Digital Heritage – the Stone of Destiny yields secrets

Photo of a replica of the Stone of Destiny at Scone Abbey. This is where Scottish Kings were crowned.  The chapel is built near to Scone Palace, and on a mound of earth which was said to be made up of the dust from the shoes, and trousers of those attending coronations from all over Scotland
Replica of the Stone of Destiny at Scone Palace, Photo Kevin Flude

A study of the Stone of Destiny, the Stone of Scone, the Coronation Stone, has revealed new information. Firstly, it has some markings which look like three X’s and something like a V – perhaps Roman Numerals or more likely, crosses.

The Stone also revealed traces of copper alloy showing that a metal object had been attached to the Stone for a considerable time. The most obvious suggestion would be a relic associated with a Saint, and a Bell is one possibility.

Traces of gypsum suggested someone sometime made a plaster copy of the stone. No one knows when or why, and it has not been found.

Historic Environment, Scotland has released this fascinating 3-D scan of the stone for the public to view – it is annotated too.

You can read more at the links below, and thank you to Jean Kelly of the Britarch mailing list for alerting me to this.

Hidden symbols and ‘anomalies’ (Live Science)

Cutting-edge digital technologies (Historic Environment Scotland)

The Stone has been moved from its permanent home at Edinburgh Castle for the first time since 1996, to be placed under the Coronation Chair for Charles’s May 6 Coronation at Westminster Abbey.

Coronation Chair, with Stone of Scone under the seat.
black and white photo
Coronation Chair, with Stone of Scone under the seat.

The Stone was kept at Scone before it was stolen by Edward 1 of England, who placed it under the Coronation Chair, at Westminster, to sanctify English Kings and to make the point that he was the overlord of the Scottish. In the 1950’s Scottish students stole it back, hid it for a few weeks and then left it at Arbroath Abbey. They did this because the so-called Declaration of Arbroath (1320) is a letter to the Pope asking for his endorsement of Scotland’s claim to be independent of England. The Pope agreed.

The Stone was recovered from Arbroath taken back to Westminster. The Labour Party under Tony Blair, granted Scotland back their own Parliament and as a symbol of their regained independence, the Stone of Destiny was taken back to Scotland.

Newspaper cutting showing the Stone being taken from Arbroath Abbey
Photo of six people, including policemen carrying away the Stone of Scone from Arbroath Abbey
Newspaper cutting showing the Stone being taken from Arbroath Abbey

To my mind it should be in Scone, which is where Macbeth and most other Scottish Kings were crowned, but perhaps they thought it should be in the Capital and in the safety of the Castle. At Scone, the Stone was placed on a mound of earth which was said to be made up of the dust from the feet of those attending Coronations symbolising the consent of all of Scotland for the new King.

Object of the Day – Shakespeare’s Signet Ring?

Signet Ring which mayu be Shakespeares
Signet Ring with Lover’s Knot and initials WS

I went to New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon to see the First Folio Exhibition on the anniversary of its publication in 1623. It was a very small exhibition, and, at first sight quite disappointing. Almost everything in it I had seen before. But, I came away quite excited, because it had a much better explanation of the Signet Ring than the one in its previous display.

In 1810 someone found this gold ring in field near the Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptised and buried. It has a lover’s knot and the initials WS. It could ofcourse be anyone’s with those initials. But it certainly excited comment at the time as the display makes clear:

Photo of display at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon of a comment by BEnjamin Hayden to John Keats about the finding of signet ring which might be Shakespeares.

I did not know about the ring until New Place was refurbished a few years ago and the ring went on display. The new display gives more of an explanation as well as the delightful quotation above from Hayden to Keats.

Michael Wood suggested that Shakespeare might have lost the ring on the occassion of his daughter, Judith’s, marriage to Thomas Quiney in February 1616. Shakespeare made his Will a month later, and it is marked by three of his signatures. The Will says ‘whereof I have hereunto put my seale’. The word seale has been crossed out and the word ‘hand’ put in in its stead. So, he was intending to seale his approval of the Will, but changed his mind and put his signature instead? Why? Because he had recently lost his seal ring? Shakespeare died a month or so later.

Photo of display photo of the Ring that maybe Shakespeare's
Photo of the display photo of the Ring that maybe Shakespeare’s

Judith was the twin of Hamnet who died at age 11 and the Church has recently planted a couple of trees as a memorial to the twins, who are not buried, like their older sister, Suzanna, next to their mum and dad by the altar in the Church. Judith’s husband was a bit of a rogue, as he was called to the Bawdy Court and accused of debauchery with a local women who he made pregnant, and who died in childbirth. He is not mentioned in the Will.

