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Diary: John Wall

16 December 2022


Flesh and blood

SOMEWHAT to my surprise, I recently came across St Athanasius the Great — Patriarch of Alexandria, confessor, and Doctor of the Church — in the flesh. I’ve always been somewhat wary of this heavyweight theologian, despite Professor Henry Chadwick’s comment (in his classic work The Early Church) that Athanasius had a great following among the dockers of the city, “for whom he wrote theological sea-shanties” — a hagiographic detail that I find rather endearing. Coming face to face with him unexpectedly, though, was disconcerting to say the least.

I was in the glorious Renaissance Church of San Zaccaria, in Venice, on my first proper holiday abroad in some three years. I’d been there before, but hadn’t previously noticed the aforementioned patriarch lying in an elaborate tomb immediately below the (purported) body of St John the Baptist’s father, Zachariah, the church’s patron.

Both saintly corpses had, I believe, been “liberated” by the enterprising Venetians during the sack of Constantinople — much as they appropriated the body of St Mark, smuggling him out of Alexandria in a pork barrel.

I looked up the history of the relics online (as one does): one website sniffily said that this was not the fourth-century Athanasius the Great, but another, 15th-century, Athanasius the Great. The Venetians believe that it is the former. I lit a candle and moved on.


Moving images

I WAS actually there for a different reason: to look at a painting that I’m fond of, the San Zaccaria altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini. I’m a huge Bellini fan, and my cunning plan is to study him on my next sabbatical in three years (any excuse to live in Venice for a while). In it, the Virgin and Child are enthroned in an apse surmounted by a shimmering Byzantine mosaic half-dome, with Sts Peter, Catherine, Lucy, and Jerome standing in front, serene and oblivious.

An angel playing a viola da gamba sits on the steps of the throne, looking out at us somewhat pensively, inviting us in. The detail is fine, and the colours are luminous and vivid, with glimpses of a landscape just out of sight beyond.

But then I noticed something odd, which I had not registered before: it didn’t fit its frame. There were gaps above and below, and, moreover, the painted trompe-l’œil architecture did not match up with the real stone architecture in the surround, which, in other Bellini paintings, it very much does.

I realised that it wasn’t in its original setting, and had — like St Athanasius opposite — shifted its ground. Venetian reality is actually quite fluid, despite the veneer of timelessness. It reminds me of what T. S. Eliot said about poetry: that words “slip, slide, will not stay in place”. Venice is the same.


Overhead hazard

I FELT all this partly because I was seeing Venice through the prism of a book I was reading: John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels. It follows the story of the burning, and tortuous rebuilding, of Venice’s opera house, La Fenice, and was full of engaging, larger-than-life, but somewhat ambivalent characters.

At the heart of it all is St George’s Anglican Church, a place that I’m immensely fond of. It has a small resident congregation, which gamely carries on, not for its own sake, but for the tide of visitors which sweeps in and out like the tidal waters of the lagoon. In the book, I loved the appearances by the chaplain of the time, the jovial the Revd Jim Harkins, with his generous dry martinis at cocktail hour.

And the title of the book? Apparently, at one time, the marble angels on the façade of Santa Maria della Salute were precarious, and the owner of Harry’s Bar had put up a sign: “Beware of falling angels”. A perceptive warning for us all.


A dog’s life

SOPHIE, my little black Labrador, has a real ministry of welcome at the church door at every service: she’s a working Labrador, and that is her work. A couple of days ago, I held a birthday party for her in the rectory. She was ten. I’m not doing a Christmas party this year (too much going on in December), and so it was really an excuse to have a parish get-together.

Some 60 parishioners came through the house (the most I’ve entertained in three years) for a tea party and an evening do; there were many birthday cards and doggie toys and chews, and much fuss was made of her. She even had a birthday cake, made from a recipe from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, made of carrot and banana, with mashed-potato icing topped with dog treats.

My wonderful Crafty Ladies’ Group made her a birthday bandana with bones on it, and “SOPHIE” embroidered in big red letters. But it was a thanksgiving, too. She has a type of muscular dystrophy, and was almost put down before she was two. She had a long course of strong steroids to help her through the early days, with the warning that her life would be shortened by it; so ten years is a real milestone. It was a good, if exhausting, evening.

Bellini would, I think, been more of a cat person; and I suspect that St Athanasius would not have approved of something as frivolous as a birthday party for a dog (despite the sea-shanties, I don’t think he was hugely given to frivolity) — but you know what? I don’t care!


The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.

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