For the first time in a long while we went away for Christmas and New Year’s. It’s curious to see how the south celebrates the holidays without a single snowflake. Actually, on the road from Rocky Mount, VA to Jacksonville, FL there was nothing but blue skies – on December 22nd ! I looked forward to seeing again a town in Florida first visited in the 90’s, which made such a lasting impression on me.
Saint Augustine, self-proclaimed oldest town in the country (I never really checked Google or any historical sources), looked even better now, some seventeen years later, with more restaurants, more tourists, more shops, and maybe too many cars on its lovely streets, all decorated in green and red.
On Christmas Eve we attended Holy Mass at the beloved Saint Augustine Basilica (Cathedral) and so crowded it was there were people standing on the side halls. I am not the best Catholic in the world, have not been in decades, but certain parts of the ritual still speak to my heart, for the beauty and the faith they encompass, taking me back to a time when attending Saturday or Sunday Mass was not something my sister and I could easily skip.
On the altar, there were a congregation of priests, including an Indian-descent young man and the Bishop, a soft spoken man who shifted between Spanish and English as he pleased. One of the prayers was even said in Greek, which came as a big surprise. It was my first multilingual Holy Mass and I enjoyed each minute of it.
The town of Saint Augustine was founded in 1565 and the plain looking building that today stands at the central square as its Cathedral was erected in 1571. Its external walls are cream-colored; there are no sculptures or carved images adorning it. It reminded of those early churches we see in Mexican cowboy movies, plain and simple, as if they needed nothing superficial to affirm their power. The most intriguing feature of the Saint Augustine Cathedral though lies inside: a ceiling supported by thick wooden posts that look each year of their long life and yet impressive. I had never seen a church’s ceiling quite like that. Later on Dad would tell me that not too long ago he gave a presentation on the construction of cathedrals and used the Saint Augustine Basilica as one of its examples, along with many in France, for the beauty of their stained glass windows.
On the evening of December 24 2012 though, as the choir voices raised in the air, I had no eyes for colorful windows. I could not stop staring up at the wooden posts that support the heavy ceiling. Hanging from each of them there were medieval coats of arms with different sentences written in Latin.
When the ceremony was over, all the priests that had been at the altar, including the Bishop, stood outside the cathedral’s doors to greet one by one all of us. This is the Catholic Church that still touches my heart and makes me forget about the worst about it, If only for one Christmas Eve, filled with beautiful songs and prayers in America’s oldest town.
Cathedrals have always touched me in a special way. Dad opened his presentation about them with a question, from French writer Claude Wenzler (Les Cathedrales Gothiques, un Defi Medieval – The Gothic Cathedrals, a Medieval Challenge):
“A technological challenge? A symbol of faith? A place for praying? The cathedral is a complex and mysterious monument that overcomes a strictly Christian frame to become a vast array of universal ideas and knowledge. Their construction was not only an ambitiously religious enterprise but an exceptional human adventure, such as the Crusades, the monasteries and castles that remain imprinted in our collective memory as one of the most remarkable facts of the medieval era.”
The author’s admiration echoes my own. The first cathedral I ever walked in was Winchester, in England. Also on a Christmas evening, also for the Midnight Mass. The priest was actually a lady and as soon as the surprise and reality of the Church of England sunk in, I couldn’t take my eyes off the high monumental stone arches– it draws your gaze upwards somehow; it fills you with awe for the many decades and sometimes centuries it took to put such graceful and majestic structures together; with respect for the masons, architects and engineers that worked on what must have been massive construction sites when the world had no heavy machinery to ease their work. After Winchester I visited as many English cathedrals as I could – basically one cathedral for each castle I walked in – and they never failed to amaze me.
Back from historical Saint Augustine , home also of the magnificent Castillo de San Marco, the oldest masonry fort (1672) in the continental United States, erected on the shore of Matanzas Bay when Florida still belonged to the Spanish Empire, I wanted to watch something good, with plenty of castles, churches and heroic knights. Well plotted and well starred, preferably a bit historical too.
As Netflix always saves the day, I found IRONCLAD (UK, 2011). The DVD cover picture shows Paul Giamatti in medieval garb, reddish beard and crown. I know how good he can be; I remember him well as the revolutionary John Adams in HBO’s (2008) series.
In a three-hundred-sixty degree turn, Mr. Giamatti is another John: English King John, fifth son of Henry II, and the year is 1215. After signing the Magna Carta – thanks to pressure from rebel barons – promising the people of England he would now behave, John had a change of hearts and decided he liked better the role of self-proclaimed God-appointed tyrant than fair and inspired leader. However, an insurgent force is forming inside the mighty Rochester castle, a place that went into history as a symbol of the struggle for justice and freedom.
The graphic battle scenes we were first introduced to in Gladiator (2000) and 300 (2006) are the heart and soul of Ironclad as well. I still close my eyes to avoid blood gushing, rolling heads and exposed entrails, so realistic the carnage looks on the screen. Giamatti’s King John meets its nemesis in the Templar Knight Thomas Marshall played by British actor James Purefoy.
As a Templar Knight, in his characteristic white mantle stamped with a red cross, Marshall belongs with the most skilled fighting unit of the Crusades, a mix of warriors and priests. According to Wikipedia: “Non-combatant members of the Order managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, innovating financial techniques that were an early form of banking, and building fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land.” In short, the Templars were fighting machines with fully functioning brains. And just as the rebel barons of England under King John, they would soon be betrayed.
In 1307, accusations flew in France and “scores of Templars were charged with numerous offences , including heresy, idolatry, obscene rituals, financial corruption, fraud, and secrecy. Many of the accused confessed to these charges under torture, and these confessions caused a scandal in Paris”. Mundane sins or not, since the accusations were not exactly a novelty neither to the religious nor to the secular realm, the Order of Templar Knights had just become too strong a competing power for European clergy and nobility to stand; it needed to disappear.
I thought Purefoy’ Thomas Marshall excessively taciturn and tense, but given that his twenty men are up against King John’s hundreds of Danish mercenaries, equipped with six-foot-long axes and that the small folk in the castle he is desperately trying to protect wanted to slaughter and eat his handsome white horse, I guess the bad temper was justified.
(Later we watched another good British show where James Purefoy plays a British barrister plagued by letting a crime go unpunished: INJUSTICE , 2011 . Netflix has all five episodes in two discs. Purefoy is on a roll; he is also the serial killer in Fox’s THE FOLLOWING as Kevin Bacon’s co-star. )
As a Knight Templar though, sword fight skills apart, one of Mr. Purefoy’s greatest merit was having to listen to King John’s maniacal screaming in the last segment of the movie, on how England belonged to him, that he was born to be king and any action against the throne had to be ruthlessly punished.
I couldn’t avoid thinking of our modern day politicians; how England’s monarch’s power lust reminded me of them, sadly. And how they betrayed us, the people they were supposed to serve. The arrogant self-importance, the egotistical entitlement that stems from their behavior, the elitism that transpires in their actions, the shameless corruption, the voracity with which they consume resources and demand eternally higher taxes, the relentless encroachment on our civil liberties… As if holding public office was something bestowed upon them by gods, not vote. King John’s screams left a bitter taste as the movie approached the end. America once fought a war to get rid of the likes of John. We now breed our own new royalty, born and raised here, only that his time around we have no knights to defend us and statesmen of the stature of Adams, Jefferson and Washington are frightfully scarce