The St Agnes lambs

St Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold…

I have always loved Keats, and he is, of course, a poet with better claims than many others to a Roman association. But as a schoolchild, studying him, I disliked that poem. I sniggered at the line “Into her dream he melted.” I was irritated by the way, for the sake of a perfect jog-trot iambic pentameter, Keats writes “a-cold”, instead of just plain Anglo Saxon “cold”.

It was much later in life that I became acquainted with St Agnes herself, her legend and her beautiful basilica, on the Via Nomentana in Rome’s northeastern outskirts. On the eve of the saint’s feast day, January 21st, the Pope solemnly blesses two white lambs. But why?

The lambs of St Agnes and the pallium
Sigeric of Glastonbury, recently named Archbishop of Canterbury, journeyed to Rome in the year 989 to receive his stole of office, the pallium, from Pope John XV. During his time here, Sigeric visited three churches intimately connected with the manufacture of this vestment, a connection which is still maintained to this day.

Every year, two winter lambs are purchased from the Cistercian monks ofSanti Vincenzo e Anastasio at Tre Fontane, south of the city centre (on the site of the martyrdom of St Paul). It is their wool that will be used to make the pallia. On the feast of St Agnes (21st January), the two lambs are taken to the basilica of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura and solemnly blessed. The association of St Agnes with lambs comes from a play on the virgin martyr’s name (Agnes) and the Latin word for a lamb (agnus). If the pope is not personally present at the service, then the lambs are afterwards taken to the Vatican, decked in white roses, to receive his benediction. After this they are entrusted to the care of the Benedictine sisters of the convent of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, where they are raised with the utmost care until Holy Week, when they are shorn. The nuns weave their wool into the pallia which will be conferred on new metropolitan archbishops on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul (29th June). In the apse mosaic of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Pope Paschal I is shown wearing the pallium. His is pure white, adorned with two red crosses.

Slightly pixelated, but still recognisable: Pope Paschal I (left) wearing his pallium woven from the wool of St Agnes lambs (and with a square nimbus indicating that he was alive when this portrait was created), in the company of St Cecilia and St Paul. Detail of the apse mosaic in the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

Each of these churches, SS Vincenzo e Anastasio, S. Agnese fuori le Mura with its attached catacomb, and S. Cecilia, is hugly rewarding to visit. You can read more about them in Pilgrim’s Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph.

Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” in restoration

Alta Macadam (author of Blue Guide Florence) paid a fascinating visit to the state restoration laboratory to see it:

Leonardo’s painting of the Adoration of the Magi, owned by the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence and which the artist left in its preparatory state, has been removed to the state restoration laboratory in Florence’s Fortezza da Basso for restoration expected to take at least three years. Leonardo was commissioned to paint the work as the high altarpiece for San Donato a Scopeto, a church outside the city walls (no longer extant). The funds had been provided by a saddler in 1479, and it may be that Leonardo was chosen for the job since his father worked as a notary at the monastery to which the church was attached. The contract was drawn up in 1481 but just four months later Leonardo seems to have withdrawn from the agreement as he was called to Milan by Ludovico Sforza. (The monks of San Donato had Filippino Lippi paint their altarpiece 15 years later).

Leonardo left his work at the preparatory stage. In the extraordinary sketched details we can study the development of his ideas as he seemed to play with various designs and solutions which include over sixty figure studies, both human and animal. The iconography that he uses, turning the arrival of Christ into an extraordinarily crowded, almost exotic scene, is derived not from the biblical account but from that of a 14th-century theologian who suggested that the event provoked fright and incredulity as well as devotion. Although Leonardo made preparatory drawings for the work (which are now preserved in the Louvre, the Uffizi, and the Royal Library in Windsor), it seems that he spent much time working out his ideas on the work itself.

The preparation of the support is particularly interesting. The canvas was made from hemp stretched over ten planks of poplar wood (attached behind with metal bars, still in place) and then the ground was prepared with no less than five hands of gesso mixed with glue. Through the use of highly sophisticated apparatus, it has been established that the preliminary drawings on this ground were made by Leonardo first using charcoal, then a brush, and then indigo blue watercolour, so that there are three distinct layers of drawings. Leonardo then began to add a very little pigment, mostly ochre. As in some of his chiaroscuro paintings, it appears that he worked on the darker tones first, so that the two trees in the centre of the painting (one a palm, the symbol of Victory and the other probably an ilex, recalling the Tree of Jesse) stand out as the most finished part of the work. The sky is still white with only a few very faint touches of lapis lazuli.

Because of its unfinished state, Leonardo obviously never varnished the painting but many varnishes were added during subsequent centuries, in an attempt to unify its appearance. These later interventions have tended to reduce the overall effect to that of a monochrome painting. The work has also been subjected to several past restorations, the last of which was in 1924. Since the aim of the present restoration is to remove the varnishes added after Leonardo’s time, the end result will probably show stronger contrasts of tones but will not be spectacularly different from its present state. But we will be able to study even more closely the evolution of Leonardo’s ideas as he resolves problems as they arise and investigates the various possibilities of  composition and form. The atmosphere in some parts of the work is almost chaotic, with Classical ruins, equestrian scenes, and human and animal figures closely entangled, while around the isolated majestic figure of the Madonna and the blessing Child, the Magi are shown in deeply reverent worship. The painting has many similarities in technique with Leonardo’s wonderful painting of St Jerome and the lion in the Vatican Pinacoteca, which he also left unfinished at around the same time. The format of the Adoration is unusual: it may have been slightly truncated at the bottom, so that it was probably originally exactly square.

This project is just one of many in progress at the state restoration laboratory in Florence, which is world-renowned for the excellence of its work—but sadly very much in need of funding so that more young restorers can be trained, to ensure the conservation of Italy’s art treasures in the future.

Cathedral picks: Exeter

At the far east end of Exeter cathedral lies the tomb-chest of Hugh Oldham (d. 1519), with his painted effigy reposing upon it.

Oldham rose rapidly in the church, and may have owed his preferment at least in part to the good opinion of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, in whose household he once served as chancellor. His nomination as Bishop of Exeter in 1505 may have come about with her help. Margaret was a member of the House of Lancaster, and Oldham himself was a Lancastrian by birth. His home village was near Manchester, and his educational foundations included Manchester Grammar School (and Corpus Christi College, Oxford). His chantry chapel is at the end of the south aisle. It is dedicated to St Boniface and St Saviour and bears the scars of the Reformation: not a single carved saint of the many that decorate the exterior still possesses its head. The altarpiece inside has been similarly disfigured. According to the cathedral guide, this iconoclasm was the work of the Dean of Exeter himself, in a bid to demonstrate his allegiance to the reformers.

The leitmotif of the chapel’s decorative scheme is the owl, which Bishop Hugh used as his personal device, constructing a rebus from it: HughOwldham. Once you start looking, you see owls everywhere: along the walls, on the ceiling, even embroidered on the kneelers.