Monday, 5 March 2018

Donne in His Shroud

Anyone would think I was a tourist. First it was Westminster Abbey, then today it was St Paul's Cathedral – not, I have to say, my favourite building: it's magnificent, but in a somewhat overpowering and wholly unEnglish style, out of place amid the alleys and courtyards of the old City, and now increasingly hemmed in by monstrous modern erections. The interior has all the makings of a great building, but the ghastly mosaics under the dome and other gilded nonsense at the East end fatally undermine the effect. With clean lines and plain surfaces, à la Palladio, it would be an awe-inspiring interior...
 Never mind, I was in St Paul's (entry charge a scandalous £16 even for an aged lifelong Londoner like me) chiefly to admire and photograph Nicholas Stone's extraordinary monument to John Donne. In an entirely original composition (apparently his own idea), the poet and Dean of St Paul's stands upright on an urn, wrapped ready for death in his shroud, which is tied in a kind of ruff at head and feet. From this really rather elegant shroud, Donne's face emerges, his eyes hooded, a half-smile on his lips, a dashingly cut beard setting off his lean but far from deathly features. According to his biographer Isaak Walton, Donne posed in just this posture for the preparatory drawing, wrapped in his shroud and standing on a wooden mock-up of an urn. He was ailing, within weeks of his death,  and he looked it, but Stone, when he came to make the monument, preferred to present him in altogether better shape, modelling his face with his typical delicacy of touch. The carving of the folds in the shroud, and the way it falls about Donne's body, are equally masterly. This is an unusually lively memento mori, more an expression of a sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the body. Donne would surely have been pleased.
  When Old St Paul's burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, molten lead fell from the roof in such quantities that it broke through the floor, filling the crypt with smashed-up remnants of the monuments that had stood in the old cathedral – but John Donne's monument survived intact, and was eventually dug out from the ashes and rubble.
 It's a shame, to put it mildly, that more monuments didn't survive. Those that fill the cathedral now include many huge neoclassical constructions that are grandiose to the point of absurdity. Did no one laugh when the monument to the commander of HMS Ardent was unveiled, showing the naval hero nude but for a wisp of classical drapery? Or how about the captain of the Majestic, clad only in a skimpy Roman tunica, swooning into the arms of Victory? Or Captain Faulknor, similarly sinking into the arms of Neptune, who appears to be copping a feel of his manly pecs? Oh dear, oh dear – what happened?





2 comments:

  1. Of course, one of the first statues in the US Capitol was of George Washington, and probably of course, given the day, "The seated, half-naked figure of Washington with a toga draped over his knees and right shoulder provoked only derision and embarrassment. A Virginia statesman said, 'The man does not live, and never did live, who saw Washington without his shirt.'" (E.J. Applewhite, Washington Itself)

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  2. Thanks George - so true! And equally true of those naval heroes, I'm sure. Such a bizarre fashion...

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