Gryll Grange, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter 9

Saint Catharine

. . . gli occhi su levai,

E vidi lei che si facea corona,

Riflettendo da se gli eterni ral

Dante: Paradiso, xxxi. 70–72.

I lifted up my gaze,

And looked on her who made herself a crown,

Reflecting from herself the eternal rays.

It was not long before the doctor again walked over to the Tower, to propose to his young friend to cooperate in the Aristophanic comedy.

He found him well disposed to do so, and they passed a portion of the afternoon in arranging their programme.

They dined, and passed the evening much as before. The next morning, as they were ascending to the library to resume their pleasant labour, the doctor said to himself, ‘I have passed along galleries wherein were many chambers, and the doors in the day were more commonly open than shut, yet this chamber door of my young friend is always shut. There must be a mystery in it.’ And the doctor, not generally given to morbid curiosity, found himself very curious about this very simple matter.

At last he mustered up courage to say, ‘I have seen your library, dining-room, and drawing-room; but you have so much taste in internal arrangements, I should like to see the rest of the house.’

Mr. Falconer. There is not much more to see. You have occupied one of the best bedrooms. The rest do not materially differ.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. To say the truth, I should like to see your own.

Mr. Falconer. I am quite willing. But I have thought, perhaps erroneously, it is decorated in a manner you might not altogether approve.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Nothing indecorous, I hope.

Mr. Falconer. Quite the contrary. You may, perhaps, think it too much devoted to my peculiar views of the purity of ideal beauty, as developed in Saint Catharine.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. You have not much to apprehend on that score.

Mr. Falconer. You see, there is an altar, with an image of Saint Catharine, and the panels of the room are painted with subjects from her life, mostly copied from Italian masters. The pictures of St. Catharine and her legend very early impressed her on my mind as the type of ideal beauty — of all that can charm, irradiate, refine, exalt, in the best of the better sex.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. You are enthusiastic; but indeed, though she is retained as a saint in the Reformed Church, I am not very familiar with her history. And to me some of these pictures require explanation.

Mr. Falconer. I will tell you her legend as briefly as I may. And we will pass from picture to picture as the subjects arise.

THE LEGEND OF SAINT CATHARINE

Catharine was a Princess of Alexandria in the third century. She embraced the Christian religion by divine inspiration. She was preeminent in beauty, learning, and discourse. She converted her father and mother, and all with whom she came into communication. The Emperor Maxentius brought together the fifty wisest men of the empire to convert her from the error of her way, and she converted them all to the new faith. Maxentius burned her proselytes, and threatened her with a similar death. She remained firm. He had her publicly scourged, and cast her into prison to perish by famine. Going on an expedition, he left the execution of his orders to the empress and his chief general, Porphyrius. Angels healed her wounds and supplied her with food; and in a beatific vision the Saviour of the world placed a ring on her finger, and called her His bride.1 The presence of the ring showed to her the truth of the visitation. The empress and Porphyrius visited the prison, and she converted them also. The emperor, returning, put the empress and Porphyrius to death; and after many ineffectual expostulations with Catharine, determined on putting her to death by the wheel which bears her name.

Four of these wheels, armed with iron teeth, and revolving towards each other, were to cut her to pieces. Angels broke the wheels. He then brought her to the stake, and the angels extinguished the flames. He then ordered her to be beheaded by the sword. This was permitted, and in the meantime the day had closed. The body, reserved for exposure to wild beasts, was left under guard at the place of execution. Intense darkness fell on the night, and in the morning the body had disappeared. The angels had borne it to the summit of the loftiest mountain of the Horeb range, where still a rock, bearing the form of a natural sarcophagus, meets the eye of the traveller. Here it was watched by angel-guards, and preserved in unchanging beauty, till, in the fulness of time, it was revealed to a holy man, who removed it to the shrine, under which it lies to this day, with the ring still on its hand, in the convent which was then founded, and which bears her name — the convent Saint Catharine of Mount Sinai.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Most of this is new to me. Yet I am not unfamiliar with pictures of the marriage of Saint Catharine, which was a favourite subject with the great Italian masters. But here is a picture which the legend, as you have related it, does not illustrate. What is this tomb, with flames bursting from it, and monks and others recoiling in dismay?

Mr. Falconer. It represents a remarkable incident at the tomb of the saint. The Empress Catharine II. was a great benefactress to the Convent of Mount Sinai, and desired to possess Saint Catharine’s ring. She sent a mitred abbot as an envoy to request it from the brotherhood.

