Sunday, 7 February 2016

Termite Mounds

These two giant mud structures were made by termites in the savanna woodlands of the Northern Territory of Australia. These ones, with their buttresses, are known as 'cathedral mounds' and are made by Spinifex Termites Nasutitermes triodiae.  Other termite species in the area build tall narrow mounds aligned north - south, and others live underground or in trees. The termites that live in mounds like this are not the sort that will invade and eat your wooden house, although these species occur in Australia too.

Termites and ants are the most abundant insects in the savanna. The savanna would not look as it does without the termites. They are herbivores and consume vast quantities of grass and wood. The savanna supports a far greater weight of termites per square kilometre than it does cattle, despite this being considered good cattle grazing country. Termites live in colonies, with a queen served by workers and soldiers. The workers are adapted for either foraging or mound building, the soldiers have different weapons at their disposal (some use chemical substances, others have pincer like mandibles). The secret to their success is that they can digest cellulose and lignin from the plants they harvest. These tough parts of the plant which give it rigidity are indigestible by most herbivores.

Termite colonies last for the lifetime of their queen. The soldiers and workers only have a lifespan of a couple of years, but some evidence suggests that a queen could live 100 years. While the queen lives the mound is maintained. Unfortunately because of the continual running repairs and internal remodelling it is impossible to date termite mounds using a cross-section, as there are no 'growth rings' like there would be in a tree for example. A mature mound is about 5 metres high and may contain millions of individuals.

The insulated termite mounds serve to control the insects' environment in hot dry conditions, allowing them to live in a humid microclimate. It is believed the large buttressed or fluted structures of the cathedral mounds allows better ventilation for the storage of the termites grass forage.

Periodically the termites produce a generation with wings and they swarm and mate, simultaneously providing a feast for ants, small mammals, birds, spiders, frogs and lizards in the area. The mound itself is full of nutrients which get cycled back into the soil, and the termite activity is extremely important in dry environments which don't suit bacteria and fungi in terms of breaking down dead plant material. In Australia termites are probably particularly important because there are no great herds of migrating grazers such as there are in Africa.

My Dad by one of the termite mounds.
Back from Babylon: We returned yesterday from a week in Paris. We have seen the Beast of Turin and many other wonders beside. Blog posts to follow, naturally.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Eglise Saint Denis, Amboise

Saint Denis in Amboise is a Romanesque church dating from the very early 12th century. It was enlarged in the 16th century and extensively renovated in the 19th century.
Saint Denis is apparently 70.10 metres above sea level (Fr. 70.10 au dessus du niveau de la mer) according to this plaque by the door.
Below: The view from the church to the chateau.
Below: Looking towards the apse, which is filled with an enormous 17th century altarpiece. In the centre of the choir hangs a crystal chandelier, a gift from the Algerian leader Emir Abd-el-Kadr in 1853. He had been held under house arrest in the chateau from 1848 to 1852.
The capitals date from the 12th century. They are particularly fine and depict foliage, monsters and fantastical animals, legends and historical events.
Below: on the left of the capital two devils seize a pot-bellied sinner to drag him off to Hell.
Below: a girl doing a handstand on one of the column capitals.
The organ was restored in the 1960s.
The side chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary features two 19th century wall paintings. The one below is of Jeanne de Valois, the unfortunate youngest daughter of Louis XI and first wife of Louis XII. When Louis XII became king he wanted to discard Jeanne in favour of Anne de Bretagne. In order to ensure an annulment was granted to the thus far childless marriage he publically claimed that Jeanne was so ugly, deformed and mentally handicapped that he found it impossible to fulfill his duty as a husband and there would therefore never be an heir to the throne, a disaster for the monarchy. Jeanne fought back in spirited fashion, reminding the court of the time Louis had boasted of 'performing' three or four times in one night, but it was to no avail and she was put aside.
Below: a 19th century stained glass window dedicated to Saint Vincent, probably by the well known workshop of Lobin in Tours.
Saint Denis also houses some exceptional 16th century funerary monuments. I blogged about the Babou family tomb monument here, the 'drowned woman' here and Mary Magdalene here.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Trapped Triton

On Saturday 23 January I participated in the local annual survey of hibernating bats. This involves getting slightly speleological and going down various holes in the ground, mostly abandoned underground limestone quarries and the cellars of chateaux, both known in French as caves.

