Thursday, October 03, 2013

Morlaix - interiors: the church of St Mélaine and la maison dite de la Duchesse Anne

The first building we went into was the church of St Melaine, which you can just see something of outside in the previous post.  We were a little cursory in our visit, but in trying to find out a bit more about it, as always there were plenty of interesting details I evidently missed, for example engoulant dragons swallowing ermine-painted beams to hold up the ceiling, and stained glass depicting the allied bombardment of the town in the second world war, when, in a largely unsuccessful attempt to disable the viaduct and destroy German supply lines, a number of other places were hit, including a nearby school, killing thirty-nine children and their teacher.  But we were somewhat taken by the crypt-like low arch behind the altar, with its depictions of Annunciation and Deposition.

Though in fact I tried to squint and my eyes, and blur the photo, over those, I preferred the general dramatic effect of the lighting to the iconographic detail.  We like crypts, with their sense of what-lies-beneath; once in the Charente we visited an ancient underground church with a crypt yet further below it so old it was reckoned that bulls were sacrificed to Mithras there.  Creepy but wondrous. And if I didn't take in the dragons, despite their being right in front of my eyes and camera, it was partly because I was so taken with the ceiling they were holding up, a deep blue, gold-star-spangled barrel vault with windows set into it,

which almost made me consider going home and putting an ultramarine glaze over my blue-room ceiling and stencilling gold stars onto it.  And then I became distracted and delighted by the cobwebs in the windows, which had the effect of muslin drapes:

I'll go and look more closely at the other things another time.  One of the many pleasures of going back to the same place often for holidays.

Then we wandered into la maison dite de la Duchesse Anne.  Good old Duchesse Anne of Brittany, she must have stayed in more lodgings than Elizabeth I, and she's had everything named after her from tea shops to beer to coastal embankments.  And poor little Duchesse Anne, from the rosy cheeked girl married at fourteen, to the wan young woman remarried, seven unsuccessful pregnancies later, at twenty-two, to her death at under forty, fourteen pregnancies later, from kidney stones. Only seven children were born alive, and only two of these survived infancy. With such a traumatic, exhausting and short life, it's astonishing that she was able to assert any historical or political presence at all, but she did, and it wasn't all propaganda; she assured rights and distinctions to the region which are felt to this day.

A surprising number of reports, on travel websites and the like, confidently assert that she lived in this house in Morlaix, but in fact the no one, including the owners and the official website, make any such claim, probably the dates don't quite fit, which is why it is la maison dite de la Duchesse Anne - the so-called Duchesse Anne's house. But it's known that she stayed in Morlaix during her peregrinations, and the house might just have been new at that time, the early 16th century, and clearly belonged to someone rich and important, probably a noble-turned-linen merchant of standing, so it's not altogether impossible that she was there.

It's what's known as a maison à pondalez, the word presumed to be a conflation of pont (bridge) and aller/z(go), and these are unique to Morlaix. They comprise a central, four-sided well, open from ground to roof space,

a staircase, the central pillar of which was carved from a single tree,

from which ran the 'bridges', galleried landings leading to the rooms at back and front of the building. 

There are only two of these intact house interiors accessible in the town, though there is a complete staircase with galleries reconstructed in the V&A in London , and others in collections in the US.  The timber for the houses was the same as was used in the town's shipbuilding, solid oak from Brittany's forests, soaked long in salt water so all the sap was driven out, and it became massively heavy and impervious to rot.  With the added effects of age and hundreds of years of human contact, it almost seems as though the vegetable life of the the tree is becoming mineral, 

stone and wood growing less and less distinguishable.

On the ground floor is an enormous carved stone fireplace, from which wild faces and lush floriate forms look out.

They are also called lantern houses, either because the central well contained a large lantern to illuminate the whole, or because, once glazing and window building techniques advanced and roof lights were set in, the central chamber was like a lantern itself, filling the interior space with light.  These roof lights were put in later though.

It's an oddly populated space; Tom didn't linger, his eyes fell on a standard issue morose and grisly crucifix hanging on one wall which made him shudder, and altogether he found it lugubrious and heavy.  There were other figures, probably not original to the building but which looked like refugees from abandoned religious sites, such as this pale and lonely lady loitering in a corner

But the wooden structures are rather marvellously peopled, the dedicated website page details and explains them very thoroughly; they are full of vitality though worn and and blurred with patina. Many of them on the main pillar are loosely religious,

though the angels, such as this one above, are decidedly earthy, fleshly beings. As the website account points out, there are no images of the New Testament, crucifixion, martyrdom, just an upward progression of these lively, semi-mythic personages. 

Opposite the staircase, on his own, this acrobat walks on his hands on a wine barrel, beckoning people into what is thought to have been the dining room.

So what is now a twilighty, somewhat sad space was clearly once alive with a robust spirit, both sacred and profane. Its fortunes changed, and for quite some time it was lived in as apartments, with a family on each level - which must have been crowded to the point of squalor, but then at that time people were - and a commercial enterprise on the ground floor, at one time a bakers, which at least would have smelled good, and the last one was an antique dealer, who left the free-standing items, such as the chair in the upper room, this handsome settle

and presumably the other religious artefacts and statuary.  It was given historic status and a protected as a historic monument by Prosper Merimée and co in the 19th century (though he notoriously hated much that was traditionally Breton), but it continued to be privately owned, and still is, and was still lived in until the 1980s.