But Shakespeare did leave money in his will to buy gold rings for his fellow actors, John Heminges and William Condell, who are buried in St Mary Aldermanbury in London. They outlived Shakespeare and collected his plays together in the First Folio. A Remembrance Ring is also in the display.

Handwritten notebook written in the 1620s full of quotations from the First Folio
Handwritten notebook written in the 1620s full of quotations from the First Folio

The other main item in the display is this tiny 7.8 cm high notebook in which its unknown owner copied out his favourite quotes from the First Folio. It contains material from all 38 plays, and internal evidence shows it must have been made from the First Folio. It is about the size of the minature books the Brontes made. The tiny writing of the book must have been written with a quill from a small bird.

The display shows that a lot can be made of a few objects, if they are well chosen and with an excellent explanation.

By the way the rings and the Folio are clear evidence that Shakespeare wrote the plays as his friends put together his plays in a volume with introductory information which makes it absolutely clear he wrote them. Also in the Church the memorial to Shakespeare compares him to King Nestor in judgement, Socrates in wisdom, and Virgil in art. Nothing can be clearer, and why people continue to say Shakespeare was simply an actor who copied out the plays is beyond me.

Pylium is a reference to King Nestor of Pylos. Maronem is Virgil. The last line means ‘The earth buries him’ the people mourns him, Olympus posesses him’.

April 23rd St George’s Day, Shakespeare’s Birthday & Tudor Birth

shakWilliam Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the 1st Folio
William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the 1st Folio

By tradition, Shakespeare was born on St George’s Day April 23rd 1564, 457 years ago. He died on the same date in 1616 at age 52. Cervantes died on the same day.

Shakespeare’s death date is given by the burial register at the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford on Avon where he was buried. His baptismal record also survives at the same church and is on April 26th 1564. but we don’t actually know when he was born, but christening were held soon after birth for fear of the high infant mortality rates, so the 23rd April has been assigned to be Shakespeare’s birthday.

Anne Shakespeare would have ‘taken to her chamber’ about four weeks before the due date. The windows or shutters would have been fastened as fresh air was thought to be bad for the birthing process. Female friends and relatives would come round, and the room would be decorated with fine carpets, hangings, silver plates and fine ornaments. It was felt that external events could influence the birth, and any shocks or horrors were thought to be the cause of deformities and anomalies, so a calm lying-in room was clearly a good idea.

When labour began female friends, relatives and the midwife were called to help out. A caudle of spiced wine or beer would be given to the mother to strengthen her through the process. Today the maternal mortality rate is 7 per 100,000. An estimate for the 16th Century is 1500 per 100,000. So most women would have heard of or attended the birth of women who had died during or following children birth. There were also no forceps so if a baby were stuck and could not be manually manipulated out, then the only way forward was to get a surgeon to use hooks to dismember the baby to save the life of the mother. Doctors were not normally in attendance, but could be called in emergency,

Immediately after washing, the baby was swaddled. The swaddling was often very tight and could affect the baby’s growth, and might have affected the learning process as movement of hands are now considered very important in the early learning process. Swaddling lasted eight to nine months, and only went out of fashion after Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote against the practice.

Detail of tomb of Alexander Denton and his first wife Anne Willison, and her baby dressed in swaddling clothes Photo Wikipedia Hugh Llewelyn

Puerperal fever killed many women after successful childbirth for example Queen Jane Seymour who died after 5 days. During these dangerous early days the mother was kept in a dark room, and then, perhaps three days after birth friends were invited to celebrate ‘upsitting’ when the mother was no longer confined to bed. This is when christening would take place. Edward VI was christened to a huge audience in the chapel at Hampton Court three days after his birth.

Licensed midwives could baptise newborn babies provided they used the correct wording and informed the Church so that the registration could be properly reported. Thomas Cromwell was responsible for the law in 1538 which insisted on a parish register to record weddings, christenings, and funerals. The law was reaffirmed by Queen Elizabeth in 1558 and registers had to be stored in a locked chest in the Church. (In 1597, the records had to be on parchment not paper, and in 1603 the chest had to have three locks!).

If the Christening were in the church the mother might not be there as she was expected to stay in her chamber for another week or so.

A week or a few weeks later the mother would be ‘churched.’ This was a thanks-giving ceremony, although Puritans did not like the idea that it could be considered a purification ceremony.

