Monday 4 February 2013

A Chapel at Risk

 Part of the danse macabre wall paintings in the Chapelle de Tous les saints, Preuilly sur Claise.
The yellow ochre figures are cadavers, come to lead the red ochre shepherdess, lover, nun and widow in the dance of death.

One day in early November last year Marc Dimanche, the secretary of the local archaeological society, came up to me in the street and said 'I hear you would be interested in seeing inside the Chapel of All Saints.' 'Yes, please', I said, 'but we are leaving for Australia in two days time. I'll email you to arrange a visit when we have returned. Oh, and by the way, can I bring my friends Niall and Antoinette? They are historians specialising in the medieval and Niall has a particular interest in memento mori, so I know they would appreciate the chance to see the Chapel.' 'Bien sûr! but don't bring too many people along, as the building is dangerous and we must limit access!'

The simple peg ladder to get up into the roof space and bell tower. This is the inside of the front gable -- rebuilt in concrete blocks after a shameful, and thankfully unsuccessful attempt to pull the building down with a tractor several decades ago (even though it was by then a legally protected historic monument).

So, in January I emailed Marc and we set up a date that suited everyone. I had written about the chapel before, after being tipped off that you can see the inside by peering under the door. For this plain little chapel from the end of the 15th century hides a great rarity inside. The walls and ceiling were once entirely painted, and the theme of the paintings was a very particular medieval motif -- the danse macabre.  I went down there and took some photos of what I could but to be able to see the real thing up close is something really special.

 The tie-beam has fatally cracked under the king post.

I knew the ceiling was painted, but had only ever seen photos of it, and although I had read about the ladder up to the roof, I had no concept of what a Heath Robinson arrangement it was. I expected the paintings to be made up of flakes just waiting to fall off the wall. In fact, where there was still paint on the wall, it appeared to be smooth and well attached, and the paintings were in some ways in better condition than I had feared. Of course, all the figures have been pockmarked as a result of plaster being applied over the top of the paintings, but as is so often the case the plaster and whitewash has protected as well as destroyed.

 The finely carved altar has been broken up and lies scattered around the building. Above the altar platform, a metal tie rod meant to hold the side walls together at the gable has lost contact with the wooden rafter it was originally attached to and that corner of the building looks distinctly wonky.

To read Niall and Antoinette's account of our visit and get some background on the danse macabre you can go to their blog Chez Charnizay. For further details and photos see my earlier post.

A detail of the painted oak vaulted ceiling.

Marc took the opportunity to let us know that the archaeological society is keeping an eye on the chapel. They currently have a project on the go to erect a clock in historic rue de l'Horloge in Preuilly, and they are struggling with developing a new strategy for keeping the museum in the Poterne open under difficult circumstances. On top of this, they would really like to be able to start fundraising to save the chapel, and, just as importantly, convince the mairie (town hall) that they must submit an application for a grant to set the conservation ball rolling. He commented ruefully that the locals just don't seem to be interested, and if it weren't for the incomers in the town, the archaeological society would never raise any money for their projects.
La Chapelle de tous les saints -- from the outside you would never know that the gable has been reconstructed.

He and I have agreed that if any of our readers would like to see the Chapel, they can contact me and I will arrange it. When there is any further news of a public subscription being organised I will naturally post about it on the blog and do everything I can to support the conservation of this special national monument. It won't take very much money to achieve a useful first step, such as installing grills on the unglazed windows, to keep the pigeons out. A thorough job of conserving the paintings and consolidating the building will take a lot of time and a lot of money though, and we will just have to keep agitating.

 The side door of the chapel, which once led to the cemetery. The keystone is dated 1684, so the chapel was already 200 years old when this door was inserted.

 The crude wooden frame which now supports the tie-beam.


Tim said...

I feel even sadder reading this than I did when I read Niall & Antoinette's blog post.... that roof looks wonderful... esapecially the close up of the painted bit.

I notice that the pigeons / raptors have used the peg ladder... good job they didn't render the inside... at least that can be covered.

As you and Simon are "medalled" citizens of Preuilly... and run an arm of the 'local' tourism industry... would you be able to diplomatically rattle cages?

Colin and Elizabeth said...

