By Sarah Jane Boss
A year ago, one of the founders of the Centre for Marian Studies, Dr Cathy Oakes, died unexpectedly in France, at the age of 63.
I first met Cathy in 1990, when she and I were both undertaking research for our respective PhD’s. We were put in touch with one another by Dr Denys Turner, who was one of Cathy’s supervisors, and we met for a cup of tea at the Daquise, the famous Polish restaurant in South Kensington. Cathy was an art historian, and was working on the later medieval iconography of the Virgin Mary as intercessor. Her excellent doctoral work subsequently found its way into the monograph, Ora Pro Nobis: The Virgin as Intercessor in Medieval Art and Devotion (Harvey Miller, 2008).
In the early 1990’s, English language scholarship on Marian matters was thin on the ground, and Cathy and I both found it tough to be working in this area. I once went to visit her in the house where she then lived, in Wiltshire, and commented on the pictures of Our Lady of Orcival that were pinned up on her study wall. She was utterly delighted that anyone else had recognised them!
Together with a small number of other people doing research on Mary-related topics, Cathy and I contributed to the formation of the Marian Study Group, an informal, inter-disciplinary group of scholars with an academic interest in the BVM. The initial group consisted of four PhD candidates. In addition to Cathy and me, there was Chris Maunder and Simon Coleman. We first got together in the early 1990s and held meetings at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill, and in London and in Leeds, as the numbers grew. In 1996, a group of us went for a study trip to Rocamadour, and Cathy was a wonderful presence there: showing us what to look at in the medieval city of Conques, and a great companion on our journeys and at meals.
Out of the Marian Study Group emerged the idea for the Marian Study Centre (as it was first called), and Cathy was on the Consultative Committee from the outset, in 1995. In 1998, when the Centre was at Ushaw College, Durham, she gave the annual Candlemas Lecture, which was enormously well received.
Cathy worked at the Department for Continuing Education at Bristol University, and was one of the most popular lecturers I have ever known. She built up a cohort of devoted students who would attend every course she taught. For the CMS, she taught at day schools, evening classes and summer schools, contributed to conferences, and was always inspiring and informative, filled with love of her subject. On her way to our first ever summer school, held in Salisbury in 1996, Cathy had a serious road accident, which put her out of action for some time. When I went to visit her in hospital, she said that, as she’d been lying in her wrecked car, waiting to be rescued, she’d been thinking, ‘What about the summer school? What about my teaching?!’
Subsequently, Cathy took up a post as head of Visual Arts at the prestigious Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford. Both at Bristol and at Oxford, she not only taught her own courses on Marian art, but employed other lecturers, including me, to teach study days and summer schools; so she really promoted the cause!
Cathy had no religious commitment, but her sensitivity to the material that she was studying was such that devout Catholics would listen to one of her lectures and say things such as, ‘That has really deepened my faith!’
Cathy remained a member of the Centre’s advisory Committee until last year. Several years ago, when we realised that we might have to leave the University of Roehampton, she put us in touch with the Librarian of Kellogg College, Oxford, with a view to seeing whether our library collection might not be able to move there. Sadly, that did not work out; but we were all very grateful to Cathy for her good offices, on that occasion and others.
When she and I were corresponding last year about her stepping down from membership of the CMS Committee, she wrote, ‘I remember hatching the CMS with you decades ago in S. Kensington.’ A great deal has happened in the world of Marian Studies since then, so that a PhD student in this area is not nearly as lonely today as Cathy and I were in the 1990’s; and Cathy is undoubtedly one of the people who has brought about this enormous increase in academic interest in Mary.
Before she died, Cathy had told me that she was interested in writing a book about the cult of the BVM in medieval England, and asked whether I thought anyone would be interested in such a project. I said wholeheartedly that I thought they absolutely would. It is sad that Cathy did not live to write this book herself, but perhaps others will be able to honour her memory by writing it for her.
When I heard of Cathy’s death, I wrote to tell Denys Turner, the man who had first introduced us to one another, and he wrote back: ‘So many memories of a wonderful
person, thinker, teacher: a sort of ideal of the academic.’ She was indeed; and, of all the people I have ever known, I think that Cathy was one of the two or three whose company I have most enjoyed.