In one chateau cellar we found two forlorn creatures huddling together in a patch of damp where water was seeping down the wall. They had obviously fallen in to the cellar either down a light well or a ventilation duct.

Agile Frog.
One was a Great Crested Newt Triturus cristatus (Fr. Triton crêté) and its companion an Agile Frog Rana dalmatina (Fr. la Grenouille agile). The newt particularly was dehydrated.

Great Crested Newt. We don't know which sex it was as it is impossible to tell at this time of year.
Once they are in somewhere like a cellar or the bottom of a well they don't have the strength to haul themselves up several metres of vertical stone wall. Well owners are advised to drop a length of landscaping textile down from the top or provide a permanent ramp made from a plank covered in small chicken wire. There just isn't enough food available down at the bottom for these creatures to survive.

Great Crested Newt, turned over to display its belly, with the Agile Frog just sitting there, probably an indication of its weakened state.
Fellow blogger Amelia wrote about her experience with this problem last year and you can read her posts here.

We picked the unfortunate beasts up and took them outside to recover in some wet grass near a pond.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Drowned Woman, Amboise

The marble tomb effigy (Fr. gisant) above currently resides in the Church of St Denis in Amboise. It is known as la Femme Noyée ('the Drowned Woman') and there is a persistent story that the life sized figure is that of an unnamed female member of the Babou family who drowned in the Loire.

It dates from the 16th century and came originally from the crypt of the chapel at the Chateau of Bondésir in Montlouis sur Loire. The crypt was the mausoleum of the Babou family of the Chateau of La Bourdaisière but when the priory at Bondésir was closed in 1770, the chapel was also closed and the funerary monuments moved to Amboise. She seems to have already been in a worrying state of deterioration when she came to Amboise, due to the dampness of the underground crypt at Bondésir. Once in Amboise she was moved from place to place a number of times, at one time possibly in the collegiate church of the chateau, then in Notre Dame en Grêve (now dedicated to Saint Florentin) in 1828. Around 1864 the Inspector General of Fine Arts for the region saw her and was so worried by her condition that he had her moved to the chateau. It is not known when the damage to her face, hands and forearms and feet occurred, but the main ongoing problem seems to have been damp and the surface proliferation of mineral salts. In 1896 she was moved to Saint Denis, to a position more reminiscent of her original situation in the crypt of Bondésir.
I am extremely dubious of the effigy's provenance as a drowned woman. The sculpture appears to be remarkably similar to one of Catherine de Medici in the royal necropolis in the Basilica of Saint Denis in Paris. The pose is more or less identical and the state of the corpse much the same. Both are representations of old women it seems to me, not decaying corpses with their innards removed as is often the case with medieval and renaissance tombs. Their purpose is nevertheless to indicate humility, a submission to God's will at the end of life, and the hope for salvation. I would say it is quite likely that the 'drowned woman' is Marie Gaudin (1490 or 1495 - 1571 or 1580), the wife of Philibert Babou, Treasurer to François I, and that one sculpture may well have influenced the other. The 1897 account in the archives of the Archaeological Society of the Touraine of the 'drowned woman's peregrinations notes a resemblance to the effigy of Claude of France in the royal mausoleum of Saint Denis, Paris too (despite which they still seem remarkably attached to the drowned woman theory). Unfortunately Claude's full effigy is very difficult to see and I only have a photo of the base of her bare feet. You can see a better photo, showing her upper body, on this website.

I think the notion of the drowned woman owes much more to 19th - early 20th century obsessions with objects like the supposed death mask of a young woman known as l'Innconnue de la Seine. The death mask has mysterious and obscure origins, but that didn't stop a back story for her building up which proved irresistable to artists and romantics of the time. According to the story the young woman committed suicide by throwing herself in the Seine some time in the 1880s. 

These 16th century effigies may not show beautiful young women, but they are very striking images of serene old age. They are certainly less gruesome than many from this period and earlier. In the second half of the 16th century it seems to have been a personal choice how graphically one portrayed the inevitable corruption of ones flesh after death.

Funerary monument of Catherine de Medici as a corpse in Saint Denis, Paris. This is the second version of the effigy, dating from the 1570s, as Catherine rejected the earlier one as too emaciated and macabre.
My thanks to Rosemary K, who was the only one of us to take a photo of the 'drowned woman' when a group of us visited Saint Denis specifically to look at the funerary monuments. Rosemary has kindly allowed me to use her photo for this post.

I've written about other remarkable funerary monuments in Saint Denis here and here.