What a fascinating post and how sad to see the building, with that wonderful roof, under threat. Now to read Niall and Antoinette's blog post....

chm said...

It’s a shame that such modest, but moving, remnants of the past were left to decay. Kudos to the archaeological society to do their best to save this chapel and the paintings.

If you have a chance to travel south-east of Preuilly there is a well known and beautiful 15th century Danse macabre in the abbey church of La Chaise-Dieu in the Haute-Loire. Between Clermont-Ferrand and Le Puy, la Chaise-Dieu is worth a visit, as well as Le Puy, of course.

Niall & Antoinette said...

I took almost exactly the same photo of the ruined altar 'chunks'.
Let's see what our collective 'stirring' can do.

@Chm - there's a good website for La Chaise Dieu and as well as a danse macabre they have a series of beautiful, very early 16th century tapestries. I've mentioned them to to Susan seeing as that's her 'thing' :-)

chm said...

Niall & Antoinette,
I should read your blog regularly since we are interested in the same kind of “stuff.”

Talking about tapestries, there are four beautiful Flanders [I guess] tapestries in the choir of the church in Saint-Flour in Auvergne. At least they were there when I visited, I won’t tell you how many decades ago!

There is a room at the Chaise-Dieu abbey where you can whisper in one corner and be heard perfectly on the opposite corner. Since I was by myself when I visited I was not able to check the accuracy of that statement! LOL

Thank you for the link.

Susan said...

Tim: Antoinette and I are working on it. We both have contacts in the medieval wall paintings 'business'.

chm & Antionette: those tapestries at la Chaise-dieu are really something -- incredibly detailed, even on the teensy pics they give you on the website, and to have almost all of the set extant -- just WOW!

The danse macabre at la Chaise-dieu is a much more sophisticated looking affair than 'ours'. I am interested to see that it is (or was intended to be) a real fresco ie painted on damp plaster -- unlike 'ours', which is a wall painting ie done on dry plaster. I wonder why it was never completed?

chm said...

Susan & Antoinette,
Talking about wall paintings and frescoes, I’m sure you’re aware of the Chapelle des Moines at Berzé-la-Ville in Burgundy.

The paintings there are supposed to be frescoes. In any case they’re magnificent. It’s quite a sight and a site. My recollection is that the chapel is very small. Probably an oratory. The images there are reminiscent of the mosaic at Germigny-des-Prés, the oldest church in France.

GaynorB said...

We'd be interested in seeing but unfortunately have little skill or knowledge to 'bring to the party'.

Susan said...

Gaynor: Requests to see the murals will all add weight to our argument that something must be done to save them. Plus of course, you can blog about them. I'll set something up when you are next in town.

Tim said...

Susan... I was thinking more at commune level... but given your "success" with the "orchids on the roundabout"... that's probably a no-no!

Susan said...

Tim: Our idea is to get some outside experts to express interest in the paintings. Then we can say to the mairie that such and such expert thinks the paintings are important. It gives any pushing we do for the mairie to fill in a grant application more weight. If Antoinette and I, or even respected members of the archaeo society go in now we'll just get fobbed off with 'economic times', 'lack of resources', 'too busy', 'come back in 6 months'. We want to make them aware that the wider world is watching -- and this year is an election year.

Tim said...

Oh... good one!! Have you spoken with M. Geslin? He's not just interested in old flint...

Susan said...

Tim: I don't know who M. Geslin is. Is he the guy who does demonstrations comparing modern tools to flint tools?

Aussie in France said...

How very interesting. I also went over to Chez Charnizay. I hope we can visit it when we come to see you and I can blog about it to to help with publicity. And I also hope that it can be restored. I'm sure people would go out of their way to see it, especially if there is an explanation like Niall's. It's so sad none of the locals are interested.

the fly in the web said...

You are right in stating that you need an outside 'expert' with you know anyone at the DRAC who could assist?

Susan said...

Fraussie: I should be able to arrange a visit for you.

Fly: DRAC would be perfect, but sadly no, not directly. We will have to hope that the contacts of our contacts can connect us with someone with that sort of clout.

Susan said...

I've had an email from the President of the archaeological society. Basically the problem is convincing the mairie to put their hand in their pocket. I presume they will be expected to fund match any grant.

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