Breast feeding would last a year or so but many high status women choose to use a wet-nurse, but there was a real concern that the wet nurse was suitable as it was believed that the breast milk was important for the babies development both physically and temperamentally. Poor children who lost their mothers were very unlikely to survive as, without breast milk, the baby would be fed pap – bread soaked in cow’s milk.

Thanks very much to Alison Sim’s book ‘The Tudor Household’ for a lot of the above.

April 18th Canterbury Pilgrimage

Pilgrims leaving the Tabard for the Canterbury Pilgrimage
Pilgrims leaving the Tabard for the Canterbury Pilgrimage

Last year on the 18th April I led a Chaucer’s London Walk in the morning and a Canterbury Tales Virtual Pilgrimage in the evening. I chose the day is it was the closest to the 18th April which is when Chaucer’s pilgrims leave London to ride to Canterbury.

At the beginning of the prologue, he gives clues as to the date. They go when April showers and Zephyrus’s wind is causing sap to rise in plants, engendering flowers, and when Aries course across the sky is half run.

The pilgrims are accompanied by Harry Bailly who is the landlord of the Tabard Inn in Southwark and was a real person and a fellow Member of Parliament of Chaucer.

He is jolly and quite knowledgeable and in the Man of Laws prologue we get a glimpse of Harry time telling in the days before clocks.

a mass clock at Steventon
A mass clock at Steventon Church. Hampshire

Chaucer mentions ‘artificial day’ and this is a reference to the way days were divided into hours. There were twelve hours in the daylight part of the day, and twelve hours in the dark night. So in the winter daylight hours were short, and in the summer long.

Romans used water clocks, King Alfred used candles marked into hours and Harry Bailly knows how to tell the time by the height of the Sun. Harry tells the pilgrims it’s about time they got underway. Here is an extract:

Essentially, he is telling the time by the length of the shadows. The illustration of the mass clock at Jane Austen’s Church at Steventon is another example of how the sun can be used easily to tell time.

The first mass clock I noticed was at the church in Kent which Dickens used for Great Expectations, where Pip’s brothers and sisters were buried. Once you find one mass clock, you suddenly discover them everywhere!

Telling the time, before mechanical clocks, was not complicated. The basic unit is the day and the night, and we can all tell when the dawn has broken. The Moon provides another simple unit of time. The month’s orbit around the Earth is roughly every 29 days and the new, the crescents and full moons provide a quartering of the month. For longer units, the Earth orbits around the Sun on a yearly basic, but divided into four, the winter solstice; the spring equinox, the summer solstice and the autumn equinox.

But there were other ways of marking days in the calendar, with natural time markers marked by, for example, migrating birds, lambing, and any number of budding and flowering plants such as daffodils and elm leaves:

When the Elmen leaf is as big as a mouse’s ear,
Then to sow barley never fear;
When the Elmen leaf is as big as an ox’s eye,
Then says I, ‘Hie, boys” Hie!’
When elm leaves are as big as a shilling,
Plant, kidney beans, if to plant ’em you’re willing;
When elm leaves are as big as a penny,
You must plant kidney beans if you mean to have any.’

In my north-facing garden, I have my very own solar time marker. All through the winter, the sun never shines directly on my garden. Spring comes appreciably later than the front car park which is a sun trap. But in early April, just after 12 o’clock the sun peeks over the block of flats to the south of me, finds a gap between my building and the converted warehouse next door and for a short window of time a shaft of a sunbeam brings a belated and welcome spring.

April 10th Anglo-Saxon Easter

Lullingstone Mosaic representing Spring
Lullingstone Roman Mosaic representing Spring

Easter is a Germanic name, and, the only evidence for its derivation comes from the Venerable Bede, who was the first English Historian and a notable scholar. He says the pagan name for April was derived from the Goddess Eostra. The German name for Easter is Ostern probably with a similar derivation. But this is all the evidence there is for the Goddess, despite many claims for the deep history of Easter traditions.

Philip A. Shaw has proposed that the name of Eastry in Kent might derive from a local goddess, called Eostra and that the influence of Canterbury in the early Church in England and Germany led to the adoption of this local cult name for the Holy Week in these two countries. Otherwise, the name for Easter in Europe derives from Pascha which comes from the Hebrew Passover and Latin. In French it’s Pâques’ in Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua; Dutch Pasen, Swedish Påsk; Norwegian Påske and so on.

The timing of Easter is the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. I have already explained that Spring was the time the Church set for the Creation, the Crucifixion and Resurrection and other key points in the Christian Calendar. See march-25th-the-beginning-of-the-universe-as-we-know-it-birthday-of-adam-lilith-eve-conception-of-jesus-start-of-the-year.

