Back Roads Bonanza

With a little extra time on my hands after installing my exhibition in Athis de L’Orne, France this summer I was able to tool around the under-traveled, inland, and completely charming  Basse Normandie region.  I know I’m not the only one with the strategy of traveling the back roads if you want to increase your chances of stumbling upon interesting oddities.  This post confirms the wisdom of the circuitous meander.

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My hostess and co-director of ArtTerritoire, Domique Delomez,  called this my “butterfly map”. Butterflies! I like that: a far more poetic description of the post-its I stick on my road map to mark stop-worthy curiosities.

My hosts recommended the addition of a new butterfly to my map: a magical, microscopic chapel tucked in the woods: the Ste. Genevieve Chapel. They didn’t say why I would like it but they felt certain I would. So off we went, choosing our route by following our “butterfly” landings.

The first omen we had that this would be a good day came as we entered La Sauvagère,  designated as “un ville fleuri” by the Normandy Tourist Bureau. The flowers  on every stoop and portal were lovely indeed, but what got us to screech on the brakes was this fellow:

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and then as we got out of the car and looked up the street we saw a beckoning line up of chain saw carvings:

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Turns out La Sauvagère hosts a chain saw carving contest every year.  Nice! Won’t be long til there’s as many chainsaw sculptures as flower pots. Then La Sauvagère can be re-designated as “Ville Sculpté”.

Tucked away on the back side of La Sauvagère lies another treasure–a lovely roadside grotto.

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Those of you who are followers of my blog will know that I’m a fan of this curious genre of roadside art.

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Onward on the twisty turny roads we travel, hoping to find the neolithic dolmen “La Table au Diable” that is marked with a little symbol on our Michelin map.  After taking this wrong turn and that wrong turn and traversing a couple fields twice over we found this awesome 5,000 year old burial chamber! IMG_5295

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Named “Table au Diable”” by those wishing to give the only  possible 18th century explanation for how this gigantic stone could have been moved into place–surely the work of the devil.  I gotta admit–it IS hard to imagine regular humans achieving this feat

We press on in search of even more fertile grounds…

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As enigmatic as the “Table de Diable” is so too is the La Tour de Bonvouloir. A cryptic reference in a tourist pamphlet to the phallic nature of this 15th century tower was enough to get us to drive the winding road to the community of Juvuigny-sur-Andaine.

Legend has it that the 15th century Lord Hugues was forced to abandon his ancient, exhausted horse at this spot in the forest. When Hugues returned the next day he found his steed, who had quenched his thirst in the nearby spring, completely recovered. Intrigued by his stallion’s miraculous transformation, Lord Hugues jumped into the spring . He, too, emerged astoundingly rejuvenated. Feeling his oats, off he went to present himself  to the Lady of Bonvouloir. (Translate: Lady of “Goodwill” !) She accepted his hand and together they produced a large and handsome crop of offspring.  Lord Hugues left his mark on the land by erecting la Tour de Bonvouloir ,  a symbol of his potency. Oy!

We thought we’d have La Tour de Bonvouloir to ourselves , but to our surprise and delight we found the grounds around the phallic tower hopping with dancers in a lively celebration of Norman culture.

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We could see on our map that our ultimate destination, La Chapelle de Ste Geneviève was less than a kilometer away if one dared to cut through the woods, but we couldn’t risk  bush whacking at sunset, so we climbed back in the car to continue our circuitous route.

In the middle of a peaceful stretch of forest a teeny weeny chapel emerged by the side of the road.

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The little structure looked more like a gnome’s home than a chapel, with impish carvings all around.

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I wanted to slip inside this magical little space, but the door was locked tight so I had to content myself with peering through the grill.

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Here is Abbot Honoré Derouet the last pastor of the nearby St Front church, who took it upon himself to restore this 1856 chapel  which had been toppled by a tornado in 1923.

L'abbé Derouet à Sainte-Geneviève auprès du calvaire Saint-Hubert.

Derouet carefully cobbled together the original stone blocks,  added his own carvings outside and in, and dedicated the chapel to “his” saint, Ste. Geneviève,  the patron saint of peace– an apt choice for the Abbot who had spent a few miserable years as prisoner of war in Germany during WWII.

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To keep himself sane in prison, Derouet took up carving, sculpting whatever bits of wood he could lay his hands on. In his life time Derouet carved over twenty calvaries. He joked he would present these sculptures at the gates of heaven and demand entry.

Abbot Derouet dreamed of making the Chapelle Ste Geneviève a serene gathering place for his fellow prisoners of war as well as a tourist destination. To this end he cleared the trees in front of the chapel to expose a beautiful view of the countryside and added carved benches, tables, and sculptures. He even added a restaurant, creperie, and children’s amusements.

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This old postcard shows that the site was once indeed a popular attraction.

Today the restaurant and  creperie have disappeared, the forest has grown back up, the vista has been obscured, but the magic and peacefulness of the place that Abbot Derouet created remains.

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In the last hour of sunlight we hop back in the car deciding it’s time to point ourselves back to a Michelin “red” route to make a speedier return. But then,  just as we turn the last bend of our “yellow” road,  Surprise! Up pops this friendly face to bid us bonjour  and adieu.

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We look on the map. Ha! We find our new green friend lives in the speck of a village named “Etoile”– “Star” in English. And indeed, he is the star of our back roads day.


 

 

TransAtlantic

I don’t usually write about my own work on this blog, but a recent opportunity to install a large scale installation of my sculpture in a church in Normandy, France

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was sufficiently quirky for me to make an exception.

First and foremost this is a tale of collegiality and why artists can be , should be and ARE each others’ best allies. And so I start this post with a big THANK YOU to German artist Ulli Boehmelmann

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who reached across the Atlantic to make a connection and offer a recommendation to an American artist she barely knew.

