During the summer, I had a conversation with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, about Bach. Simon Russell Beale was playing Bach in a play at the Bridge Theatre and I knew that Dr Williams had written poetry about Bach’s view of the universe. His explanation of the notion of mathematical harmony, and therefore the vibration of the heavenly spheres, was especially moving.
A little while later, Dr Williams got in contact with me again. He told me, in as understated way as possible, that he knew an artist who had designed a Cross of the Cosmos, containing moon dust, and that the Cross would be consecrated by Bishop Williams at Westminster Abbey in November. Might I be interested in taking up the story?
This is how I came to meet David Montalto, or to give him his full name, David H Maude-Roxby-Montalto di Fragnito. The Montalto home is a Norman castle in Siracusa, Sicily and the family can boast a pope, Sixtus V. David, who is 86, has two identities as an Italian duke and as a Somerset-raised craftsman.
I visit him in his Italianate apartment in a converted former hospital in Kensington. He has a precise, modulated way of speaking as if from the era of the Home Service or as if English might be his more formal language. He offers me tea at a round table by the latticed windows. The light creates patterns on the table surface. Laid on it are a silver water jug, a bowl of cherries and a larger bowl of floating flowers. The glasses are cut glass goblets and David takes from his cabinet some glasses that he has designed, with operatic arias inscribed across them. This diamond-point stipple glass engraver, who has had his work exhibited at the V&A Museum, is a man of exquisite artistic sensibility.
He has a Roman head, white hair, blue eyes and a generous mouth. He is wearing a dark blue shirt tucked into jeans and moves about in a slightly distracted way looking for milk for the tea and then forgetting about it. This is because he is concentrated on telling his story. Since it has taken about 60 years to come to fruition, it is not surprising. This is the story of his life.
In 1959, while studying as a young artist in Florence, David experienced the first of eight visions. They tended to come to him in the early morning and he says they were distinct from dreams in their clarity and purpose. “I remember everything,” he says.
In one vision, he followed a guide, knowing he could not look at him. At the edge of his sight, he saw a figure that he knew to be an angel, describing it as a tall young man with light ginger hair. Following him were the figures of Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.
He was told to cross a deep ditch and to take the American political brothers to safety. As he pulled the men across, their clothes turned to deep blood red. David wrote home to say that he interpreted the vision as a sign that the brothers would run as presidential candidates.
David did not understand the greater significance of the visions until 22 November, 1963. Bobby Kennedy’s death followed.
But the creative significance of the vision was President Jack Kennedy’s mission to the moon. A voice told David that he must make a Cross to honour a future event: the landing on the moon. In 1962, President Kennedy made his famous speech in Houston, Texas: “We choose to go to the moon.”
This became the century’s great imaginative scientific achievement, but for some it was also an act of religious awe. David divined from his vision that the word of God would go round the moon, although he was not sure at the time what that meant.
In December 1968, Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders took part in the Apollo space programme to orbit the moon. The crew read from the first chapter of Genesis in their Christmas Eve broadcast.
It is momentous and mysterious still to listen to it.
William Anders: “We are now approaching lunar sunrise and for all the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 have a message we would like to send you. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth and the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the water and God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw the light that it was good and divided the light from the darkness.”
After some crackle, the deeper voice of James Lovell breaks in:
“And God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night and the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said: ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters and let it divide the waters from the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament’, and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven and the evening and morning were the second day.”
The tape crackles again, broadcasting technology being behind space travel, and a third voice takes up the story.
It is Frank Borman: “And God said: ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together under one place and dry land appear and it was so.’ And God called the dry land Earth and the gather of the waters he called Seas and God saw that it was good.
“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of us on the good Earth.”
The following year, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in the lunar module Eagle. Buzz Aldrin, a Methodist, requested to celebrate Holy Communion on the moon and privately read from the Gospel of St John.
David knew by now that it was his divine instruction to make a Cross of the Cosmos, for the universal God, containing moon dust.
It took David about 42 years to complete his own space mission. He wrote to NASA, who turned down the request on the grounds that it opened the way for many non-scientific demands for moon dust.
One day he met Buzz Aldrin at a dinner and told him about his determination to acquire moon dust for his Cosmic Cross. Aldrin told him that it was impossible. He said: “I have walked on the moon and I haven’t got a piece of it.”