Eleanor Parker in her lovely book ‘Winter in the World’ gives a lyrical insight into how the dates were chosen because of the belief that God would only choose the perfect time for the Creation and the events of Easter. The Creation began with the birth of the Sun and the Moon, so it was fixed to the Equinox, when the days were of equal length, and the fruits of the earth were stirring into life. But Holy Week also needed to be in harmony with the Moon and so was tied, like Passover, to the first full moon after the Equinox, which is also when the events take place in the Gospels.

The quotations Parker uses from early English religious writing and poetry shows a deep interest in nature and the universe which is very appealing. It seems to me that this is something the Church, to an extent, lost in later times, and replaced with fixation with dogma and ‘worship’ of the Holy Trinity.

At the time fixing the date of Easter was very controversial as the kingdoms in Britain had a different calendar to the Roman Catholic Church and therefore Easter fell on a different day. The King of Northumberland, for example, celebrated Easter on a different day to that of his wife. Oswiu was exiled to Ireland where he was influenced by Celtic Christianity while his wife, Eanflæd, while also being from Northumberland, had been baptised by the Roman Catholic missionary, Paulinus.

Oswiu, became the ‘Bretwalda’ of all Britain, and encouraged a reconciliation, culminating at the Synod of Whitby (664AD), between the two churches where the Celtic Church agreed to follow the Catholic calendar and other controversial customs. After her husband’s death Eanflaed became Abbess of Whitby.

King Alfred’s law code gave labourers the week before and after Easter off work, making it the main holiday of the year. Ælfric of Eynsham gives a powerful commentary on the rituals of the Church over Easter, which was full of drama and participation including Palm leaf processions on Palm Sunday, feet washing and giving offerings to the poor on Maundy Thursday. Then followed three ‘silent days’ with no preaching but rituals and services aiming to encourage empathy for the ordeal of Jesus. Thus the night time service of Tenebrae, when all lights were extinguished in the Church while the choir sang ‘Lord Have Mercy’. The darkness represented the darkness and despair that was said to cover the world after Jesus’ death. Good Friday was the day for the adoration of the Cross in which a Cross would be decorated with treasures and symbolised turning a disaster into a triumph.

It seemed to me that I saw a wondrous tree
Lifted up into the air, wrapped in light,
brightest of beams. All that beacon was
covered with gold; gems stood
beautiful at the surface of the earth,….

The Dream of the Rood quoted in Eleanor Parker’s ‘Winter in the World’

The days before Easter Sunday are known as the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ which was a very popular theme in the medieval period (featuring in Piers Plowman for example). Jesus went down to hell to free those, like John the Baptist, who had been trapped because the world had no saviour until the first Easter. The Clerk of Oxford Blog provides more information on the Harrowing of Hell on this page, including that the name ‘Harrowing’ comes from ‘Old English word hergian ‘to harry, pillage, plunder’ which underpins the way the event is depicted as a military raid on Hell.

I have just realised that the Clerk of Oxford Blog is by written by Eleanor Parker, and started in 2008, whilst an undergraduate student at Oxford. The blog won the 2015 Longman-History Today award for Digital History‘.

The above is but a very poor précis of Eleanor Parker’s use of Anglo-saxon poetry and literature to bring Easter to life. So if you are interested to know more or would like to have a different viewpoint on the Anglo-Saxons please get a copy of her book.

Maundy Thursday April 17th 2025

Maundy Money Pouches. and cover of the Order of Service for Royal Maundy service 1974 Photo Wehwalt
Maundy Money Pouches. and cover of the Order of Service for Royal Maundy service 1974 Photo Wehwalt

This is the last day of Lent, and the day before the Passion. Its also called Holy Thursday when Christians remember the Washing of the Feet, and the Last Supper.. Maundy is thought to be from the ‘Latin word mandatum, or commandment, reflecting Jesus’ words “I give you a new commandment.’ (Wikipedia). But I much prefer the derivation that it comes from the custom of the English Kings giving alms to poor people on this day.

English name “Maundy Thursday” arose from “maundsor baskets” or “maundy purses” of alms which the king of England distributed to certain poor at Whitehall before attending Mass on that day. Thus, “maund” is connected to the Latin mendicare, and French mendier, to beg.

