Friday, 6 April 2012

Les Croix des Calvaires

Early in the Great War the poet Rupert Brooke recorded a private soldier in his battalion grumbling "What I don't like about this 'ere Bloody Europe is all these Bloody pictures of Jesus Christ an' 'is Relatives, be'ind Bloody bits of glawss". Then, as now, such roadside calvaries come as a surprise to northern European Protestants, not least because there is nothing like them on rural roads at home. It is often assumed that these structures, usually found at road junctions, crossroads or natural viewpoints, were placed there centuries ago, but often they prove to be far more recent.

The oldest surviving calvaries, such as the fifteenth century one at Le Louroux which we wrote about [here], were sited in the centre of village cemeteries and depicted not only the crucified Christ, but also the smaller figures of the Virgin Mary and St. John.  In later centuries these were often moved as the village cemetery was re-sited away from the church to the outskirts. Here they retained their original medieval purpose as the focal point of the local site of remembrance. We've also seen a lovely example of a, much later, 19th century calvary with the figures of St John and the Virgin at a crossroads in Lureuil.

Lureuil
However, most of the calvaries seen by roadsides today, which date from the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, have a different history and purpose. Following the endemic iconoclasm that accompanied the French Revolution the French bishops launched a series of 'missions evangeliques' to re-christianise rural communities. Where this was successfully accomplished large crosses would be erected depicting the crucified Christ as concrete memorial proof that the area had been 're-conquered' by the church. A good local example stands outside the nearby village of St. Flovier, the base recording the success of 'Mission 1895'.

St Flovier
The same Mission must also have turned its evangelical fervour on Charnizay, as the village has not one, but two, such calvaries – perhaps revolutionary iconoclasm was especially virulent among earlier inhabitants! One of them stands quite near us, high on the hill overlooking the village on the road to Azay-le-Ferron. It is a welcome resting place when one walks back from the village and affords the best view, one we have photographed several times.

Charnizay
Smaller metallic crosses, often of elaborate design, are found beside road junctions and footpaths. Marked on local maps they are useful for orientation and were perhaps used in the past as meeting points. For whatever original purpose, someone took the trouble to erect these structures and somehow our local landscape would be a little emptier without their friendly presence.

23 comments:

GaynorB said...

Thanks for this. Really interesting post and something else that that blogging has taught me. When I first started to blog I used the term "Wikipedia, but with soul" to describe the process, and your post fits the term. I feel like another post coming on ...

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Niall and Antoinette:
This is all most interesting. We too are fascinated by these calvaries, or wayside crosses as we often refer to them as, which do seem to be peculiar to mainland Europe although we have no idea how far east they extend. They are to be found in Hungary in much the same way as in France, and it always surprises us that so many appear to have survived the previous regime.

A most appropriate post for Good Friday!

Tim said...

Fabulous post, especially for Good Friday... they all seem so individual... even the ones that are, sadly, in disrepair. There are some, that were crosses when we first found the house, that are now just the base... and others, like the one at Ciran, that is now leaning so badly that if it isn't taken down for 'safety' reasons will soon be horizontal. Fortunately, some, like the one Jim McNeill blogged about here are being replaced... there is more info on the wayside crosses here as well.

Susan said...

I knew most of them were 19th C and connected to the great religious revival then, but I hadn't realised that there was an active project to re-christianise.

I assume you know about the calvary at Chaumussay, which recreates the stations of the cross in grottoes up the hillside? Now in a poor state, sadly, but created by their dynamic late 19thC priest, who also made sure they had a statue of Jeanne d'Arc.

You may also be interested in the Lanterne des Morts that Pierre Berloquin tells me is in the cemetery at Truyes.

Perpetua said...

A fascinating post, which filled in gaps in my knowledge, especially about the C19th calvaires. We have a much older one at a turning just below our house. I can't remember the date but it definitely predates the Revolution. Note to self - must take a photo this year.

The Broad said...

This post is so interesting -- and as Tim said so appropriate for Good Friday. I find these calvaries very moving and now that I no a whole lot more about them even more so. Thanks and Happy Easter!

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Gaynor - I like your description 'Wikipedia with soul' :-) I've learnt loads of interesting things since dipping into the blogshere.

Food, Fun and Life in the Charente said...

Interesting post and very apt for Good Friday. Diane

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Jane & Lance - the tradition of wayside crosses/crucifixes exists wherever Roman Catholicism held sway. Not sure if the Russian Orthodox church has a similar tradition. Greek Orthodox church has those little white-washed wayside shrines with a small cross on top.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Tim - must check out the leaning cross of Ciran. Thankfully the two in Charnizay are well looked after. They had their figures of Christ neatly re-whitewashed in late 2010.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Susan - yes the stations at Chaumussay could do with a bit of TLC.
Didn't know about the Lanterne des Morts at Truyes--must have a look. Thanks for the suggestion.

the fly in the web said...

Most of the mission calvaries have their date on the base, unlike the older crosses you describe, placed at crossroads or in what were once clearings.
There was a stone cross of celtic design at a crossroads near my first house. Destroyed by a rampaging lorry it was replaced by a plain concrete cross painted - of course - 'ton pierre'. Sacrilege!

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Perpetua - please do take a photo. Lucky that it has survived all the upheavals your area of France has suffered.
We saw the wonderful calvaires in Brittany one summer holiday and they were truly superb.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Broad - glad you liked it [the timing was intentional :-)]. Bon Paques to you too!

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Diane - thanks and happy Easter.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Fly - OH NO what a same! modern concrete just doesn't cut it does it? The filigree iron [usually rusting away]ones in more isolated locations are beautiful too.

Yup, the mission calvaires certainly let you know when they were put up. The one in St Flovier 'sports' its credentials proudly on its base.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Fly -- OOPS: typo! It should, of course, read: 'OH NO, what a shame'

Tim said...

The leaning cross at Ciran is no more... it either fell down since we last went that way, or was removed... but when we passed it today... there was just the base... neatly mown round!

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Time - hopefully they'll put up a replacement ....sometime....

the cuby poet said...

This is such an interesting post and I have learnt so much. Thank you both.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Cuby - Thanks! We started wondering why so many calvaires were 19th cent and wanted to find out why.

LindyLouMac in Italy said...

A very appropriate and interesting post for the Easter period.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Lindylou - it was interesting to do some research on the topic. :-)