I was lucky enough to meet Ulli through Boston Sculptors Gallery when she came to Boston from her home in Cologne to install her work as part of a collaborative exhibition that several members of Boston Sculptors participated in with German artists. Her Boston hosts invited her to tour their studios and were nice enough to include me on the tour.  Ulli was a super great visitor–interested in my work, interested in well, EVERYTHING. It was a short little visit, but we really hit it off–then I had the good fortune of being able to visit with Ulli in Germany a few months later on an adventure with fellow Boston Sculptors artist, Hannah Verlin, to visit medieval crypts. (and now you get to go back to my very first post–this is the trip that launched this blog “Quirk”. If you’re spending three weeks underground in Europe with skeletons the very least you owe the folks back home is some kind of accounting of yourself.)

As Hannah and I mapped out our route we discovered that one of our prize destinations, the Crypt at St. Ursula’s, was in Cologne, the hometown of Ulli Boehmelmann.  Any chance we might visit, Ulli? Yes! Ulli not only met us at the crypt, she did a fine job of translating the unbelievably intricate, (and I hope it’s not too judgmental to say)–bizarre story of St. Ursula and why this poor martyr is now surrounded by hundreds of artistically arranged bones. Two days with Ulli in Cologne and I think it’s fair to say we moved beyond artist colleagues to become friends.

The following year, one more artistic opportunity brought Ulli to Boston to give a talk at the TransCultural conference. Once again Ulli came to visit my studio where I was in the final stages of preparing for my upcoming exhibition, “Uh Oh!”  at Boston Sculptors Gallery.

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Ulli noticed the freshly minted pile of catalogs of my work that I had swung for (it’s a lot of $$ to put one of those glossy things together, and one always wonders if it’s worth the financial outlay) and asked if she could take one back with her to show the curator in France where she was going to be exhibiting her work that coming summer. There’s only one possible answer to that question: “Sure!” But, truly I thought it was just a nicety. Nothing ever comes of  unsolicited hand-outs of catalogs to curators. And so I promptly forgot about it.  Then one day, about eight months later, I’m jolted out of my doldrums by a  splendid email from France, from one Benoit Delomez, Director of “Vaertigo”,

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inviting me to spend a month in Normandy creating  a site specific installation for the 7th iteration of ArTerritoire  in the summer of 2017. Yow! I come up with a million reasons to say yes and a million reasons to say no. Basically I go down the freak out path of  indecision.

Reasons to say “no” :

  1. the WHOLE month of June?!? I’m a fanatical vegetable gardener and June is the most important month in the garden!IMG_2507_smaller
  2. I’m a control freak when it comes to my sculpture. I like to know that I’ve dotted all my i’s and crossed all my t’s before I show–There will be so many unknowns–how can I feel confident that I can really pull a large scale installation together over yonder?
  3. This is a tricky, tricky space that is being offered to me–a church with uneven, multi-leveled  floors, a high vaulted ceiling and a stone wall behind the plaster–what do I know about attaching things to those surfaces?
  4. Sure, I’ll get to make the most critical pieces ahead of time and ship them but what if they don’t arrive–and yikes the expense of overseas shipping!

Reasons to say yes:

1: Hmmm, maybe June is NOT the most important month in the garden. Maybe May is, and I could work like crazy to get everything planted before I go. And, Oh! I won’t exactly be suffering from garden withdrawal if I go as the directors of “Vaertigo” also happen to be gardeners extraordinaire and proprietors of “Le Jardin Interieur de Ciel Ouvert” one of the most beautiful and creative gardens in Normandy!

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2. How can I say no to an opportunity to spend a month in France: a chance to be an “internationally exhibiting artist” in my mother’s homeland–a country I adore! A chance to speak French! Yay! I mean–Uh Oh! I mean–yay?

3. And read the fine print, you nay-sayer:  a stone cottage to stay in,IMG_5447

a car to toodle around in, and a charming village with everything I will NEED like croissants and Camembert–yes–this is Camembert country–OK, OK, so the answer is OUI! J’accepte!

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But before I accept the invitation– I must clinch the idea for a new body of work. Usually I need to ponder and pace for weeks, but this time the idea comes to me like lightning. Here’s what I’m struck by: It’s election season and though I feel absolutely secure that He Who Will Not BE Named won’t be elected (ya, I know, I’ll revisit that thought a little later) , it’s been a down right depressing election season, filled with xenophobic, nationalistic rhetoric. If I’m about to traverse the ocean to one of America’s oldest, strongest allies I want to go forth with my own declaration of allegiance. I will present a piece about the long history of friendship between France and the USA. I know immediately that I want to cover the floor with a coast to coast map : east coast USA to west coast of Europe, separated by the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.  I can see in my mind’s eye the iconic monuments I’ll sculpt for critical moments of allied support each nation gifted to the other: General Lafayette tipping the scales in America’s favor in our struggle for independence, France’s love affair with Ben Franklin, the first American diplomat, whose democratic ideals helped paved the way for the French Revolution, the magnificent gift France made to America of the Statue of Liberty–what better symbol do we have of the America I want to live in?

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— the reinforcements that the US sent to France during World War One that helped turn the tide of the first “Great War”, and ultimately the enormous involvement of Americans in France in World War II which began with the debarkment in Normandy in which my father took part, his march into Paris with Eisenhower, and his serendipitous meeting of a French student–my mother .

OK, so I’ve got my idea–and then OH NO!  The Elections! The unthinkable happens: He Who Shall Not Be Named (fondly referred to by the French as “Agent Orange”) wins. He will be the American President as I set out to be an art ambassador. I am ashamed!  I resolve to strip away any images from my artwork that smack of his “America first”  and “military might” rhetoric. So no battleships landing in Normandy, no military anything.  I pare down my idea to the most personal part of my story:  My mother and grandmother reaching across the ocean to keep themselves tied together. Their allegiance will be the stand-in for the allegiance of nations that brought my parents together, that helped keep France French, that helped birth the democracy that is America.

As I get down to work, my first concern is my  quest for the perfect map. I want to find a map with the graphics of the 1940’s. It must show both coasts. It must be available online, open source, so I can print it out myself. And most importantly it must be of a super, super high resolution so I don’t end up with a pixelated mess. I search for days. There are zillions of maps–none of which fit all my criteria. I complain to my son, Isaiah, who gallantly takes on this needle-in-a-haystack challenge with supreme confidence in his superior googling ability.

