'We must move forward with faith and determination during these challenging times'

Posted on: 16 Apr 2020

Dr Gerard Silverlock, headmaster of King's College Junior School, Wimbledon, reflects on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is common to hear people talking about the ethos of a school or its values but, while these terms are easy to use, describing what they mean is much more difficult. I think that most prep school heads will try to give a sense of what is important to them in a number of different ways. Apart from the obvious, set piece occasions, such as prize-giving ceremonies and words of thanks after a theatrical performance or concert, one of the most obvious ways of doing this is through talks given at assemblies. Digital communication means it is now also very easy to write to parents, both current and prospective, through the school’s website. For many years I have written a weekly blog which goes out on Friday afternoons. As we approach the start of the summer term, stories connected with two saints have come to my mind.

My wife and I were married on 21 December 1996 and we honeymooned in Venice until shortly before the New Year. We were very fortunate to visit this wonderful city during the coldest spell they had experienced in more than decade. At one point during our stay the lagoon froze over but there was no wind or rain and the sky was cloudless every day. That is my recollection at least but my memory might be influenced by the happiness of my first week of married life.

We were fortunate not just with the weather. Shortly before our wedding, there was an article in the travel section of one of the broadsheets about the hidden delights of Venice. On the recommendation of the author, we went to the Church of St Pantaleon, which is famous for its huge, trompe l’oeil ceiling painted by Gian Antonio Fumiani between 1680 and 1704. This painting tells the story of the legendary execution of St Pantaleon of Nicomedia, a Greek city in Turkey, which became the eastern capital of the Roman Empire under Diocletian, who is famous for his persecution of Christians. St Pantaleon’s executioners tried to kill him in many different ways – burning, drowning in molten lead, being thrown into the sea tied to a huge stone, feeding to wild beasts and being broken on the wheel – but Christ intervened on every occasion to save him. It was only when St Pantaleon desired death that they were able to behead him!

This gruesome story is shown in great detail in Fumiani’s painting. We have not returned to Venice since our honeymoon so I do not know how the church is now organised but, when we were there, you had to put coins into a machine in order to activate the lights which enabled you to see the startling three-dimensional effects created by Fumiani’s skills as a painter. It appeared as though there were angels and devils climbing down the walls towards us. It really is an astonishing piece of work but what has always stuck in my mind is an image of Fumiani painting over that long period high up on the scaffolding. Apparently, when he finished his masterpiece, he stood back to admire it all, slipped and fell to his death on the church floor many feet below!

I am pleased to say that I have never forgotten our wedding anniversary and I have always remembered my wife’s birthday, too, but I could hardly forget this date as it is 23 April, St. George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday. We know very little about St George but the early Greek and Latin versions of his story place him, like St Pantaleon, in Nicomedia, and he, too, was a victim of Diocletian’s persecution of Christians early in the fourth century. The fact that this soldier saint was so devoutly venerated by Christians later in the fourth century suggests he was a real, historical figure but we know virtually nothing about him. The legend which links him with slaying a dragon dates from the eleventh century. The Libyan city of Silene was threatened with destruction by a fierce dragon who demanded first sheep and then human beings be given to him each day. When the people of Silene decided that the king’s own daughter should be given to the dragon, St George intervened and killed the dragon.

Veneration of St George spread across Europe and North Africa and he is held in great respect by Christians and Muslims alike. It was during the Reformation that Edward VI effectively determined that he should become England’s patron saint. The English cannot, though, claim him uniquely as their own for he is also the patron saint of Ethiopia, Catalonia and Georgia, the cities of Freiburg, Moscow and Beirut, as well as various professions, including farmers, soldiers and saddlers and, recently, he became the patron saint of the Scouts.

The woman who has had the greatest impact on me, other than my wife, is my mother. She was determined that my siblings and I should never become too self-important and I can remember being told very clearly and firmly that pride came before the Fall. I am probably being very unkind to Fumiani but I cannot help imagining that he was feeling extremely proud of all his work just seconds before his own, fatal fall. In these challenging times it is important for us all to recognise our inadequacies but to go forward with the same faith and determination as St Pantaleon and St George.

About Dr Gerard Silverlock

Dr Gerard Silverlock is headmaster at King's College Junior School, Wimbledon.