The monks, unwilling to displease the empress, replied that they did not dare to remove it themselves, but that they would open the tomb, and the envoy might take it. They opened the tomb accordingly, and the envoy looked on the hand and the ring. He approached to draw it off; but flames burst forth: he recoiled, and the tomb closed. Under such a manifestation of the saint’s displeasure, the fathers could not again attempt to open it.2

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I should like to have seen the empress receiving the envoy’s report.

Mr. Falconer. Her reception of it would depend on the degree of faith which she either actually felt, or might have thought it politic to assume. At any rate, the fathers had shown their devotion, and afforded her a good opportunity for exhibiting hers. She did not again seek to obtain the ring.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Now, what are these three pictures in one frame, of chapels on hills?

Mr. Falconer. These chapels are here represented as they may be supposed to have been in the Catholic days of England. Three sisters, named Catharine, Martha, and Anne, built them to their namesake saints, on the summits of three hills, which took from these dedications the names they still bear. From the summit of each of these chapels the other two were visible. The sisters thought the chapels would long remain memorials of Catholic piety and sisterly love. The Reformation laid them in ruins. Nothing remains of the chapel of St. Anne but a few gray stones, built into an earthen wall, which, some half-century ago, enclosed a plantation. The hill is now better known by the memory of Charles Fox than by that of its ancient saint. The chapel of Saint Martha has been restored and applied to Protestant worship. The chapel of Saint Catharine remains a picturesque ruin, on the banks of the Wey, near Guildford.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. And that old church?

Mr. Falconer. That was the church of Saint Catharine, which was pulled down to make way for the dock by which her name is now profaned; an act of desecration which has been followed by others, and will be followed by many more, whenever it may suit the interests of commerce to commit sacrilege on consecrated ground, and dissipate the ashes of the dead; an act which, even when that of a barbarian invader, Horace thought it would be profanation even to look on.3 Whatever may be in other respects the superiority of modern piety, we are far inferior to the ancients in reverence for temples and tombs.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I am afraid I cannot gainsay that observation. But what is that stained glass window?

Mr. Falconer. It is copied on a smaller scale, and with more of Italian artistic beauty in the principal figure, from the window in West Wickham church. She is trampling on the Emperor Maxentius. You see all her emblems: the palm, which belongs to all sainted martyrs; the crown, the wheel, the fire, the sword, which belong especially to her; and the book, with which she is always represented, as herself a miracle of learning, and its chosen universal patroness in the schools of the Middle Ages.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Unquestionably the legend is interesting. At present, your faith is simply poetical. But take care, my young friend, that you do not finish by becoming the dupe of your own mystification.

Mr. Falconer. I have no fear of that I think I can clearly distinguish devotion to ideal beauty from superstitious belief. I feel the necessity of some such devotion to fill up the void which the world, as it is, leaves in my mind. I wish to believe in the presence of some local spiritual influence; genius or nymph; linking us by a medium of something like human feeling, but more pure and more exalted, to the all-pervading, creative, and preservative spirit of the universe; but I cannot realise it from things as they are. Everything is too deeply tinged with sordid vulgarity. There can be no intellectual power resident in a wood, where the only inscription is not ‘Genio loci,’ but ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’; no Naiad in a stream that turns a cotton-mill; no Oread in a mountain dell, where a railway train deposits a cargo of vandals; no Nereids or Oceanitides along the seashore, where a coastguard is watching for smugglers. No; the intellectual life of the material world is dead. Imagination cannot replace it. But the intercession of saints still forms a link between the visible and invisible. In their symbols I can imagine their presence. Each in the recess of our own thought we may preserve their symbols from the intrusion of the world. And the saint whom I have chosen presents to my mind the most perfect ideality of physical, moral, and intellectual beauty.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I cannot object to your taste. But I hope you will not be led into investing the ideality with too much of the semblance of reality. I should be sorry to find you far gone in hagiolatry. I hope you will acquiesce in Martin, keeping equally clear of Peter and Jack.

Mr. Falconer. Nothing will more effectually induce me so to acquiesce than your company, dear doctor. A tolerant liberality like yours has a very persuasive influence.

From this digression the two friends proceeded to the arrangement of their Aristophanic comedy, and divided their respective shares after the manner of Beaumont and Fletcher.

1 Maria, Vergine delle Vergini, e Misericordia delle Misericordie, vestita de i lampi del Sole, e coronata de i raggi delle Stelle, prese il sottile, il delicato, ed il sacro dito di Catarina, humile di core e mansueta di vita, ed il largo, il clémente, ed il pictoso figliuol suo ‘o cinse con lo anello. — Vita di Santa Catarina, 1. ii. Vinegia, 1541.

2 Illustrations of Jerusalem and Mount Sinai (1837), p. 27.

3 Epod. 16, 13.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24