Central to the reform of religion in the sixteenth century was iconoclasm. The other Abrahamic faiths share this protestant disdain for representation. But for the Catholic as for the Orthodox the icon remains a window onto the divine. Representation reveals the incarnation of God and the sacred in the material world. And this was a belief which was held in common with the Classical world into which Christianity was born. Greek and Roman gods were fond of making appearances and intervening in the lives of men. The Western tradition of art is the product of the inculturation of Christianity in this pagan culture, and of that of Northern Europe.
One icon in particular embodies this distinctiveness for modern England, which had been known in the middle ages as Mary's Dowry for the fervour of its Catholic faith, and its devotion to the Mother of God. The national shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham was one of the four great sites of European pilgrimage: the others being Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago. But the icon of the Virgin that was at Walsingham was destroyed in 1538, burnt in London. Persecution ensued for three centuries with pilgrimages only recommencing in 1897.
But it is not this icon which seems to those who know her to embody the wounded soul of England. It is one which has particular significance for the Spanish too. For the icon is in the ancient Castillan capital of Valladolid, once home to the Inquisition, Columbus and Cervantes. Its shrine is in the Royal English College in that city. The college founded by the King of Spain in 1589, the year after the defeat of the Armada, to train English priests to go on to almost certain martyrdom in Elizabethan England. Naval warfare became spiritual warfare. The college boasts six saints, sixteen blessed and one venerable alumnus, and it still trains English Catholic priests in these less obviously perilous times.
In 1596 English pirates, known for their protestant zeal, sacked Cadiz, the home of the Spanish navy (as it was of Napoleon's in 1805, when Nelson defeated it off Cape Trafalgar nearby.) The pirates rampaged through the streets destroying churches and their images, as had been done in England for the past seventy years. One particular statue, of Our Lady of the Rosary, was dragged through the streets, battered and brutalised. She was rescued by a Spanish noblewoman and soon the students of the English College saw the significance of this image for them and their country and began to petition for its removal to Valladolid.
To this day she watches over her devotees, speaks to them of the work they have to do for the healing of the soul of their nation, and comforts them. To this day she watches over those who work for the return of the old faith to her once faithful, and to their hosts too. For the defeat of the Armada had made Spain realise that her power had limits. England's fall to protestantism was the greatest loss of the Reformation, but Spain's self-image was also damaged by that event.
The Vulnerata, as she is known, soon became an object of great devotion in Spain, and was believed to have miraculous powers. It is appropriate in a time when England's self-image and religious identity is similarly wounded that an image of healing and restoration as great as that of the Madonnas of Lourdes, Fatima or Medjugorje should made be available to those at home, as well as to those abroad.
Copyright © Andrew Thornton-Norris, 2010. All rights reserved.