The Catholic aesthetic is beguiling to even the most implacable atheists. That thought came to me when I heard that the extraordinary Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, a long-standing Catholic Herald contributor, had died. For 78 years Jill led a life uncomplicated by faith – yet she was indefatigable in her exploration of Catholic sites and in the study of the Church’s oeuvres. She was a Catholic by association: wherever a couple of Catholics clustered together there was Jill, an adornment to their gathering, discussing Catholic art, architecture and history.
I still remember her enthusiasm when she found the V&A’s Opus Anglicanum: examples of ecclesiastical vestments made in England before the Reformation.
The exquisitely embroidered copes, chasubles and altar cloths delighted the duchess. Similarly, she had fallen in love with the Crusader Church of St Anne in Jerusalem. She designed its garden, and was happy to know that it had become a popular stop on pilgrim tours of the Holy Land.
Jill’s enthusiasm could be exhausting, to be sure. She once cornered the historian Andrew Roberts at a drinks party to grill him about Napoleon. Roberts tried to detach himself, but the duchess kept on, telling him about her book about Napoleon’s horse (she’d even found one of his hooves). Roberts’s demeanor, by the time his interrogation ended, was that of one of Napoleon’s soldiers retreating from Russia.
I suspect that, although Jill was adamant that she did not seek consolation in conversion, her soul thrilled at the beautiful articles and haunting places that she experienced through her Catholic associations. The truths they have told so lovingly for millennia filled her with gratitude and awe – but perhaps also with a desire to live in a Catholic way. Generosity, courage and empathy: Jill the spiritual tourist had discovered and savoured these virtues along the way, and then brought them home, to share with her friends.
I suspect the Duchess of Hamilton would have taken exception to the way the Catholic aesthetic she adored was hijacked by celebs at the Met Gala in New York last week. If Jill was a cultured tourist with a scholarly appetite for all things Catholic, the guests at the Met Gala were like the stag night louts who descend upon a beauty spot only to trash it.
The unorthodox alliance of Vogue and the Vatican had sounded promising. In these times of austerity and atheism, the grandeur of Catholic imagery is especially bewitching. Just as church-goers of the Middle Ages would, in their grim poverty, have found a rare treat for the senses at Mass, so in our dismally secular era spiritual beauty fills a deep need.
Sadly the perfect marriage between beauty-seekers and truth-seekers was never consummated at the Met Gala. Instead, there was an unholy mish-mash of choirboys (the Vatican’s), Madonna (the pop singer) and Rihanna dressed as the Pope.
Why the Metropolitan Museum of Art, usually so clever in its instincts for glossy self-promotion, and the Pontifical Council for Culture, which has scored some great goals under this pontificate, thought this could work, I don’t know. Suffice it to say, even Piers Morgan complained that his Catholic sensibilities had been offended.
Being married to a Catholic can be testing, as my Anglican husband is discovering. First, I tell him our daughter has to be raised in my faith, not his. Then I drag him to Masses where he regularly hears homilies explaining that Rome is the true Church. But the final test of his good nature came a few weeks ago, when we visited the Vatican.
Our guide was a voluble young Italian woman who treated us as if we were bored teenagers whose attention could only be secured by lots of statistics about how heavy the dome was and how many tennis courts would fit into the nave. She did offer us a lengthy look at Michelangelo’s Pietà, which for me remains the most moving work of art in any medium, in any country.
But then she proceeded to show us Canova’s memorial to “King James III of Britain”. She was utterly unaware that he was a Pretender. The memorial also featured Charles Edward (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie) and his cardinal brother Henry (who was styled “Duke of York” by the Vatican). On the way out a Catholic friend tried to tease my husband by asking him to explain William of Orange’s claim to the throne and how many hops it was from that to George I. Edward answered:
The illustrious house of Hanover
And Protestant Succession
To these I do allegiance swear,
While they shall hold possession:
For in my faith and loyalty,
I nevermore will falter
And George my lawful king shall be,
Until the times do alter.
Whereupon our friend replied:
And this is the law that I’ll maintain
Until my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever king may reign,
Still I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.
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