Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Angels on the architecture, St Gal's church, Langast.

This was supposed to be 'A Painted Church for Winter', a counterpart to the 'Painted church for Summer' post of a year or so ago, about Morieux. For while the church at Morieux, out by the coast, its doors open to the west and the sea air, is all sunny gold and pink ochre, and the characters in its frescos seem to smile and grin with irrepressible aestival jollity, St Gal's at Langast is more pensive, austere, twilighty, and better suited to the paler, colder light of winter passing through its monochrome, grisaille windows.






And, as one looks and travels outward to the sea coasts and the playful places in summer, so one turns inward in winter; likewise Langast lies inland, in a quiet, interior landscape.

However, I had already left visiting the place for a couple of winters, and by the time I did, last Sunday, spring was already upon us. But no matter; the woods that lined the road there were still bare and silvery, with just a flicker of new green from strands of honeysuckle starting to leaf. The light is still low, and this clear, spare Lenten time is also a good moment.




The church does not look remarkable from outside, and, indeed, until the early eighties, no one thought it was. Like its bell tower, and most of the visible outer structure, and its very fine stained glass window, the oldest and best preserved in the region, it was assumed to be 16th century, old but not especially so for round here.



Many years ago, in my bookselling days, a friend and colleague showed me a picture in a Thames and Hudson catalogue of a beautiful yellow ceramic cat with black spots. It could have been ancient Egyptian, or from a 20th century craft pottery. 'How old is it?' I asked. He laughed, 'Why do people always ask that?'

Why indeed? Why does it give us a special thrill to learn that an artefact we might see and touch, that pleases and appeals to us, is exceptionally old, from a time we can't easily fathom, or imagine the people who made it? Or that sometimes the very old seems more contemporary and accessible in its aesthetic than something of just a century or two?


In 1982, the church was in need of serious structural renovation to stabilise it. Even restored and shored up, the interior structure has a swaying, slightly drunken look - this isn't just the effect of the camera.


While they were scraping off plaster, they found this herringbone stonework (below), and older, higher windows filled in, which were the clue to its greater age. It is reckoned now to date from about the 8th century, and to be perhaps the third oldest church building in France.



Investigating further, they discovered the frescoes. The church was closed for 12 years while the restorations took place.

In preparation for visiting Chartres cathedral in May this year, I have been reading Philip Ball's marvellous recent book 'Universe of Stone - Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Mediaeval Mind'. He stresses that it is not enough to appreciate the beauty of mediaeval church art and architecture from the point of view of a modern aesthetic, without understanding the minds, the world and the culture from which they came (and he gives an excellent synopsis of this, one of the best and most accessible to a non-specialist I've come across). This especially applies perhaps to the Gothic and the 12th century Renaissance from which it came. You might be better allowed to attribute wild and exuberant flights of imagination, a sheer sensual joy in decorative flourish, the kind of thing St Bernard of Clairvaux detested, to the less enlightened and ordered, more chaotic Romanesque and early mediaeval period. The transcendant meaning in pre-Gothic religious art is applied, not integral to the whole structure; the angels are on the architecture, not in it.

And it is difficult not to ascribe a sense of fun, of aesthetic pleasure for its own sake, in creating the shapes and patterns of the Langast frescoes. Yet there is a significant order and meaning in them.

The delightful rinceaux, the swirls and curlicues and foliate patterns which decorate the arches nearest the back of the church, represent the natural world, the lowest order in the divine hierarchy.





In the next set of arches, come old testament figures, this unidentified prophet or priest,


and Melchisedech. Oddly I remember him form a reggae song from my youth, the high priest of Salam, a mysterious personage who paid homage and tithes to Abraham and who was possibly not born of man and woman but was some immortal priest figure. His significance here can only be guessed at.


And from there on down the church toward the altar, angels.







