Monday 10 September 2012

La Danse Macabre

Just recently I got an email from someone out of the blue. I didn't know them but they were planning to holiday in the area and were researching local sites with wall paintings with a view to visiting them. She had come across a snippet of information about the Chapelle de Tous-les-Saints in Preuilly-sur-Claise and knew that it had wall paintings. She'd seen the photos on the town website, and our blog post on the chapel. Sadly, I had to tell her that the building is in too dangerous a state to let people visit, but it did remind me that I have been meaning to write about the wall paintings for ages. Quite by chance, the same week, I was tipped off that one can see the paintings by peering under the door of the chapel, and so by poking the camera under the door, I've even managed to get some photos. The next step was to spend an afternoon in the library researching the local history articles.

The Danse Macabre of the Women.
The history of the chapel and its wall paintings over the most recent hundred years is a disturbing tale of under resourced high minded altruisim by private individuals on the one hand and shameful inaction (or worse) on the part of the local authorities.

The wall paintings were only rediscovered in 1957, by accident, when the building was on the point of demolition. A visiting architect and his companion idly picked off some render on the interior walls and realised there were significant medieval paintings underneath. The building had been hastily listed as a national monument in 1953 and a local heritage group provided the town council with a modest grant for its maintenance. The grant was not used and the charity asked to be reimbursed - a request which was ignored! Not only that, but the council lobbied to have the building declassified and actively attempted to demolish one gable end!! Finally the architect, Henry Lhéritier de Chézelle, acquired the chapel privately and used his own money to stablise the walls and make it watertight. When his health failed and he could no longer continue the work, his children tried to raise the money necessary to finish the restoration. Although the townsfolk were supportive, and local tradesmen offered their skills for free ('to pay back all the petty vandalism that we did in the chapel when we were kids') the council continued to allow the building to deteriorate after it reverted to their care.

The Orchestra of the Dead.
The significance of this chapel lies in the presence of a danse macabre painted on the interior walls. Its state of preservation is quite poor. The technique used to create it partly explains the fragility of the work - as always with wall paintings, which are done with pigments mixed with glue on a dry wall. It is not a fresco, which are done on fresh damp render. In addition, the faces of the characters portrayed have been systematically hacked away. This act of vandalism probably dates from 1562 when Protestant troops took Preuilly in the Wars of Religion. Their iconoclasm is responsible for the damage to numerous works of art.

Later the paintings were covered by a uniform layer of lime render. To ensure its attachment, the plasterers had to create a key by chipping the walls all over with a pick. This operation had the twofold but contradictory effect of protecting the paintings from light, but damaging them with pick marks. Since their rediscovery the danse macabre has sustained other damage from various acts of ill will, making the reading of the story more and more difficult.

The Danse Macabre of the Men.
Nevertheless it is still possible to determine the general structure. The danse macabre of Preuilly comprises:
  • on the right, as you enter, 9 visible panels of 160 x 50 cm representing the Danse Macabre of the Women. The western gable, with the main entrance, was destroyed then recontructed, so the first few panels have practically disappeared. The female characters are the Queen, the Abbess, the Wife, the Maiden, the Old Woman, the Child, the Shepherdess, the Lover, the Nun, the Widow and the Village Woman.
  • on the left, panels of the same dimensions, representing the Danse Macabre of the Men. The male characters are the Monk, the Archbishop, the Legate, the Lawyer, the Schoolmaster, the Minstrel, the Bailiff, the Emperor, and the Pope.
  • on the left of the former altar is the Orchestra of the Dead, made up of 4 musicians - one holding some bagpipes, another a portable organ, one plays a psaltery (a harplike instrument) and the fourth is a flautist. This Orchestra of the Dead seems to appear as a motif in 1485.
  • on a higher level on each side of the altar one can, with difficulty, distinguish 2 characters. One is perhaps the clergyman who generally accompanies the Danse Macabre.

In the order the characters are represented, Preuilly's Danse Macabre doesn't show any particular differences to an established tradition. In fact, the genre is extremely codified because the design of the danse was widely known due to several very successful publications of the day. The first to have been widely distributed was that made by a Parisian bookseller Guyot Marchant and illustrated by the Rouges brothers, appearing in 1485. It reproduced the fresco from the original Danse Macabre, in the Cemetery of les Innocents in Paris. The following year, when it was republished, Guyot Marchant added a Danse Macabre of the Women, which clearly inspired the one in Preuilly.

Detail showing the Queen and the Abbess, both being approached by Death.
The characters are outlined in black, and painted in yellow and red ochre. (An ochre quarry was found near Saint-Georges-sur-la Prée in Berry.) Each of the panels shows 2 characters - one living and one dead. The dead are here represented in the form of eviscerated cadavers. On the level above the panels is a poem in gothic lettering to accompany each scene.

The poor state of preservation means that no indepth analysis of the style can be made. On the other hand, it is possible to suggest a date of creation, due to several indicators. The most significant comes from the presence of the Danse Macabre of the Women, which excludes a date prior to 1486. The lively costumes evoke the end of the 15th century. Therefore, it seems likely that the wall paintings, along with the building itself, were constructed in the last 2 decades of the 15th century.

La Chapelle de Tous-les-Saints.
The Danse Macabre de la Chapelle de Tous-les-Saints represents the signature of an era. It carries an exceptional testimony of the state of mind, fears, anxieties and religiosity of the populace at the end of the Middle Ages. Death stalked the land in the form of plague, war and famine without respite, and without respect for social class, intellect or personality. This wall painting, despite being very altered by time and man, is precious nonetheless, because of its rarity (there being fewer than a dozen danse macabre extant in France).

The responsibility for the care of the work is today in the hands of the local council. They must take it seriously and ensure the building remains safe (the tie-beam supporting the roof carpentry is broken, for instance, and should be repaired). They should also take steps to acquire the funding to conserve the paintings - it seems it would be available, if only the council would act to prepare an application! Some sections of the Danse Macabre are still sealed under a layer of render. Wouldn't it be great if we could get a professional in to study these unseen sections and maybe know a bit more about something which is an original and precious part of Preuilly, and France's heritage?

At the very least, in the days leading up to the annual Journées du Patrimoine, it seems such a shame that this little treasure is not on the list of buildings open for people to see and appreciate, even if only once a year.


Source: Reignaud-Bauchet, A-M et Walter, B, La Danse macabre de la Chapelle de Tous-les-Saints a Preuilly, Les Cahiers de la Poterne, 2003.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Too busy yesterday to comment, but as 'medallioned' citizens of Preuilly, you are in a fine position to do a bit of nudging, are you not?
And perhaps get Antoinette and Niall on the case too......?
It does seem too important to just ignore.

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