Friday, November 25, 2011

Sir Henry and Lady Mary Guildford: The Drawings and Portraits by Hans Holbein

Hans Holbein was, without doubt, one of the greatest artists of both the Renaissance and of the sixteenth century as a whole.  He earned acclaim in Basel, however it was in England, where eventually he settled and died, that he came to prominence and is most well known as painter to the court of one of the nation’s most famous kings, Henry VIII.   His approach to portraiture there was indeed revolutionary, as evidenced from the surviving portraits which have survived, both as preliminary drawings and splendid, final portraits.  Not only did Holbein paint portraits of the Royal Family, but he also painted portraits of members of the Court, allowing a tantalising, fascinating glimpse into the faces and personalities of this turbulent and fascinating period of English history.

Holbein was to make two journeys to England during his life.  The first was made in 1526 when he arrived in the capital in search of work, with a commendation from none other than the acclaimed Humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam.  It was Thomas More who welcomed Holbein to London and commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of him, as well as a group portrait of his family.  More embraced the ideology of Humanism, and this way of thinking was to have a profound influence upon the work of Holbein himself.  England and its court had truly embraced the Renaissance; the  encouragment of learning through the founding of universities, and the court was a splendid forum for poetry, music, art and song, with even the king himself a keen scholar and musician.  In 1527, Holbein returned home to Basel for several years, however he was to come back to England in 1532 and remain until the autumn of 1543, when he died.   His work was influenced by the late Gothic style which was prevalent at the time of his birth as well as the schools of art from Italy, the Netherlands and France, however imbued with an individuality that makes the works entirely his own.  It was during his first visit to England that he painted the husband and wife portrait of Sir Henry Guildford, and his wife, Mary Wooton, Lady Guildford.

Henry Guildford’s family had strong royal connections.  His father, Richard, and grandfather John, had both strong links with Henry VII before he usurped the phone from Richard III.  Both father and son had helped to raise forces against Richard III, which had resulted in their being attainted and losing some of their lands.  Upon Henry’s ascension to the throne in 1485, Richard Guildford was knighted and rewarded for his loyalty by the new king. He was appointed Master of the Treasury and the Ordnance, and had his attainder reversed.   Following an extensive programme of shipbuilding, Sir Richard chose to serve his king at sea, as Henry was planning on invading France, an invasion which never took place.  Following the death of his father, he was named as High Sheriff of Kent.  In 1505, whilst making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Sir Richard fell ill and died.  During his life, Guildford was to marry twice.  His first marriage was to Anne, daughter of John Pympe, by whom he had two sons and four daughters.  His second marriage was to Joan Vaux, by whom he had a further son, Henry.

Guildford’s mother, Joan, had been lady-in-waiting to Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, and the paternal grandmother of Henry VIII.  Upon the death of Lady Beaufort, she became a part of the court of her son, Henry VII, becoming lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth, and Lady Governess to their two daughters, Margaret and Mary.   She accompanied Mary to France upon her marriage to the French king, Louis XII, however Lady Joan appears to have been sent home along with a number of her other English ladies, much to the dismay of the queen.  Despite requests for Joan to return to her service, this was denied, and it seems likely that Joan returned to England where it seems likely she rejoined the royal household and served the queen, Catherine of Aragon.  In return for her service to the king, she was rewarded with two pensions totalling £60. Upon the death of her second husband, Sir Richard having died in 1505 in Jerusalem, it appears she initially retired to a prayer house in Bristol.  Upon the closure of the prayer house in 1536, she returned to London.  She was to outlive her son by six years, finally passing away at the age of seventy-five in 1538. 
The preliminary drawing of Sir Henry Guildford.
Henry Guildford first took the stage when he was chosen by Thomas, Lord Darcy, as his provost-marshal, in leading a crusade against the Moors in North Africa in response to a request made by Ferdinand of Spain, in 1511, for help from England.  The English troops, led by Darcy got as far as Cadiz, only to find out upon their arrival that the planned crusade had been abandoned as a greater danger lurked closer to Spanish shores, as a more serious threat had been posed by the King of France, François I.  Darcy appears to have returned home, whereas Guildford chose to ride to the Ferdinand’s court at Burgos.  The Spanish king appears to have delighted in Guildford’s visit, and knighted hi in the names of Saints James and George, Spain and England respectively, and presented him with an honorary canton for his coat of arms being that of Granada.  This sign of gratitude bestowed upon Guildford by the King of Aragon led to a lifelong loyalty from Guildford towards the then queen of England. Upon his return to England, he was awarded a knighthood by King Henry VIII.

In 1512, he married his first wife, Margaret Bryan, daughter of Sir Thomas Bryan.  It is uncertain for how long he was married to Lady Margaret, however it cannot have been any longer than for thirteen years, as he was to marry Mary Wooton, his second wife, in 1525.  His marriages were both to be childless.  In mid 1512, he was awarded manors in Warwickshire and Lincolnshire by the king.  The following year he was to embark on a voyage across the Channel to France, with an army, to invade France.  Both he and Sir Charles Brandon, Earl of Suffolk and later the king’s brother-in-law, were joint captains of the sovereign, and commanded fleets that crossed into France.  He later attended upon Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.  He was later saluted by François I as one of ambassador to England when he accompanied Cardinal Wolsey through France in 1529.  The same year, he was called to bear witness to the consummation of the marriage between Catherine of Aragon and of Prince Arthur, her first husband, however he declined on the grounds that he had not yet reached the age of twelve years old.  He also was among the lords and councillors in the Henry’s court who signed the letter to the Pope, asking him to comply with the king’s request for a divorce from Catherine so as to marry Anne Boleyn.
Despite his signing of the letter, he was no favourite of Anne Boleyn.  Indeed he spoke openly about his disapproval of the king’s desire to cast aside Catherine, still his wife, without papal approval ; his views are recorded by Eustace Chapuys, ambassador to the Holy Roman Empire, and opponent to Anne Boleyn whom he named “the Concubine.”  Anne, in her anger, asked that of the king to deprive Sir Henry of his role and rank as Comptroller of the King’ Household, however, undeterred by Anne’s motives and actions, Guildford himself went to the King to offer his resignation of the post.  The king however seems to have valued greatly the loyalty which Guildford had previously shown and advised not to worry what women said, and twice returned him his baton of office.   He remained on the King’s council until his death in 1532.
Sir Henry’s second wife, Mary, born in 1499, was the youngest of the four children of Sir Robert Wooton of Boughton Malherbe, Kent, and Anne Belknap.  Her two brothers, Edward (born 1489) and Nicholas (born c. 1497) were both to attain significant posts within the court of Henry VIII.  Sir Edward was to become Treasurer at Calais, and Nicholas was among the diplomats who arranged the disastrous marriage between Henry and Anne of Cleves in 1540.  Her sister, Margaret, was later to become Marchioness of Dorset.  Margaret had first been married to William Medley, and after his death married Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset, in 1509.   Among their children were Henry Grey, who married Frances Brandon, niece of Henry VIII, and later parents to Lady Jane Grey.  A surviving drawing, again by Holbein, shows a likeness between the two sisters. 

Following the death of her husband, Mary Guildford was to remarry soon afterwards.  Her final husband was Gawen Carew, of Devonshire, and the union produced children.  She died three years later, in 1535, and is buried in Exeter Cathedral alongside her second husband in the ornate family tomb.
The final portrait of Sir Henry Guildford.ed
The portraits would appear to have been expensive commissions, owing to tremendous skill and finesse deployed in their execution, combined with the considerable quantity of gold adorning them, such as in Sir Henry’s cloth of gold doublet and the chain underneath; but also used in the elaborate sleeves and chains on the dress of his wife.   Other than the Guildford portraits, the amount of gold in use is only rivalled in quantity by the surviving portraits of the King, his third wife Jane Seymour, and their son, the prince Edward.   