And how old are they? We inevitably ask. There is a great wish to believe they date from the 8th century too, and it was for a while assumed they did, but more recent research indicates they can be no older than the 10th, though the signposts and guides still refer to them as older. Nevertheless, that makes them more than a thousand years old, which is impressive, even for immortal beings. I remember, many years ago looking into similar faces, in an ancient tiny chapel among olive groves in the Mani Peninsular on the Pelopponese, where an old crate in the corner proved to be a makeshift ossuary. Those paintings, of Byzantine saints, had a date inscribed 0f 991, almost exactly a thousand years before I stood there. (It's only lately that I've come to realise that that date cannot have been authentic, they would not have been using Arabic numerals then. Nevertheless, the paintings and the chapel were considered to date from that time.) But the Pelopponese Byzantine saints' faces were more pitiless and alien than these.

They all maintain the same position: a book held to the chest in the left hand, and the right hand raised, palm forward, in a gesture of ... what? Blessing, or interdiction?



All that is, save the Archangel Michael, who is on the pillar opposite Melchisedech, and with him, the only character to have his name written beside him, or at least still extant. In his draperies he is carrying a little human figure, a soul being taken to heaven, to all appearances like a child enjoying being swung and carried by a loving adult.



This depiction of Michael, the fighter, the guardian of high places, defeater and crusher of Satan, as the gentle psychopomp is a rare one, only known in two other places, once in England and once in Ireland. It is seen as confirmation of the early, Celtic origins of the church and its foundations.



Which brings us on to the matter of its patron saint. St Gal is the same St Gall of the monastery which bears his name in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Constance, which played such an important role in the preservation of learning and of manuscripts in the dark ages, which, whatever the sanguine revisionists try to make out, really were often fairly dark, save for the redeeming influences of the Irish and the Islamic world. An Irishman, in the 6th to 7th centuries St Gall travelled with St Colomban to the continent of Europe to spread learning and found religious houses. Many and doubtful are the legends about him, but the local story goes that when they fell out with a certain Queen Brunhild, she put the monks in a boat and sent them home to Ireland by way of the Loire. However, St Gall and his company sneakily disembarked in the vicinity of Nantes, and spent a short hermitic sojourn in Brittany. There is a small chapel somewhere in the countryside in the neighbourhood which is said to be on the site of his original hermitage, but I've yet to explore that.

So he is another of those elusive, protean Celtic saints who haunt these regions. While there is little basis to the story of St Gall's Breton digression, like the Swiss monastery, this place was founded barely 100 years after he died, so the connection is not impossible. Unless, of course, 'Gall' simply referred to another saint or missionary of Gallic origin, and the derivation is a false one...

Yet, as we keep finding, the need to affirm ancientness, originality, authenticity, a sense of reaching back to the source of things, is important. And to a tiny and otherwise featureless commune , in perhaps the least known and visited part of the westernmost region of France, the idea that, in time out of mind, a saint of true Celtic pedigree and legendary renown made his home here, and then stonemasons and artists came to create a special church and fill it with angels, is a matter of great pride.

The timberwork of the side aisles is later, but also interesting. More angels, 16th century cherubic ones this time, and a lively bestiary of carved creatures,



including these intriguing crocodile/dragons (below), who have horizontal beams springing from their mouths. I have seen these as a feature of the woodwork in churches and other old buildings throughout Britanny, but don't recall seeing them elsewhere, and I have yet to learn the correct name for such an architectural embellishment - an end, like a capital, only for a horizontal beam.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in spring, there wasn't another visitor in or near the place. After my visit, Molly and I went a little further on to walk by the plan d'eau in Plessala, a charmingly landscaped artificial lake, complete with an unusually well-equipped children's playground, mini-golf, boules and tennis courts and exercise circuit, which, again, we more or less had to ourselves, though by the time we left, just before 4 o'clock, a few sedate and probably well-lunched families with children and older couples with dogs were coming out of the woodwork.

Treasures are well hidden round here. I love it.


25 comments:

julie said...

Oh, how marvelous! That's one thing we don't have in the States, these ancient places to which we still have some connection. When I was a child living in Suffolk, I loved how we could take a walking field trip and see several of these tiny churches, ancient burial grounds (we were right down the road from Sutton Hoo), places of living history right in the midst of ordinary life. And so often, they are so beautiful!

Thanks, Lucy.

marja-leena said...

