I dreamed of holy snowglobes before ever I saw one.
It was in Kensington, it was Christmas Eve and it was snowing. The Irishwoman in the piety shop at the Oratory was firm that the church was closed until the Fathers were quite happy with the Crib. In the dimness behind her I thought I saw something which I would never have dared to conjecture: the image of the Christ Child called the Infant of Prague under a glass or plastic bubble.
In that moment, I wondered if the firmly shutting shop contained a little holy image in one of those water-filled bubbles with some grains of powder which can be shaken up into a snowstorm. It was only a protective dome of plastic, as it turned out, but that night while the real snow fell on London outside, I dreamed of sacred snowglobes, of holy images enclosed in those little snowstorms which are themselves, in all their plastic simplicity, survivals of early-modern design in the same degree as are the sunburst clocks which you find in the cheaper shops of any European town. I think I dreamed of wonderful blown-glass globes with carved stands like the scientific and optical instruments in the Wunderkammer of the baroque Collegio Romano and with gilded and polychrome statues within them vanishing in a blizzard of gold and silver flecks like the flecks of noble metal in the glass of old Murano chandeliers.
My first real snowglobe appeared a year later in the shop of the Museum of Religious art in Utrecht, a plastic image of a pilgrimage church in the Rhineland, with a simple representation of the Statue of the Virgin of Klevelar within. I bought every example in the shop, thinking never to see such a thing again. But the next summer, the stalls round the Basilica in Padua yielded a diminutive San Antonio on a little plastic base moulded in imitation of the goldsmiths’ work of the Italian 18th century. I assumed these two examples to be perhaps the only ones still available, and thought that the collection would close there.
However, the following Christmas, the window of the smart bookshop in the Denneweg in the Hague had a seasonal exhibition of religious artefacts amongst the gardening books including a giant snowglobe with the whole scene in the Grotto at Lourdes enacted within. No persuasion, no cash offer could induce the propietrix to part with it, since it had been hers since her childhood.
This was the first clue as to the nature and date of these particular snowglobes: they had been common holy toys for the Catholic children of the forties and fifties.The few examples which I had seen had come from shrines with a sufficient volume of older votaries to make it worthwhile to continue to display these old-fashioned pious toys. (Rumours suggest that there may be a snowglobe or two still obtainable at Knock in Ireland.) These snowglobes thus belong to the simple era of ecclesiastical dressing-up clothes (‘ The Little Nun’ , The Little Priest’ – complete with little biretta) and have persisted into our own time, the era of the resin statuette of ‘Footballing Jesus’, depicted leading with the elbow in a way reminiscent of Roy Keane. (This latter statement is true; you can buy them from an internet Catholic supplier in the United States.) If they are to be found at all they are to be found at popular shrines or in the piety shops in the simpler neighbourhoods. Indeed the search for the retarditaire kinds of repository which might harbour these out-of-date holy toys, has itself bred an acquaintance with the quiet inner suburbs of many continental cities.
The idea of the snowglobe itself is logical only if it contains a winter scene (but what a wonderful snowglobe could be constructed around the miraculous fall of August snow on parched Rome, through the intercession of ‘Our Lady of the Snow’). However, the snow globe seems to have changed its scope, so that almost any subject or person can be represented inside the little bubble of water with its swirling power-snow, regardless of whether an implication of winter is appropriate or not. Thus the initial point that a snowglobe should represent a winter scene seems to have dropped entirely out of sight, so much so that the Pope, Tom Cruise, Harry Potter can all be represented in miniature with snow swirling about them. Sometimes these juxtapositions are so bizarre as to acquire the charm of the baroque concetto, the linking of impossible opposites as in the representation of St Peter’s and the Pope given me by ironic Italian friends. The Pontiff in this snowglobe has great charm in that he is represented as towering like King Kong over a very small, moonlight-silvery St Peter’s in a way which implies that he is at least a hundred metres tall.
A further, democratic development of the snowglobe has been intermittently visible for the last few years: this is the snowglobe with a blank slot in the centre into which a photograph can be inserted, so that a loved labrador or a special godchild can appear through the blizzard of silver stars which move sluggishly, hanging suspended in the viscous medium within the globe. This viscous medium, investigations carried out today in northern Aberdeenshire suggest, can be tinted blue or pink, perhaps implying thereby that these blank globes are for the display of baby pictures. I leave individual readers to speculate on further possible uses for these vacant snowglobes, remarking only that the image of David Beckham as represented on the cover of The Face a few months ago, apparently in the role of St Sebastian really quite far into his martyrdom, might make a seasonal gift acceptable to a surprising number of friends.
My collection of these globes sits on my predecessor Sir Herbert Grierson’s oak bookcase in my office in Aberdeen, counterpointing the real snow which any day now will swirl between my window and the Crown Spire of Kings College. So while it snows in the world, so it snows in miniature on Rome, on Lourdes, on Alötting by the Danube with its thaumaturgic Madonna, on Klevelar in the Rhineland, on Padua, on arid, rocky Avila where the mountain winds blow back St Theresa’s cloak amid a generous blizzard of glitter snow. Glitter snow or a suspension of stars completes the baroque aspect of these curiosities, implying a world like that created in those dizzying churches in Bavaria decorated in the 18th century by the brothers Asam: a world where sacred personages stand on the white plains of heaven while flecks of warm silver snow, hot golden snow, whirl about them.