets of the Law given to Moses at Sinai. Thus the figure can be read as Bernard Law, the name of the Cardinal Archbishop who served as the Ecclesiastical Delegate for the Pastoral Provision at the time of the canonical erection of the parish.
A Carmelite saint represents all of those nameless saints through the centuries who have run the race, fought the good fight, and received the unfading crown of glory, the same that has been given to Saint Alban. Thus this panel depicts Saint Alban, glorified by a martyr’s death; Saint Bernard, glorified for his promotion of reform and his devotion to the Church; and those saints like this nameless Carmelite who won sanctification through the white martyrdom of cloistered and unknown religious life. A Carmelite was chosen because of the close association between the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus and Our Lady of the Atonement Church, whose pastor served for many years as the Sisters’ Chaplain. The figure here carries the symbols of two great Carmelite saints: Theresa of the Child Jesus, symbolized by the single rose and crucifix, and Theresa of Avila, who like Bernard worked for reform in her community and in the Church, symbolized by the heart aflame.
SAINT GREGORY (c. 540-604)
The pagan Saxons destroyed much of the early Christian culture of Britain. The conversion of these cruel overlords was the special project of Pope Saint Gregory the Great. Gregory became a monk after a distinguished career in politics. Using his family’s wealth, he founded six monasteries in Sicily. In Rome, on the Coelian Hill, he established his seventh monastery, dedicated to Saint Andrew, where he lived the life of a simple monk. His time in the monastery was short, however. The pope sent him on a mission which lasted over seven years. When he returned, he was elected abbot of his monastery.
Shortly thereafter, Gregory was elected pope, succeeding Pelagius II. Rome was at the time being devastated by the plague, and Gregory organized pilgrimages throughout the city. During one of the pilgrimages a vision of Saint Michael, waving a sword, was seen above the spot now known as Castel Saint’Angelo. The plaque suddenly abated, and all of Rome hailed the new pope as a worker of miracles.
Gregory’s pontificate lasted fourteen years. During this time he reorganized both civil and ecclesiastical life. He redefined dioceses and reclaimed the papal states. In all his dealings with the churches of the East and West, Gregory insisted upon the supremacy of the Roman See. With deference for the rights of bishops in their own dioceses, he asserted the principle of the primacy of the Chair of Saint Peter. “Who can doubt,” he wrote, “that the Church of Constantinople is subject to the Apostolic See?” So also in the relationship with the emperor, Saint Gregory combined deference for the rights of the civil power with vigilance to defend his own rights and those of the ecclesiastical and monastic orders.
He was known also for liturgical reform. He was a prolific writer of letters, commentaries, sermons, and lives of the saints. He also wrote a book on pastoral care, noting what the life of a priest or bishop should be.
Saint Gregory began the mission to England and is known by the title “Apostle of England.” He sent monks from his own monastery of Saint Andrew, led by Augustine, to carry out this mission. In the reredos Gregory is shown in his full pontificals, holding his metropolitan cross. Next to him are buildings and flames. The buildings represent the monasteries he founded, but they can also serve to remind us of the New City of God he created from the civil and religious institutions of his period. The flames, surrounding the buildings, but not burning them, recall the medieval belief that Saint Gregory had great power to release souls from purgatory.
Saint Gregory is shown holding a wood-cut. This wood-cut, made especially for this triptych, recalls another medieval belief. It is related that, during the sacrifice of the Mass, the Man of Sorrows appeared to Gregory at the moment of transubstantiation. This was seen as a reaffirmation of this Catholic doctrine. The wood-cut is based on a German wood-cut of the period depicting this miracle.
Pope Saint Gregory also has another traditional emblem with him: the hovering Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit that inspired his work and gave him the courage and strength to bring it to fulfillment.
One final detail: on the dalmatic he wears (in Gregory’s time bishops wore all the vestments) are rows of fringe, recalling that he is the patron saint of fringe-makers.
THE SIGNATURE SAINTS OF SAINT GREGORY
Saint John Fisher (1469-1535) and Saint Paulinus of York (d. 644), whose names (when read together), give us the name of the Holy Father, John Paul.
Saint John Fisher was born at York, the same place that Saint Paulinus came to evangelize. He was recognized as one of the leading theologians of his day. He was also bishop of Rochester, one of the poorest of all dioceses. Like Gregory, John Fisher wrote about and practiced a real pastoral care for his priests. He tried to give them an example of priestly zeal and life. He wrote about the heresies of his day, but is known for never using abusive language. Rather, he relied on reason and persuasion to bring back the prodigals.
In the divorce controversy between Henry VIII and Queen Catherine, he defended the queen. He refused to take the oath defending the divorce and the Succession Act of 1534. Arrested for this refusal, he was confined to the Tower and eventually beheaded.
