28 July 2018

#Research: Medieval Religious Wall Paintings - Jersey

Our Lady of the Light, east end view
Last time I posted about the Neolithic passage tomb at La Hougue Bie in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands lying to the south of UK mainland. Here I’m concentrating on the medieval chapel which sits atop of it, Notre Dame de la Clarté – Our Lady of the Light – and religious wall paintings.

The date of the first Christian building to be raised on top of this known pagan “building” is lost, but the current one dates from the 12th century.

It was altered over the centuries, fairly substantially in the early 16th. After a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the then Dean of Jersey had a shrine constructed within the fabric of the building to replicate the Holy Sepulchre he’d visited in Jerusalem – a sort of early virtual reality. So far so good.

Then he led pilgrimages to the chapel after saying he’d had visions of the Virgin Mary while praying there. Then a statue was erected whose hand was said to “move” in an appeal for offerings. Then “miracles” followed in the form of floating candles. Er… right. 

Archangels on the plastered ceiling. Centre plinth for a figure of the Virgin.
Whether all this did occur, or whether it was “documented” as occurring by a vested interest, is open to congecture. As was the rest of Europe, the island was on the cusp of the Protestant Reformation, and far more desperate measures were being taken on all sides elsewhere.

Despite this notoriety, the building falling into disrepair in post-Reformation centuries, and in 1792 it becoming part of a pleasure garden tower, some of its late medieval wall paintings remain in situ. As with most wall paintings of the period, the organic colours of these two archangels have faded to pastel shades, but remain impressive, nonetheless. 

Detailed view of the archangels, Notre Dame de la Clarté.

Even more impressive are the wall paintings in the Chapelle-ès-Pêcheurs – The Fisherman’s Chapel –  a few miles distant in St Brelade’s Bay. To confuse matters, this small-windowed building sited overlooking the sea has no connection to fisherman. So close to the parish Church of Saint Brelade as to forestall photography, it is believed to be the site of the original wooden parish church, rebuilt in stone after the much larger Saint Brelade’s was completed within touching distance.

The Resurrection

If the wall paintings are to be believed, in the 14th century the smaller building was taken over by a prominent family as its personal chantry chapel for masses to be held for the souls of the dead. Or their dead.

The Annunciation

At the foot of the painting of the Annunciation are fourteen figures, thought to be members of the family. Not so much fisherman, ‘pêcheurs’, as sinners, ‘pécheurs’. It’s amazing the difference a diacritical can make.

Or, in the cases of both chapels, the prominence of money. 

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

21 July 2018

#Research: Neolithic Passage Tomb in Jersey

The entrance to the "hollow hill" of La Hougue Bie
What did you do on your holiday? Last time I was donning hard-hat and clambering down a ladder into Grime’s Graves in Norfolk. This time I’ve been bent double, crabbing my way into a Neolithic Passage Tomb on Jersey. This woman knows how to party, eh?

We’ve had a few days in the Channel Islands, just off the French coast, and while in Jersey took the opportunity to visit La Hougue Bie, a 6,000 year old passage tomb in the style of Ireland’s Newgrange and Orkney’s Maeshowe.

Just as the Channel Islands are not French but British Crown dependencies, Jersey’s place and street names aren’t French either but Jèrriais, what’s left of Viking Norman. In keeping with these contradictions, Neolithic passage tombs aren’t tombs in the sense of a grave; they have more in common with our accepted role of a religious building such as a church or temple, and nearly all of them are aligned to a celestial event.

Clouds permitting, at La Hougue Bie the rising sun at the Spring Equinox casts light along its 9 metre (30ft) entrance passage and illuminates the main chamber. When this happened all those millennia ago, what occurred in its confines and its alcoves has been lost down the years. We can only peer at the huge stones making up the walls and the even more massive capstones carrying the weight of the mound above – and stone church – and marvel at how people living on a small island 6,000 years ago could not only transport them from all over the southern region but lift them in place. And know they were aligning each stone perfectly to allow the inner chamber to be illuminated for a short period on a single day in the year. Shame on anyone using Stone-Age as a term of derision.

Left: wall stones, over 2m visible above the flooring, massive bulk of the capstones, plus an alcove at the rear of the chamber.
Right: view along the 9m entrance passage showing a figure stooping to gain admittance. There is no headroom to stand until the inner chamber is reached. At the right can be seen a "modern" concrete column to help reinforce the line of capstones making up the roof.

The eastern (obviously) apse of the church
I mention the medieval stone chapel built on the mound’s summit, Notre Dame de la Clarté – Our Lady of the Light – an interesting appellation considering what occurs below. The original was probably erected in this position as a means of ‘cleansing’ a pagan religious site. The current building dates from the 12th century and I concentrate on this interesting place in another blogpost, HERE.

During World War 2, when the Channel Islands were occupied by German forces, a watch tower was erected on top of the mound at the western end of the church, and a battalion command bunker tunnelled into the mound, thankfully doing little lasting damage to the structure, though the archaeological damage caused by 70 trenches nearby was irreparable. The bunker is now dedicated to the memory of thousands of “Forced Workers” brought to the Channel Islands, many of whom never saw their homelands again. Its minimalist setting proves a grim walk-through.

The most recent stone building is the combined visitor centre, museum and conservation lab, the latter separated by a large glass window from many fine exhibits gathered from across the island, and proving as much a focus for visitors as the gold torcs, bronze axe heads, and a replica of the biggest Celtic coin hoard I’ve ever seen. The most recent non-stone building was being thatched when we visited: a replica of a Neolithic longhouse being built by experimental archaeology volunteers.

Left: the partly constructed Neolithic longhouse viewed from the church; in front the exit from the WW2 command bunker walk-through.
Right: a selection of original Celtic coins from one of the hoards.

La Hougue Bie is, indeed, a place of contradictions, and well worth a visit.

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.