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.

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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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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),

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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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IMG_20150411_093655142                     and even a hanging chandelier

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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Books, Bones and More Bones

After a long day driving across Germany on Easter Sunday we arrived at our destination, the Basilica in the Bavarian town of Waldsassen only to discover the 10 jewel-encrusted skeletons we came to visit were totally obscured by scaffolding and plywood partitions recently erected to begin the enormous task of renovating the church. We could barely make out these treasures once our eyes adjusted to the darkness.

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So, sadly, my worrisome premonition that all might not be well with the Waldsassen skeletons turned out to be true–sigh. It was such an out-of-the-way place.  Well, they’ll be back on view sometime in 2017 if anyone else is tempted to venture here. We were still happy we’d come to Waldsassen though, as there is a most magnificent 17th century library in the abbey next door,

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complete with tooled leather volumes, fresco-ed ceilings and wonderfully eccentric carving.

We awoke the next morning to…. SNOW! IMG_0966

UGH! The Bavarian countryside, as we could see from the train,  was completely coated in white. I hope, dear Boston, that you are DONE with the white stuff, if so maybe you have us to thank. We feel we have brought it with us.

We arrived in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic last night. Fortified by a typical Czech breakfast of, well, EVERYTHING. We headed off for the Brno ossuary

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50,000 souls, whose skeletons were placed in the underground passageways beneath the church as a way of addressing the lack of space in Brno’s cemeteries, overwhelmed by the plague. (Among other calamities). This ossuary, second largest in Europe, was recently rediscovered and has been open to the public only since 2012. Just a couple blocks away from the Brno ossuary is the equally incredible and eerie Capuchin crypt where naturally mummified monks layIMG_20150407_121439633

 

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side by side.

Besides the mummified Capuchin monks, this crypt hold the beautiful bejeweled St. Clementiane with a waxen face:

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Brno may be the city of bones, but I cannot sign off from this posting without an image of the infamous Brno dragon which hangs from the ceiling of the old city hall. You might have another idea of what this creature is, but you would be wrong.IMG_20150407_132138980_HDR

Quirky first day

Hannah and I arrived in Germany on Aril 1, which we only now realized means our much anticipated Ossuary trip officially began on April Fools.  It is definitely off to a (good) quirky start. We found our first charnal house

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in the small charming town of Oppenheim. This dense arrangement of skulls (you might be able to discern the gilded one at the middle/ right) and femurs are the remains of 20,000 Oppenheimer citizens who departed this earth from 1400 to 1750. This visit to the ossuary and the magnificent adjoining St Katherine’s Church

 

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along with the beautiful half timbered houses that line the streets

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Would have been reason enough to  love Oppenheim, but wait, there was more quirkiness in store!Turns out the world’s largest (could this be true?) collection of mousetraps can be seen at the local wine museum.

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We never could figure out the connection between mousetraps and wine, but really what did it matter?!

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And whoever said you can’t invent a better mousetrap?IMG_20150402_084247029

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And I haven’t even mentioned the impressive collection of corkscrews…

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