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And Bingo–in one hour he comes up with a map made collaboratively in 1938 by the American and British armies for their joint efforts in WWII. The map is currently owned and digitized at a crazy high resolution  by the University of Texas, Austin and open all to reprint. (The resolution is so high that the tiny village where I install the work–Athis de L’Orne, popoulation 2,000, is clearly written on the map. That’s exciting!) Well, it turns out practically the whole world is available to print out except for two copyrighted countries: Spain and Canada, a mystery which I never solved and which took days more of sleuthing to find good alternate maps of these countries. Pictured above with my son is my husband, David (also gallant), who offered up his Photoshop wizardry to retro fit the Spain and Canada sections to fit the rest of the map.

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But that’s not all that needs to be accomplished in this daunting task. All the Mercator lines (the pesky curves that the longitude and latitude lines take as they wrap around around a sphere) need to be straightened as my Atlantic Ocean will be FLAT.

This is the look on your face you get when your ship reaches the edge of the flat Earth and you know you’re going to fall off with the next puff of wind:IMG_20170619_144212522

Besides flattening the globe I need a system for organizing the hundreds of map quadrants I’m going to be printing out . For this I have my faithful “tech guy”, Rick:  Rick lighting Scrap

I turn three rooms of our home over to the map project: Isaiah’s room becomes Canada, Nora’s is the USA, the study is Europe, and the ocean, well, no room for the ocean–it’s relegated to a stack which gets higher, and higher, and higher. I work on the map every evening and weekend, all winter.  I go through a zillion cartridges of ink. I get friendly with the Epson help center in India. I dream in 13″ x 13″ grids. And when I need a break from all that blue, I scan and print the envelopes my grandmother and mother saved from their life time correspondence:transatlantic_life_boats

During the week I’m in my studio in Somerville, MA constructing and carving the iconic symbols of our two countries, the Statue of Liberty and the Tour Eiffel.

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I’m also making airplanes to fly overhead but, not military planes. They will be passenger planes, each one carrying a letter my mother wrote to her mother describing her new life in America.

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And instead of battleships I will put in the Queen Elizabeth Ocean liner (which played an important role in the WWII efforts when it was commandeered by the British Navy) that my grandmother took the one summer she came to visit. It will trail life boats carrying her letters to us.

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All these components, the ocean liner, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the hundreds of maps squares I will ship ahead of time. I decide to go with an international art shipping company rather than risking Fed Ex–I’ve heard stories that make me decide I better spend the money and really be sure my work arrives at its destination.   So what still keeps me tossing and turning at night is the puzzle of how to hang the planes from the high,  vaulted, stone ceiling and what to do about the uneven, multi-leveled stone floor. I know one way or another I’ll have to build out a new wood floor to apply the map to–that notion alone is enough to drive me to sign up for weekly French tutoring sessions where I spend the weeks translating my various neurotic emails as well as trying to get a handle on lumberyard terminology. I mean, really you can’t go in a French lumberyard and say I’d like ten 2×4’s please. First of all–everything is in centimeters and who the heck knows what the standards are there. Furthermore, if you look up the word for stud in the English-French dictionary you come up with either a horse or a sexy man, and that is not what I want to be asking for in the lumberyard. I spend every Wednesday morning with my tutor, Christine, laughing. I never do re-master the subjunctive, but, hey, when I have dinner with my French cousins in Paris they say they cannot believe how much my French has improved!

I need (note the word need instead of want) one more thing: my reliable partner in crime, my artist friend and colleague, Abbie Read, to accompany me.

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She agrees to eat the aforementioned croissants and camembert with me every day AND help me install the work! Besides being a gluer extraordinaire, Abbie painted beautiful cloud friezes for my planes to fly in front of.

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You can tell by these images that despite my worries the piece worked out.

I arrived in Athis de lOrne:

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Found my crate waiting for me   IMG_20170605_093355291

at the beautiful home of Dominique and Benoit Delomez:IMG_20170605_132441497_HDR

Met my church, Le Temple Protestant:

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Discovered their politics were exactly in sync with my own:

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Got the floor built:

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gave the parishioners an ocean to walk on:IMG_20170619_182732223

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Got the planes hung (giant c-clamps around the gothic arches):

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Posed in front of the roadside publicity which made me even more nervous about the opening:

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Took deep breaths and  tried NOT to over anticipate my artist’s talk In French:

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These are the other  two artists in ArTerritoire 2017–Vincent  Bredif and Anne-Lise Dehee, both from Paris, who shared our stone cottage and a lot of laughs as they struggled to get me up to speed with more correct and current French. On the right is the wonderful Domique Delomez, co-director of Vaertigo who spoke so eloquently and poetically about the endeavor of bringing contemporary art to rural Normandy.

The last thing I did before the opening of my installation, “TransAtlantic”, was to hang  this amazing photo of my mother:

Clo_merge_smallerIt’s a photo my sister’s family discovered after my parents died. It appeared in Yank Magazine, published by the military for the benefit of the soldiers to keep them updated on the war effort. It’s the Victory Day issue. My father had sent it to his father back in Erie telling him that the girl looking at the camera was a girl he had fallen in love with. And that is both the beginning and end of my story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Underground

My last post featured three quirky cave environments in France. You might think that would complete my postings on the French underground, but two more visits must be described: both with top ratings on the quirk-o-meter.

The tiny village of  Dénézé-sous-Doué , a village in the Loire region for which Wikipedia can find nothing to say except; “Its church and the attached cemetery have the distinction of being away from the village.” Really, the entry is just this one sentence! I have never been so disappointed by Wikipedia and Geez–are they ever missing something!  Dénézé-sous-Doué is home to one of France’s most intriguing mysteries: La Cave aux Sculptures. After poking around a bit we found the non-descript entrance leading to steps down, down, down, deep under sleepy Dénézé-sous-Doué.

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This is only sign of business I saw in Dénézé-sous-Doué. Things are not exactly hopping in Dénézé-sous-Doué, at least not above ground!

