Category Archives: John Scottus Eriugena

Carpets, Churches, and Cupcakes

A few weeks ago The Man and I, together with Sheridan and Annabelle, (re-)visited Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul for what they call a long weekend city break, and we enjoyed every second of it. Three things stand out for me – as the title of this blog might give away – except that you should really substitute baklava and Turkish Delight for cupcakes: the alliteration opportunity was just too tempting to ignore.

First carpets. Forget “Do you want to build a snowman?”, “Do you want to buy a carpet?” became a constant question on every street corner. After a while they sort of had us brainwashed, and bedad didn’t we take ourselves off to a carpet shop to see what they had to offer. Well, the floor show was magnificent. The OTTness of it all! Once it became clear that we might be serious punters, out came the wine and the baklava – and very tasty it all was too. The head honcho was a born actor who never missed a clue in private conversation between us two couples, all the time whirling his carpets around like Ali Baba and giving instructions to his guys in rapid Turkish.

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After some few hours had passed, we settled on one traditional carpet for ourselves, and Sheridan and Annabelle selected three more modern pieces for a new build. Well, the guy thought he had died and gone to heaven. More wine was called for. The prices were haggled a bit, and I know we did pay more than they were worth, but it was an experience never to be forgotten. He even threw in the cost of the DHL and handling – although at the price we paid, he had a nice hefty profit from which to extract his costs. Ours has just arrived at home having spent the Easter vacation in a Kampala warehouse awaiting the revenue authority decision on taxation. All in all, it was one of the nicest shopping experiences of my life, and when visitors say: “what a lovely carpet! Where did you get it?”, they will hear the whole unedited story.

And now to Churches. On the shores of the Sea of Marmara stands a small building called the Little Hagia Sophia (Küçük Ayasofya), formerly Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (fourth-century Syrian martyrs). This church, a mosque since the time of the Ottoman conquest in 1453, was built by Justinian and his wife Theodora between 527 and 536, and despite damage from earthquakes over the centuries and the advancement of the city, still retains its dignity as a house of God.

HS Little.jpg

Its plan consists of a small basilica with the dome resting on an octagon. Sadly, its original beauty and decoration can only be guessed at because the interior was plastered when it became a mosque.

interior LHS

This little picture shows the dome of the San Vitale church at Ravenna; the Little Hagia Sophia would have had similar interior design.

SV Dome

But the octagonal shape is what captured my attention as I immediately thought of two other octagonal churches: Ravenna and Aachen. It could well be that the Ravenna Church of San Vitale (capital of the western Roman Empire at the time) was inspired by the Little Hagia Sophia given that it was commissioned by Bishop Ecclesius (what a wonderful name for a bishop!) after a visit to Byzantium. San Vitale was consecrated in 548 and its mosaics are considered masterpieces of Byzantine art, no doubt inspired by those of the Little Ayasofya.

mosaic SV

The final member of this trinity of churches is the Cathedral at Aachen, begun around 793, commissioned by Emperor Charlemagne and built by Odo of Metz, and it is, as with the other two octagonal churches, a world heritage site. Charlemagne had moved the capital of the Frankish Kingdom from Ravenna to Aachen so there is a likely link between the Little Hagia Sophia of Justinian via Ravenna and the Church of Charlemagne at Aachen. Although Charlemagne’s cathedral is mostly Romanesque, the octagonal design forms its centre. The Palace Chapel at its core was built from columns and marble from the ancient buildings of Rome and Ravenna (given by Pope Hadrain not looted as was to happen in centuries to come), creating a link between Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, and Charlemagne, the new Constantine who kick-started the Carolingian Renaissance where one of my academic interests lies.

aachen outside      aachen dome

But trends change quickly: just seventy or so years later Charlemagne’s grandson built his own church: Notre Dame de Compiègne. This time not an octagonal design but a full-on Gothic Church. It has been suggested that a poem penned by my friend Eriugena (the ninth-century Irish scholar who worked at the palace school of Charles) Aulae sidereae (starry halls) was written to commemorate the consecration of this church in 877. But how I wish the builder had used the octagonal design: that would have made a neat quad of churches built on eights with roots at the very heart of Christendom!

As for the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazzar, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, and all the other magnificent places we visited, that will be for another day and another blog as I have to serve desert now. The people of Turkey are serious about their sweet stuff, baklava and Turkish delight being the tip of the iceberg. We found a cafe that serves only tea, coffee, and deserts / sweets. The Man thought he had died and gone to heaven. His only problem was choice! It was indeed very good but you wouldn’t want to be going there every day for a cholesterol special.

A short time later, just like with the carpet shop, we stopped a fraction of a second too long outside a sweet shop. In a blink of an eye we were whisked inside and given explanations of all the goodies on display. Really interesting and complex, but it was the samples that did me in. The Man smiled through it all and ate all his without complaint. They even found him a seat so that he could be more comfortable. I had the job of choosing which items to put in a box to carry carefully and lovingly back to Kampala. And while I was doing this, the two men were diverted to a section of the shop that sold sweets laced with what I suspect was viagra. “It will make her very happy tonight”, they were told with a Frankie Howard wink; “it will make her smile tomorrow”, they added. And with another saucy wink, your man slipped a sachet of the stuff into each husband’s coat pocket. “You will get two free if you buy ten”, they persisted. But that was just too much for their manliness to deal with and all cajoling to buy the stuff fell on deaf ears.  And in any case, the credit cards were maxed out after the visit to the carpet shop.