For both sitters, two surviving likenesses survive for both of them.  In both cases, an initial drawing on paper in black and coloured chalks, and the final portraits are painted on wood in oil and tempera.   The  preliminary sketch of Sir Henry Guildford, later inscribed with the name “Harry Guildeford Knight” during the time of Edward VI.  The drawing of Lady Guildford was unnamed.  However, all four likenesses are now scattered, the drawings themselves are to be found in the Royal Library at Windsor, and in the Öffentliche Kunstammlung, Basel respectively; and the paintings in the Royal Collection, again at Windsor, and the St Louis Art Museum in the United States.
The studies, or preparatory drawings, for the final portraits are clearly taken from life.  The drawing of Sir Henry has been cut off above his elbows, and follows the protocol of the day with his view cast towards his wife; facing neither the artist nor the viewer.  In fact, the drawing has been significantly trimmed down at some point in its history, as it is considerably smaller in dimensions to that of it's companion piece.  Furthermore the final portrait shows Sir Henry from the waist upwards.  The drawing of Lady Guildford shows her smiling and glancing sideways in an almost coquettish manner towards her rather sterner, more solemn husband.  A subtle use of red chalk gives a hint of wholesome rosiness to her cheeks, allowing her lower lip to look fuller and more sensual, whilst conveying the expression of a somewhat wistful smile.  In addition,  yellow chalk has been used around the hood as well as for the six gold chains across her bodice.  The drawing displays, to a contemporary observer, a healthy voluptuousness in its subject.  All combined with a certain charm and prettiness not readily apparent in Holbein’s other drawings of members of the court from the time.

The preliminary drawing of Mary Wooton, Lady Guildford.
Lady Guildford is portrayed in typical Tudor, finely made, clothes. Her attire mirrors a full length drawing of an unknown lady in a dress and hood, showing a view from both the front and back.  The sleeves of Lady Guildford's dress are slashed, a highly popular style in the day, and she wears the English gable hood, her hair hidden beneath, rather than the French designed hood.  The so called French hood, became popular in England in the 1530s and thereafter, introduced by the queen, Anne Boleyn.  The French hood was rounded in shape, and revealed some of the hair of its wearer.   The dress worn by Lady Guildford also apparently shows a fault line across her shoulder, perhaps an unfair allusion to denote the lack of issue between the couple.  A homophone or play on words is possibly at work here; the French term insinuating a “fault in the lineage.”  Gold chains adorn her bodice, and a medallion with drop pearls around her neck are all clear signs of status, wealth and prosperity.  Modern observers have suggested that the number of gold chains upon her dress appear rather gauche and somewhat excessive by standards of the day; certainly she wears more so than would have been worn for personal jewellery.  The only other jewellery to be seen are four simple rings on the fingers of her left hand.  Pinned to the top of the bodice of her dress is a sprig of rosemary, drawing attention to the mortality of its wearer and her husband, whilst the appearance of the portraits is to remain unchanged over the years.

As with the sprig of rosemary and the fault line, various motifs and devices are employed within both of the portraits, with alternate, hidden meanings.  Holbein would use devices and homophones in his work, among the most famous being The Ambassadors, painted in 1533.  One of these hidden devices shows the age of Sir Henry as being fifty-four years of age when the painting  was completed.  This device is found in the rings from which the green curtain behind the sitter, hangs.  The rings are neatly divided into three separate groups, one ring hangs alone followed by one cluster of five and a further one of four.  The solitary ring is apparently a play on words; the French word anneau [meaning “ring”] is phonetically similar to the Latin anno [meaning “year”], followed by five and four suggests that this is in reference the sitter being aged fifty four years.  On the piece of parchment above his head is written the year in which the painting was executed i.e. 1527, upon which is written the words Anno D. mcccccxxvii. Estis suæ xl ix. The words Estis suæ xl ix contradict the hidden message in the rings, and suggest that Guildford was only 49 years old at the time of the composition of this painting.   A similar inscription dating the painting occurs on the portrait of Lady Guildford, inscribed upon the column rather than handwritten, with the words ANNO M D XXVII. ÆTATIS XXVII, indicating her age as being 27 years. 
Fixing the parchment to the wall are two spots of red wax, again a play on words for the subtle imagery herein.  The words “deux cires tiennent le parchemin” [Two waxes hold the parchment], can be inflected to sound like “deux Sires tiennent le parchemin” [Two Lords hold the right and title of nobility.]   In his portrait, Sir Henry is also seen wearing various decorations which he had received, celebrating his achievements and of his rank.  He wears the Order of the Garter, and the Cross of St. George.  Furthermore, Guildford is also seen to be wearing a tunic made of golden cloth, perhaps in allusion to his successes at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  In his hands are two cords of rope.  These cords are showing the important role which he held in the Tudor court, i.e. that of Comptroller of the Royal Exchequer.  The expression of “holding the purse strings” is much the same in French; tenir les cordons de la bourse, and the connotations are evident within the context of this painting.  He also holds the white staff of his office within the royal court, again to reinforce the import of his role and status.

The final, and more solemn, portrait of Lady Guildford.
In respect of the likenesses made of Lady Guildford, the most marked difference is a subtle one, but extremely apparant: her expression.  As mentioned before, in the drawing, a somewhat flirtatious smile crosses her lips, with a rather suggestive glance to the side towards her husband.  In the painting, her glance has been altered and her pupils moved in order to face her viewer. The shape of her lips has also changed, which results in her face now retaining a more solemn and formal appearance.  Her solemnity and piety are shown by the book she holds in her hands, Vita Christi [The Life of Christ]; a popular edition of the life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony available in both England and on the Continent.   Furthering this sense of piety wrapped around her fingers is a rosary , yet more emphasis on the sense of pious devotion accorded by its bearer.  It is uncertain as to whether or not the final portrait would ever have contained the flirtatious smile and the sparkle in Lady Guildford’s eyes, for such a look would be ill suited in the context of holding a devotional religious work, or the rosary.  Moreso, it would have seemed informal in contrast to portraits of her peers and other ladies of the court.

Similar drawings have survived by Holbein of his subjects glancing sideways, one being that of Joan Ashley, Lady Meutas. However, in the case of Lady Meutas, the look appears to give it’s subject a rather bewildered appearance.  The vast majority of Holbein’s surviving drawings have their subjects not facing the artist but to the side; the portrait of Lady Guildford being one of the few exceptions. Only portraits of the King, his son Edward, the portraits of Anne of Cleves, a drawing of an anonymous woman who might be her sister Amelia, and a full length portrait of Christina of Denmark don't appear to conform to this rule. 

Holbein was no stranger to adjusting expressions and appearances to suit the needs and requirements of his sitters, both male and female. In some cases it was simply changing the eye movements or expression, or in others, a "rejuvenation" or slimming of the sitter’s features whilst still retaining an effective, yet flattering, likeness.  This “rejuvenation” is most evident in some of the portraits of the elder sitters, such as that of Lady Butts, whose appearance is significantly older in the preliminary drawing than appears in the final portrait, her features softened to the harsh wrinkles of age.  An infrared spectrogram of the final portrait shows in the under drawing deeper and more pronounced wrinkles, and these were presumably requested to be softened and toned down by either Sir William Butts, the king's physician, or even by Lady Butts herself.