What a wonderful, loving and knowledgeable tour guide you are, Lucy! I'm transported decades back into art and architecture history classes where I loved this old architecture, yet had a hard time keeping awake in the darkened room with the drone of the slide projector and the monotonous voice of the professor. You've really brought it alive with the stories of the saints, the layered history and the great photos, thank you so much. Would love to see these in real life. Living here in the Pacific Northwest, it's hard to find anything as old as even 200 years, so I think that's why I love Europe so much.

apprentice said...

That was a fantastic photo essay Lucy. And you are so knowledgeable.
I like the stained glass in partucular, the feather patter in wonderful.

Chartres dominates that flat landscape so, it must have been utterly awe-inspiring to the illiterate poor of the Middle Ages

Plutarch said...

How many modern and recognisable faces there are among those saints and angels! The rincaux, both their colour and shape, make you want to see more and follow the dancing movement of the pattern wherever it leads.

Michelle said...

Lucy, the world needs more people like you to open our eyes to its wonders. I'm convinced you could create magic out of the most mundane objects. I love the rinceaux.

jzr said...

I felt like I was there while reading your words and seeing the photos. Thank you for sharing this. I love those angels, especially.

christopher said...

Lucy, you are truly generous with your time and effort putting together such a finished and elegant post.

I loved taking the tour.

And thanks to Julie for adding Sutton Hoo.

herhimnbryn said...

Thankyou Lucy.
Those frescos had me drawing in my breath! Your words and images are a delightful way to start the day. I do miss such ancient buildings, now I am living here.

Dick said...

This a positively majestic post, Lucy, both visually and verbally. What a place of riches is this church - a portal back to pre-mediaeval Christian settlement.

Zhoen said...

(o)

Fantastic Forrest said...

What a beautiful collection of photographs, Lucy. Thank you so much for this look at such a marvelous place.

There is, indeed, something very special about these places. I will be sharing your post with my children. When we return to Europe, Chartres is near the top of my to do list. I think, despite how thoroughly you've chronicled St. Gal's, we'd enjoy seeing it firsthand as well. :-)

Granny J said...

How fortunate are you in the Old World, where you abide in the midst of deep history. Makes it quite difficult to destroy the past, as we are wont to do in the States.

Rouchswalwe said...

Thank you, Lucy, so much for taking us to this little tipsy church with its hidden treasures. I know it doesn't make sense, but while reading your post, I thirsted for a glass of lambic.

Gwen Buchanan said...

Your blog is simply amazing!!! Thank you for sharing all these wondrous things.. I have much reading to do...

Barrett Bonden said...

At first it seemed as if we'd entered the church where Gunnar Bjornstrand had so miserably lost his faith (Winter Light?) although that was much smaller. But that impression was blown away by the stained glass. Bretons are hard people but they haven't renounced joy. I liked the exterior and have, of course, seen others like it. But this one encouraged me to ponder how Christians should materialistically proclaim their faith to non-believers. Chartres is clearly intended to inspire awe; but this one is practical and businesslike - a prayer workshop. The fresco faces have a unique style, unrelated to anything the great Neil McGregor discussed on telly before he moved on to the BM. But I suspect this may be ignorance on my part. However, I'm not ignorant of the fact that you wear your learning lightly - a rare quality. Together with a very recognisable tone of voice.

Lucy said...

Well thank you all very much for reading such a long post!

Julie - I didn't know you'd lived in England. My quite distant ancestors came from Suffolk I believe, silk weavers from the Netherlands, but they subsequently moved over to Norfolk, where they mixed a bit with further incomers from across the North Sea, Jewish ones this time, then finally with our parents we got a 50% dose of long-standing West Country Saxon blood. And here I am in France. Who knows where we all come from? Thanks for the Sutton Hoo link too.

ML - thanks so much. In truth I've actually a fairly poor head for remembering stuff about architecture, terms and details and periods and the like, so I'd probably have got sleepy too!

Anna - I suppose these places stand out rather because they have survived, Mediaeval churches were of course all painted and full of colour. Apparently the big stained glass window at the choir end is worth a closer look; I alwys tend to overlook it in favour of the wall paintings. The plain grisaille windows are quite speciall though, aren't they, and make for a very distinctive kind of light.