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August 2016 1: Ancient Theological Fraud and Contemporary Theologians in the Towery City

conference

Last month yours truly spent at week in Oxford doing interesting academic stuff. Himself came along for moral support and we loved every bit of it. We attended a workshop about a philosopher / theologian called Dionysius the Areopagite and his commentators throughout the centuries, a guy who perpetrated one of the greatest identity fraud “crimes” (with the widest-ranging theological consequences) of all time. This Dionysius was a sixth-century monk / theologian, most likely from Syria, and in his writings pretended to be a convert of St Paul who had, sometime around the year 50 AD, preached a sermon on the Areopagus in Athens (“Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus ….” Acts 17:34). Why this sixth-century scholar decided to take on a first-century identity has been the subject of much diligent scholarly detective work but we are no nearer to an answer – not surprising given the intervening millennia! But Dionysius, despite his assumed identity, was to prove one of the most significant influences on medieval philosophy and theology. Even today, his work has sparked huge debates among the luminaries of contemporary thought, spearheaded by French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

But on the first day of that conference at Pusey Hall, St Cross College, Syria was often on my mind. The images on our TV screens of Aleppo and other besieged Syrian cities and towns make for harrowing viewing, and provided a seriously stark contrast with the sunny, humid setting of the small, intimate Oxford library in which we were gathered.

dscf1359

Scholars from four continents were present for the workshop, and the discussions were truly participatory. Not surprisingly, there was a sizeable contingent of Orthodox scholars present, including Emeritus Professor Andrew Louth (Durham) who made the opening presentation and a further presentation on the last day. My slot was on day two, and of course I spoke about my Irish friend the ninth-century philosopher / theologian John Scottus Eriugena. Here he is on the old Irish punt note in the days before the euro.

eriugena

I was happy with the presentation, and in the chair, Dr Wayne Hankey from Dalhousie University handled the ensuing discussion with his usual aplomb. I am writing a review of the conference for the journal Sobornost and look forward eagerly to the publication of the proceedings. My friend from the Lesbos conference on Love in May 2015, Dimitrios Pallis, did a great job organizing the workshop, and my sincere thanks go to him for securing the sponsorship that enabled me to attend.

Academic work aside, I hadn’t been in Oxford since Christmas 1995, and while the place in general hadn’t changed that much, the streets most certainly had. Walking up to Cross College in the morning and back in the evening cost me a fortune! These days, the homeless and their (often frighteningly large) canine companions are a prominent feature on benches, in doorways, and anywhere really where they can sit, relax, and get their containers jangling. I simply couldn’t pass the street people with dogs. How did they manage to get enough to eat for two? Where did they get water? What about the doggy worming tablets and rabies vaccinations? How did they get their yearly bath (both humans and canines)? All these and other questions filled my mind as I struggled to gather my thoughts for the scholarly discussions to follow. And so my hand was constantly rooting around in my bag for cash as I asked the names of canines and their humans. In return I received many, many “God bless yous”, and for these I was, and am, most grateful.

To my great excitement we had been allocated accommodation in Christ Church. Wow! Just going through the massive portal that is called Tom Tower is a step back in time. As residents we could enter at any time, unlike the tourists who were were allocated a few hours in late afternoons. To my shame I must admit to a degree of smugness as we were whisked past the crowds waiting to explore this mighty institution. The college is built around a central quod (the original cloister), and as we walked around, I could hear centuries of music echoing in my head way back to the days of John Taverner the director of the first choir. The present-day church has its roots in the twelfth-century, and has the distinction of being both college chapel and cathedral.

quod

Interestingly, the first church on the present site dates back to the time of St Frideswide, founder of a church on the site; he was born around the time Eriugena was dying. In the twelfth century, Augustinian monks built a monastery church there, but this suffered the fate of all monasteries in the time of the Reformation: it was suppressed in 1524 and partially destroyed. But only one year later, the famous Cardinal Wolsey founded the college, and the church became the college chapel. Henry VIII also had a part in its history when he “re-founded” the college and made the church a cathedral in 1546. We spent a good three hours inside the church and emerged with very sore necks!

chirch-ceiling

Other interesting facts about are that Charles I lived at Christ Church between 1642 and 1646, while the brothers Wesley studied and were ordained there in the 1720s.

The more modern connections may be more interesting; my favourite is Lewis Carroll. Charles Dodgeson went up to Oxford in 1851 to study mathematics, and became rather fond of the Liddell sisters, especially Alice, daughters of the then Dean. He told stories about a girl named Alice to the girls who begged him to write them down. And so history was made. Here is the little door that was Carroll’s inspiration.

door

Edward Burne-Jones (who worked closely with William Morris) crafted a wonderful stained-glass window in the church where the representation of St Catherine of Alexandria is actually a portrait of Edith Liddell, Alice’s sister. Alice herself can be seen in a window in the magnificent Great Hall – the whole of which was actually reproduced at the University of Chicago – where parts of Harry Potter were filmed. We had breakfast there every day!

great-hall     hall2

 

 

 

 

My favourite place was the Jabberwocky Tree called after that wonderful nonsense poem of Carroll “Jabberwocky”. This is the actual tree at Christ Church where Carroll got his inspiration.

tree

My favourite (and most weird) fact about Oxford is that there once was “Oxford Time”. Yep, you read that right! Even today, Church services follow Oxford time which is GMT+1+5 minutes! How wonderful is that? We did not get to hear the Cathedral Choir sing because term was out, but if you want to have an idea of their sound just listen to the theme music for the Vicar of Dibley (The Lord is my Shepherd ) and — wait for it — Mr Bean (Ecce homo qui est faba).

All in all, it was a wonderful experience and I want to go back to visit all the nooks and crannies we did not reach. It was with a heavy heart that we jumped back on the bus outside Tom Gate that would take us back to Heathrow and on to the town of my birth. Coming up next: Belfast, Beards, and the Bucket List Trip.