In the end, the president of the US Geological Society and member of NASA, Dr Robin Brett, procured David some moon dust from the Calcalong Creek lunar meteorite which crashed in 2000. David had his moon dust and could begin designing his Cross.
At the base of the staff of this Cross was a globe encircled by two crosses, joined to create a belt which symbolised the word of God going round the moon. Inside the globe, the moon dust was placed and the words inscribed on the outside of the globe: “I can of myself do nothing.”
The words, from St John’s Gospel, were recited by Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
There was another vital part to the Cross. In another vision, in 1959, David had seen an angel seated at a lectern reading from an enormous Bible. The angel looked up and told David that from all the words to be studied, the one that mattered most was the word: Emmanuel.
David says: “I have told this story to priests and professors and not one has answered as the angel did.”
“What I learned was the reason for the Cross, that the message of the Cross was: God is with you.”
In his vision, this message was to be expressed through a jewel, in the form of the lamb of God. He envisaged it and drew it as a lamb encrusted with pearls against a blue enamel background with a halo and cross of diamonds symbolising Christ – Emmanuel.
In 1961, David was looking inside an antique shop in Mount Street and saw the very jewel that he had imagined and drawn. The processional Cross of the Cosmos was destined to be made.
The final silver version of the Cross in engraved crystal glass was made by a master silversmith, Stuart Jenkins. The surface of the Cross is covered with engraved swirls representing the Bible quotation: “The wind breathes where it will and thou can hear the sound of it, but knowest nothing of the way it came or the way it goes; so it is when man is born by the breath of the Spirit ( John, 3.8.).
At the top of the Cross is an oval relief depicting the Holy Trinity, and below the roundel, God, arms outstretched to all. On his lap is the Holy Ghost represented as a dove. On the left of the Cross is a plaque representing Abraham after he had been told to spare Isaac for sacrifice. On the right is a circular plaque representing the Eucharist.
The Cross abounds with symbols. There is the serpent from the garden of Eden and the temple-like structure of nine silver gilt pillars representing the Temple destroyed by Samson and the nine letters of the Pentecost. But it is the antique jewel at the centre which provides the exquisitely laid message of the Cross. “Christ Emmanuel, God is With Us.”
In 2016, David went to see the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who was Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. They talked for almost an hour about the Cross. Later, examining it, Dr Williams proclaimed some of the theological symbolism “ beyond the knowledge” of the artist. He believed that it was divinely inspired.
David has tears in his eyes at the memory of acceptance.
“It confirmed that I wasn’t an idiot. Before Rowan Williams, this was just the pursuit of a dream.”
On Sunday, 21 November 21, Dr Williams will consecrate the Cross of the Cosmos at Westminster Abbey. There are plans for an anthem, with music by the composer Roderick Williams and words by Kit Hesketh Harvey. Next year, there is talk of the Cross going on pilgrimage across the country. It is hoped that a philanthropist will come forward to support this.
The journey so far has been extraordinary enough. David firmly believes that the realisation of his visions in 1959 is divine destiny.
“The predictions that I was given at the time, not one person on earth could have known that at the time. It must be my duty to make sure that the message of the Cross is seen and heard, because look at the times. There is so much brutality. The message is: God is with us.”
“The Cosmos is central. It is the moment human beings can truly understand that they can’t understand. Everything we know is contained. We are in this body, this room, this country. How can we understand something that isn’t contained, that has no beginning and no end? I can understand people who cannot grasp the idea of God. It is a gift, you either believe it or you don’t.
“I sat on a plane next to a scientist who had presided over a world congress in Naples, and I asked him if he believed in God. He said: ‘The more I learn, the more I am convinced that there is a mind behind everything. It is thought-out, it isn’t haphazard.’
“Many people don’t believe in life after life but scientists know that atoms are indestructible, they can change their form but they can never be destroyed.
“Atoms contain memory, so, again, we should be accepting this and furthering our studies. Maybe it is more important than going to Mars.”
David Montalto cannot compete with Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk for headlines but his Cross of the Cosmos is a thing of exceptional beauty and religious significance. It deserves to go on tour.
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
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