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In front of us a 24 meter long, multi- chambered cave revealed itself , carved every inch with hundreds of bas-relief figures emerging from the walls.

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Despite serious archaeological efforts, no definitive explanation or even dating of these carvings has been agreed on. There are no other examples of similarly carved caves in Europe so no clues can be found elsewhere. Clothing , hairstyles and musical instruments typical of the Renaissance era

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This lady is playing a medieval bagpipe

help date the sculptures to the 1500’s. One of the archaeologists dated the sculptures based on his observation that some of the female characters are wearing underwear (!!), the  practice of which did not take occur until the 1500’s. Oh, for close archaeological scrutiny! I did not discern any underwear but I don’t know if that tells you more about my observational skills or about the keen eye of the French archaeologist. I can tell you one thing though; given that the French word for “bra” is “soutien gorge”, which translates as  “throat supporter”, I would say there’s a cultural divide between the American and French understanding of underwear.

It is generally agreed that these three figures:

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are a blasphemous representation of King Henri II (in the middle) with his wife, Catherine de Medici (depicted scandalously with her breasts exposed–no soutien gorge for her!) on the left, holding hands with Henri’s mistress, Diane de Poitier, on the right. This is not the only scandalous bit of carving.

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I might add, besides love-making couples there is at least one depiction of self-pleasuring. I have spared you the full frontal, but here’s the fellow caught in the act:

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There are several screamers such as this breastfeeding mom:

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And several heads with no bodies and limbs strewn about and some devilish monsters that I was unable to photograph for lack of lighting. Incredibly there is even a sculpture of a Native American– the first known depiction of a Native American in Europe! Apparently there is documentation of a Native American who was brought to live in Anjou, France in the 1500’s so finding his likeness in this cave is not so far-fetched a notion.

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There’s plenty of Christian references, but they are loaded with parody. The customary figures in the sculpted Pieta– Mary, Joseph, Jesus– have been replaced by Catherine de Medici as Mary, holding her son, Francois II as Christ and the Cardinal of Guise sits in for Joseph. Mary Stuart as Ste Jeanne, looks on. It makes my head hurt to try to untangle the unseemly relationship between the French royals and the church during this period of the Religious Wars. If you’re determined to try to wind your way through this Gordian Knot, here’s a good synopsis that will help you.

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All this was enough to get the cave sealed off in 1633 by a priest who felt his flock might be led astray by  images of debauchery and blasphemy. Hmmm, the cave closure, according to another account was perhaps in 1740. Well, what’s a hundred years between archaeologists?  Whatever the case, La Cave aux Sculptures was completely forgotten until 1956 when–you guessed it–village children, playing in the fields, stumbled upon the underground passage.  The site was opened to the public in 1973. Here’s a terrific video shot with much better lighting than I had at my disposal. (Don’t worry about the French subtitles–the images are excellent.) There remain passageways blocked with debris which hold the promise of countless more figures to be discovered.  Much research still needs to be done to determine the meaning of this work.  Current theories include:  a work of political satire, a site for pagan rituals, a holy site of miracles and cures, a meeting place for initiation rites for the fraternal order of stone masons (there’s a few ram sculptures, the medieval symbol of the stone mason), a 3D illustration of Rabelais’s tales of devilry (he came from the neighboring village and made references to the demons of this region)

After dwelling in the ancient subterranean world of La Cave aux Sculptures my visit to the nearby site, l’Hélice Terrestre felt like futuristic travel to another planet. However l’Hélice Terrestre is just a few a few kilometers away in the village of Saint-Georges-des-Sept-Voies.  As one would expect in troglodyte country, l’Hélice Terrestre (translation: Earth Helix) is underground, except, well, the part that’s NOT underground! Here’s a view from the highest point of the helix.

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And like any good troglodyte helix should, this helix spirals its way down, reaching deep into the bowels of the earth.

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As I tunneled my way down the light receded til I was in pitch dark, feeling my way down by inching my feet forward and running my hands along the damp, mossy walls. I was only able to see the carved forms for the split second of the flash of my camera. ( I must admit that when we visited there was no one (except one black cat) at the site. I’m not entirely sure we were supposed to be wandering around l’Hélice Terrestre on our own. If you have the good fortune of visiting you will hopefully have your path more illuminated than I did.)

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L’Hélice Terrestre  is the work of Polish sculptor, Jacques Warminski  who had spent some of his childhood vacations in nearby  l’Orbière, one of the last remaining Troglodyte villages in France. L’Orbière was completely abandonned in 1950, but kept alive in Warminksi’s imagination. It served as the inspiration for his life’s culminating work.  Warminski created this mind boggling sculpture in four years time in the early 1990’s. It doesn’t seem possible that stone carving of this intricacy on this scale could have been accomplished just in four years, but unlike La Caves aux Sculptures, the dates for L’Hélice Terrestre are not in dispute. Jacques Warminski died in 1996 at the age of 50, just two years after completing L’Hélice Terrestre.

Currently l’Hélice Terrestre is being maintained and kept open by Warminski’s widow, Bernadette Alberti and is  used as a site for comtemporary art performances.

Portals to Paradise

A recent post on this blog , “To Hell in a Handbasket”, invited you, dear viewer, to explore  Hieronymus Bosch’s  deliciously illustrated depictions of debauchery which line the slippery  slope to  eternal damnation.   I thought it only fair to give equal time to the alternate path…to Paradise.

Churches throughout the Western world have long employed artists to get their message out to the masses. So powerful a tool was the Churches’s use of the “Poor Man’s Bible” (illustrated versions of the bible on church walls for the benefit of the illiterate masses) that since the the Middle Ages, Churches were happy to fork over the dough to hire the most credentialed artists of their time and region.

No finer examples of this kind of biblical story-telling through paint can be found anywhere in the world than in the Byzantine monasteries and churches in northeastern Romania. Hmmm, this is making me think I should really do a separate post on Romania which has a treasure trove of unheralded, untrampled, UNESCO heritage sites.To whet your appetite, here is the exuberantly fresco-ed Eastern Orthodox monastery church in the Bucovina region of Moldavia, Romania. The inside is similarly covered, walls and ceiling!

