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Pre-Raphaelites and Other Glories

Updated: Nov 9

As I mentioned last week, we departed Newcastle and then spent 9 hours on the road heading south—with a brief deviation to Eyam.

If you’ve heard me talk about Eyam before, you will know it has a numinous charge for me.

In a nutshell, Eyam was nicknamed the “plague village” because of events that took place there back in 1665. Ironically, we visited Eyam at the beginning of lockdown on our way out of town, right when we were seeking refuge with our friends in Somerset—so the visit was eerily apposite. Unfortunately, the museum and the church were both closed that day due to lockdown, but we learned enough and saw enough to experience chills from the story of this place.

We returned to Eyam during our pet-sit in Manchester, and were at last able to visit the museum and church where it all happened. We also took a stroll through the fields to have a look at the famous “boundary stone.”

I told the tale of Eyam in a previous newsletter, and also included a link to an article I wrote about it regarding the Covid pandemic and explaining why it is numinous for me. It can be found here: https://www.vjvphd.com/post/return-to-the-plague-village

We took this deviation during our trip so we might visit the museum gift shop and buy an item that somebody ruined and had to replace.

As long as we were in the village anyway, we decided to briefly revisit the church at the center of the drama.

I also devoted a little extra time admiring the ancient 8th century Celtic cross standing in the graveyard that the village adopted as its symbol… It’s just remarkable, and still standing after so many centuries.

These visits to Eyam seemed to be bookends—marking both the beginning and ending of the pandemic.

But is the pandemic over? That’s been a hot political question of late… and my opinion is that it is. Now don’t get me wrong: Covid is still around and we’re continuing to get our vaccinations against it. And more strains are appearing as well! But that feeling of terror and helplessness—not to overlook the government’s interference in our personal lives—has diminished greatly, and for me those are the markers of a true pandemic. Or perhaps I should call it a “panic-demic,” because that’s the part that has subsided.

Robin and I still wear masks when we go out shopping or encounter crowds, and many people we know have reported catching Covid and recovering. But we’re no longer piling dead bodies in refrigerator trucks and it’s okay to walk the dogs freely and attend church now. The panic-demic part has ended, at least for the foreseeable future.

We departed Eyam in a contemplative state of mind, feeling we survived something not unlike a World War—we were happy to be alive, but melancholy lingers for all the lives that were lost, those of friends and strangers alike.

We climbed back in the car and headed out again, steering toward our next destination—this time to Birmingham. It is the second-largest city in the United Kingdom, and I confess it reminds me of Los Angeles in some ways.

Robin booked us into a hotel for two nights in transition to our next sit. Unfortunately, the room was a tad seedy, so I won’t be raving about how wondrous the accommodation was. Regardless, it was in a prime location for sightseeing in the area, and we took advantage of that.

We had completed an extended house-sit in this vicinity in 2021, but I was disappointed we hadn’t gotten to a few nearby sites, Birmingham foremost among them.

I had my heart set on seeing the extensive Pre-Raphaelite collection in the Birmingham museum—the largest public collection of Pre-Raphs in the world!

Remember—I got gypped in Newcastle because the Pre-Raphs had been removed to make room for the temporary exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels. And while I enjoyed that exhibition tremendously, I still felt deprived of Pre-Raphaelites. And I was planning to make up for it with a vengeance.

The collection of Pre-Raphaelite artworks in the Birmingham Museum is renowned, including more than 3,000 paintings, drawings, and prints, as well as unique examples of decorative art and design. Not only that, Birmingham Museum are curators of Pre-Raphaelite Grail Tapestries made by the William Morris Company.

To celebrate our wedding, Robin and I purchased a large tapestry of “The Arming and Departure of the Knights” (featuring Lancelot and Guinevere), and of course it’s been in storage while we’ve been abroad.

It would be delightful to view the original item in a museum setting, not to mention seeing its companion tapestries. You can view all of the tapestries on Wikipedia, and they are lovely: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Grail_tapestries

One downside plagues us in our journeys: because we drive junky old cars, we are excluded from driving in “Clean Air” zones that many major cities have nowadays. However, you can pay a fee of £8 for them to ignore your smog, and luckily they have automated this “tax” so it can be paid online (which we did).

Away we went to the museum! Robin dropped me off nearby and went to find parking. I traipsed happily inside and promptly encountered a “greeter.” I asked bluntly where to find the Pre-Raphaelites.

“They’re in storage,” he said.

“WHAT?!”

It turned out BMAG (the museum) is performing essential infrastructure work, such as electrical upgrades, heating upgrades, roof repairs, and a replacement of the elevators. The museum plans to re-open to visitors in 2024—with the exact date yet to be confirmed.

I felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me.

