The Catholic aesthetic is beguiling to even the most implacable atheists. That thought came to me when I heard that the extraordinary Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, a long-standing Catholic Herald contributor, had died. For 78 years Jill led a life uncomplicated by faith – yet she was indefatigable in her exploration of Catholic sites and in the study of the Church’s oeuvres. She was a Catholic by association: wherever a couple of Catholics clustered together there was Jill, an adornment to their gathering, discussing Catholic art, architecture and history.
I still remember her enthusiasm when she found the V&A’s Opus Anglicanum: examples of ecclesiastical vestments made in England before the Reformation.
The exquisitely embroidered copes, chasubles and altar cloths delighted the duchess. Similarly, she had fallen in love with the Crusader Church of St Anne in Jerusalem. She designed its garden, and was happy to know that it had become a popular stop on pilgrim tours of the Holy Land.
Jill’s enthusiasm could be exhausting, to be sure. She once cornered the historian Andrew Roberts at a drinks party to grill him about Napoleon. Roberts tried to detach himself, but the duchess kept on, telling him about her book about Napoleon’s horse (she’d even found one of his hooves). Roberts’s demeanor, by the time his interrogation ended, was that of one of Napoleon’s soldiers retreating from Russia.
I suspect that, although Jill was adamant that she did not seek consolation in conversion, her soul thrilled at the beautiful articles and haunting places that she experienced through her Catholic associations. The truths they have told so lovingly for millennia filled her with gratitude and awe – but perhaps also with a desire to live in a Catholic way. Generosity, courage and empathy: Jill the spiritual tourist had discovered and savoured these virtues along the way, and then brought them home, to share with her friends.
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