It remains unknown as to whether the portraits were ever joined together in their frames, a practice which was popular and common amongst Flemish artists when painting portraits of married couples. Individual portraits of husbands and wives to be hung separately were unusual.  The two portraits are linked by the same colour scheme to be found on the wall behind them, together with the rail for the curtain running between the two likenesses.  The positioning of their bodies suggest that the couple were initially to be been facing one another, and appear to have been painted in the Guildfords' London home; as similar architectural details to the fashionable column portrayed, were to be found in the hall in ther London home.  The inclusion of the curtain and the column might simply have been artistic license on the part of Holbein, both motifs were previously included in a portrait of Erasmus, painted in 1523.  A possible reasoning also behind the disparity in the portraits was the physical stature of the two sitters; Henry Guildford was evidently a large, powerfully built and strong man, much like his close friend the King; whereas Mary Guildford was probably rather small, buxom and petite.  Sir Henry’s likeness has been somewhat altered in the final portrait, with his face appearing leaner and slightly elongated, possibly to soften and detract from its owner’s rather strong, and bulky stature.    
One of the portraits of Erasmus, using the similar background motifs.
Suggestions have been made that the fig leaves in background to the portraits are intended to convey a covert charged meaning.  It is unusual that the branches and leaves are shown without their bearing any fruit.  A suggestion as to such an absence of the fruit is the reaffirmation that the couple were still childless. However, the inclusion of an image of the fig would possibly have been considered to be taboo, as the fruit and its likeness had apparently overt sexual connotations.  There is a possibility that the fig is in fact the fruit that Eve offered to Adam in the Garden of Eden (rather than the traditionally ascribed apple), owing to its omnipresence in the near East where the Biblical garden is alleged to be located.  In addition the fig had a rather sexual appearance, bearing a resemblance to the vulva.  Indeed, the word “fig” in languages outside of English still carries derisory and/or sexual overtones.  Also fig leaves, once again in allusion to the creation myth in Genesis, are a means of concealment.  This raises the question as to whether or not Holbein was, subconsciously, or through use of such imagery, insulting or mocking his wealthy English patrons.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Treasures of Heaven", the exhibition.

The British saint, Ursula, used to headline this exhibition.

                      Link to the official British Museum introduction to the exhibition

The history of relics and their import to understanding the religious beliefs and faiths cannot be understated, not least as demonstrated by this recent exhibition "Treasures of Heaven" held at the British Museum; demonstrating through the objects on display the extraordinary reverence and belief that was instilled in these objects.  Whether the objects are supposed fragments of the True Cross, thorns from the Crown of Thorns, or the bones of various saints, some of whom the exact reasoning for their veneration has been lost to us over the centuries. It might seem peculiar in the contemporary age to consider the enormous sums of money that were paid out in the Mediaeval age by important noble families, kings and dignitaries to possess such objects.  And once in the ownership of such individuals and families, the immense talent, skill, and cost to house them, be it in a comparatively simple reliquary to the extreme of the construction of buildings and shrines across Europe.  From a modern standpoint, except possibly amongst the deeply devout, one might not fully understand the appreciation and veneration afforded to such relics, however one simply has to look at the furor caused whenever suggestions are made in regard to the Shroud of Turin.  This zealous protection of what is considered a sacred object which might well not be what it pertains to be, might possibly provide some insight into the mindset of our ancestors five or more centuries ago.

Monarchs and princes amassed immense collections of these sacred relics, testimony to their devotion and faith, and to act as protection for themselves, their kingdoms or principalities, as well as for their subjects.  But they also were to play the role of demonstrating to other monarchs their personal wealth and prestige; and this could be an important role or factor in the forging of alliances, and in trading with other nations and/or city states.  Owing to their demand, more relics became available, as well as prices paid upon the receipt of such objects.  Availability of such items, be they bones, hair, splinters, etc became magnified during the Crusades after the taking of Byzantium and the Holy Land.  Objects from both Old and New Testament would surface and be sold to wealthy patrons.  These items ranged from the comparatively 'routine' (i.e. items such the skull of Saint Peter, and fragments of the cross), to the obscure and extraordinary; wood from the tree in the Garden of Eden to the foreskin from Jesus' circumcision (!). 

The bust reliquary of St. Baudime, previously unseen out of France
Despite the duplication and plentiful nature of such 'relics', this does not seem to have caused concern to those buying the objects nor the veneration thereof. It would be easy for a modern cynical mind to dismiss so many of these 'relics' as fraudulent.  However a degree of respect should be given when understanding the import and relevance of the apparent sanctity these objects held, and the effect which they would have made to the lives and standing of those believers, many centuries ago.  The objects themselves were held to be imbued with healing powers, and their locations would often be an important stopping point for pilgrims and visitors, seeking divine intervention in their lives through such relics.  Eventually this outlook changed; as Protestant reformers and iconoclasts set about causing the destruction of many of these objects in the late sixteenth century onwards, and it is at this point in history, the exhibition draws to a close, having commemorated twelve to thirteen centuries of devotion. 

Even to contemporary non-believers, the beauty of such objects created to house the relics and supposed mortal remains of saints or of Christ cannot be denied, and will surely provide testimony to that belief and creed of those who fashioned them, not to the duplicity of those who venerated them.  Yes, attitudes and outlooks since the years in which these objects were fashioned have changed, considerably and dramatically.  In the 21st century, atheism is no longer a cardinal sin, and having ideas defiant to what were considered orthodox beliefs found in the works of Scripture, such as evolution, are no longer punishable by death, nor condemnation as heresy.

The reliquary containing part of the arm of St George,
on loan from the Basilica of San Marco, Venice.
The great faith generated by and instilled in these objects and remains of long dead individuals, central to the teachings and providing a restored belief, appears to have been unique to the Christians of this era, simultaneously  providing something tangible from which divine inspiration could be drawn from. However, in marked contrast, contemporary non-Christians might well have looked upon such piety for such objects with curiosity or contempt. 

A visitor to the “Treasures of Heaven” exhibition was taken on a journey into the past, and in the understanding thereof. It was held at the British Museum between June and October 2011.   Over 120 different objects, linked by a common theme, that of veneration and devotion, made up this exhibition covering over a thousand years of history.  These objects have come from far and wide to form part of this exhibition including some of which have never been seen nor on display in the United Kingdom before.  These included an ornate, enameled ninth century cross-shaped reliquary, on loan from the Vatican; a reliquary which once contained the blood of St. Baudime which has previously never left France; and the Mandylion of Edessa,  believed to be one of the earliest representations of the likeness of Jesus Christ.  To the modern eye and mindset, the actual relic itself might seem rather uninspiring, or even appear to be of a rather grisly and gruesome nature; however to medieval mind, these were the true treasures, holy objects of veneration, and the reliquaries designed to amplify and exalt the status of the object, not detract from it.

The display in which the collection was presented in a structured manner, divided into sections, which allowed for the spectator to fully appreciate the beauty of the objects on display.  Sacred music was played softly throughout the exhibition area which complimented the ambiance and bathed the objects with a sense of piety within the secular environment of a museum, not detracting from the beauty of what is on display.  Equally the reliquaries, etc were well spaced out, so that even in the presence of a fair sized crowd of other visitors to the exhibition; the pleasure of viewing such objects was not affected.  Despite the presence of others, one could shut out the outside world, and just focus, contemplate, respect, appreciate, without feeling intrusion nor invasion from others around you.  Indeed, housing the exhibition within the former Reading Room with its impressive dome did add an extraordinary ecclesiastical dimension to the complete exhibition as a whole.