Offering up a shred of hope, the greeter mentioned I could still find a couple of them on display upstairs, and so I climbed the steps, feeling like a zombie. Really, the museum was hardly worth visiting without the Pre-Raphaelites. A different greeter upstairs related that some of the Pre-Raphaelites could be viewed at a nearby museum called the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, located on a university campus.

I marched off and found the two Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and then browsed their gift shop. I bought a booklet with information about the Grail Tapestries. The whole experience was pretty hollow (or maybe I’m just spoiled).

Despite my disappointment, I was thrilled to see this incredibly famous painting by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, created in 1882, featuring the extraordinary model Jane Morris. Here she is posing as Proserpine, the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Persephone.

No doubt you know the myth—Proserpina was forcibly abducted by the god of the underworld, usually described as “the Rape of Proserpina,” or “of Persephone.” This is followed by her mother's desperate search for her, and her eventual albeit temporary restoration to the world above, which is how the seasons are mythologically explained.

It was great to see the painting, but not a chance it was adequate balm for the loss of viewing the rest of their enormous collection.

From that misbegotten rendezvous, we made our way a few blocks along urban streets and happened upon our next destination: Birmingham Cathedral (aka The Cathedral Church of St. Philip).

First consecrated in 1715, this cathedral was bombed and gutted in 1940 during WWII. Fortunately for us (and everyone else!), its most significant treasures were removed in the early stages of the war, stored in a slate mine in Wales for safekeeping, and then replaced, unharmed, when the building was restored in 1948.

It so happens that a certain Pre-Raphaelite pioneer was born nearby and then baptized in this church in 1834. He eventually enhanced St. Philips by the donation of several stained glass windows—three behind the altar and one in the back. And they are glorious!

"The Ascension" (1885) was the first window to be installed, depicting Jesus leaving his followers and ascending into heaven 40 days after Easter. Interestingly, the Ascension window was originally planned to be the only window inside the Cathedral.

However, the artist was so struck with its beauty that he was inspired to design two more. "The Nativity" and "The Crucifixion" (1887) were the next two windows to be installed. Depicting the birth and death of Jesus, the donor who paid for them specifically requested there be no oxen in the Nativity scene (she considered them too brutish), and there should not be any blood in the Crucifixion scene (perhaps she was squeamish?). These windows were positioned directly opposite each other inside the cathedral, highlighting the tension between these two events.

Unfortunately, these latter two are positioned within rounded alcoves, so unless you are standing at the altar you can’t really see them. (They appear in Robin’s video though.)

"The Last Judgment" (1897), in the rear of the church, is widely recognized as the finest example of this Pre-Raphaelite pioneer's work, depicting the return of Christ and his judgment on humanity. It looks like pure poetry in glass.

Who was this Pre-Raphaelite? It was Edward Burne-Jones, of course, and these windows are some of the most exceptional stained glass creations in the world. They took our breath away.

Robin narrated a 1:05 tour of the cathedral interior featuring the stained glass here: https://youtu.be/juRt7B5pXy8

At last! I finally got to view gorgeous Pre-Raphaelite artistry that was not in storage.

The only thing that would make the experience better was a taco.

And we found tacos!

We enjoyed this Mexican food to the hilt! (It is so rare in the U.K.)

After dining, we showed some support for the Ukrainians who were protesting just outside the restaurant.

After one final night in our shabby quarters, we loaded up our car in the rain and made our way back to Kenilworth, to the scene of the “crime” we departed from nearly a year previous. We were excited to be reunited with Andrea, John, Minou, and—darling of our hearts—Terry the Burmese Cat (named for Britain’s famous chocolate Terry oranges). It was a thrilling reunion! But an oddly shaped sit.

We were treated to one whole day of sitting with the glorious Minou (Mih-new; it’s French—ironically, it translates to “kitty”). Minou is a Cairn Terrier (the same kind of dog as Toto in The Wizard of Oz—and, also ironically, the dog who played the role of Toto in the movie had the real name of “Terry”).

Minou radiates intelligence and charm, and was a dream to sit for.

We learned that earlier in 2022 our hosts visited France for a month and circumstances obliged them to place Terry in a kennel for that timeframe. When they returned, Terry had licked all the fur off his backside, and when he came home he took up residence across the street from their house in a bush, scared of being locked inside! This tale broke our hearts.

Epic humans, please use a sitter if friends or neighbors can’t help you out—we really do provide an important, valuable service.

Our hearts broke for Terry, and we spoiled him as much as we could in the few days we had with him. We lavished him with cat food, cat soup, and gently fed him treats with our dainty white fingers… He also slept with us at night and hung out on our bed keeping Robin company during the day.