This small enamel shows him clutching a monstrance, for he was devoted to the Eucharistic Mystery, as was Saint Gregory. He is also shown carrying the keys of Peter, for he defended the rights of the sovereign pontiff to the point of martyrdom. He treads upon a crown to show that he refused to allow the true queen to be displaced by a usurper.
Saint Paulinus had come to England in the mission of Saint Augustine to Canterbury. Saint Bede said that it was Paulinus who brought from Rome many of the liturgical vessels and relics given by Gregory the Great to this infant church so that the sacraments would be celebrated properly, with solemnity and dignity.
Paulinus of York became Bishop of Rochester in 634; John Fisher, born at York, became Bishop of Rochester in 1504. Both of these dioceses, York and Rochester, were erected through the mission to convert the Saxons, begun by Gregory and administered by Augustine of Canterbury.
SAINT AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY (C. 605)
When Pope Saint Gregory decided that the time had come for the evangelization of Anglo-Saxon England, he chose as the missionaries some thirty or more monks from his monastery of Saint Andrew. He gave them their own Prior, Augustine, as their leader. Shortly after arriving in France, the missionaries returned to Rome, for they had heard about the ferocity of the Anglo-Saxons and the dangers of the Channel. Pope Gregory reassured them that the English were open to the Gospel, and he sent them back with much encouragement and support. The missionaries arrived in the territory of the king of Kent, Ethelbert. The king listened to them and gave them a dwelling in Canterbury.
In 597, on Pentecost, Augustine baptized the king. Afterwards, Augustine went again to France, where he was consecrated bishop of the English by Saint Virgilius, metropolitan of Arles. Augustine sent two monks to Rome to give a report of the mission, to ask for more helpers, and to obtain advice on various points. They came back bringing the pallium for Augustine and were accompanied by a fresh band of missionaries, among them Saint Paulinus. With these “ministers of the Word,” said Saint Bede, “the Pope sent all things needed in general for Divine Worship and the service of the Church, sacred vessels, altar cloths, furniture for churches, and vestments for the clergy, relics and also many books.”
In Canterbury, Augustine rebuilt an ancient church which, with an old wooden house, formed the nucleus for his metropolitan basilica and for the later monastery of Christ Church. Outside the walls of Canterbury he made a monastic foundation which he dedicated in honor of Sts. Peter and Paul. After his death, this abbey became known as Saint Augustine’s and was the burial place of the early archbishops.
Augustine had difficulty in reconciling some practices that were at variance with those of the Roman tradition, and this process was not successfully completed in his lifetime. During these difficult moments he was encourage by Pope Gregory.
Augustine’s last years were spent in spreading and consolidating the Faith through Ethelbert’s realm, and Episcopal sees were established at London and Rochester. On May 26, c. 605, about seven years after his arrival in England, Saint Augustine died. His feast is observed on this date in England and Wales, but elsewhere on May 28th.
In the reredos Augustine is shown in his full pontificals with his crosier. Prominent among his vestments is the pallium sent to him by Pope Gregory. He holds in his hand a model of the cathedral church at Canterbury.
Next to him are the liturgical vessels and appointments he caused to be brought to England for the service of the Church. The largest of these items is the crucifix. Note that the decoration of the crucifix has a wheat and grape motif, representing the Eucharist. From the side of the image of the crucified Christ is painted a red and blue line which falls upon the crown below. The significance is that Ethelbert, symbolized by the crown, was baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, from whose side flowed water and blood after His atoning crucifixion.
On the opposite side of Saint Augustine is a small reliquary casket. The design of the enthroned Christ and apostles is modeled after a reliquary casket, dating to the time of Augustine, still in the possession of Canterbury Cathedral.
THE SIGNATURE SAINTS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE.
The two Thomases, Saint Thomas More and Saint Thomas of Canterbury, stand for the name of the studio that did the work for the reredos, Studio Didymus. “Didymus” is the Greek word for “the twin” – thus, two Thomases. But this pair also has another relationship with the central figure.
Saint Thomas More (1478-1535) was a contemporary of Saint John Fisher. He was executed the day following Fisher’s own death in the Tower. Thomas More was born in London, a diocese established by Saint Augustine. He was in service to his king, as Augustine served Ethelbert. He studied at Canterbury, the administrative center of Augustine’s mission. He served the king as chancellor, but refused to agree to the Divorce question, and would not take the oath stating that the king was the head of the Church in England. He was beheaded for his refusal.
In the enamel, Thomas More is shown wearing his lawyer’s cap and gown and carrying the keys of Peter. He stands on the crown that Henry would have given away to Ann Boleyn.