A casket fashioned to house a relic of Thomas Becket, dating from the 14th century.
The catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, is filled with beautiful photographs of the all objects on display, alongside informed essays and detailed notes, is an excellent, never mind essential, purchase for those who were fortunate enough to visit this exhibition.  That said, it won’t just serve as an aide memoire, nor as a pretty coffee table book, but can be used as an important reference for those readers fascinated by Medieval craftsmanship and work, as much as those of sacred art, and of course the actual relics themselves.  On the cover of the catalogue, as well as on the posters and all the publicity surrounding the exhibition is depicted a bust of St. Ursula.  She is a comparatively unknown saint these days, allegedly a British princess, who was martyred together 11,000 handmaidens, whilst undertaking a pilgrimage prior to her marrying to a pagan governor.  Her representation has been used, not just because of her presumed British origins, but because the work shown has a comparatively modern simplicity and beauty to it.

Relics might seem outdated and unpopular in this day and age, but, an interesting comparison might be in seeing the high prices paid for objects once owned or worn by, or photographs, movie props, etc, "touched" by a celebrity.  To collectors and enthusiasts, these objects still inspire awe, and inspiration, yet contain none of the supposed mysticism nor powers once believed to have been contained within a fragment of bone, hair, or cloth all those centuries ago.

Questioning Fate and Fortune: Boethius and the Consolation of Philosophy.

“It remains” I said “for you to explain this apparent injustice I am suffering now.”

 "The question you're asking," Lady Philosophy replied with a smile, "is the grandest of all mysteries, one which can never be explained completely to the human intellect, for, when one problem is removed, many more arise to take its place, and arise and arise unless the mind is keen and awake.  For the problem you raise touches on a number of difficult questions: the simplicity of Providence, the nature of Fate, the unpredictability of Chance, divine and human knowledge, predestination, and free will.  You know the difficulty involved in these questions; nevertheless, I will try to answer them in the short space allotted us."

Then, as though she were beginning for the first time, Philosophy said, "The coming-into-being of all things, and the entire course that changeable things take, derive their causes, their order, and their forms from the unchanging mind of God.  The mind of God set down all the various rules by which all things are governed while still remaining unchanged in its own simplicity. When the government of all things is seen as belonging to the simplicity and purity of the divine mind, we call it “Providence.”  When this government of all things is seen from the point of view of the things that change and move, that is, all things which are governed, from the very beginning of time we have called this “Fate.”  We can easily see that Providence and Fate are different if we think over the power of discernment each has.  Providence is the divine reason, the divine logos , and only belongs to the highest ruler of all things: it is the perspective of the divine mind.  “Fate,” on the other hand, belongs to the things that change and is the way in which Providence joins things together in their proper order.  Providence views all things equally and at the same time, despite their diversity and seemingly infinite magnitude.  Fate sets individual things in motion once their proper order and form has been established.  In other words, Providence is the vision of the divine mind as it sees the unfolding in time of all things, and sees all these things all at once, whereas the unfolding of these events in time, seen as they unfold in time, is called Fate.  Even though the two are different, the one depends on the other, for the complex unfolding of Fate derives from the unity of Providence.  Think of it this way: a craftsman imagines in his mind the form of whatever thing he intends to make before he sets about making it; he makes it by producing in time through a succession of acts that thing that he originally conceived of in his mind.  God, in his Providence, in a unified and simple way, orders all things that are to be done in time; Fate is the unfolding in time through a succession of acts in the order God has conceived. Therefore, whether or not Fate is worked out by angelic spirits serving God, or by some "soul," or nature, or the motions of the stars, or the Devil himself, or by none or all of these, one thing you can be certain of: Providence is the unchangeable, simple, and unified form of all things which come into and pass out of existence, while Fate is the connection and temporal order of all those things which the divine mind decided to bring into existence.  This leads to the conclusion that all things subject to Fate are in turn subject to Providence; therefore, Fate itself is subject to Providence.
[Boethius:  Consolatio Philosophiae, Book IV, Prose VI.]

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, more often referred to as just Boethius , was a statesman and philosopher who lived in the sixth century A.D.  He was educated and high born, descended from an early Roman noble family, and was author of numerous books including commentaries on Aristotle; he wrote his Consolatio Philosophiae [hereafter referred to under the translated name of The Consolation of Philosophy] whilst in prison in 523/24 A.D.  He had achieved much during his life, being appointed Consul of Rome in 510 A.D. and had seen his sons become joint consuls twelve years after.   Boethius was responsible for the translation of numerous Greek teachers’ works in Latin, including works by Ptolemy on astronomy, Euclid on geometry, and those of Plato and Aristotle.  Shortly before his imprisonment, he was appointed as magister officiorum to Theodoric I, ruler of Italy.  Boethius was accused as being a sympathiser of Justin I, Emperor of Byzantium, a former career soldier who had risen through the ranks and been elected emperor.  Justin’s nephew, later adopted as his son, was Justinian I, and husband of the notorious empress, Theodora. Indeed it was owing to a repeal of certain laws by Justin, preventing the royal family from marrying women of low rank such as actresses, that his nephew was able to marry Theodora, allegedly a former prostitute and actress.

A Mediaeval representation Boethius, visited by Lady Philosophy.

Historians seem to be in general agreement as to the events which lead to Boethius’ fall from grace.  A former consul, Albinus (Caecina Decius Faustus Albinus) was accused of treason, of treacherous correspondence with Justin, in front of the king and court, by Cyprianus.  Boethius, however, stated he believed Albinus to be no more guilty of the accusation than Boethius himself nor the other senators, and took his defence.  In retort to this, Cyprianus turned and Boethius indicted of the same crime.

Three witnesses were presented to demonstrate Boethius’ guilt (and quite probably that of Albinus alongside him) in the affair.  These witnesses’ testimony was denounced by Boethius as being dishonourable as they had previously been petty criminal behaviour, with one having been exiled for his debts, and the other two of fraud.  However, sources differ as to the veracity of the statements and the good character of these three witnesses.  Nonetheless, Boethius was arrested, initially detained in church, and then under house arrest.  It was whilst he was under house arrest that Boethius was executed.  A number of extenuating factors may have contributed towards, if not hastened, Boethius’ end. 

Theodoric’s origins were being born of Ostrogothic royalty, as a child he had been sent as a royal hostage to Byzantium where it appears he was educated in the ways of Government.  In his thirties, the Byzantine emperor Zeno appointed Theodoric as his consul based upon his successes as a soldier. Zeno also allowed him to return to his own people where, soon after, he was crowned king following the death of his father, Theodemir.  Soon after, at Zeno’s suggestion and the promise of the Italian peninsula; Theodoric invaded Italy where the existing viceroy Odoacer was being seen as an increasing threat.  Following a three year siege and a treaty made between both sides, Theodoric slew Odoacer with his sword at Ravenna.  Theodoric then set about slaying his family and remaining supporters.  Soon after, Theodoric was appointed as king of Italy. 

The Battistero degli Ariani [The Baptistry of the Arians]
in Ravenna, believed to have been built by Theodoric.

