A little while back, friends Susan and Simon who write the blog Days on the Claise
ran into Marc Dimanche, an acquitance of theirs. A devoted member of the Preuilly archaeological society, he offered them the opportunity to visit the Chapelle de tous les Saints
[All Saints' Chapel] which is located on the left as one drives into Preuilly-sur-Claise from the direction of Le Grand Pressigny. They had written a post about the chapel before here
, but had never had the opportunity to see inside.
|La chapelle de tous les Saints, from the jardin public|
The chapel is kept locked and if you want to see inside the best you can manage is to get down on your knees and peer under the old wooden doors. There is a very good reason for anyone interested in medieval history/art history wanting to make the effort. The chapel contains a danse macabre
, or dance of the dead. Therefore, you can imagine that when Susan asked if we were interested in joining her and Simon on a visit, we replied with a resounding 'yes please!'
|Chapel from the side: showing the door which would have led to the cemetery|
The chapel looks -and is- in good condition on the outside. The roof tiles and stonework are in good order and although the windows lack any glazing the whole gives no cause for concern. That is until you step inside.
|Chapel interior showing support bracing |
The interior of the poor building is in a woeful state. Painted boards which make up its barrel vaulted roof dangle on the point of tumbling down. To one side, near the altar steps there's a stack of those which have already lost their fight with gravity. Bits and pieces of beautifully carved stonework also lie jumbled along the wall. There's wooden bracing to help keep the whole ediface from tumbling down. Marc Dimanche explained that there are plans to instigate a public subscription [pledges of financial support, large or small] which is the pre-requisite to gaining subsidies for restoration/conservation funding. Sadly, according to Marc Dimanche there is, seemingly, a lack of interest among the locals for restoring their 'patrimoine'. This is a huge pity as the chapel is pretty special. However, on the positive side is the fact that so much of the mural still survives despite the lack of the TLC it so desperately needs.
Musicians: the bagpiper, organetto player and the harpist
On both sides runs a wide band depicting the dance of the dead. The dance of the dead in the chapelle de tous les Saints
is unusual as the murals depict both a male and a female dance. To the left is a men's dance, to the right is a dance of women. Both are accompanied by texts. On the far wall, to the left of where the altar stood, is an orchestra of the dead. There are four musicians: one chap is playing the bagpipes, the second an organetto
, the third a harp and the last a pipe & tabor.
|Marc's beautiful drawing showing the orchestra of the dead on the right|
The dance of the dead or danse macabre
appears in art in the 15th century. Surviving representations [about 80 all told in Europe] date from after about 1425. The earliest seems to have been a mural in the cemetery of the Innocents, in Paris which according to a chronicle was executed in 1424-5. The north cloister of St Paul's Cathedral in London [the pre-1666 fire of London building] had a series of painted panels from around 1430 with texts by the poet John Lydgate. Lydgate knew the dance at the cemetery of the Innocents.
|Dance of the women: The wife on left, maiden on the right, shrouded corpse between them|
By the middle of the 15th century dances of the dead had become more common. In 1485-6 a publisher in Paris, Guyot Marchant produced a series of woodcut prints of the dance of dead. Accounts indicate they were closely based on the murals at the cemetery of the Innocents, but not identical. Guyot's figures are wearing the dress of his day, not that of an earlier time. The publication proved to be extremely popular and by 1490 it was in its third edition. A late medieval equivalent of a best seller.
|Dance of the women: the shepardess, the lover, the nun and the widow|
The theme of the dance is simple: the living, irrespective of their station in life, whether spiritual [pope, cardinal, priest or bishop] or temporal [king, prince, lord, peasant or child] are made to dance with cadavers as a "memento mori"
[remember you must die].
|Marc's drawing: the child at far left under the window|
The dead--shrouded, partly corrupted or latterly more skeletal usually caper with enthusisam whereas the living are much more static. They aren't keen on joining the dance for obvious reasons, it confronted them with the frailty of life and the vanity of earthly things. It also reflected a medieval style of social equality: in death everyone is the same:- a cadaver. The dead they dance with are representations of themselves. They are not dancing with a personification of 'Death'.
|Illustration of the section of dance of the women mural closest to the altar|
To the medieval individual the afterlife was of huge importance as you either were saved at the Last Judgement or were forever condemmed to hell depending on what you had done with your life during your stay on earth. The worst thing that could overcome a medieval individual was to die unexpectedly without being able to prepare; hence the dance of the dead shows individuals of all ages.
|You can just see faint traces of writing above the queen and the cadaver grabbing the abess' staff|
Just as we suffer barrages of advertising exhorting us to plan our pensions & old age provision from the minute we start working, medieval individuals were continuously confronted by visual representations exhorting them to repent while there was still time. The dance of the dead is only one example of this.
|Illustration of part of the dance of the men mural|
We really hope that soon various wheels will slowly grind into motion
and that action will be taken. We are no experts, but we suspect that the
in the chapelle de tous les Saintes
is a really rather special surviving example.
|Dance of the men: the bailiff|
In the Middle Ages the chapel in Preuilly could have been a busy place of the living
as well. What is now the adjoing jardin public was the
original burial ground. Records show that the cemetery of the Innocents in Paris was a
bustling place: betrothals, meetings and judicial processes all took
place there and it faced one of the largest medieval markets in Paris.
It would be lovely to see the danse macabre
conserved and the chapelle de tous les Saints
open to the public so that people could enjoy seeing it and so catch a glimpse of medieval life; to have a bit of bustle once again.
With grateful thanks to Marc Dimanche for permission to use images of his beautiful drawings which re-create the chapel's murals.