I wake up in Antwerp in some rich woman’s bed
There’s a man with a hammer inside of my head
These are the opening lines from a track on Sting’s latest album, The Bridge. The hammering in the narrator’s head is the product of too much brandy the night before. But in the story of the song, neither this inner pounding, nor the voice of the married woman entreating him to stay, triumph over the speaker. Instead, it is the bells of St. Thomas, a nearby church, that prevail, seeming both to console and unsettle the narrator.
In the song, he visits the empty church and finds a painting by Rubens. It depicts the apostle Thomas inspecting the wounds of Christ, the main figures flanked by “a rich man and his elegant wife.” The work Sting has in mind is surely the triptych known as The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, painted by the Flemish master around 1615. It was originally commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox, mayor of the city of Antwerp, and his spouse Adriana Perez. For the sake of the song, Sting seems to have taken artistic license and moved the painting from its actual home, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, to an imaginary site; there is, as far as I can tell, no church dedicated to Saint Thomas in Antwerp.
By the end of the song, the narrator is no longer sifting the emotional and physical debris of his one-night stand, but turning his mind to the spiritual debris and to a deeper, more mysterious plight: “You can feign your indifference, pretend you’re aloof / But the wounds we’re denying are there all the same.”
“The Bells of St. Thomas” is merely the latest of Sting’s many songs that draw upon the pre-Vatican II Catholicism of his boyhood; its rituals and liturgies have never quite left him. Gordon Sumner (his real name) was born in Newcastle in the northeast of England in 1951. While the region, once part of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, is synonymous in the public mind with coal mining and shipbuilding, soccer and soldiering, it is also an area in which the pulse of the heroic age of early Christianity can still be seen and felt—more so, perhaps, than anywhere else in England.
Cuthbert, the patron saint of Northumbria, is one of the great figures of the seventh century, when the flame of Christian faith and learning, originally lit by Irish monks coming south from Scotland, was carried across northern and central England. In Durham, eighteen miles south of Sting’s hometown, sits the stupendous eleventh-century Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin, and Saint Cuthbert. The last doomed Catholic uprising against the Tudors began there in 1569. The cathedral is also home to the remains of the Venerable Bede, the seventh-century saint and first historian of the English people. The site of Bede’s monastery is two and a half miles from the house that Sting grew up in, on the other side of the River Tyne. Also nearby is the enormous former seminary at Ushaw, established in 1808 to replace the famed English College in Douai, a casualty of the French Revolution.
For young Gordon Sumner, these associations would not simply have been a matter of local historical lore. They were imprinted on the fabric of his early life. Raised Catholic, Sting attended schools named after both Cuthbert and Saint Columba, the Irish founder of the famed island monastery of Iona in Scotland.
As Evyater Marienberg of the University of North Carolina meticulously recounts in a book-length study published last year, Sting and Religion, the pop star’s 1950s childhood was folded up within the densely packed habits, customs, and institutions of a working-class Catholic parish. His grandmother, Agnes, was in Sting’s words the “second youngest child in a stereotypical Irish family of ten brothers and sisters… fiercely intelligent, pretty and devout.” Her Catholicism was “a major part not only of her spiritual life but also the outer life of the family.”
But there were ripples of change, too. Sting was the eldest child of one of the increasingly common mixed marriages in the area. (His mother was Anglican; and the children of his own second marriage were baptized in the Church of England.) The home he grew up in was light on Catholic images compared to that of previous generations, and there were no family prayers. Longstanding strictures about religious observance and the harder-edged rules of Catholic behavior were loosening. (Sting was eleven when the Second Vatican Council got underway.) In the wider world, irreligion and hedonism were gathering more and more steam.
Gordon was one of the last generation of altar boys to serve routinely at the Latin Mass. This left him with an enduring love of plainsong and Gregorian chant, such that the cadences of the sung Mass are now, he says, part of his equipment when composing. The Marian element of Catholicism also seems to have left a largely positive impression. In his memoir, Broken Music, Sting wrote that “Mary the Star of the Sea” was his “icon as a child, floating above the ocean in her blue veil” (“Hail, Queen of Heaven” is his favorite hymn); and that, as a boy, he would say the rosary constantly. The concert he gave in Durham Cathedral in 2009 included Marian songs such as “Gabriel’s Message” and “There Is No Rose of Such Virtue.”
According to Marienberg, Sting has said that his experience of corporal punishment at the hands of certain Catholic teacher-priests drove him away from the Church. In interviews, he has tended to position himself as a questing agnostic who refutes both purely material explanations for the universe and the exclusive claims to truth of any religion. He has walked Hindu pilgrimage routes in India. The “only genuine religious experience” of his life, he once said, came after taking the hallucinogenic drink, Ayahuasca. He was once inducted into a peyote cult in Mexico.
Nonetheless, as his latest album demonstrates, a subset of Sting’s songs reverberates with the legacy, good and bad, of an urban English Catholic childhood of the 1950s and ’60s—and in his lyrics, he continues to grapple with spiritual questions by returning to the Catholic imagery of his youth. As he now heads into his eighth decade, it seems unlikely that these themes will disappear from his music. We should continue to watch, with him, this space—the space left, as he describes it in “When the Angels Fall,” when you “Take your father’s cross gently from the wall / A shadow still remaining.”
John Duggan is a freelance writer based in Surrey, England.
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