Royal MaundyWikipedia

The monarch gives out money in special red and white pouches to old people. In modern times the money is specially minted for the occasion. It is now more symbolic than a practical gesture. It dates back to the 13th Century.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip Wakefield Cathedral after the 2005 Royal Maundy Ceremony.  Photo Runner1928
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip after the 2005 Royal Maundy Ceremony at Wakefield Cathedral. Photo Runner1928

In 1572 Queen Elizabeth 1 washed one foot of a group of poor women, then wiped, crossed and kissed them. In fact, the women had first had their feet washed by the laundress, then the sub-almoner, then the almoner, and finally the Queen. (The Perpetual Almanac of Folklore by Charles Kightley’

One scholar, Prof Humphreys author of ‘The Mystery Of The Last Supper’, believes that there is far too much going on between the Last Supper on Thursday and the Crucifixion on Good Friday. He suggests an old Jewish Calendar was used and therefore the Last Supper was on the Wednesday not the Thursday and the date he favours is:

Wednesday, 1 April AD33

April 2nd – Yew Sunday

Giotto. Entry into Jerusalem from the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova (sent to me by Lucia Granatella)

Yew Sunday (Domhnach an Iúir in Irish) is the medieval name for Palm Sunday – this is the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph on a donkey, with palm leaves being laid in front of him. It has always been very curious to me this so-short-lived triumph preceding such heavy and heart breaking tragedy. It is the Sunday before the Betrayal, which leads to the Crucifixion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Sunday. A busy week for the Church.

Palm Sunday can be celebrated by making crosses out of palms, or with processions bearing palm branches or eating special cakes (there is always room in any ritual for cakes). But in the North where do you get your Palms from? So, it was often substituted by Box, or Olive or Willow and particularly, in Britain and Ireland, by Yew. Yew is evergreen and is so long lived as to be a symbol of everlasting life (I wrote more about the Yew here).

Giotto Bondone was a Florentine painter of the 14th Century of whom Giorgio Vasari, in his essential guide to the artists of the Renaissance, ‘The Lives of the Artists‘ said of the 10 year old:

One day Cimabue, going on business from Florence to Vespignano, found Giotto, while his sheep were feeding, drawing a sheep from nature upon a smooth and solid rock with a pointed stone, having never learnt from any one but nature. Cimabue, marvelling at him, stopped and asked him if he would go and be with him. And the boy answered that if his father were content he would gladly go. Then Cimabue asked Bondone for him, and he gave him up to him, and was content that he should take him to Florence.

There in a little time, by the aid of nature and the teaching of Cimabue, the boy not only equalled his master, but freed himself from the rude manner of the Greeks, and brought back to life the true art of painting, introducing the drawing from nature of living persons, which had not been practised for two hundred years; or at least if some had tried it, they had not succeeded very happily.

Written in 1550.

If you look at the painting, you will see, even more than his contemporary Duccio, the faces of the people are rounded and, and at least somewhat, individual. The crowd scene, particularly, to the right, has some depth and the people further away seem to recede from the viewer, rather than, as they often do in Byzantine style paintings, either float or seem to stand on or support themselves on each other’s shoulders. The Gate into Jerusalem has been rendered by someone who has seen something that he believes has the key to realistic scenes. One day it will be rediscovered, and named single-point perspective. Yes, Giotto doesn’t know the secret but he is working to find out what the trick is. The people in the trees are also in the distance. These are the giant strides that Vasari is referring to in the quotation above. Realistic people, in spaces with depth. The donkey is quite sweet too! Cimabue was particularly good at painting Crucifix scenes.

The Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova is a World Heritage Site and Giotto and his team covered all the walls and ceiling with frescos, depicting the Life of Jesus, the Life of Mary, and the Last Judgement.

Giotto, The Last Judgement. Cappella degli Scrovegni, In Padova. Wikipedia

Here is a real Digital Heritage treat – a 360 Degree tour of the Chapel! Follow the link below. If it seems to be taking a long time to load there is an information button which, once pressed will allow the panorama to load immediately.

https://www.haltadefinizione.com/en/image-bank/giotto-di-bondone-scrovegni-chapel-360-view/

March 25th Feast of the Annunciation

Duccio's painting of the Archangel Gabriel bringing the news to Mary that she is to be the Mother of the Son of God.
Duccio’s The Annunciation. Egg Tempera on Wood c 1307-11

Today, is the anniversary of the conception of Jesus Christ. 9 Months before Christmas.

The picture above is by Duccio, from Sienna in Italy. It shows the Archangel Gabriel bringing Mary the news that she is to give birth to the Son of God. It is in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. I chose it to represent March 25th as it has a special meaning to me. When I suggested taking my groups to the National Gallery I was surprised to find myself agreeing to leading a tour of the Gallery. For an archaeologist to give an Art History Tour was a particular thrill. I decided the only way I could do it was to find a narrative thread to pull my tour together, and my choice was the development of perspective. I had been reading a book on the subject by David Hockney.

