Monk at the cutting edge Premium

23 March 2017 | by Joanna Moorhead
The word “robot” was first used in 1920; but when Science Museum curator Ben Russell started to research the history of humanoid machines for the current blockbuster exhibition, he discovered something he was not expecting. The first creator of these objects, he found, was the Catholic Church. The year was around 1560; the place, a monastery – probably in Spain.

The text’s the thing Premium

23 March 2017 | by Mark Lawson
Imagine that, in the week after the European Union referendum, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy had published verses in which the symbolic figure of Britannia reflected on the wildly different responses from different parts of her realm. Such a publication might have ranked among the great literary interventions in politics.

A mother’s love Premium

23 March 2017 | by Rick Jones
Under the title “Invocazioni Mariane” – “Tears of Mary” or “A Mother’s Tears” – the German countertenor Andreas Scholl presented a programme of Italian Baroque devotions to the Virgin at the Barbican recently.

Earlier this year, the death of Sr Frances Carr left only two remaining members of her Shaker religious community, which was established in Maine in 1783. The Shakers being bound to celibacy, renewal by numbers has been a challenge.

Down to a sunless sea Premium

23 March 2017 | by D.J. Taylor
Built in the late 1990s, Manchester’s Intu Trafford Centre is an altogether baroque edifice, marble-domed, crammed with allegorical frescos, architectural stylings borrowed from sources as detached from each other as art deco and ancient Egypt and what was, at the time of its installation, the world’s largest chandelier.

A religion of things Premium

16 March 2017 | by Laura Gascoigne
It seems a particular cruelty of fate that a country with such a rich cultural heritage as Italy should lie along not one, but two tectonic fault lines. When earthquakes strike, as they did across central Italy last year, the human tragedy is compounded by the loss to history.

Timely revivals Premium

16 March 2017 | by Mark Lawson
Plays sometimes make such an impact that even non-theatregoers will know the title. The 1960s threw up two – Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – new productions of which opened within 48 hours of each other last week.

Impressions of paradise Premium

16 March 2017
Newman’s poetic vision of death was the tumultuous conclusion to Manchester’s four-day Elgar Festival.

Domestic fault lines Premium

16 March 2017 | by Anthony Quinn
Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director, unfolds his intricate moral thrillers with the precision of a bomb disposal expert. The audience watches in fear of the plot going off in its face.

Putting theory into practice Premium

16 March 2017 | by D.J. Taylor
The first instalment of Michael Chaplin’s latest despatch from Ferryhill, County Durham (14 March) stirred welcome memories of Peter Flannery’s mid-1990s television saga Our Friends in the North.

Class act Premium

09 March 2017 | by Joanna Moorhead
Outsize Athena sits magical and mysterious, half-human, half-machine, bolts for her knees and sturdy, chiselled lines on her geometric face. She is a masterpiece by Eduardo Paolozzi, whose work has been assembled at the Whitechapel Gallery in London for a major retrospective (to 14 May).

Nordic noir in Elsinore Premium

09 March 2017 | by Mark Lawson
As the Shakespeare role that actors most want to play conveniently appears in the play that audiences are keenest to see, theatregoers are never far from a Hamlet: Andrew Scott’s attempt on the title role follows those by Benedict Cumberbatch and Paapa Essiedu.

Lenten landscapes Premium

09 March 2017 | by Laura Gascoigne
Over the past few years, the remote Welsh border church of St Michael’s, Discoed, has become an unlikely place of Lenten pilgrimage.

Winter of our discontent Premium

09 March 2017 | by Robert Thicknesse
Shakespeare and opera are uneasy bedfellows – a scant handful of successful adaptations from a zillion attempts, and the good ones (for example Verdi’s Macbeth) tend to stray pretty far from the originals.

Gospel musing Premium

09 March 2017 | by D.J. Taylor
Writer Anouchka Grose’s contribution, under the title “Destiny and the Psyche”, to this year’s Lent Talks (8 March, series continues to 12 April), began with a brisk analysis of Muriel Spark’s The Comforters (1957).

