Saturday 27 April 2013

Two months short of a full calendar year

February to June

July to November
Up at a crossroads close to the banks of the Loire lies the village of Lignières-de-Touraine, right in the centre of an area of topflight Loire valley tourist destinations. Just to the north across the river and over the lovely 19th century bridge is Langeais, south lies Azay-le-Rideau. Go west and you run into Villandry. Turn east for Rigny-Ussé.

The town itself is fairly non-descript; a busy intersection of classic French D roads, the houses strung out along each one with an open tarmacked square at the center. To one side is a small church. You'd drive through without a second glance; your sights firmly set on one of the destinations mentioned above.

However, in 2009 some restoration work was being carried out in the church, and yes, you guessed it, they found some lovely wall paintings. We weren't aware of them but Susan & Simon tipped us off. They had found out about them by chance and had been to have a look with a client.

The church is small and the wall paintings are mostly from the 12th century. However, some were repainted in the 13th and 14th centuries. All are easily seen as the roof is comparatively low. There's a lighting system, which for a small fee, lights the wall paintings so you can see them more easily.
Detail: May -- a knight and his horse
In addition to a variety of religious scenes such as the story of Adam and Eve, Christ in Majesty, Cain and Abel; there are also visual exhortations connected to living a good life. On the arch leading to the chancel there is also a charming calendar of the months of the year.
Like a book of hours, most months portray a scene appropriate to the time of year. In September, for example, a man is shown treading grapes in a large tun Sadly it isn't quite complete as 2 months are missing. It looks as if, at some point, the pillars were re-done and thus the arch has lost December and January.

In the frame of one of the windows in the apse stands Cain holding a sheaf of grain. Opposite him stands Abel with the hand of God reaching down to bless him.

It looks a bit odd, as if there should be more of the figure than just this disembodied hand and a what looks to be a bit of beard, but this was quite a common convention. One couldn't 'portray' God so this was the solution.

The glass [although now 19th century replacement] is unlikely to have had any role in the tableau.
One of the most appealing wall paintings is that of a rich man's table. He's seated at the board which is elegantly draped in a white table cloth and set with gold plate. There's a platter with a boar's head, a plate, a trencher, what looks to be a knife, some covered cups and a flagon. At the door there's a servant who seems to be pointing down to a wee spaniel-like dog. which looks longingly at the large joint of meat the lame beggar is waving over his head. Presumably this is a representation of one of the seven acts of corporal mercy. One of the best representations of the acts of corporal mercy [6 of the 7] are to be found in stained glass in the beautiful 15th century church of All Saints North Street, York.
Feeding a lame beggar  Begging for food
So the next time you're dashing off with friends or family to show them one of the four sights mentioned above you might like to pop in and see the wall paintings as well.

UPDATE! on the wall paintings which begin with the rich man at his table feasting with his friends [see above].

We took the four separate paintings to be just that - three different biblical exhortations: feeding the hungry, making a 'good' death [& contrasting 'bad' death where your soul gets taken to hell] and the Christ child enthroned.  
In fact they are all episodes in the parable of the rich man (named Dives in the Middle Ages, presumably from the Vulgate 'dives' = 'rich', although he is not named in St. Luke's account - 16:19-31) and should be thus read in sequence.
So firstly a poor beggar, afflicted by leprosy, named Lazarus (not the 'Lazarus' who elsewhere was raised from the dead - bring on the confusion!) daily comes to the rich man's house looking for food, which is refused.  What we thought was a joint of meat above his head is now presumably a leper's clapper or bell.  The extra touch is the dog at Lazarus' feet, as the text notes that "dogs would lick his open sores" and possibly a tiny canine tongue is just visible if one looks closely.
Lazarus begging for food
Next up are the two deaths.  Dives, on the left, dies in a sumptuous bed (note the deep red cover), but a devil is hovering to drag his soul off to Hell.  Lazarus also dies, but as his shrouded body is laid in a pauper's grave an angel receives his soul (always shown as a small child) and whisks it off to the comfort of Abraham's bosom in Heaven, a popular mediaeval image reserved for the 'blessed' who are placed near to the Godhead.

Dives' death on the left, Lazaurs' on the right

The third section on the extreme left continues the parable with Dives in torment among the flames, looking up to Heaven and seeing Lazarus.  The heavily abbreviated Latin text reports his plea: "father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame" (Trans. W. Tyndale, 1525).  Abraham basically says 'Dream on, you did nothing for him when you had the chance' and so the parable ends. Presumably everyone viewing it and hearing the story would resolve to mend their ways while they still had time.
Dives begging for a drop of water
Unlike other parables this one only features in Luke's gospel and may, therefore, be quite uncommon in mediaeval iconography.

Simply click on any of the photos to enlarge them if you would like to see more detail.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

A good year for the orchids?

It does seem to be a good year. Susan, at Days on the Claise, who knows a thing or two about orchids indicated as much recently when we met up with her and told her we have far more lizard orchid rosettes this spring than in the previous two years.

