Thursday, 27 December 2012

Favourite photos

These are some of my favourite photographs of places I have visited over the years

The first is the dome of the 15th-century Gur Emir, the tomb of the great conquerer Tamerlane, as seen from our hotel in Samarkand. The old local saying was; "If the sky should fall, the dome of the Gur Emir could replace it".

At the other end of the Islamic world we have the Alhambra in Granada, the last great flowering of Moslem architecture in Spain. Moslem forces overran almost all of Spain in the 8th century, and established a separate Caliphate at Cordoba. The Christian reconquest began in the 11th century, and Granada was the last city to fall, in 1492, to the armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Next are two landscape pictures, the first being a sunset over Corfu. I think the sky colour is worthy of a Claude Lorrain painting; though Claude would have included in the foreground some very tiny figures acting out a Biblical or Classical scene.

This one is the view down from Dracula's castle in Romania. When I looked down into this deep, mist-shrouded valley, I was not surprised that Bram Stoker thought the place was haunted. However, it turned out he never ventured anywhere near, but got all his information from guide-books!

Next are two pictures from France. The first is the great Renaissance staircase in the chateau of Blois, on the Loire. It was in the upstairs room here that in 1588 the Duc de Guise, leader of the Catholic League, was stabbed to death on the orders of King Henry III. The King did not enjoy his triumph for long, being himself assassinated by a Catholic fanatic the next year.

Less than a century later, this is the first of the great baroque chateaux: Vaux-le-Vicomte. It was built in the 1650s for Nicholas Fouquet, the minister of finance early in the reign of Louis XIV. The King was invited to the grand opening in 1661. Nineteen days later Fouquet was arrested, charged with embezzlement, and sentenced to imprisonment for life; and his architects, decorators and garden designers were taken to work on the new royal palace at Versailles. (Some people have suggested that Fouquet in prison was the original "man in the iron mask", but this seems to be incorrect)

Finally two pictures of religious sites. The first is Delphi, known to the ancient Greeks as "the navel of the world". Here we are at the top row of the theatre; the building immediately below being the great Temple of Apollo, where for centuries the priestesses would transmit oracles from the god. The road to the temple snakes up from the gulf below, and in ancient  times would have been lined with shrines and monuments. Up above us is the Stadium; the setting for one of the four great Games festivals of Ancient Greece; of which the one held at Olympia is, of course, the most famous.

The last picture is St Peter's cathedral in Rome. You need a high vantage-point to really appreciate the great dome, so this is taken from the Castel San Angelo; the ancient tomb of Hadrian which was adapted to be the fortress of the Renaissance Popes. In 1527 Pope Clement VII barely escaped with his life to the Castel as the armies of the Emperor Charles V stormed into Rome, and one can imagine him looking across at his still-unfinished cathedral while down below the Imperial soldiers sacked and pillaged the city. The Papacy was never again as powerful as it had been before this disaster.

I hope to show more pictures later.

Saturday, 15 December 2012


Christmas is fast approaching. We are all familiar with the traditional Christmas story, but often do not realise how contradictory are the scriptural accounts of the birth of Jesus, and how much of the story is based on tradition alone.

The gospels of Mark and John make no mention of the nativity at all, and Luke and Matthew tell wholly different stories. Neither puts a date on the year of Jesus's birth, presumably because they did not consider this to be very important. Indeed, Matthew confuses things by bringing King Herod into his story, since by Roman chronology Herod died in 4 BC! Luke tells us that John the Baptist began his preaching "in the 15th year of the Emperor Tiberius" (AD 28-29), and that Jesus met him "when he was about 30 years old". The only point of agreement about the nativity is the Jesus was born in Bethlehem; which is in itself a little puzzling, since Jesus clearly began his ministry in Nazareth, by the Sea of Galilee, a long way to the north of Bethlehem. Matthew and Luke give completely incompatible genealogies for Jesus. They cannot even agree about the name of Joseph's father (Matthew gives it as Jacob; Luke as Heli) - which in any case seems a bit pointless, since both stress that Jesus was not Joseph's son anyway. Neither of them says at what time of the year the nativity took place: it is only a tradition that it was at the end of December; though it seems fitting that the God-child should be born just after the shortest day of the year: a time of renewed hope.


It is Luke's account which is the best-known. He begins his story with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist to Mary's elderly "kinswoman", Elizabeth. Then we have the Archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary; "the decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed", "when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (which appears to refer to a census taken in 6 AD) causing Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem; the lodging in the stable, and the adoration of the shepherds after they have seen the angel. After the nativity we have the circumcision of the baby Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, accompanied by various prophesies, and the return to Nazareth.

