Music survives, composing her own sphere,
Angel of Tones, Medusa, Queen of the Air,
and when we would accost her with real cries
silver on silver thrills itself to ice.
From: 'Tenebrae' by Geoffrey Hill (b 1932)
I’m going to a performance of Couperin’s ‘Leçons de Ténèbres’ tonight and I’m really looking forward to it. Here it is...
Couperin took his text from the ‘Lamentations of Jeremiah’, which mourn the loss of the temple in Jerusalem. The Lamentations were often set to music for use at Easter – Thomas Tallis set them too. ‘Tenebrae’ means ‘darkness’ and it’s a lovely word – like ‘threnody’ – another of my favourites; it just feels delicious in your mouth – a sort of verbal chocolate drop.
Maundy Thursday marks the beginning of the Paschal Triduum; the three holy days that come before the Resurrection on Easter Day. The Tenebrae service is special because of the music and because the candles in the church are gradually extinguished until only one candle, hidden behind the altar, remains lit.
Apart from the evocative darkening of the light in the evening, there are a number of other traditions that mark Holy Thursday. We call in ‘Maundy’ Thursday in Britain because this is the day the Queen gives out the Maundy Money to the specially chosen and deserving poor, (just don’t ask her about the undeserving poor).
‘Maundy’ comes originally from the Latin word ‘mandatum’, the first word of the phrase ‘Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos’ which means, ‘A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you’. In John’s Gospel, Jesus washes the feet of the Apostles, just as Pope Francis will today wash the feet of some young offenders. The Queens’s Royal Maundy is a substitute for that. I can’t see Her Maj down on the floor with her Marigolds quite honestly, although in the Middle Ages the English Monarchs had to get down and dirty and do it for real.
Here's Tintoretto's wonderful painting of the Biblical scene, now in the Prado. Tintoretto had a thing about this particular event and painted it several times - was it he or his patrons who favoured it? I don't know...but I love Jesus's apron and rolled up sleeves, they look so natural - and one of the Apostles is having trouble with his leggings - I know that feeling. Judas is looking on from the back. I wonder what he's thinking?
On Maundy Thursday, one man and one woman are chosen for each year of Queen’s age and they receive Maundy money equivalent in pence to that number of years.
The leather purses containing the money are carried by the Yeomen of the Guard on six silver dishes, held above the heads of everyone around. The origin of this custom dates from the time when food was distributed to the poor at the service; the dishes were carried high up to stop the indigent from grabbing at the food prematurely. Although it might have been to prevent the congregation from being overwhelmed by the smell of rotten fish – 'Why give ‘em fresh fish eh?'
Despite what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about the rich being different, Maundy and foot washing are really all about the high and the mighty demonstrating once a year that they are just like the rest of us. It’s very easy to be cynical about such things, but it’s a good day to remember that we are all mortal and that money and position are no guarantee of happiness or psychological health – although the lack of the former can certainly cause the latter.
There are two other Maundy Thursday traditions that interest me. One is ‘chrysm’ the practice of anointing with holy oil - the oil often including myrrh, the gift of the Magi that symbolized that the baby was ‘the anointed one’. The other is that in many countries, Holy Thursday is called ‘Sheer Thursday’ and was a day for shaving off your beard! (The old Scandinavian word is 'Skärn', meaning to wash.) I’m not sure about the origins of this. Do you think it was the one day in the year when people took a bath - like Queen Elizabeth I who bathed annually – whether she needed to or not?
Enough rambling. Today’s dish needs to be both ascetic and luxurious, so I’ve tinkered about with an Ottolenghi recipe for beans that uses sumac and sorrel as a lemony accent. It's still Lent - and sorrel, with its connotations of bitterness and sorrow, somehow seems right for today. There is wild sorrel peeping out in the hedgerows at the moment, so I did a little foraging and came up with this:
Fried Butter Beans with wild sorrel and wild garlic.
You need cooked butter beans - about a cupful per person as part of a buffet of small dishes. If the beans are tinned, rinse and pat dry with kitchen paper. Fry the cooked beans in a mixture of olive oil and butter until they are golden and blistered - do it in batches, so they aren't crowded. When the last batch is frying, add a smashed garlic clove, salt, half a chopped chilli and sliced wild garlic (or spring onions), pour in the other beans and stir to wilt. Set aside to cool. Before serving, sprinkle with chopped feta, sumac, shredded sorrel leaves (or rocket) and season with lemon juice and a dash of olive oil.
'Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring's array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.'
From: 'The Lent Lily' by A. E. Housman (1859-1936)