Reformed prostitute, chief mourner – and bluestocking

Larger than life Premium

02 March 2017 | by Mark Lawson
Scripts based on unlikely real-life encounters have become a flourishing genre.

Chapter and verse Premium

02 March 2017 | by Rick Jones
The origins of oratorio are a fascinating episode in the history of music. They lie in St Philip Neri’s progressive, modernising reaction to the Reformation, his followers recognised as the order of the Congregazione dell’Oratorio by Pope Gregory XIII in 1575.

To arrange or not to arrange? Premium

02 March 2017 | by Lucy Lethbridge
Not that long ago most marriages in Europe were arrangements made between families rather than individuals. The expectation of a romance bespoke-tailored is recent. Neither approach gives any guarantee of lasting conjugal happiness, but in the congregation of Birmingham Mosque, marriage and family is where tradition and modernity collide.

Death in the forest Premium

02 March 2017 | by D.J. Taylor
Valerie Shepard and Steve Saint, Mike Lanchin’s guests in Witness (23 February) – part of a week’s worth of outings on Radio 4 for the World Service staple – shared a deeply un-enviable distinction.

Miracles of execution Premium

23 February 2017 | by Lucien de Guise
Of all the reminders of the worst of human behaviour, the crucifix is surely the most potent. It symbolises something everyone, in every society, can understand: the slow, torturous death of one individual at the hands of others.

Alternative facts Premium

23 February 2017 | by Lucy Lethbridge
What would life in Britain be like if Germany had won the war? The new Sunday night series SS-GB (first episode, 19 February), based on Len Deighton’s 1978 novel, is not the first drama to have imagined a dystopian what-if version of the Second World War.

Love in all its glory Premium

23 February 2017 | by Rick Jones
Traditional Christian teaching excuses the eroticism in the Song of Songs as a metaphor for Christ’s love for the Church. To emphasise a secular interpretation for the night after Valentine’s Day, however, Ensemble Plus Ultra included recitations of four Shakespeare sonnets in its concert in London’s Choral at Cadogan series.

Out of the shadows Premium

23 February 2017 | by Mark Lawson
When called on to write about Catholic literature, I have never thought to include John Webster’s The White Devil.

Hearing heals Premium

23 February 2017 | by D.J. Taylor
Dr Sarah Goldingay’s mission, she assured her listeners at the start of this wide-ranging Sabbath morning half-hour (19 February), was to reimagine, re-evaluate or even re-sanctify noise; to listen out, as she put it, “to divine noise in and amongst the din”.

Belief in the future Premium

16 February 2017 | by Laura Gascoigne
“All great art is essentially an act of faith, Christian or otherwise,” wrote a schoolboy critic in a review for Kingswood School magazine of a touring exhibition of sacred art in 1964.

Staged exit Premium

16 February 2017 | by Mark Lawson
The right of the seriously ill to end their own lives feels a very contemporary debate, but has been examined theatrically since at least the late nineteenth century, when a mother dispatched her syphilitic son in Ibsen’s Ghosts (1882).

Electric Bach Premium

16 February 2017 | by Rick Jones
When the choir of The Sixteen sings Bach, it is like switching on electricity. From a standing start, suddenly they are in the middle of flowing counterpoint: perfectly synchronised parts enter with imperceptible attack as the current picks up where it left off, usually two nights previously.

Made in heaven? Premium

16 February 2017 | by Lucy Lethbridge
Channel 4 marked the eve of St Valentine’s Day with a documentary that held a scented candle to the rites of modern romance. Yet though it may not have been its intention, The Wedding Day (13 February) was both timid and snide.

Pocket books Premium

16 February 2017 | by D.J. Taylor
The writer Nicholas Royle began his exploration of the world of the unreturned library book (9 February) at Manchester Central Library. Keeping his voice down, in what, he explained had been his teenage stamping ground, he confessed himself a serial offender.