The religious beliefs of Theodoric were Arian in nature, and this was to cause quarrels between his subjects, some Catholic, some Arian.  Justin entertained good relations with Hilderic, king of the Vandals, and this contributed to a turbulent relationship between the two realms.  In addition, the beliefs of Theodoric (and most of the nobility) stood in marked contrast to those following the resolution of the Acacian Schism in 519, whereby Christ had been recognised as divine; a complete antithesis of the Arianist theology.  Theodoric’s sister Almafrida, dowager queen of the Vandals, had raised an unsuccessful revolt against the successor of her late husband, his cousin Hilderic.  Her husband had sought to forge better relations with Byzantium, by ceasing the persecution of the Catholics within his kingdom.  Hilderic, continued his predecessor’s ways and empathy for the Catholics, allowing many of his subjects to convert; he thus achieved even greater ties with Byzantium and further alienated the Arians.  This resurgence of Catholic strength led to a subsequent persecution of Arians in the East.  Hilderic had Almafrida imprisoned, and she was possibly executed, or died in prison.  It was only due to the death of Theodoric that the two nations didn’t go to war at that point in time.  However the animosity between Byzantium and Italy was great.  However the animosity between Arians and Catholics was to continue; with a victorious revolt in the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa, seven years later, lead by Hilderic’s cousin Geilamir.

Over the year in which Boethius was imprisoned he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. Sometime after its completion, Boethius was executed.  In respect of Boethius’ final days, the fragmentary chronicle Anonymous Valesii states:-

But the King [ie Theodoric] summoned Eusebius, Prefect of the city of Ticenum, and without giving Boethius a hearing, passed sentence upon him. The King soon afterwards caused him to be killed on the Calventian territory where he was held in custody. He was tortured for a very long time by a cord that was twisted round his forehead so that his eyes started from his head. Then at last amidst his torments he was killed with a club.”

The work itself is a significant deviation from all the others in Boethius’ catalogue of writings in that it is of a personal nature, and not a translation nor a commentary of earlier philosophy or doctrine.  Within those words, Boethius imbues the work with themes from relevant works in his library, seemingly of pre-Christian writers.   The work, although much of the ideas are commentary or derivative of other sources; this does not detract from the importance of the underlying theme, nor does it make the work any less stimulating to read and to allow the reader to contemplate.  The informed reader of the work however will ponder two questions whilst reading and reflecting upon Boethius’ words whilst reading this work however.  The first being that of Boethius’ guilt in the crime for which he had been accused and the second one being the question mark over Boethius’ faith and beliefs. 

To address the question of Boethius' beliefs, it is perhaps reflective of the environment in which he found himself, Boethius, much like St. Jerome a century previous found himself drawn to the works of Cicero and Plato.  Indeed, The Golden Legend recounts a tale of how St. Jerome converted to Christianity upon the threat of being whipped and condemned as a pagan upon his reading of Cicero and Plato, both deemed and condemned as being heretical texts, yet by stalk contrast, Boethius seems to have enjoyed respect rather than condemnation for his appreciation of the two same (amidst many others) authors from antiquity.  Indeed, in reading The Consolation of Philosophy, it becomes highly apparent how much the Early Church was to appropriate pre-Christian writers and philosophy into its teachings.  Boethius makes extensive reference to the works of Cicero, and there is a deep Platonist feel which is found throughout the work, yet perhaps rather extraordinarily, there is not a single reference made to Scripture.  This is extraordinary in retrospect, as the book as much its author, was to be venerated by Christians for many centuries after.  Boethius admittedly did not have access to his library whilst imprisoned, however his source of salvation does not seem to have been found that of the Christian message, and it is Lady Philosophy who teaches him the importance of virtue.  Boethius’ writing seems to have been influential in the formation of scholastic philosophy, and Boethius, in addition to demonstrating his advanced knowledge of both Roman and Greek philosophy appears to have an evident understanding of the ideas that were adhered to by the Gnostic traditions, long since proscribed by the Church of Rome.  The book is shows clear signs of being theistic in nature, but imitates or echoes the doctrine of the Neo-Platonists, in which God was portrayed as being an infinite, yet depersonalised, being. Upon reading the book without approaching it with a Christian outlook, the tone is decidedly Neo-Platonist, and Stoic, than Christian.

The Wheel of Fortune as portrayed in the Coëtivy Master c. 1460/70
 The Gnostic traditions taught that Sophia [meaning “Wisdom”] was the feminine aspect to God.  She was the embodiment of knowledge, and understanding.  Some Gnostic schools taught that Sophia was the Mirror of God.  However to add confusion, this Sophia had a daughter, also called Sophia, who left the plemora, or a divine plain, and became lost and confused below.  So as to keep herself company created Yaldaboath [meaning “child of chaos”], a creature that was half lion, half serpent.  However this creature terrified her and she built an enclosure around him, thus separating the world from the Underworld.  Then either Yaldaboath or Sophia, the stories differ, created Man.  Sophia herself can be interpreted as being metaphorical of the human soul; lost and confused, yet still containing the spark, or gnosis, within her.

Scholars have recently questioned as to when during the time frame of his imprisonment did Boethius compose this work.  Some have proposed that it is not the work of a man who is preparing to face death and execution but more one of one who’s life and status are in ruins; who had reached the echelons of power for himself and by extension, his family, and that was all taken from him.  Perhaps Boethius only believed that he was being punished with imprisonment for speaking out against Cyprianus, rather than facing the ultimate atonement for his treason; death.  Ultimately the work is Boethius, a rationalist from the teachings he had read and adopted, is writing a rational approach to events that have befallen him, and through the intervention of Philosophy, personified, is attempting to explain them.  By association, and in line with the teachings of Plato, philosophy (or philosophical thought and reasoning) is seen as an important method of detracting the mind, taking it’s listeners or readers away from a misleading external world of “matter” and appearances, but to the true enlightenment and experience of reality.  A direct comparison can be drawn between Plato’s parable of the caves, found in The Republic, whereby Plato uses the sun as a “guiding light” as symbolising the Good, and Boethius talks about his striving towards the light of Truth.  Philosophy tells Boethius that he should not be allowing good nor ill-fortune to affect his judgment, and alludes to that through his recollection of events, suggests that he has knowledge i.e. to have the ability to recollect is to demonstrate knowledge. 

In addition, Boethius’ Lady Philosophy teaches her subject (and audience) that Fortune is indeed fickle, that the Wheel of Fortune must turn and even those with wealth, position and power; material objects or goals that seem to bring happiness, that the Wheel can turn and those can so easily reach the bottom.  This is shown to explain or justify Boethius’ current position in prison.  Having been at the top, he know finds himself stripped of power, wealth and lands.  However his consolation is in the understanding that good fortune is deceptive, and that it is only when wealth, fame, fortune are taken away; and what appears to be ill-fortune and adversity is instructive in teaching what is truly important and relevant to living when material goods are taken away; again revealing traits of Stoicism and its doctrine. The truth is shown to be what is truly important, and those to whom our lives and fates matter to.  Bemoaning his impending doom, or situation; Philosophy reminds him again that only those who are truly virtuous, and truly good, will be rewarded through attaining ultimate happiness through virtue rather than Evil being masked in rewards of materialist happiness. In effect, despite the appearance of materialist happiness, the wicked are not truly flourishing.  Boethius’ questions to Philosophy are that of how can there be free will, if all actions are pre-ordained.  Again Philosophy dictates that this is the difference in the individual as to whether they believe in having actual knowledge of what events will take place based upon action, or whether events are already pre-determined by Providence and Fate.  Therefore, free-will and choice means that the individual has the choice or at least the conscious knowledge of what could be a possible outcome, however that does not predetermine the outcome of events, but that the individual has the choice whether or not to make it happen.