Early Purple Orchids
Yesterday we found a new flower on the far NE boundary just under the edge of the woods where we have our bonfires in the autumn. Niall was tipping out a wheelbarrow load of some garden 'stuff' on the pile when he noticed a group of vibrant purple flowers just to one side. A quick count came to about 15 flower spikes. He went back with the camera and took some photos.
Early Purple orchid: spotted leaves & stem
After some checking on the good old internet we thought it might be an Early Purple orchid. A quick email of a photo to Susan followed and she confirmed that we do indeed have a small colony of Early Purple orchids. We found out that they are very distinctive as their leaves have spots--rather like a green Dalmation. They aren't rare but they are very pretty.
Our solitary Bee orchid in 2011
Here's hoping that this year we also get more than the one solitary Bee orchid. Another very pretty specimen, it like our Lizard orchids flowers in May/June.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

An excellent fortress

We like Chinon and we stopped by again earlier this month. We've always liked Chinon from our very first forays into the Loire Valley as tourists in the early 1990's. This despite the fact that every time we approach it from the south side of the river Vienne and pass the SuperU [it wasn't a SuperU then but some other chain] on the left-hand side of the road where it runs between huge plane trees we're reminded of our failure at the time to get to grips with the French custom of closing on the dot of noon for lunch. At least 3 times we were doomed to disappointment at that supermarket, arriving just as the doors were firmly closing.
View of the fortress of Chinon 
The fortress walls as we see them today are mostly due to Henry, Count of Anjou, later King Henry II of England. It was one of his favourite fortresses, which is hardly suprising given its strategic location on the crossroads between 3 regions: Anjou, Touraine and Poitou.

Henry II ruled over a huge swathe of present day France, but found it difficult to manage his sons and the balance of power. Henry had a stormy relationship with them, which we have written about before here. They felt he kept them on too short a rein handing out allowances, but no real power to rule the lands they were nominally in charge of.
Lands [yellow/orange/red] ruled by Henry II of England [wikipedia commons]
Chinon is the backdrop for the final instalment of Henry's regin. In 1189 he was already ill [he had, modern historians think, a bleeding ulcer] during his final acrimonious encounter with the French King and one of his two surviving two sons, Richard [later King Richard the Lionheart] who were again allied in rebellion against him. They met at a place called La Ferté-Bernard in last minute peace talks brokered by the Papacy. These failed and the French King Philip Augustus and Henry's rebellious son Richard attacked. Henry retreated to Le Mans and then Alençon before heading south to his forteress of Chinon.

 Chinon in tiles at Tours station
From there he rode to Ballan, near Tours to meet Philip and Richard and agreed to their terms before being carried back to Chinon on a litter. He was too ill by this time to ride and very clearly dying. Soon after his return to Chinon from Ballan he received word that his other surviving son John had publicly sided with Richard. The desertion allegedly hit him hard and he lapsed into a fever, dying on the 6 July 1189. According to some chroniclers of the time Henry died deserted by most of his court who had gone to seek out Richard once it was clear he had not long to live.

The territories ruled over by Henry II did not remian in the family for long. During the reign of King John, Henry's youngest son [1199 -1216] all, apart from Gascony, were lost to the French King.

Sunday 14 April 2013

Warm Sunday!

Over last weekend we'd heard a very faint "cuckoo" away in the woods to the east of us but nothing conclusive. Then on Wednesday we heard the cuckoo properly for the first time, about 2 weeks later than we'd expected; the poor weather no doubt to blame for that. Last year, at the tail-end of March we were treated to an amazing display of 2 cuckoos battling it out for terrority right over our heads.
Tulips & Cowslips 14 April 2013
Then Thursday and Friday the heavens opened -- again!!-- and we were deluged with rain. The ground is already saturated so everything rapidly turned into a soggy mess and back came the mini-ponds out towards Eric's field. We're at the top of a ridge but the land still does have a slight pockets and these will hold the rain when we're 'over-watered'. The little peach tree out in the middle of it all looked distictly miserable with its buds just opening.  
One of our colour-break cowslips. We get more every year.
Earlier this morning it was still very wet and quaking bog-like underfoot so it is doubtful that, even with the already balmy 18C [10:30 am], we'll get the ride-on mower out today. However, there are plenty of other things to be getting on with like cleaning the terrace and the forecast is for better weather this coming week.
Tulips 4 April 2012
Looking at photos from around this time last year and from 2011 it's clear that we are a bit behind. Hopefully, Spring will get its act together fast! Right now the rose below is only showing lots of new leaf and no buds as yet.
Rose by our front door 20 April 2011

Saturday 6 April 2013

A handsome pile

In Drake's great work "Eboracum" on the buildings and antiquities of York, virtually every other building is described as 'a handsome pile' in the typical, slightly florid style of the early 18th century.
"A handsome pile": la Pile at Cinq-mars-la-Pile
This 'pile' is slightly different. It isn't a stately pile like Harewood House or Chatsworth, it's a brick tower known as 'la Pile' just outside Cinq-Mars-la-Pile. Built on a ridge with a commanding view across the Loire river, it sits on the north bank not far from Langeais.
1770 engraving showing the view looking north to 'le Pile'.
It's Roman and although you'd be inclined to think it has something to do with guarding and monitoring traffic on the river Loire, it has nothing to do with that whatsoever. It was, in fact, constructed by a high status Gallo-Roman individual to serve as a border marker on his estate. Its height, position and decorative patterns all serve to reflect the estate owner's wealth, status and cultural links with Rome. Similar towers have been found in the south-west of France.
View from behind 'la Pile' looking south over the Loire
A distant Villandry on the opposite bank of the Loire
An information panel charts the discovery, in 2005, of a decapitated statue which provided enough stylistic detail to date it to between 180 - 230 AD. The figure, found face-down in the ground just above the tower, is that of a chap with his arms behind his back and some kind of probable restraint round his neck. He's dressed in clothes typical of the region south of the Black Sea: pleated tunic, baggy trousers and a Phrygian cap.

Photo of the information panel showing the restored statue
According to the information, the presence of the statue, which may have formed part of a larger group of figures now lost, would indicate that the tower also had a role as a memorial site where the family honoured a venerated ancestor.