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
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....