Yes, he remains a gorgeous-but-neurotic high-fashion model, but I daresay our affection toward him alleviated some of his neuroticism.

We had little time during this short sit, but I capitalized on what was available to do sightseeing.

One of my aims was to see St. Mary’s Guildhall, an ancient venue located in Coventry. Robin booked us in for the “Halloween tour.”

Guildhall employees have reported curious events at St. Mary’s. Monks have been seen wandering through the undercroft, and the cloisters have spectral manifestations, where a man dressed in period clothes is regularly seen. Poltergeist activity has been noted on many occasions, with people having their clothes pulled, and sometimes scarves have been tightened around necks. Stones have been thrown at people, and others have complained of strangely cold spots, feeling sick, or being unusually sad. Guides for the venue claim to have seen doors opening on their own, characters passing by them on the stairs, and hearing conversations in empty rooms.

To be honest, the “Halloween tour” was kind of a fizzer, but luckily it didn’t cost more than a regular tour, and seeing the Hall was worth it.

St. Mary’s Guildhall is one of the finest surviving medieval guildhalls in England. It was built in the 1340s, and then enlarged and embellished at the end of the 15th century. The Guildhall originally served as the headquarters of the merchant guild of St. Mary’s, and later merged with others to form the powerful Guild of the Holy Trinity. This is arguably one of Coventry's finest historic buildings.

They claim the site represents “700 years of power, propaganda, and partying.” If its walls could talk, the Guildhall would tell fascinating tales of a wealth of royal visitors, banquets, and cultural performances, including mystery plays. The hall was used to entertain visiting dignitaries including Henry V, James II, Henry VI, Henry VII, and Mary, Queen of Scots, who was once held prisoner here (for her own protection).

Quite likely William Shakespeare’s first appearance in Coventry occurred in 1580, when he was almost certainly a 16-year-old apprentice player with a group known as Worcester’s Men who performed in Coventry in November that year. Many appearances followed, right up until Shakespeare's last visit to Coventry in 1614—two years before his tragic death from fever at age 52.

Other celebrities have performed here, but I shall restrict myself to mentioning Frederick Douglass, who spoke onstage in 1847, seeking to raise money and gain support to end slavery.

The historic highlight of a visit to the Guildhall (and the reason I dragged Robin there) is surely the Coventry Tapestry, made around 1495. It was specially made for the venue. It fills the north wall of the Great Hall completely, and is a superb piece of late medieval craft—truly a testament to the skill of the Flemish weavers of Coventry. (It's a pity it's behind glass—the reflected lights make it difficult to photograph.)

The tapestry depicts a royal gathering of King Henry VI and Queen Margaret, with members of the royal court, apostles, angels, and saints all surrounding a figure of the Virgin Mary. It is replete with symbolism and hidden meaning, some of which is still not decoded. (We didn’t decode it either.)

This tapestry is of particular importance not merely for its age, quality, and condition, but also because—more than 500 years later—it remains in precisely the same location for which it was made. You can examine the tapestry in great detail at this link: http://www.stmarysguildhall.co.uk/coventry-medieval-tapestry/

Other charming features of the Guildhall include a glorious angel roof….

….and an intriguing witches’ mark. These marks come from a time when a belief in witches and superstition was part of everyday life. This ancient graffiti is commonly found carved into walls, and they are intended to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune. Because the world seemed full of dangers—both physical and spiritual—these markings made life safer. People sought constant protection from evil spirits, witches, or their animal familiars.

Specific symbols would be scratched as an act of devotion or to evoke good luck. This mark in the Guildhall is said to summon the help of the Virgin Mary. Other pictorial marks found elsewhere in the world include daisy wheels, pentangles, sailing ships, monstrous demons, musical notes, and windmills—all of them representing voices from the past who were hoping for the safe return of a ship, a bountiful crop, or protection in the afterlife.

Astonishingly, the Guildhall escaped bombing raids during WWII when the rest of Coventry didn’t fare as well. As one of their few remaining medieval buildings, it stands as testament to Coventry's power and wealth in the Old World.

We had soo much fun in Coventry last year that I can’t possibly cover it all again… but on our way out of town we revisited a striking sculpture mounted on the side of the new Coventry cathedral.

This bronze sculpture, titled “St. Michael's Victory over the Devil,” was created by Jacob Epstein in 1958, and symbolizes the victory of good over evil. I think it is simply magnificent.

I described our previous trip to Coventry in this newsletter from last year if you would like to hear more about it: https://www.vjvphd.com/post/cavorting-in-coventry

I’m going to leave it here for now and pick the story up next week. We’re trying to get a double issue of Psychological Perspectives out the door, so I need to get cracking!

I look forward to telling you about the next leg of our adventures soon.

warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo

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