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But this post is about an even rarer phenomenon: Churches that serve as a palettes for the work of the untrained, “outsider”, or folk artist.

I had my first introduction of a modern day folk art church in Somerville, Georgia when I visited the renowned visionary artist Howard Finster‘s Paradise Garden back in 1990. Finster was still alive at the time of our visit, but alas, had taken to  sleeping during the day and working at night. So as we walked about the Garden  enthralled, Howard Finster was snoring away in some hidden corner of Paradise.

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Originally an itinerant tent revival preacher,

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Finster turned to painting, sculpting and building as a better way to spread the gospel. A self-described “Messenger of God” and “Man of Visions”, Finster spent roughly thirty years creating his “Paradise Garden”  with his “Folk Art Church” as a centerpiece. Though all of his small works of art that could possibly be pried off the sides of his church and other surfaces throughout the garden have now been dispersed, at the time of our visit the church was filled inside and out with works such is this one which showed Finster’s zeal and humor.

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Though I could describe the folk art church in the Guatemalan highlands region near Xela as more traditional than Finster’s sanctuary, traditional would not be a descriptor usually applied to this incredibly exuberant village church.

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Located in the wool-dying village of San Andres Xecul

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the exuberant yellow folk art church shows off not only the Guatemalan love of colors but also a joyous mix of Catholic and Mayan iconography.

Poking out between the archangel’s legs is the Mayan jaguar.img_0725

And twin jaguars, the embodiment of Mayan dualities (life/death, day/night, sun/moon) appear at the tip  top of the church just above Jesus.

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The beautiful dome in the back of the church:img_0769

And up the hill, at the top of the village, another chapel, clearly a more modest cousin to the riotous main church:

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The anonymous Guatemalan artist of San Andres Xecul had a kindred spirit in the 19th century French priest, Victor Paysant, who went on a painting spree on the facade of his own church in the village of Menil-Gondouin, Normandy, France.

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Paysant called his creation the “Living and Speaking Church” and hoped his artwork would beckon parishioners to the righteous path.

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Covering all his bases, he put out the word in French, Latin, and Hebrew                                    img_3644

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I cannot find any accounts of how his flock felt about him, but I have deduced that they weren’t so keen on the spectacle that the abbot made of their sanctuary. No sooner had he passed on (in 1921) than the church facade was whitewashed, his decorated statuary inside the church was buried and Paysant’s entire creation was sadly obliterated.  However, by the 1980’s the whitewash started chipping away, revealing the hidden treasure to a more receptive public. Thanks to the initiative of Menil-Gondouin’s mayor, Guy Bechet, restoration of the “L’Eglise  Vivante et Parlante” was begun in 2004.  Now that’s a mayor I could vote for! With the aid of postcards and the excellent memory of a 100 year old resident of Menil-Gondouin,  the talented muralist, Hugues Sineux, was able to restore Paysant’s creation.  By 2006, with  the restoration work was complete, Victor Paysant lives and speaks again.

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Hallelujah!

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To Hell in a Handbasket

2016:  It’s 500th anniversary of the death Hieronymus Bosch, and his little home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch called all of his paintings and drawings to come on home.

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(Travel partner, Hannah Verlin, of Ossuary trip fame, drinking in the fact that we have arrived in Bosch’s hometown!)

You’re not the only one who can’t pronounce ‘s-Hertogenbosch–and hey, is it really allowed in Dutch to spell a name starting with an apostrophe? Even the Dutch prefer not to have to say ‘s-Hertogenbosch out loud. They just call this town by its nickname: Den Bosch, which means simply, the forest. And no, it’s not a coincidence that Hieronymus Bosch’s last name is his hometown–Bosch was named after his town, and not vice versa. We’re talking the 1500’s, when they didn’t have the same convention of last names that we do–you could just tack your hometown onto your first name and that was sufficient. (That would make  Facebook searches for your old high school classmates very challenging.)

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I can tell you the little town of Den Bosch has gone totally Bosch bonkers:

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It was impressive how gracefully the good citizens of Den Bosch handled ten times  the number of visitors to their normally low-keyed town, proving once again that the Dutch are just nice, nice people!  Capitalizing on the throngs of Bosch pilgrims, every nook and cranny of Den Bosch was turned into a tourist opportunity with a Bosch twist. Scaffolding was erected up the side and around the perimeter of the roof of St John’s Cathedral (vertigo!) to enable gargoyle viewing. IMG_20160504_114753304_HDR

These figures, which aren’t really gargoyles, were being sculpted as Bosch worked away in his nearby studio.  One could see remarkable similarities between these figures and Bosch’s painted characters.

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I don’t understand why, but I could not convince Hannah to try on, let alone buy this outfit.

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OK, enough of the merchandise–let’s go see Bosch!

The director of the local museum in Den Bosch has been fixated on this 500th anniversary for the last decade and worked like a devil, appropriately enough, to get the world’s most prestigious museums (the only museums that own Bosches) to loan their prized paintings which never , ever get loaned to anyone, let alone to a little museum like the  Noordbrabants Museum.

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(shown here, the Prado’s, “Cure of Folly”. This painting is a play on the expression, in Bosch’s time, to “have stones in the head”- saying someone was crazy.)

The fact that the likes of the Prado, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, and Washington’s National Gallery of Art agreed to loan their most treasured holdings  was described by London’s Daily Telegraph as  “a feat of stamina and silver-tongued curatorial cunning.” Though Bosch was a prolific painter, only about 25 of his paintings remain in existence today and of these, 20 were loaned to the Noordbrabants Museum along with almost his entire oeuvre of existing drawings–about 20 of the existing 25 drawings. In exchange for the privilege of borrowing these works the lending institutions benefited from  extensive new  research conducted by the Noordbrabants team . Well, benefited might be too strong a word. The poor Prado,  owner of more Bosches than any other museum had to swallow the bitter pill that two of its Bosches were pronounced [ahem] NOT  Bosches after all. Thanks, Noorbrabants!