Lady Philosophy leading Boethius towards his enlightment, Coëtivy Master c.1460/70 
Whilst consoled by Philosophy, and occasionally chastised, for bemoaning his fate, or his lot, dependent upon the reader perceives how “consolation” (ie. Reason) is approached, ultimately (his) fate is not trapped in an unmoving present, where neither the future nor the past can be changed, but ultimately that a higher power, is outside of the remit set by time and is not an entity which possesses feelings, understanding nor personality. This higher power exists in an eternal present, not drawing upon the past nor predetermining a future.  It is also an attempt to show a possible relationship between that of events being predetermined and that of destiny, and free will.  Fortune is interpreted as being a turning wheel, and that each individual’s life is that very wheel, not just a spoke within it, or part of a greater, grand design.  The fortunes of one’s life come and go, through the intervention of various forces; be they Providence or otherwise.  It could be seen that life, in its entirety will have momentary pleasures and fortunes, is simply a background to which these opportunities and events will surface.  Mediaeval Christians would have probably tied in with these teachings, although it is never specifically refered to nor cited, the Christian notion of "the meek inheriting the Earth."    

As noted previously, Neo-Platonism is a principle underlying dimension to the work of Boethius, and not simply just a facet or an external influence that affected his writing and opinions.  Neo-Platonism was developed in the third century AD.  It’s ideology in some ways seems very similar to that, or as an expansion upon the doctrine of Simon Magus, and some of the Gnostic schools that followed.  It put forward the notion that an all-Supreme deity, the One, from which emanated the divine Intelligence [or nous], and below that the soul of the world.  Some of the souls remain in the celestial plain, and others descend into the bodies below.  The soul however could ascend the hierarchy and eventually with, and be part of, the One.  The teachings, developed by Plotinus, were influenced by a number of earlier schools of philosophy; such as those of Aristotle, and Pythagoras.  Neo-Platonism was to become the most popular philosophical school by non-Christians, and was later to make resurgence in mediaeval and Renaissance thought. 

As to the question of Boethius’ guilt in the accusation levied against him of conspiracy to commit treason, or to actually be party to it, or whether he was a man wrongly accused, is a difficult subject to discuss as the sources which are available all express the same bias.  The primary source we have of the events leading up to his imprisonment is none other than Boethius himself.   Naturally this autobiographical account of the wrongdoing meted out to him is going to be prejudicial to say the least, however, Boethius’ recounting of events leading up to his imprisonment do betray certain sympathies that could betray his actual guilt in the matter, rather than exonerate him.  Furthermore, they draw into question the sympathy that should be afforded him, and whether Lady Philosophy’s arrival, like a deus ex machina, is in fact there to cover for or to create a defence (posthumous or not) for a seemingly rational man, hiding behind rationalism, to disguise or hide his own culpability.

Another primary source for the events surrounding Boethius and his condemnation is the Anonymous Valesii, a fragmentary chronicle of unknown origins, yet believed to have been composed some 20-30 years after Boethius’ execution, possibly in Ravenna.  Certainly the contents of Boethius’ pleadings of innocence fall into line with those written in The Consolation of Philosophy.  However, it cannot be determined whether the author of the tract had access to Boethius’ writings or not, and whether he was writing directly from The Consolation of Philosophy as his source.  Procopius, author of The Secret History, writes in similar vein and again, possibly again using Boethius as his source, thereby making his bias immediately apparent. 

Boethius’ successor as magister officiorum was Cassiodorus [or Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator], himself a former consul and governor of Sicily.  Cassiodorus’ approach to history and philosophy was of marked difference to that of Boethius however.  Both men recognized the importance of Greek and Roman literature, however Cassiodorus considered that the works of Scripture to of considerably higher import.  Furthermore, Cassiodorus appears to have placed a more emphatic relevance to the Neoplatonist ideology of the form of the Good [τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέαν]; a “symbiosis” of ideas between that ideology and that of beauty.   In writing about the trial and ultimate execution of his predecessor, Cassiodorus is conspicuously silent and makes no mention or allusion to those events.  This is extraordinary in that he penned a series of letters, the Variae Epistulae, which cover numerous aspects of Theodoric’s reign.  This gap in his writing has been the subject of conjecture by scholars, whether this is an implication of the guilt of Boethius, or of his innocence.  The Variae themselves speak highly of those individuals of whom Boethius suggests to be disreputable.  Both his accuser, Cyprianus , as well as two of the “witnesses” called are cited as being men of good character.  It needs to be noted however that experts do tend to approach the historical works of Cassiodorus with prudence, for he seems to have exercised caution when writing his works, more specifically for the sake of self preservation rather than recording the specific facts. 

The Wheel of Fortune, as represented in the Carmina Burana
The fifth and sixth centuries were to demonstrate an important time in the development of the Christian Church.  The conflict between pagan ideas and those taught within Scripture were coming to an end.  Through the proscription of various books which betrayed different ideas on accepted Christianity, and the compilation of a complete canon of accepted books by Athanasius in 381 A.D., Christianity at last had some element of structure as to what was orthodox, and what was heterodox.  Anything, be it other’s doctrines, teachings, or even alternative gospels and strands of Christianity (such as those of the Sethians, Manichees, etc) could be denounced as being heresy and be suppressed wherever and whenever possible.  For a brief while, Christianity and classical “pagan” traditions could co-exist alongside each other, however with Scripture as “the inspired word of God” taking precedence over that which had been written by non-believers in the “true word”.  However, Scripture was to become a prevalent force, and rational, scientific thought was discouraged.  To the modern mind this might seem preposterous, however it serves as a valid reasoning as to why so many synods and ecumenical councils were held during the fourth and fifth century.  In essence, a “blueprint” had to be drawn up, and the Church had to be unified in her message, not be teaching divergent ideas that, at times, were plainly conflicting with one another.  It was only with the Renaissance, some eight to nine centuries later, that science, logic and philosophy was “rediscovered” outside of the message contained in Scripture, and given a new sense of purpose and worth, and could be taken seriously, and considered as a valid, alternative standpoint to the “word of God.”

The Consolation of Philosophy was to prove to be one of the most popular works of Mediaeval literature, alongside Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia, and Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend, and was translated and printed in many languages following the invention of the printing press.  Certainly Boethius was received by a significantly sized, Christian audience.  The narrative is simple in construct, yet the ideas profound; the structure is prosimetrical; alternating between prose and metered poetry. One of the most profound influences on the book and its approach is the works of Plato, of who’s works Boethius was compiling a compiling a commentary, prior to his imprisonment and eventual execution.  The Christian audience of medieval times saw this work as instruction, discouragement from worldly goods and vices as money and power were merely temporary things but to focus, through the intervention of philosophical thinking, upon values, virtues, and of good.  A path to virtue was through the suffering of inflicted evil, and despite adversity, to be able to overcome it and accomplish good, and through such action, one would reach peace and unity with God.  Not only can Man exercise free will, but the ability to act upon that free will. The work also acted as a guide to provide encouragement and incentive to it's readers, invited to understand and seek consolation in the words of Boethius, emanating from the lips of Lady Philosophy.

The Consolation of Philosophy has left an important legacy for readers since its completion and circulation from the sixth century onwards.  The work has inspired numerous writers, not just in the Mediaeval and Renaissance era when at its most popular; the both has influenced Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, to recent writers as diverse as J.R.R. Tolkien and John Kennedy Toole.   It was translated many times, amongst its notable translations having been made by Alfred the Great, Chaucer, and queen Elizabeth I.  Numerous translations have been circulated throughout the ages and the work is still available today; a true testament to the work’s enduring appeal and popularity in the present as much as in the past. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Culdee, the Copts, and the Celtic Church.