On the other side is Saint Thomas á Becket, or Thomas of Canterbury (1118-1170), who was born in London. Thomas served the archbishop of Canterbury, a line of authority that stretched back to Augustine. It was the archbishop of Canterbury who recommended Thomas as chancellor to Henry II, and Thomas himself became archbishop in 1163. As archbishop, Thomas became truly a man of God and defender of the papacy. It was his defense of the Church and papacy that brought about his conflict with the king and his eventual martyr’s death at Canterbury, in the church established by Augustine centuries before.
Relics of Saint Thomas of Canterbury are enclosed in the altar stone of Our Lady of the Atonement Church, and his is one of the small statutes besides the tabernacle door.
SAINT BEDE THE VENERABLE (673-735)
Although very little is known about Saint Bede, we do know that he was a monk of the monastery of Sts. Peter and Paul at Wearmouth and Jarrow, where at the age of seven he had been given into the care of the abbot. His monastic life was uneventful, and we can sum it up in his own words: “I have spent the whole of my life devoting all my pains to the study of the Scriptures, and, amid the observance of monastic discipline and the daily task of singing in the church, it has ever been my delight to learn or teach or write.”
It was as a teacher and writer that Bede was supreme. He wrote both theological and secular works, prose and poetry. He was interested in science and the natural order. His historical writings are perhaps the best remembered. His chief work was The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, one of the most important historical writings of the early Middle Ages. It is the sole source for much information about the early Saxon history.
Saint Bede died at his work. On the Tuesday before Ascension Day he summoned the priests of the monastery, made them little gifts of paper and incense, and begged their prayers. At intervals during the next forty-eight hours, propped up in bed, he dictated to the last sentence an English rendering of the Gospel of Saint John upon which he was engaged at the onset of his illness. Finally, asking to be laid on the floor he sang the anthem “O King of Glory” from the Office of Ascension Day and died with the doxology, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,” on his lips.
Bede is the only Englishman who was named by Dante in the Paradiso. Saint Boniface, when he learned of Bede’s death, said “The light, lit by the Holy Spirit for the good of the whole Church, has been extinguished.” In the reredos Saint Bede appears in his simple monastic garb. He was dedicated to the monastic office and to the life of prayer, thus his red prayer beads are shown in the folds of his habit. He carries the crosier, though he was never a bishop, to recall the bishop’s role of teacher and scholar, characteristics of Bede. He also carries an opened copy of his Ecclesiastical History, and the picture on the frontispiece is of the original small church of Our Lady of the Atonement, before its expansion. Next to him is the extinguished candle, recalling Saint Boniface’s words. At the top of the candlestick is the inscription of the doxology Bede was praying at the moment of death.
“Remember,” writes Cardinal Gasquet, “what the work was upon which Saint Bede was engaged upon his deathbed – a translation of the gospels into English …” But of this work “to break the word to the poor and unlearned” nothing is now extant.
THE SIGNATURE SAINTS OF SAINT BEDE THE VENERABLE
Saint Phillip the Apostle (1st c.) and Saint Christopher (date unknown) with the Christ Child were positioned to be read from the right hand of Christ, that is, it reads “Saint Christopher/Saint Philip” – the name of the founding pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Church. Following traditional iconography, Christopher holds aloft the Child Jesus, and Saint Philip, a martyr by crucifixion, holds a cross.
THE MAIN PANEL
The back, or main, panel serves to call our attention to the glory of God and to focus our attention on the Eucharist presence of Jesus Christ as reserved in the tabernacle on the retable.
The central figure is Christ enthroned on the clouds of Heaven, sitting in regal splendor. The clothing of the figure is done entirely by hand in copper enamel work. Each piece was cut, fitted, and molded out of pure copper. On top of the copper was laid ground glass enamel powder. This was then fired at extremely high heat to melt the glass on the surface of the copper. This is difficult, and was made more so, because it was decided to fire in the patterns of the clothing as well. The patterns are not painted, but rather laid out in dry enamel and fired. Thus they are permanent. All the pattern in the cloak, the trim work, and the patterns of crosses in the lappets (the ribbons from the tiara), are done in this manner. The figure’s “jewels” were also made from copper, enameled, and they are applied to the surface of the figure, giving it dimension and body. The cope clasp is the Agnus Dei, based on an enamel of the eleventh century. Christ is the Lamb who offered Himself as a victim to wash away with His own blood the pollution of our nature and of our carnal actions: CARNALES ACTUS TULIT AGNUS HIC HOSTIA FACTUS.
The figure of Christ enthroned was chosen because the work was commissioned in honor of the pontificate of His Holiness Pope John Paul II. For this reason the figure is dressed as the pontiff. This was a common artistic motif of the Middle Ages. Christ, sitting in judgement, has a countenance softened with compassion. He is sovereign, as evidenced by his jeweled scepter, but He is also the loving Savior who seeks only to bless us, as the hand raised in blessing signifies.
