Preserving the Patrimony
Kate Marcelin-Rice

Restoration of English College church in Rome and exhibition 'Non Angli sed Angeli'

The church of the Venerable English College, the Most Holy Trinity and St Thomas of Canterbury on Via Monserrato, Rome, reopened in October 2009 after two years of restoration and cleaning. At the same time, the oldest British institution outside Britain has opened an exhibition to the public: Non Angli sed Angeli A Pilgrimage a Mission. "They are not Angles but Angels", Pope Gregory the Great is reputed to have exclaimed when he saw fair-haired English boys at a slave market. The event is said to have prompted him to send St Augustine and his missionaries to evangelize England in AD 597.

The restoration work on the 1888 church of the Venerable English College, one of the two English seminaries in Rome (the other is the Beda College), is an undeniable success. At Sunday Mass the interior now blazes with the gleaming ruby, turquoise and emerald of the painted coffered ceiling, the eight stained glass windows, the sixteen roundels with frescoes depicting English and Welsh saints and the recently cleaned "mosaic" work, picked out in gold. Its brilliance is heightened by the new "natural" lighting system and the gilded carved wood of the acanthus leaves on the capitals of the pillars that support the vault. Gold is the unifying element of the decoration that covers every inch of every surface. What more fitting symbol of God's glory?

Fr Andrew Headon, the Vice-Rector, was in charge of the project, with Federico Lardera, the head of the restoration team. A film documenting the work on the church, directed by Theo Eshetu and produced by the College, shows the quality of the decoration which, Lardera explains, only came to light during the cleansing process. What would formerly have been considered second-rate, he said, finto marmo, painted false marble instead of real marble in many instances as well as painted, rather than real, mosaic work (cheaper at that time), has proved instead to be exceptional.

The masterpiece of the restoration project is the Martyrs' picture by Durante Alberti (1581) that hangs over the high altar. It shows the Most Holy Trinity with St Thomas and St Edmund. Blood from the crucified Christ is shown falling and from his blood fire springs up. The Flaminian Gate is depicted with England and/or Paradise in the background. The text beneath the Christ figure, Ignem veni mittere in terram (I came to bring fire to the earth) is the College motto. In the times of persecution the students would meet in front of this picture and sing a Te Deum whenever they heard the news of another martyrdom at home. The tradition survives to this day; the Te Deum is sung again before the picture every 1 December, the Solemnity of St Ralph Sherwin and his Companions "Martyrs' Day".

The first building of what today is the Venerable English College dates back to 27 January 1362, "when a group of Englishmen, most of them merchants, bought a house in Rome for the use of 'the poor, sick, needy and distressed people coming from England"' (cf. The Venerable English College Rome: A History, Michael E. Williams, second edition, Gracewing, 2008). The hospice for English pilgrims became the spiritual centre of the English in the Eternal City and Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon meant that pilgrimages, for Catholics, gave way to exile in the age of the martyrs (1581-1679). Gregory XIII was instrumental in the transformation of the hospice to a college in 1579.

The series of paintings of the martyrs in the tribune or gallery above the church are 19th-century frescoes, based on 6th-century originals by Pomerancio. They portray events from English Church history with an emphasis on martyrdom shown in graphic detail. Starting with the apocryphal visit of St Joseph of Arimathea to England, the frescoes end with the tortures to which the College Martyrs were subjected.

St Ralph Sherwin is the College's protomartyr. He heads a list in the Liber Ruber of students who took the missionary oath in Rome before returning to England. He was captured, imprisoned, tortured and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 December 1581, only four months after landing in England. He was one of 44 student priests at the College who were martyred for the Roman Catholic faith between 1581 and 1679, in addition to the 130 who suffered imprisonment or exile. Forty-one of them have since been canonized or beatified by the Church. It is because of them that the English College has been called "Venerable" since 1818 (see the College website: www.englishcollegerome).

The exhibition Non Angli sed Angeli is on show in the spacious crypt beneath the church, which, Fr Headon said, was restored in the year 2000. A video installation, "From this World to That Which is to Come", also by Theo Eshetu, recreates the spiritual and meditative experience of the pilgrim in touch with nature. The path of the exhibition follows the path of the pilgrim from Tudor England, by boat across the English Channel then on the Via Francigena from Calais to Rome. Even a tiny excavated section of the Roman road beneath the College is now visible in the crypt. With photographs of "priest holes" and panels on Queen Elizabeth's spies, the exhibition conveys the atmosphere of clandestine pilgrimages and priests returning in disguise to England.

Three mysterious entries in the 16th-century book of pilgrims, parchment pages bound in leather, also displayed, suggest that William Shakespeare may have been a secret Catholic and may account for the "missing years" that he possibly spent in Italy. "Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis" is recorded in 1585, "Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis" in 1580 and in 1587, the third entry, "Shfordus Cestriensis". This may stand for "Sh(akespeare from Strat)ford (in the Diocese of) Chester". The book also contains the names of Thomas Cromwell, John Milton and William Harvey, among others. It is normally kept in the newly restored College archive room.

What inspired both the restoration of the church and the exhibition was the pressing need to restore the archives where many precious works were in need of attention. Everything was motivated by the wish to keep the patrimony of the College intact....


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 January 2010, page 4

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