The painting shows that Duccio does not understand single-point perspective. But then, no one could do perspective at that time in Europe. This skill was lost following the Roman Period, but here at the beginning of the 14th Century, painters like Duccio from Sienna, and Giotto from Florence, were groping towards more realistic representation. You might say they wanted a more human depiction in which events are shown in spaces that are trying to look real, filled with more realistic looking people and beginning to show on their faces what can be interpreted as real emotions. Previously, the Byzantine style produced iconic, storytelling images, that were somewhat cartoon-like rather than realistic. Here, is an detail from one such, where there is little attempt to make the encounter seem real, in a real space between real people. But it does tell the story effectively.

The Annunciation, St Catherine's Monastery,   12th Century. showing the archangel gabriel telling Mary about the conception of jesus
The Annunciation, St Catherine’s Monastery, 12th Century.

Now, look at the Duccio, he uses the arcading at the top of the painting to give an impression of this being an encounter in a real space, and the Archangel Gabriel is moving through that space decisively. This is not just a picture with a story, this shows Duccio’s interest in capturing a fleeting but incredibly emotional moment. It happens to be the most important moment in the history of the world (from a Christian view point), the moment that the son of God is conceived as a human.

Gabriel is striding towards Mary, who has come out of her house to see him. He is just telling her ‘Hey, you are going to give birth to the Son of God.’ She looks overwhelmed, holding her arm protectively towards her. ‘What me?’ she might be saying but is also pointing at the Bible where this moment in time is predicted by Isaiah. Their faces are rounded, and realistic, Mary is clearly emotional. Also if you look at Gabriel’s feet he is quite well grounded unlike many other medieval paintings, where people often seem to be floating above the ground. Mary, too is firmly, anchored, although you cannot see her feet. It’s by no means ‘perfect’ because they don’t know the rules of perspective, not yet have discovered they could use lenses to develop the ability to do photorealistic portraits but they are searching for methods that can bring spaces and people towards realistic life. It mirrors a humanistic trend to see Mary not as sort of Goddess, but as a real mother.

Above the arcading can be seen a small sphere of blue sky from which emanates several ‘rays’ and a tiny Holy Dove. As I told the story, the rays are showing the moment of conception coming from Heaven to her womb which is hinted at by the red of her dress. The National Gallery commentary, which you can read here, suggests ‘The conception takes place at the moment she hears the words, which is why a tiny white dove, representing the Holy Ghost, flies towards her ear‘. This made me stop and think – the tiny dove is heading to her ear is it? Really? Why? Gabriel is the messenger saying the words, the words head to the ear. The Holy Dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, part of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Its role, in the painting, is to show that God is the Father. So why, would the Holy Spirit enter by the ear?

I have been using a ruler to try to see if the National Gallery are right! It’s difficult to be sure with a reproduction. but my ruler says the rays from Heaven are neither heading to the ear not directly to the womb but in the general direction of her body. If they are right that the rays from heaven are heading for her ear, then is this rather the moment she is being told she will conceive rather than the moment of conception?

But the National Gallery text accepts that it is the moment of conception that is shown. So, I’ve looked at Luke 1:26-38:

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

On first reading he is telling her she will conceive, but reading it more carefully he is saying ‘now, you will conceive’. So Duccio is paying very careful attention to the Gospel and by the time Gabriel finishes his sentence she will have been impregnated by the Holy Dove.

Looking at other paintings of the Annunciation the rays from heaven/Holy Ghost head generally towards the virgin, sometimes to her head, nothing suggesting the ear. I’ve included a 19th Century Rossetti painting because it is so beautiful. It shows a lilly representing purity, instead of the rays, pointing to Mary’s womb.

By the way look at the feet in Rossetti’s painting. This is an early Rossetti painting, who was poet and I don’t think he yet had the skills to ground feet, but he takes advantage of it in this case and disguises his ineptitude by giving Gabriel fiery feet. Subsequently, Rossetti concentrated on paintings of women from the waist up. Since, first writing this, I have visited an exhibition of Rosetti’s drawings, and they show a very capable draughtsman. For more on March 25th. This page shows that, in fact, from a Christian perspective, March 25th is the most important day in history.