Ireland, by virtue of its geography and seclusion in the northwest of Europe, was never invaded by Caesar’s all-powerful legions during the conquests of the British Isles.  Indeed, this seclusion, long after the Romans had left the British Isles meant that it equally was left alone during the subsequent Saxon invasions .  The island of Hibernia is first mentioned in the writings of Claudius Ptolemy, a mathematician and astronomer, writing in the second century A.D.   This “independence” allowed the Irish to form their own ideas, and to allow the formation of a nation without overt interference and influence from the might of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent strand of Christianity, Roman Christianity, to spread throughout Western Europe.  A form of Christianity is reported to have been in the British isles according to the writings of the Early Church father, Tertullian, stating that it had even reached beyond the boundaries of the then Roman Empire, presumably into Wales, Scotland and Ireland.  It has long been suggested as part of Grail lore that Joseph of Arimathea made his way to Britain with the Grail. 

Owing to the fact that it was isolated from the rest of Europe, Ireland, and parts of Scotland meant that there was not a direct influence of the (enforced) traditions and doctrines spreading from Rome, but equally those lands were open to other ideas, and interpretations.  The influence of the East seems to have held a more profound influence on the Celtic Church.  The island status of Ireland allowed it to have extensive commercial connections with mainland Britain, but also further afield, with Gaul, with Spain and Egypt, and possibly further still.  Egypt’s major trading port was Alexandria, and the trading between the two nations seems to resulted in creating a significant influence and impact upon the Celtic Church.  This port was a vast hub and centre of culture, ideas, probably on a par with Byzantium in the east.  Philosophy and ideas were prevalent there, both Christian and pagan, ranging from the Egyptian mystery schools, to those of early Christians and Gnostics alike.  Also other influences were prevelant too from further afield, from Syria, and from the Holy Land.  Also, the trading route from Egypt to Ireland would have meant passing by Galicia, where the heresy of Priscillian, his ideas and the texts upon which he based his doctrine, might well still have been accessible, even if previously it had been denounced as heretical.   

Egypt has long presented itself as being a wealth of source material on the Early Church, not least owing to the staggering corpus of surviving information that where has been found, and thanks to the temperature of the desert sands preserved there over the centuries.  Alexandria was esteemed as a centre of great learning and philosophy, with its famed libraries, as well as originally displaying a marked religious tolerance towards Christians, Jews and pagans alike.  Syria too was of importance, inasmuch as it has been thought that various Gnostic texts may well have been originally composed there.  The Syriac Church also shared a belief with some of the other early churches that Jesus had a twin brother; Judas Thomas Didymos.  Both the Egyptian and Syriac schools, and ultimately the Celtic Church, adhered to traditions seemingly  more Judaic and Platonist nature and origin.

The influence of Asia Minor and of Egypt came to Ireland through Gaul, as well as through the trading routes by sea.  The Irish tribal and clan system seems to have found an affinity with the monasticism of Egypt.  A marked similarity between the monastic tradition in Egypt and in Ireland was that the “monastery” consisted of a number of dwellings, mainly huts, which both clerical and lay monks lived. The lay monks did not live an ascetic lifestyle, many of whom were married and had families.  The outlook was similar in that the monks from both Egypt and in Ireland were more like missionaries, rather than priests.

The earliest churches in Ireland were constructed of mud and wood, much like the dwellings in which the indigenous Irish lived.  The pre-Christian Irish communities had built no temples to their creeds, and as the island had not been subsumed into the Roman Empire, no temples had been built by the Romans to be appropriated and converted into Christian churches.  References are found in The Book of Armagh, a biography of St. Patrick, refers to churches having been made of earth. By the seventh-eighth century, the churches, called duirtreach meaning ‘oak house’ were being constructed out of wood. Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People states that on Lindisfarne a church was built in the Irish manner, of hewn oak and covered in reeds.  The earliest monasteries consisted of a compound of beehive shaped huts (called claghauns) which were gathered around their leader or teacher, the enclosed being surrounded by a circular wall, called a cashel.  In addition to the dwellings, there were a number of crosses, a church and possibly an oratory. 
The Kilmardine Cross, and its Wheel Cross, a Coptic motif.
The monks from these numerous Irish schools and monasteries travelled across the seas to the mainland and founded further monasteries.  This exodus of monks was to encourage learning in a world which was mostly being overrun by barbaric hoards, displaying little interest in preserving learning, philosophy, or of history.  Hence the term, the Dark Ages, was born to describe these times.  These missionary monks travelled far and wide, establishing monasteries as far afield as Switzerland, and northern and southern Italy.  Learning and teaching seem to have taken priority over and above the need to convert.  This dogma appears to have been to encourage all manner of ideology and theology.  Unlike the Roman Church, which had proscribed various books, a bar on writings and exclusion of apocryphal texts deemed heretical, the Celtic Church seems to have embraced these ideas, and allowed various aspects thereof to become integral to their teaching.  

Scholars have suggested that in fact the Egyptian monastic tradition did not form in and around Alexandria, but around the Delta of the Nile, and amongst the Coptic Christians.  This form of Coptic-Egyptian monasticism formed by the emergence of “wise men” such as St. Anthony, St. Basil, and others; these men attracted disciples forming monastic communities called coenobia.  Egypt and its holy men were to attract visitors from all around the Christian world, indeed it attained a status as a centre for Christian worship that was greater than that of the Holy Land, for the high regard and vast number of inspired teachers in these coenobia.  Amongst the visitors to these communities included St. Jerome, who wrote an account in one of his Epistles telling of such a visit he made.

The Egyptian monasteries tended to be found in isolated, remote locations, and were built in the desert for its seclusion.  Another reason for the selection of Ireland must have been its isolation, being effectively separated from the rest of the Roman Empire.  However, in Ireland, as in the rest of Western Europe, no deserts are to be found.  It appears that, prior to monastic settlements being established in Ireland that the Egyptian church, a different entity from the Roman church, set up and built centres of learning in parts of mainland Europe; these included a centre at Lérins in Gaul, where St. Patrick is supposed to have been educated and would have doubtless learnt the tenets and doctrine of the Egyptian Church.  The monastery at Lérins appears to have been based upon an Egyptian model and ideology, and which might explain how some of the motifs, ideas and approach to Christianity that was prevalent in the Celtic church for many years, if not centuries.  However, owing to the absence of physical deserts in the British Isles, it became fashionable to name the locations in which the monasteries were established with being in a “desert.” Therefore, the term “Desert”, “Disert”, and “dysert” can be found in a significant number of the place names where these ecclesiastical settlements were built; names such as Disertmartin, Dysert O’Dea, and  Killadysert.  This influence equally seems to have spread into Scotland, again with similar sounding place names.  Certainly most of these monasteries seemed to have a “disert” in close proximity.  An eighth century Irish litany exists, the Litany of Pilgrim Saints, includes an invocation to the ‘Seven monks of Egypt in Diseart Uiliag’. 