Joe - they do have subtly different faces, it's true. I think the rinceaux are wonderful too, and in many ways look very modern.

Michelle -thank you. I suppose staying much of the time in a fairly quiet and out of the way place, I have to look around me more closely...

JZR - It's good to share them!

Christopher - I think you're all generaous with your time reading it, putting it together seems more like self-indulgence!

HHB - I hope it didn't make you late starting! I think I would miss the old stuff in Europe, though I think the key is just to look closely at whatever's around you, which you do.

Dick - Thanks, it is indeed a treasure. Interesting you describe the period as pre-mediaeval. One of the interesting things about being at a remove from Britain is that the great watershed of the Norman Conquest becomes less important; the period between the fall of Rome and the 12th century or thereabouts is considered early medieval. French schoolchildren learn in detail and quite young about Clovis and Charlemagne, the Franks and Merovingians and Carolingians. It so happens of course that the 1066 benchmark rather coincided with the beginning of the proto-Renaissance which reached its full flowering in the 12th century, so the sense of emerging from darker times is reinforced...

FF - thanks. I'm sure you'd find much to see and do in this part of Brittany, and though it's an out of the way place, it's not too remote or far from the sea. I'm very much looking forward to seeing Chartres for the first time.

GJ - oh, we've had our moments of destroying and vandalising the past! This one may have escaped because it was out of the way, in rather counter-revolutionary Brittany, and of course the paintings were hidden, but though it took five days of dynamite to level Cluny to the ground, they did it, and Chartres was only saved by good fortune. And then there were the orgies of destruction in the last century...

Rouchswalwe - do you know, I don't think I've ever drunk lambic! But I know what you mean, and there are some very fine and earthy beers brewed round here too...

Gewn, thanks and nice to see you.

BB - I like Winter Light very much, and I did think of it in passing, though the atmosphere here is quite different. One of the things I've never seen pointed out about the film is that it takes place in real time; the running time is about as long as daylight in that part of Sweden at that time of year, and the action is very linear in that way. Learning worn lightly is something I think I see a lot of amongst blogging folk. In fact mine is full of holes; it takes a lot of reading around and around and looking and noting to retain a small amount of useful and coherent information. But I think I benefit from a fairly narrow focus. But thank you, you do say the nicest things...

Bee said...

I think that they should include your commentary in a special guide to the church, Lucy! I never get so much from real-life tours.

That first set of pictures really capture a sense of austerity, winter light, and worn stone. Beautiful.

Setu said...

Bonjour Lucy, We have many marvels in our Breton churches and you know perfectly how to present them to the world, thanks. What you describe as "these intriguing crocodile/dragons, who have horizontal beams springing from their mouths" are "engoulants" (en=in, goule=gueule i.e the mouth of an animal). Would you say "ingullants" in English?

tristan said...

hooray and well done and thanx for taking us with you

Rosie said...

I had no idea that such wonders were so closeby...

leslee said...

I love all the details - really amazing. I imagine the artists were expressing their religious devotion as they labored. Thanks for the tour!

lola said...

oh my, Lucy -

what glorious photographs!
so happy i decided to follow the links tonight ...

your blog is quite the treasure.

lola
x

Reluctant Blogger said...

My eldest son, Harry (he is 11) is obsessed with visiting churches. I have no idea where he gets this from as I have no real fascination with them and nor does anyone else in the family. But wherever we go on our walks he has us trekking into churches big and small and taking photos of pews and pillars and windows and noticing strange hooks on the wall and stuff.

He'd love to go out for the day with you - it would be his idea of heaven! I think he finds us a little disappointing - we try to look interested for a while but churches are chilly and whilst I do like them they don't captivate me like they do him.

Odd!

Beth said...

Lucy, sorry to be so late here, but I had to tell you how much I enjoyed this post - your writing, and the marvelous photographs which capture the light and the feeling of the church so beautifully. Thank you!

muratiskender said...

I won't bore you with my personal details, suffice it so say I am a dilletante too who is about to teach a graduate course on Cathedral at Bilgi University Istanbul and your post gave me exactly the kind of material I needed for doing an introductory lecture on the "dark ages". Thank you so much....