Veronese ‘The Annunciation’
The Annunciation by Rossetti originally known as Ecce Ancilla Domini! 1849 - 1850
The Annunciation by Rossetti originally known as Ecce Ancilla Domini! 1849 – 1850

February 13th The Miracle of the Testicles

Image from Facebook

St Artemios is the patron saint of male genital disorders, more specifically, hernias and ruptures. His Saint’s Day is October 20th but I hope you will forgive me for raising it early because of personal circumstances.

Yesterday, I did a Chaucer’s London Virtual Tour – one I first prepared during the dark days of Covid. As I was revising the presentation, I was surprised to discover that I had illustrated a piece on medieval health care (St Thomas Hospital, Chaucer’s Physician) with images of medieval hernia operations. Surprised, because I am currently recovering from an inguinal hernia operation and suffering a little so that the image (above) which, coincidently popped up in facebook made me laugh. Obviously, I was meant to write about testicles today.

St. Artemios was Governor of Egypt during the reign of Julian the Apostate (331 – 26 June 363). Julian was a philosopher. nephew to Constantine the Great, who tried to turn the tide and return to traditional Roman religious practices. Artemios was called to a military meeting with Julian where he witnessed and objected to abuse of Christians. He was tortured with red hot irons, and miraculously cured. Then he was taken to the Amphitheatre where there was a big stone broken in half, and was put on half stone and the other half was raised above him and released crushing Artemios. He was presumed dead, and left for a day. But he was still alive, broken boned, disembowelled, eyeless and remained unwilling to renounce his religion and Julian ordered his beheading.

A noble woman took his body to Constantinople where his shrine soon started attracting miracles. In the 7th Century an anonymous author compiled a record of the miracles. St Artemios had become known for healing hernias and genital disorders ‘mostly in men.’ I’m not sure entirely why. Perhaps because of the red-hot pokers? The disembowelling? Maybe the stone that crushed was round?

I first came across the Saint when my mother-in-law bought me a wonderful book called ‘A Medieval Miscellany selected by Judith Herrin and with an introduction by the great Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (see Jan 27th Post to read about Montaillou and Ladurie). It had a colourful spread called ‘The Miracle of the Testicles’ which was the story told by Stephen, a 7th Century deacon of St. Sophia in Constantinople who ‘suffered a rupture, whether from shouting acclamations or from a heavy weight, I cannot say.’

To cut a long story short, Stephen was very embarrassed by his condition and eventually tried many cures and finally undertook surgery, which was successful but very soon the condition reoccurred which left him to despair.

Scrotal Hernia Operation, italy
Scrotal Hernia Operation, italy

So he planned to visit the shrine of the great healer of testicles, but was too embarrassed to stand in the Church ashamed to be seen by friends. But passing by one day he nipped into the Tomb, descended to where the relics were and ‘cast’ some of the Saint’s holy oil on his testicles. He then found, much to his surprise, that the doors to the Coffin itself were open. Seeing this as a divine intervention he jumped onto the coffin, straddled it face down, so that the corner of the tomb was rubbing his testicles and prayed:

And with tears, I spoke again to the martyr: “St.Artemios, by God, Who has given you the gift of cures, no doctor on Earth will ever touch me again. So if you please, cure me. But if not, to your everlasting shame I will live thus without cure.

He was not cured immediately. Later he went to the Hot Baths and bathed, and on leaving the baths, thanks be to St Artemios, he was completely cured.

I have transcribed the translation of Stephen’s writings and place it here below as it has many fascinating aspects and remember it is a 7th Century account. But what an extraordinary tale: that it seems reasonable to steal into a tomb, take the holy oil, rub your genitals all over the shrine, and then tell the Saint that it will be to his everlasting shame if he does not make the cure!

For more on the Hospital of Sampson click here. Livanon is one of the Roman Baths in Constantinople and it is interesting that the cure follows bathing in them. The Oxeia is a neighbourhood in Constantinople connected with St Antemios. A cautery is a method to remove or close off a part of the body. It can be hot, cold or chemical.

At long last I disclosed the misfortune to my parents, and after many treatments, (how many!) had been performed on me. Finally, after taking counsel with them, I entrusted myself for surgery to the surgeons in the hospital Sampson, and I reclined in the hospital room near to the entrance to the area devoted to eyes.

After I had been treated all over for three days at night with cold cauteries, surgery was performed on the fourth day. I will omit to what horrible things I experienced while on my back.

