Today is the birthday of the American Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (above), who was born to a poor family in New Orleans in 1911. She learned to sing in her Baptist Church, but it was the wild, ecstatic music of the church next door, the Sanctified Church, which caught her imagination and shaped her style. Mahalia made her first solo recordings in the mid-1930s, but it was in 1948, when her recording of Move on Up a Little Higher was released, that she became the first Gospel superstar.
‘Everybody in there sang and they clapped and stomped their feet and sang with their whole bodies. They had a beat, a powerful beat… and their music was so strong and expressive it used to bring the tears to my eyes. I believe the blues and jazz and even the rock’n’roll stuff got their beat from the Sanctified Church.’ Mahalia Jackson
The topping out ceremony for St Paul’s Cathedral in London took place today in 1708, when the highest stone of the lantern over the dome was laid by Chris Wren (Junior), assisted by the son of the cathedral’s master mason, Edward Strong. Unusually for a cathedral builder, Christopher Wren lived long enough to see his creation completed, with just 35 years elapsing between the laying of the foundation stone and the top stone.
In 2016 and 17, the tomb of Christ inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem had some long overdue renovation work. On this day in 2016, the renovators tackled the marble cladding covering the original burial bed of Christ, which had been put in place in the 16th century probably to stop pilgrims taking bits of the tomb home with them. When the cladding was removed, it revealed an earlier marble slab from the time of the crusaders, and when that too was taken off, the original limestone shelf on which Christ was thought to have lain was exposed. The cladding was put back in place to protect the rock face for future generations.
‘I’m absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn’t expecting this. We can’t say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades.’ Fredrik Hiebert, Archaeologist, 2016
King Alfred the Great of Wessex died today in the year 899. Determined to stop England from being reclaimed by paganism after the Vikings had conquered it, he marched out in the 1890s and gave the invaders a surprisingly good thrashing. As a result, the two sides agreed to draw a borderline from London to Anglesey, with the Vikings getting the northern territory. Their king also agreed to become a Christian.
‘In the case of the king, the resources and tools with which to rule are that he have his land fully manned; he must have praying men, fighting men and working men. You know also that without these tools no king may make his ability known.’ Alfred the Great
It is the feast day of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki. Supposedly a Roman commander of the 4th century executed for preaching the gospel, his tomb was said to emit myrrh with the power to heal. Orthodox icons depict him as a military saint, riding a red horse and spearing a Roman gladiator lying at the horse’s feet, which is a bit unexpected for someone who is supposed to be a martyr.
Image: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Comet Photo AG (Zürich) / Com_L10-0125-0004 / CC BY-SA 4.0