On either side of Christ are two angels, carrying two more of the instruments of His passion and death, the spear and the sponge. The spear recalls the miracle of blood and water flowing from the side of Christ and reminds us that we are brought into the Church through baptism, and through this baptism we share in the redemptive death of Christ. The sponge recalls the thirst of Christ upon the cross. When He asked for drink, He was given sour wine or gall mixed with vinegar. When we come to the altar in thirst, we are given His blood to drink, the same blood that flowed from His side.
The patterns on the vesture of the angels further heighten the symbolic character of the work. The angel with the sponge has a pattern made up of a blooming lily and a cross. The lily calls to mind the lily of Saint Joseph, an indirect reference to the donors, the Joseph family, the lily of the blessed Mother, Our Lady of the Atonement, and finally the lily of Saint Anthony, after whom the city of San Antonio was named. The cross pattern is the same as used on the front panel’s lower angels. It is made up of the two “Ts” of the Holy Father’s personal motto. “Totus Tuus.” The angel with the lance has a pattern of a crown of thorns enclosing three nails, calling to mind the bitter and pain-filled death of the Savior. Interwoven with this pattern is the cross made up of the double “Ts.”
The lower angels are positioned behind the tabernacle. They hover in attentive reverence behind the King of kings and Lord of lords. They carry the veil of His Most Holy Name, JESUS, SON OF GOD, SAVIOR. They are vested in patterns appropriate to their proximity to the Eucharist mystery. The golden angel is dressed in a pattern of a long cross with stylized rays of glory behind it – for there is no glory save that of the cross. The green angel has a pattern of gold wheat and a cross. On the cross He was made into that pure bread offered up for us and given to us daily these sacred mysteries.
At the feet of these angels is an inscription that expresses both the Eucharistic mystery and the role of the Virgin Mary, Patroness of this church: AVE VERUM CORPUS NATUS EX MARIA VIRGINE (Hail the True Body, born of Mary the Virgin).
THE SIGNATURE SAINTS OF THE MAIN PANEL
The figure to the right of Christ is that of His foster father, Saint Joseph, tenderly holding the Infant Jesus. This figure was chosen because of the family surname of those whose donation made this reredos possible, and also because Saint Joseph is the patron saint of the Church, the family, and of a happy death.
On the other side of Christ is an image of the Mother of God on the occasion of her glorious Assumption into heaven. She is shown with her arms lowered, the position of humility and the gesture of showering blessings. Near the bottom of the figure is her belt dropping off, which recalls the medieval belief that this belt was given to Saint Thomas at the moment of the Assumption. This belief was one of the most popular during the Middle Ages, and many churches have remnants of this relic in their collections. The image of the Blessed Virgin Assumed was chosen because of the dedication and blessing of Our Lady of the Atonement Church which took place on the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August 1987.
THE ROLE OF THE ANGELS
In this painting there are six large angels and ten small enamel angels. This motif is not simply an artistic addition to the work, but rather has several purposes.
First, His Holiness Pope John Paul II is very much concerned with the traditional belief and teaching of the Church concerning the existence of these heavenly spirits. He has re-emphasized this teaching on many occasions.
Second, such groupings of angels were often found in the style of medieval art that is the inspiration for this reredos. Angels always had a place in the iconography of the Middle Ages. They were especially to be seen in scenes of the Passion. The angels here are relevant to the name of this parish, for they carry those instruments associated with the atoning death of our Lord.
The angels of the Passion are vested as deacons. Deacons are those ministers that assist the priest at the Mass, as the angels assisted Christ in His last agony, death, and resurrection.
Finally, these images of angels remind us of the famous story about Pope Saint Gregory and the people of England. According to tradition, he was inspired to work for the conversion of the pagan Saxons after seeing slaves from Britain for sale in the markets of Rome. He exclaimed, “Not Angles but Angels!”
THE METAL WORK
The hinges on this work are hand-forged steel which extend the front and back in the tradition of metalsmithing in the Middle Ages, and are designed to represent sword blades. This design recalls the prophecy by Saint Simeon that a sword of sorrow would pierce the heart of the Virgin Mary. The center lock, by which the panels are held flush when closed, is in the shape of the tablets of the Mosaic Law. The pin is in the shape of a cross, representing both the cross of Moses’ bronze serpent and the cross of Jesus.
THE CROSSES OF DEDICATION
Although not part of the triptych, there are four crosses found on the east and west walls of the church, which mark the places where the Holy Chrism was placed during the dedication of this place of worship. They are painted in the same style and colors of the reredos, and this “flowering cross” pattern was one of the favorite designs of the Middle Ages.
The crosses themselves were cut from wood that came from Krakow, Poland, near the birthplace of Pope John Paul II, and the city of which he was Cardinal Archbishop prior to his elevation to the papacy.