To sum up everything, I state that I actually despaired of life itself at the hands of the physicians. After God, entreated by the tears of my parents, restored my life to me, and after the scar from the incision and the cautery had healed, and just as I was believing that I was healthy, a short time later, the same condition recurred and so I reverted to my former state…

I had a plan to approach the holy martyr, as I had heard of his many great miracles. Still, I was unwilling to wait in the venerable church feeling ashamed before friends and acquaintances to be seen by them in such condition. But I frequently used to pass by (for at that time, I was staying in the Oxeia). And so I descended to the holy tomb of his precious relics, and I cast some of his holy blessing, I. e. oil on my testicles, hoping to procure a cure in this manner. And frequently, I entreated him to deliver me from the troublesome condition…

After descending to the holy tomb, I found the doors in front open and I was astounded that they were opened at such an hour. This was the doing of the martyr, in his desire to pity me, Stretching out facedown on the holy coffin, I straddled it, and thus contrived to rub the corner of the same Holy tomb on the spot where I was ailing. And with tears, I spoke again to the martyr: “St.Artemios, by God, Who has given you the gift of cures, no doctor on earth will ever touch me again. So if you please, cure me. But if not, to your everlasting shame I will live thus without cure.’ And after some days I went to the bath in the court of Anthemios, the one called Livanon to bathe by myself at dawn in order not to be seen by anyone . And entering the hot chamber, I noticed that I still had the injury. But upon exiting, I had no injury, and recognising the act of kindness on the part of God and the martyr which is befallen me… in thanksgiving… I do now glorify them proclaiming their deeds of greatness throughout my whole life.

From Medieval Miscellany selected by Judith Herrin Pg 54 the Miracle of the Testicles

New Irish Bank Holiday for St Bridget/Imbolc! February 6th

The celtic year shown as a circle
The Celtic Year

The Irish have created a brand new Bank Holiday for St Bridget. The first one is today Monday 6th February 2023 and it follows a public holiday given last year for Health Workers in March. The timing of the Bank Holiday is explained by the Irish Post:

St Brigid’s Day itself falls on February 1 each year but going forward the Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day public holiday will fall on the first Monday in February, unless February 1st falls on a Friday.

This means that Ireland now has a public holiday on the 4 Celtic festivals of Samain (Halloween), Imbolc (St Bridget’s Day), Beltane (May Day) and Lughnasa (Lammas Day). These festivals are quarter-days, which mean they fall half way between the Solstices and Equinoxes.

The Independent wrote that ‘then-Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, said last year‘ ….“This will be the first Irish public holiday named after a woman,”  He also is quoted as saying:

“It marks the half-way point between the winter solstice and the equinox, the beginning of spring and the Celtic New Year.”

Extra Bank Holidays in the UK?

There are occasional calls for a new Bank Holiday in the UK. It’s often a Conservative MP calling for a National Day for the British and they often suggest a date like Trafalgar Day 21st October (commemorating the great Naval battle in 1805 in which Nelson was fatally wounded). It has several virtues in their eyes. Firstly, it is a day that confirmed Britain’s mastery of the Seas and thus is an ideal day for celebrating patriotism. Secondly, it is the school half term, and gives a much needed day off between summer and Christmas. Thirdly, they can suggest the day should be taken from May Day Bank holiday which coincides with the International Worker’s Day, which is obviously ‘a bad thing’.

For example, the Portsmouth MP’s supported a call for Trafalgar Day here: . The report says: ‘there are currently no bank holidays in the UK which celebrate battles or war victories’.

This, I think, leaves the rest of us thinking ‘What planet do these people live on?’ Yes, Trafalgar Day would have been a great day for a Bank Holiday IF this were 1839, maybe even 1939. But in 2023 it is just not on any ordinary person’s radar. We don’t think so very much about the Napoleonic War or Nelson, or nor do we often sing ‘Heart of Oaks, are our Men’ any more. In short, it is a reminder how distant from the rest of us Conservative MPs are, and how progressive Ireland has become by contrast.

Recently, we have been given a few Royal Bank Holidays, last year for the Queen, this year for the King. The Trade Union Congress proposed the need for more bank holidays because we only have the usual eight annual bank holidays for workers in England and Wales. Scotland has nine or ten; the average for the EU is ‘12.3 bank holidays a year. Finland and Romania get 15, while workers in Japan have 16 public holidays in total’.

A recent radio programme ‘The Bottom Line’ compared Britain with France and revealed that Britain is now 20% less productive than France, (up by 10% since Brexit) and that we make up the deficit by working longer hours. It appears that the French high tax. high worker’s protection regime, means they have to find ways of getting more out of the same hours, while we can just hire and fire, and are happy to make people work in a more inefficient way.

Here is my recent post about St Bridget’s Day