(Pictured here: the Prado’s downgraded “St. Anthony” –still pretty nice!)

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This might be a nice time to point out that this forger took note of Bosch’s  penchant for funnels in his imagery. He snuck them in everywhere. Search through the other images–you’ll find several more.

On the flip side, the Nelson Atkins Museum, humble in comparison to the Prado, learned that one of its “school of” Bosches that had been relegated to their museum storage since its acquisition was done by the great master himself–SCORE! I wouldn’t be surprised if they hold a ticker tape parade to welcome their St. Anthony home.

Well, let’s not quibble. The fact is, the homecoming of Hieronymus Bosch has been  a glorious, once-in-forever event.  And even though I’m usually allergic to block buster events I was happy to join the ga-zillions of people who descended upon Den Bosch to be able to present their own flesh to the master painter of heaven and hell (with an undeniable emphasis on hell).

 

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Hieronymus Bosch is surely one of the most widely recognized and revered painters of all times. I first became keenly aware of him in high school, in the drug-infused 60’s when Bosch was elevated to cult status for his psychedelic interpretations of the human condition. He is one of the handful of artists that the “man of the street” will nod in recognition to when his name is pronounced. Case in point, the cab driver who took me to Logan airport on the first, and arguably most dangerous leg of my pilgrimage to Den Bosch, became suddenly very animated on the subject of Hieronymus Bosch. When I responded to the cab driver’s inquiry as to why I was going to the Netherlands,  the driver torqued his rear view mirror to a 45 degree angle to be able to have eye contact with me in the back seat rather than with the road as he expounded on Bosch, all the while telling me that he didn’t care a hoot about art. Believe me, Bosch’s popularity did not start in the 1960’s. By 1560, a mere 45 years after Bosch’s death there were ten to fifteen times as many forgeries of Bosch paintings as there were genuine Bosches. Thus the difficulty figuring out in present day which paintings were actually done by the master himself. These fakes were often done by the most accomplished artists of their era. One imitator  went on to have a  magnificent career of his own: Peter Bruegel the Elder–yup–that’s how he earned his chops in his student days!

As obsessed as Bosch was with phantasmagorical images of the underworld

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his depictions of paradise would make today’s fundamentalists throw a snit fit:

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We have all heard descriptions of the tunnel of light cited in near death experiences. Bosch’s  “Assent of the Blessed” is the first known reference to this tunnel of light.Is it possible that Bosch was the inventor of this notion?

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And what’s going on here, Hieronymus? This is one hell of an album cover! Heavy mental!

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A couple more excellent uses for funnels:

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If you have read all this and are now saying to yourself, “Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t I go?”  There may still be a tunnel of light for you to follow: The Prado in Madrid will be having its own 500th anniversary of Bosch celebration with the “most extensive exhibition of Hieronymus Bosch ever organized” from May 31 to September 11, 2016. And they may well be able to claim this as they own the most famous of all Bosches, the Garden of Earthly Delights that they did not loan to the Noordbrabants Museum. A word to the wise, if you’re thinking of going; reserve your tickets long in advance. The exhibition at Noordbrabants sold out very hastily and surely there will be great demand for the Prado’s quincentennial Bosch extravaganza.

 

 

 

Why, Oh, Why Wisconsin?

For years I’ve been keeping files, clipping articles, surfing the net and tramping around the world to visit quirky environments. The appendixes of all my outsider art books have circled addresses. My global maps have post-its stuck here and there. I see patterns and odd concentrations of sites. I think I’m right about this: the highest concentration of outsider art environments in the world are to be found in France and–wait for it–Wisconsin! France and Wisconsin?? Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I ponder this and come up with theories.  It just so happens that my mother was French and I feel very connected to France. I’ve traveled many times to France and visited many fantastic oddities there. It has not helped me figure out the French penchant (or maybe it’s tolerance?) for the house project gotten out of hand. But the Wisconsin question–this really had me stumped, so several years ago I used my sabbatical to crisscross the Wisconsin map to visit almost every known odd property in this lovely, bucolic state.

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Coming from New England, where there’s an unspoken but expected level of acceptable comportment and yards must be just so, I was stunned to see so much quirky creativity sprouting up here and there in a region that otherwise looks so traditional.

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It was a revelation, and I do have a wee theory on the question, why Wisconsin?  Here’s what I learned: It all started with Catholic priest, Father Dobberstein who emigrated to Wisconsin from Germany in the late 1800’s. He was one wicked smart (poor choice of qualifiers for someone in the priesthood–sorry–I’m from Massachusetts, I have to use the word “wicked” whenever possible). He was fluent in six languages and was a passionate rock-hound. Now, how to pursue mineralogy and  answer the higher calling all in one fell swoop? God does work in mysterious ways; he smote Dobberstein with pneumonia which nearly killed him. Dobberstein vowed that should he recover he would build a shrine to the Virgin Mary in gratitude. He had seen grotto shrines in his homeland  and took it from there. Dobberstein threw himself into a decades long building project on the grounds of his newly assigned parish in West Bend,  Iowa. Now I have not yet seen the glorious and gigantic Grotto of Redemption in Iowa (yes, on my bucket list) , but I got a taste for Dobberstein’s obsessive workmanship and idiosyncratic aesthetic in one of his subsequent creations, the Grotto of the Holy Family in St Joseph (just outside of LaCrosse), Wisconsin where one can clearly see his geologist’s juices freely mixing with his religious (and patriotic) zeal.

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The interior of the grotto is a mosaic wonder of golden sheets of mica, pink quartz and stalactites Dobberstein whacked from the ceiling of the Carlsbad Cavern for the glory of God.

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Meanwhile, in the midst of Dobberstein’s building frenzy, another priest with a remarkably similar background, German born Mathias Wernerus (who trained for the priesthood in the same seminary as Dobberstein) was assigned a parish in Dickeyville, where he too saw fit to build a grotto (gotta love the impulse to build a grotto on the open rolling land of Wisconsin) which was eventually to become Wisconsin’s most popular tourist attraction in the 1930’s.

