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Medieval Service to be heard for first time in almost 600 years to mark International Women’s Day

21st February 2019

Newcastle Cathedral’s women’s choir, Schola Cantorum, are preparing to sing a liturgy that has not been heard in public for almost 600 years. The medieval worship service, The Liturgy of the Nails, is a collaboration between the Cathedral and Professor Lesley Twomey, Professor in Medieval and Golden Age Hispanic Art and Literature at Northumbria University, and will be performed on Saturday 9 March to celebrate International Womens’ Day (March 8).

The Liturgy of the Nails is the work of Constanza of Castile who was the Abbess of the Royal Dominican Convent in Madrid. Her “Commemoration of the Nails of the Passion of the Cross of Christ” is an extended meditation based around the ancient services of Vespers and Compline. The service, which will be sung in its original Latin, will also include a read “Collation” in English – a meditation on the theme of the Nails, also written by Constanza herself.

There are very few examples of liturgy written by women of this period – and no others from Spain. The Revd Canon Clare MacLaren, Canon for Music and Liturgy at Newcastle Cathedral has been working closely with Professor Twomey to translate the liturgy suitable for use in a service of worship. This has been made more challenging because the original music no longer exists.

Women’s choir, Schola Cantorum, directed by Kris Thomsett, the Cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music, will instead sing to chants that would have been used elsewhere in that period, and a hymn tune from a rare manuscript of music written for women’s voices from the Royal Cistercian convent in Burgos, Spain, copied and written by women in about 1300 – the Codex de las Huelgas.

Commenting on the collaboration, Canon MacLaren said: “the work of translation has given us a real insight into the spirituality of women religious of the Middle Ages. It has been both powerful and moving to hear Constanza’s voice echoing across the centuries, and we hope people will join us on March 9th not simply to listen and enjoy this unique experience, but to worship too.”

Professor Twomey added: “Constanza de Castilla is a remarkable woman liturgist – also a royal princess. Her Liturgy of the Nails is unlike any other liturgy in the period and also provides new insights into the history of how the Passion was celebrated in Spain.”

A study of Constanza’s theology of the Passion forms part of Professor Twomey’s forthcoming book on women and the holy word. She has also published on the aesthetics of beauty in the writings of cloistered women, including Constanza’s.

The Liturgy of the Nails takes place at Newcastle Cathedral on Saturday 9 March, at 6.30pm-7:45pm. Professor Twomey will introduce the 15th Century work and The Revd Canon Clare MacLaren will officiate. All are invited to attend this free event which marks International Women's Day (March 8), a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. There is no need to book for the service, please just turn up.

Image: credit The British Library

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