Northern exposure Premium

09 February 2017 | by Laura Gascoigne
In the main square of Kingston upon Hull, a gigantic wing has fallen from the sky. Or so it seems. Did it belong to a bird? Was it attached to a plane?

States of the nation Premium

09 February 2017 | by Mark Lawson
Becoming popular after the Second World War, the so-called “State of England” play summed up political and social tensions through a suggestive setting: a music hall in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, a cabin cruiser in Alan Ayckbourn’s Way Upstream, a battered caravan in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.

Slavery unbound Premium

09 February 2017 | by Lucy Lethbridge
Exactly 40 years ago, the final episode of the television adaption of Alex Haley’s Pulitzer-winning novel Roots attracted 100 million viewers, a record beaten only by the finale of M*A*S*H a few years later.

Horror on a plate Premium

09 February 2017 | by Robert Thicknesse
Opera has often been about appetite – but never quite like this. Tarrare – it is a true story, or founded in truth – was an unlucky French boy in revolutionary Paris whose constant enormous hunger led him to wolf down anything he could lay his hands on – rocks, cats, trash, half a cow, you name it.

A writer and a wife Premium

09 February 2017 | by D.J. Taylor
Margaret Forster died in February 2016 at the age of 77. A year on, this commemoration fronted by Roger Bolton (7 February) was resolutely informal, and consisted mostly of her husband and fellow writer, Hunter Davies, roaming through the houses they had shared in London and the Lake District, reminiscing about the six decades they had together and grimly setting about, as he put it, “dismantling a life”.

The riches of religious history Premium

02 February 2017 | by Terry Philpot

Sun, snow – and war Premium

02 February 2017 | by Laura Gascoigne
In November 1917, British troops arriving at Ventimiglia near Genoa were greeted with showers of carnations and barrels of wine. After the Italians’ disastrous defeat at Caporetto, the British had despatched an Expeditionary Force to the Italian defensive lines on the River Piave, and the change from the trenches felt as good as a holiday.

Sweet travels Premium

02 February 2017 | by D.J. Taylor
Despatched to the ancient world to explore the early history of apiary, Martha Kearney was clearly having a terrific time (27 January).

An uninvited guest Premium

02 February 2017 | by Mark Lawson
The social gathering that is ruined by an unexpected or uncooperative visitor is a reliable theatrical conceit: from J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls through Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests to Yasmina Reza’s The God of Carnage.

Postcards from the edge Premium

02 February 2017 | by Lucy Lethbridge
Can a community be created artificially, or does it have to emerge organically? This is one of the questions asked in a documentary about Britain’s remotest island, Fair Isle, situated in turbulent seas between Orkney and Shetland.

Colonialism by the book Premium

25 January 2017 | by Mark Lawson
When a country covets the soil of another, it also tends to want its soul. Colonialism and evangelism have often been linked, missionaries confirming on a Sunday the Western foundations laid by mining corporations and administrators during the week.

A response to catastrophe Premium

25 January 2017 | by Joanna Moorhead
In 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, that terrible prequel to the even bigger war that was about to engulf the whole of Europe, Pablo Picasso wrote: “I have always believed and still believe that artists who live and work with spiritual values cannot and should not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilisation are at stake.”

From Russia with rhythm Premium

25 January 2017 | by Rick Jones
Equality of the sexes is written into Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and the Soviet system produced several great female composers even without a feminist movement.

Mary Queen of Scots and Brexit Premium

25 January 2017 | by D.J. Taylor
There is a newspaper article waiting to be written about how the producers of In Our Time arrive at their weekly topic.

An urban jail Premium

25 January 2017 | by Lucy Lethbridge
Last year I attended a conference in London during which a woman in the audience shouted: “I am not a slave.” She then started to berate the British press and Establishment and called for the release of Aravindan Balakrishnan, jailed for 23 years in 2015 for crimes including rape, false imprisonment and child cruelty.

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