Connections have been suggested as to a link between the Culdee and the Irish monks.  The Culdee or Céle Dé are believed to have worked alongside the monasteries, tending to the poor and the sick, therefore were part of the first hospitals in Ireland.  It seems that the Culdee were not required to take monastic vows despite their close affiliations to the monasteries.  Their origins, doctrines, theology, even the etymology of their name is subject to much speculation amongst scholars.  It has been suggested by some that their name comes from the Gaelic Céile Dé [meaning “companion of God”]; others have suggested that the term comes from a term used when when refering to St. John, the beloved disciple, who is reported to have visited Ireland.  It was once believe that by scholars that the Culdee were in fact the Christian successors to the pagan druid.  This hypothesis however is considered by current scholars to be outdated and incorrect.   The settlements of the Culdee, such as on those on Iona, were built over previous druidic settlements. Third century sources suggest that some of the early Christians, in order to escape persecution, fled into deserts for safety, wherein they found sanctuary.   The Culdee certainly appear to have surfaced in Britain in the early centuries A.D. and their roots may well be in a merging of pagan ideas and the evolving Celtic Church. 

Ultimately the Culdee were to lose their distinctive identity when the Celtic Church became subsumed by the Roman Church in 1111 at the synod of Ráth Breasail, and the transition from a monastic based church to that of parishes.  In the Icelandic work, the Landnámabók, states that the priests of Ireland were found "with bells and crosiers."  Bells did not play a significant part of the Roman service until the tenth-eleventh century. By association, their presence suggests a possible Eastern influence upon the Celtic Church.
The early church at St. John's Point, surrounded by early pagan burials.
Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, is credited with bringing Christianity to, and the driving out of snakes from, Ireland.  As stated previously, Patrick's education at Lérins would certainly have meant being  trained in the ways of Egyptian school of Christianity.  Patrick seemed to have raised the concerns of his ecclesiastical superiors in his teachings, and his suitability as a priest.  Perhaps, Patrick might well have been tainted by a prevalent school of thought at the time, that of Arianism, inasmuch that all his teachings that have survived and carried down to us, curiously there is no mention made of the Virgin birth.  He also appears to have believed that it was the Scriptures that stated the law, and that divine mediation by angels, men of God, and the saints do not seem to have influenced his theology.  Patrick seems to have reinforced the importance of Mosaic Law, as dictated by the Old Testament, in how his congregations were to live their lives; not just in adherence to instruction from the New Testament. 

There seems to have been a direct exchange between Egypt and Ireland, with mention of monks from Egypt being in Ireland and vice versa.  A guidebook written for Irish monks travelling to Egypt, detailing the Pyramids, and for visiting the desert fathers, was written, and a copy survives to this day, located in the Bibliotheque Nationale, in Paris.  Egypt became a centre for pilgrimage by the Irish monks, with one of the latest records we have of such a "pilgrimage" having been made in the thirteenth century.  Numerous examples of early Egyptian Christian/Coptic art, symbolism, and motifs would appear to have found their way into that of the Celtic Church.  Illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne gospels, the books of Kells and of Deer, all have design work of a distinctly Eastern influence and pattern, as opposed to that of a Roman design, in their ornamentation.  The same is true for a number of the stone crosses found in Ireland.  Coptic textual forms are to be found in the book of Dimma.

The early Irish crosses in their earliest form bear inscriptions of “wheel crosses” showing striking similarities to the Coptic inscription bearing a similar design. The Irish crosses have been found alongside the symbols of the Alpha and the Omega .  Other crosses bearing a similarity to the ankh, the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph and sign for life have been found in Ross-shire and in Ardboe.  The later crosses have intricate design work that mirror designs found in illuminated Egyptian Christian Gospels.   Egyptian glass fragments dating to the third century A.D. have also been found in Cornwall, where there is no discernable connection with them having been imported by the Romans.  Glass chalices have been located in County Waterford are identical to ones used in the Coptic church.  St. Antony, an Egyptian saint and one of the desert fathers, features prominently on crosses found in Ireland, at Kells and Monasterboice, as well as the Isle of Man.  Various Eastern symbols such as serpents, crescents, elephants have been found on engravings; the precise meaning being unknown, and clearly derived from an Eastern culture, not that of Ireland.  In an eleventh century biography of St. David, it states that “he imitated the monks of Egypt, and lived a life like theirs.”  
One of the "carpets" from the illuminated Book of Durrow;
the ornate artwork has a distinctly Egyptian look.
The architecture of these churches further demonstrates that the Irish Christians were not influenced by Roman Christianity.  Not a single church or ruins thereof has been found in Ireland that dating from before the eleventh century that could be suggested to be like a basilica; a Roman concept.  No churches are circular in shape, nor do they appear to have possessed apses nor aisles, like their Roman counterparts. Their size is also noteworthy, for their diminutive size, as they appear to have been built to house a small congregation of followers, unlike the large sprawling Roman basilicas.  Small groups of churches were congregated together, an idea more prevalent in the east of Europe, such as in Greece and Asia Minor.  The masses themselves have elements borrowed from the Coptic mass, the priest facing East towards the altar, with bells playing an important role in the service, and a full emersion of babies during baptism are to name but a few. Bishops wore crowns rather than mitres, and their crooks not those of a traditional crosier but of a tau shape.

Some writers have suggested that the Spanish "heretic" bishop Priscillian's teachings may well have somehow found their way to Irish shores.  Certainly the Celtic Church embraced other ideas outside of the orthodoxy enforced by Rome elsewhere in the expanding Christian, Roman church. Documents deemed "heretical" appear to have reached Ireland; in certain cases, only survive in Irish documents.  One of the early heretics, Nestorius, and his teachings, were especially popular at the time of St. Patrick.  Nestorius had been the Archbishop of Constaninople, and his doctrines suggested that Christ was not of divine birth as he felt no union between the divine and humanity could be  possible, and thereby denounced the divinity of Jesus.  Also he rejected the title afforded to the Virgin Mary at the time, that of Θεοτόκος  [Theotokos], meaning “Godbearer.”   His tutor and mentor, Theodore, was also denounced as being a heretic by the Church; however his writings only survive due to their inclusion in Irish manuscripts, whereas they were  proscribed and destroyed elsewhere in the Christian empire an would have been lost to us as with so many other "heresies" and their unorthodox doctrines.

Ultimately, much like the Culdee, the Celtic Church did not survive in its original form.  Its ideology and theology would have been considered to be markedly heretical, and considerably more so than other considerably minor and trivial digressions elsewhere, from the Roman Christian faith.  The Roman church, rather than imposing strict punishments upon those who did not agree with its ideology and doctrine as it had done for various renegade teachers, bishops and sects, appears to have decided to subsume the entire church under its aegis. Rather than persecute the heretic and destroy their books and documents, the Church rather cleverly allowed things to run their course, and where old ideas needed to be replaced, they simply implemented their own ideas and doctrine.

The Santair na Rann, an eleventh or twelfth century book, made up of over 150 tractates includes a variation of an apocryphal work called “The Book of Adam and Eve”, of which only copies have been located in Egypt. The Book of Cerne, a work dating from the eleventh century has within its texts the intriguing “Passion of Peter and Paul”; a work derived from The Acts of Peter, an apocryphal work in which certain stories were later to emerge in The Golden Legend. In 2006, a book of psalms dating from the eighth century was uncovered from a peat bog at Faddan More near Birr, County Tipperary. About fifteen percent of the psalms themselves have survived intact, having been preserved by the peat. It is not the book of psalms itself that has garnered much of the interest. The interest lies in the binding of the book which held the psalms together. The psalms have been held together in a leather book cover, Egyptian in style, with fragments of papyrus (from Egypt) being found in the binding itself. The manuscript, written in Latin, is believed to have been produced in an Irish monastery yet somehow found itself in another cover created across the seas in Egypt. Since named the Faddan More Psalter, the book has recenly been considered by Irish archaeologists to be one of the most important and relevant archaeological finds made on Irish shores in recent times.
The Faddan More Psalter, opened to reveal the illuminations therein.