Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Hugenots, Gormleys, and Guerins in Canterbury Cathedral

Hugenot Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral
I have worked in Canterbury for 17 years, but with my French name, my Australian passport, my love of the sun, I have never felt at home in cold, wet, white, middle-class Kent. But this week I came close. I took a New York friend to visit the Canterbury cathedral to show off a camaraderie with my ancestors. I have been to the cathedral many times, for graduation, as a tourist, and in the early days, for evensong, but what I love most about it are the places where tourists don’t go. It’s an awe-inspiring structure, and fascinating for its labyrinthine corridors, extensions and rebuildings. Like most of Canterbury, however, the cathedral’s most interesting history is found underground and out of sight most of the year.
Memorial to Thomas à Becket
List of Hugenot Pasters (including Pierre Guerin)

While the tourists marvel at the memorial to Thomas à Becket at the spot where he was murdered by the men of Henry II, I took my friend down to the crypt to show him where I like to think I began. After living in France for overa decade, I have had to research my ancestry because I am so often asked with bewilderment (mostly by border police) why I have a French name and an Australian passport. I discovered that my name began, ironically, on the walls of the cathedral where I work in England. There on the walls of the Hugenot Chapel is written, as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries when they arrived having fled the persecution of Louis XIV and his French Catholics and were given refuge in Canterbury, the list of the Hugenot “strangers.” Among the initial wave of refugees was a pastor Pierre Guerin who, like me, thought his time in Canterbury would be transient. And like me, he ended up staying. What I didn’t know until I visited with my New York friend is that the chapel remains an active place of worship for Canterbury’s French community. Sure enough, the crypt area shows the vibrant signs of good use: flowers, half-burnt candles, calendars, prayer books and service sheets. Perhaps it’s not as remote down there as I had assumed.
Anthony Gormley, Transport, 2011

Wandering further into the depths of the crypt, outside the Hugenot Chapel, I was thrilled to find the Anthony Gormley sculpture suspended beneath the place above which is marked as the location of Thomas à Becket’s murder. Gormley’s Transport is the familiar shape of his body, but rather than being cast as his works usually are, it is made of medieval nails recovered from the Cathedral’s roof repairs. Gormley describes the sculpture as being about the human body in motion:

The body is less a thing than a place. A location where things happen. Thought, feeling, memory and anticipation filter through it sometimes sticking but mostly passing on, like us in this great cathedral with its centuries of building, adaptation, extension and all the thoughts, feelings and prayers that people have had and transmitted here. Click here

I understood the floating sculpture that is a collection of nails, to be both dangerous and liberating, as somehow connecting the plight of Thomas à Becket above and the Hugenots down in the crypt over centuries. For the one it was a place to die, and for the others a place of refuge. For me, the Cathedral is a place of ongoing discovery in which I get to find a sense of belonging, together with my persecuted ancestors.

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