Matthew's story is quite different. There we have an angel appearing to Joseph, and there is no mention of a stable for the birth in Bethlehem. The most famous part of Matthew's story is the appearance of the "wise men" or "magi" before King Herod, enquiring about the Christ-child, since they "have seen his star in the east". Matthew nowhere calls them kings, nor does he even tell us how many they were: the notion that there must have been three of them is only a deduction from the fact that they presented the baby Jesus with the three symbolic gifts. There seems to be some confusion about the whole story of the star. Around 6 BC there was a major conjuction of the planets, which astrologers would have interpreted as predicting an event of major importance. (Some scholars have speculated that it might refer to the appearance of Halley's Comet in 12 BC). The New English Bible translates "magi" as "astrologers", which is appropriate. Herod, angry and alarmed, orders the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem (an action which, though lacking support from any other historical source, would have been quite in accordance with what is known of Herod's character!), but Joseph and Mary are forewarned in a dream and escape into Egypt. They do not return till Herod is dead, when they decide to settle in Nazareth, because it is safer. This appears to contradict Luke's story that they came from Nazareth in the first place, and does not tally with Luke's account of the circumcision in the Temple, which Matthew does not mention at all. (Neither, incidentally, makes any reference to the Holy Family travelling on a donkey, which forms such a touching scene on so many Christmas cards)

It is clear that we have here two completely different accounts of the nativity, which cannot be reconciled.
I have been told that, for a Jew, the notion that God could descend from the heavens to beget a child on a human mother would be horribly blasphemous. The Greek and Roman gods, by contrast, did this sort of thing all the time; which perhaps helps to explain why the early Christian missionaries met with great hostility from Jews, but were more successful in converting gentiles.

The Nativity has inspired great art over the centuries. The first picture here is by Piero della Francesca (c.1420-92), the second by Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510), the third by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), and the fourth by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1407). All have certain features in common, quite apart from the rustic setting. The Virgin Mary wears her traditional colours; a blue cloak over a red dress; and Joseph is an old man; often rather detached from the scene. The baby Jesus, oddly enough, always appears to be several months old; certainly not a newly-born infant!

At a very much lower artistic level, illuminated Santa Claus figures are going up all over buildings even as I write, but I have yet to see any portrayal of the Christian Nativity at all. Perhaps this is as it should be: we are celebrating a consumerist festival called "Xmas", and for this Santa Claus is a suitable multi-faith symbol: perhaps the only supernatural figure that all children are encouraged to believe in. Every year around this time there are reports of teachers being officially censured for telling their little charges that he doesn't really exist! So Santa's red and white (the Coca-cola colours!) have rightly replaced the Virgin Mary's red and blue as the colours of the festive season.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Henry VII: a disturbed childhood

Henry Tudor, the future King Henry VII, had the misfortune to be born in 1457, and thus grew up in the most turbulent period of the Wars of the Roses between the rival families of Lancaster and York. His formative years were haunted by violent death.

His mother, Margaret Beaufort, through whom he inherited his distinctly sketchy dynastic claim to the throne, belonged to the family of the Dukes of Somerset: firm Lancastrians. Her father had committed suicide following dubious conduct in the wars against France when she was one year old, leaving her a great heiress. In consequence at the age of ten her marriage was arranged to Edmund Tudor, half-brother to King Henry VI. She was still only thirteen when Henry, who was to be her only child, was born.    

Henry was never to see his father, who was captured in battle and imprisoned in Carmarthen castle, where he died of the plague two months before Henry's birth. Margaret  then married Henry Stafford, the son of the Duke of Buckingham.
     In 1461 Henry's paternal grandfather, Owen Tudor, found himself on the losing side at the battle of Mortimer's Cross and was beheaded. The new Yorkist King, Edward IV, granted his supporter William, Lord Herbert, guardianship of young Henry. In May 1464 Margaret's cousin, the Duke of Somerset, was also defeated in battle and executed.
     Henry seems to have got on well with his guardian, but disaster struck again in July 1469, when Lord Herbert's forces were defeated at Edgecote, near Banbury. He was beheaded the next day. Henry, aged twelve, witnessed the battle, and not surprisingly was terrified. In autumn 1471 the Lancastrian forces were defeated at Tewkesbury and the deposed King Henry VI was murdered in the Tower, leaving Henry Tudor, now Duke of Richmond, the only remaining Lancastrian claimant to the throne. He managed to flee to Britanny, where he stayed for the next thirteen years, constantly fearing kidnap by English agents. His mother did not see him at all during this time: meanwhile her second husband, Henry Stafford, died of wounds received at the battle of Barnet; and she again remarried; this time to Lord Stanley.
     Margaret proved to be a great survivor. Despite her strong Lancastrian links, she managed to stay on friendly terms with the Yorkist regime, and was even given the honour of being a train-bearer for Queen Anne Neville at the coronation of Richard III in 1483. But soon after this she became involved in plotting. In 1485 her son Henry, with the backing of the King of France, landed in south Wales and mustered supporters. His victory over Richard at Bosworth was largely due to the fact that the forces of his stepfather Lord Stanley changed sides in the middle of the battle. Richard was killed and Henry was crowned King, essentially by right of conquest.

Henry once told the chronicler Philippe de Commynes that most of his life had been spent as a captive or fugitive, as a result of which he had become extremely (we might nowadays say pathologically) suspicious. No modern psychologist would be in the least surprised at this: the wonder is that he didn't turn out far worse!