That evening, as the couple who had been sitting at the next table to ours in the Café du Port at le Dourduff, chatting comfortably over their moules frîtes, got up to leave, the elegant silvery-haired lady spoke to me, and said she had seen me that morning 'chez-moi' at the house.  I apologized, saying I was hopeless when it came to recognising people in different places from where I'd seen them, which is true, in fact I'm fairly face-blind at the best of times, but in fact she did appear quite different in relaxed evening mode form the rather serious and intense curator who had frowned at us earlier.  She is, it appears, Mme Lahellec, and the house was bought by her husband's family in 1938 -there's an audio of an interview with her in this article (in French).  Much of the research I've been able to do on it has been from materials, interviews, articles, the excellent website with its unusually excellent English translation, compiled and created by them, and by her in particular.The place seems to be their life's work and a labour of love; odd how some women sometimes seem to marry houses.  They need a large amount of money, more than can be provided by state bodies or by the very small admission price, to do essential repair work on it, and to open many more of the rooms and levels, as well as the garden, since not much of it is safe to be open to the public, but they seem cheerful in the face of this.  I hope they get it.


the polish chick said...

i love the places your posts take me, lucy. what a wonderful life's work to try and bring back a house like that, just for the sheer love of it!

i have also wanted a blue star-spangled ceiling ever since i watched "the house of spirits" many years ago. i don't remember if it was mentioned in the book, but the film version really stayed in my mind. unfortunately none of our relatively modern homes really would have benefitted from such an addition. but i think you should do it! your home would likely love it.

the polish chick said...

i just realised that the last photo is very reminiscent of the painting on tom's last post. interesting...

Rouchswalwe said...

Stone and wood ... a single tree ... stunning. The stairs remind me of wood I touched once in Japan ... we were at a temple built in 600. The feel was amazing.

quilteddogs said...

Luv, luv, luv the staircase. So cool.

Ellena said...

Never mind you being face-blind as long as you continue seeing and sharing the kind of beauty you present in this post. I bet you know which room is suitable for the planned fundraising concerts.
Now you can look forward to maybe a
W. Byrd harpsichord recital (only one I remember from Early Music concerts I attended).
Yes for stars in the ceiling.
Years ago I made a wide ceiling to floor this kind of blue heavy material curtain on which I glued big and small stars cut out of gold fabric and brought it out each year as backdrop to our Christmas tree. My younger daughter is continuing the tradition.

tristan said...

wonderful pictures

Unknown said...

How culturally satisfying are your holidays compared with ours. What rich illustrations! Those wooden steps leave an abiding impression, as have the feet of those who have trodden them over the years.

Fire Bird said...

lovely cobwebs, lovely stairs

Dick said...

Such beauty tucked away. I love that sense of the pre-Christian that abounds in certain French holy places. I'm reminded of a line from that underrated film 'The War Lord' uttered by a Norman knight passing through the fetish-bedecked woodland fringing his new demesne: "This place has the dimensions of heresy"!

Lucy said...

Thanks all.

PC - you know I never knew there was a film of the House of the Spirits, I've read the book. Trouble is I'd need to make the blue a bit darker to work and it already makes the room a bit gloomy having a blue ceiling at all, as it's a bit low, and there isn't a lot of natural light in there. Still... Tom's painting was from a photo taken from a somewhat similar angle at Mt St Michel, I think.

R - your Japanese temple makes this look quite modern.

Quilted - it is remarkable isn't it?

Ellena - Tom and I are often all right if we're together as he can recognise people's faces but can't put a name to them, whereas once they're identified by context I can often come up with the names. Your Christmas curtain sounds beautiful.

Tristan - ta!

Joe - but your holidays sound much more convivial!

FB - thanks, nice to see you.

Dick - I don't know that film either! I'll have to look out for it. Often I find French churches are difficult to like; there's an uneasy relationship between the Catholic Church and French cultural life which doesn't make for a very satisfying experience of them. But as you say, there are some subversive treasures to be found, subversive of both the doctrinaire Church and monolithic republican state. The stair carvings in the house contained a very original spirituality.

Francesca said...

Your first photograph of the arched room with angels praying is just magical. And I love the wooden spiral stairs! What a lovely post to read, so full of detail.

Roderick Robinson said...

Best pic by far - technically and via implication - the descending spiral staircase in wood. Light reflected precisely from all those varying contours; an artefact carrying its own time-based code.

A code interpretable in terms of other artefacts - footwear, all the way back to floppy soft leather seen only in Disney cartoon features (eg, Peter Pan). Except that real people can never have worn shoes like that; your adamantine staircase would have worn them away in a fortnight. What passed here would surely have been the boots of working people. The boots and their wearers may now only be inferred, the staircase endures. Yet the staircase was man-made; its design and execution a tribute to a force that pre-dates even the staircase. Even the arrangement of stones that forms the church. A force that identified (and who am I to complain?) the need for the church. An idea and a reaction to that idea. And you and the Lumix are our intermediaries. Dwellers all in time and space. Nah, dwellers are too passive. I want to use Mercury but there's you and the Lumix and the plural form is difficult.

Zhoen said...

Remember tree, that thou art stone, and unto stone, thou shalt return.

Sheila said...

Lucy.....dizzyingly beautiful! Who would have ever thought a house could be built like that?? I love it.