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Like Dobberstein, Wernerus had a penchant for precious minerals; the trunk above is made with petrified wood. Add to this Wernerus’s brilliant idea of incorporating Native American artifacts…oh boy…

And forget about the separation of church and state. Praise the Lord and praise America! Here’s Christopher Columbus happily residing amid the Holy Family:

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The Columbus theme carries over nicely to the anchor-adorned garden wall:

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Parishioners were asked (and apparently agreed) to contribute their labor (Wernerus used to round up the kids as Sunday school was winding down) as well as their material goods to the effort. One can spot personal items such as brooches, teacups and pots and sundry bric a brac integrated into the mosaic-ed surface.

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In the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s as many as 10,000 visitors flooded the tiny town (population 250 at the time of the grotto building.) of Dickeyville on any given Sunday to ooh and ah over this marvel.  It is thus not surprising that shortly after the completion of the Dickeyville Grotto various mosaic creations began to spring up in yards across Wisconsin.

I will take you to see some of the other Wisconsin creations in subsequent posts.

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I cannot end this post without mentioning the royal treatment we received everywhere as tourists to Wisconsin. This state truly lives up to its Midwest NICE reputation. The lady who ran the gift shop at the Dickeyville Grotto was so bowled over that we were visiting from Massachusetts ( I believe she said, “My Lord! MASSACHUSETTS?!?”) that she insisted that we pick out souvenirs and not pay for them! She would not take no for an answer so I came home with Dickeyville Grotto playing cards,

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a Grotto refrigerator magnet and a wee little teaspoon with a microscopic grotto engraved in the bowl end. Would anyone be that nice in a New England tourist gift shop? I don’t think so. If anyone is reading this who runs a tourist gift shop here on the chilly East Coast–I’m telling you, it’s worth it–a free refrigerator magnet does wonders for a state’s reputation.

Oh Ursula!

Last post from the infamous Ossuary trip!

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I’ve been back home for a week now but couldn’t keep up with the flood of post-worthy material while traveling–and I just cannot leave the ossuary trip behind without due recording of our last encounter with beautiful bones. The big oval-shaped route we took from Frankfurt , across Bavaria, over to the Czech Republic, with a day to dip our toes into Poland, looped back through northern-ish Germany and ended in culturally rich Cologne (Koln, as you’d say in Deutsch). We had the good fortune of meeting up with fellow artist and Cologne resident  Ulli Böhmelmann who stood patiently waiting for us outside the Basilica of St. Ursula as Hannah Verlin and I once again showed our muddlement with the map. (Cologne, like Boston, favors nonparallel streets which challenge any logic one tries to apply to the cause of getting from here to there)

These few pictures cannot do justice to what one encounters as one enters the side chapel (the Golden Kammer) of St. Ursula’s. The blue-gray night sky walls framed with arches which reach to a vaulted ceiling are completely covered with an impossible number of bones arranged in beautiful patterns and words.

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And just below the bones the room is ringed with wooden and silver reliquary busts.

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Between these, cloth-wrapped skulls peek out from windows in ornately carved and painted wood columns or gold reliquary boxes.

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To take in the full measure of this incredibly beautiful, incredibly poignant site one must digest the story of St Ursula and her eleven loyal virgin friends whose very bones adorn the walls and fill the reliquaries. (pay no attention to those pesky anthropologists who after careful analysis declared the bones to belong to a whole array of beings from newborns, toddlers  and–WHAAAT! Matiffs?!?!! Save yourself the trouble of verifying the martyrdom of Ursula story by looking it up on Wikipedia or elsewhere–there are so many confusing and conflicting accounts of Ursula that she was removed from the official “General Roman Calendar” of saints in 1969–Harrumph! And oh, let’s not quibble about the number of virgins which started as 11 in the 5th century telling and grew to 11,000 by the 9th century. Well, all this  has not hurt Ursula’s status in Cologne where she is still considered their patron saint.)

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–and here is why:

As you can see from the above sculpture, Ursula was incredibly beautiful and was pursued by innumerable suitors (it probably didn’t hurt that she was also a princess). Ursula turned them down, one after the other, ’til one day a particularly aggressive, and oh dear, pagan prince declared that if Ursula would not agree to marry him he would see to it that Cologne was destroyed. Talk about pressure! Her father the king, who until this point had indulged Ursula, begged her to reconsider. She could see his point but still, being a pious Christian princess, felt a trip to consult with the pope was in order. She gathered her 11 best friends and off they sailed to Rome, a bold, bold move– a pilgrimage of WOMEN–unheard of!  While sailing down (or was it up?) the Rhine, their ship was attacked by Huns, whose leader, Attila, was also smitten by Ursula and asked her to marry him. She did not need further consultation on this one–the answer was NO and Attila’s response was swift and not surprising, given his bad reputation. Ursula and the eleven virgins (who also refused to couple with the Huns) were all beheaded. Attila declared that Cologne would be stormed and destroyed. But this is not the end of the story. That night every single Hun soldier had the SAME dream about Ursula. I cannot tell you what exactly she did in this dream, but it was enough to scare every soldier into disobeying Attila’s orders to torch Cologne. Cologne was saved!!! What I can’t understand is the papal problem with recognizing Ursula as a saint. 1969, the whole western world is pretty much going to pot and the Vatican decides now’s a good time to tighten up on sainthood requirements? Geez!

As I mentioned earlier, our visit to Cologne was greatly sweetened by the two days we spent with Ulli Böhmelmann who shepherded us here and there throughout her interesting and vibrant city, poking around the contemporary art galleries, design center,

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and, most lovely of all, a visit to her studio. Ulli will be coming to Boston to present at the Transcultural Exchange in February 2016 if you want to hear her speak about the sculpture project she did in Russia last year.

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Melnik Bouquet

I’m back home. Happy to see that our piles of snow melted in my absence. However, I’m not quite ready to put the bones behind me, and hopefully you’re not either since I have a couple more ossuaries to tell you about (what a relief to post from a desktop computer rather than pecking away on the phone.)

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One of our last outings in the Czech Republic brought us to the small town of Melnik (spelled with various tick marks and accents over the vowels and pronounced as if you had a mouthful of honey),

IMG_1908   IMG_1951where the 10th – 11th century cliff-side church of St. Peter and St. Paul’s sits atop a densely packed, little-visited ossuary holding the bones of 10, 000 to 15,000 deceased and one dessicated but still brilliantly red bouquet of roses.

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Hannah and I paid the modest entry fee and stepped into this dirt floored, cob-webbed crypt    IMG_1948                                           accompanied by piped in funereal music. We were on our own and Hannah got right to work documenting all the teeth with photos and sketches. This can take some time, but hey, this is what we were here for.  IMG_1944

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Suddenly the music stopped and the ticket taker, who was well out of view, called out several sentences to us in Czech and then we heard her feet ascend the stairs, leaving us undisturbed and wondering what on earth she had just told us. Once Hannah finished her teeth documentation we headed up and found that the ticket taker had apparently closed up “shop”, but luckily just with a rope which could easily be untied–no wonder we had had the crypt to ourselves!

From the crypt we headed next door to the  Lobkowicz castle. Replenished by our coffee break in the castle parlor for which we were the only guests and woefully under-dressed,

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we poked around (no other visitors during the whole visit and no guards in sight–I think we could have taken up residence and no one would have noticed) to see what sorts of things the Lobkowiczes collected. I think this qualifies as quirky and at the very least fit in rather nicely with the ossuary theme of the day:

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We were not

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Sedlec Ossuary: This will wake you up!

Hopefully you have not tired of bones, because here comes the most remarkable site on our grand ossuary tour: the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic (just one hour east of Prague). This crypt, containing the remains of 40,000 people,      IMG_20150411_100203433     is no ordinary ossuary (if indeed an ossuary could ever be considered ordinary), it is an extraordinary work of art, an eccentric work of creative genius by the 19th woodworker, Frantisek Rint, who was given free reign to organize the 16th century ossuary bones that had been originally stacked  by a half-blind monk in 1511.      Rint  had a field day arranging  the old, artlessly stacked bones into all manner of sculpture and wall drawings:                                  IMG_20150411_092522634

IMG_20150411_092601885                     He created this magnificent coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family, Rint’s employer.

IMG_20150411_094147389    and chalices,

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and writing (above right: the artist’s signature)

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comprised of at least one of every type of human bone.           IMG_20150411_101054038

It is hard to find words to do justice to the Sedlec Ossuary. Monumental, magical, and oddly, not morbid, or at least not morbid in the way I used to think of that word before this trip.

The Great Santini

After tooling around the very interesting and underrated city of Brno, with medieval labyrinthine tunnels that wind this way and that under the city, Hannah and I hired a wonderful guide, Helena Svedova, to drive us into the Czech countryside. We had read that there was a very unusual ossuary in the crypt under the Pilgrimage Church in the village of Krtiny, (Hannah and I worked all day to master the pronunciation of KRTINY which sounds like a sneeze–I don’t think we came close to succeeding even though intrepid guide/ tutor Helena was encouraging and complimentary) unusual, because here several of the skulls are painted with decorative laurel motifs, the only known example of this in the Czech republic.,                                                                       IMG_20150409_103839643

The magnificent Krtiny Church of the Virgin Mary IMG_1248       IMG_20150409_110144921_HDR

was designed by the renowned Baroque architect Santini, who was hired to design several basilicas in this region. We had no idea what a treat we were in for. Helena had called ahead to arrange a viewing of the crypt for us which is not normally open to the public. The monseigneur of the church greeted our arrival with a special carilloning of the bells       IMG_20150409_105340534                                                                and then gave us an intimate tour of the basilica. We loved this monseigneur who so clearly loved his church. In describing the genius of Santini, the monseigneur used the words, ” a Niagara Falls of light”.   Tears came to his eyes as he recounted the story of the building of the church.                                                                   IMG_20150409_102146514          IMG_1261                                                   Santini unfortunately died before the builders got to the most difficult part of the dome.                                         IMG_20150409_101726778                  IMG_20150409_102558391_HDR                                                    They became so overwhelmed they didn’t think they could proceed. The next day a mysterious carpenter showed up to work. With his guidance they all got back to work. Every night the carpenter mysteriously disappeared, never joining them at the pub or to bed down with them at the tavern. Every morning he returned and led them through the next difficult section. When they finally finished their work they realized their daily visitor had been Joseph (as in Jesus’s father)

After a very complete tour of the basilica the monseigneur led us down into the crypt          IMG_20150409_103219304                                                          where beside the painted skulls (which denote church patrons), there were neatly stacked and niched (by contemporary archaeologists) IMG_20150409_103447202     IMG_1268         IMG_20150409_103909988  several hundred skulls and femurs.

The Krtiny Church also houses a wonderful collection of devotional paintings by untrained artists, given to the church in gratitude for favors granted:

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We were fortunate that our route with Helena to Poland brought us to a second Santini masterpiece,

IMG_20150410_090153591             IMG_20150410_090434178_HDR                                              the pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk at Zelena Hora, pictured above. This church serves as a reliquary to the tongue of St John Nepomuk, the patron saint of Bohemia. Look up at the impossibly high, vaulted ceiling to see a sculptor’s rendition of the tongue:IMG_1329 the symbol of St. John’s incorruptibility. He had been the confessor for the queen of Bohemia and refused to divulge what he heard whispered in the confessional.

And finally today we crossed into Poland to visit the Kaplica Czaszek (skull chapel) in St. Bartolomew’s Church, Czermna in the spa town of Kudowa Zdroj.                                                          IMG_20150410_145637066                                             This tiny side chapel houses a most astounding display of bones covering every inch of wall and ceiling, arranged in stunning patterns. Just as we were about to leave the chapel guide, after leading everyone in Polish prayer, lifted up a trap door in the floor and revealed that there were hundreds (thousands?) more bones strewn unceremoniously below us.

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