Friday, December 6, 2013

The falling away

Planning a trip to Northern France later this month, I thought of revisiting the cemetery of St. Hilaire at Marville (the oldest cemetery in France), where I had photographed a remarkable collection of nineteenth century skull boxes in January of 2012,

January 2012

 only to find that the ossuary had been vandalized a few months after I had visited.   The colossal ossuary at Douamont that holds bones of French and German dead from World War One had been vandalized only a few weeks before that, although there is no proof that these events are connected.

At Marville, the lock on the gate had been broken, skull boxes smashed, their painted fronts presumably stolen, along with some of the moss-covered skulls. The thousands of skulls that were left behind were now all equally anonymous:  thwarting past efforts to hold a few of these apart from the others.
March 2012

" Ces "horloges de la vie" sont des petites niches en bois qui permettent d’abriter des crânes. Elles peuvent se revendre entre 1000 et 1500 € chacune. La ou les personnes qui ont dérobé ces objets savaient ce qu’elles venaient chercher ici. » Datant des XVI e et XVII e siècle, ces niches en bois sont très prisées par les collectionneurs et les amateurs d’art funéraire." Le Républican Lorrain, 26 March, 2012

 My photos, taken in the fading light of a winter afternoon, which, until this news hit me, seemed incomplete, ill-composed or partial, now record something that will not be again. The video clips I shot between the bars, in marginal light, that I had hoped to redo, will have to do. Have the skull box-fronts become collectible items now? Or have they been destroyed? Detached from site, from their contents, they can no longer represent or mark their “relics.”

Skull Boxes in St Pol de Léon, Brittany, locked on shelves inside the church.

With this sad news in mind, I look differently at the photos from St Pol de Leon and other sites in Brittany whose skull boxes are under lock and key. They were once open to the air and the seasons in communal ossuaries as well as open to unseen hands and iconoclastic motives.
Skull boxes in one of nine open-air ossuaries that were built in the cemetery wall, detail of photo by Séraphim- Médéric Mieusement, c. 1875
But this is not new. As I have looked more closely at some of the boxes whose histories I can track down, many others have been part of processes of change, change of state, exhumation, profanation, de-individuation. In 1912, one priest in Brittany (according to writer and photographer Charles Géniaux) ordered that a group skull boxes be properly buried; they were put in a mass grave but many residents of the town claimed that they re-took their place in the ossuary the next night.
I remember an anecdote about a the lost skeletal remains of seventeen Neanderthals in Aurignac, in the South of France in 1842.  After they were discovered by a laborer, the village mayor, who was also a doctor, ordered that they be given a proper burial in the churchyard.  When the archeologist Édouard Lartet visited 18 years later and asked to see the prehistoric bones, they could not be found. Like any other recently buried body, they had gone to earth soon after having been brought out from their millenia spent in a cave.

The first skull box that I encountered, in 2008, is in the chapel of Kermaria an Iskuit, a site well known for its 15th century fresco of the Danse Macabre. In the apse, this unusual, rectangular skull box displays two skulls, with the phrase “Ceff de Lêzobre" crudely painted on it. These two skulls had come from a tomb that had been in the chapel until it was destroyed in the iconoclastic violence of the Revolution. The skulls are said to be those of the 17th cent Baron de Les Aubrays (Lezobré) (Jean de Lannion ) and his daughter (Renée- Françoise?). Geslin de Bourgogne, the inspector of historic monuments, discovered the skulls in 1850, at a time when there was talk of demolishing the chapel. According to local legend, a “pious woman” then collected them and put them in this painted box. Fragments of the broken tomb can be seen re-used the wall of a neighboring house. The crude 19th century skull box is a pathetic compensation for a desecrated stone tomb-- a small act of pious resistance to revolutionary iconoclasm.

In his work on memory, archeologist Andrew Jones  discusses remembering and forgetting, not as polar opposites, but processes in play or tension. The skull boxes seem to participate in just this—in their temporary preservation and naming, in their weathering in the elements, in their gradual fragmentation and decay.  The Marville ossuary had been vandalized before-- but never quite so badly, I read in the French newspapers.
This relatively recent photograph shows the skulls at Marville orderly arranged on a altar-table; presumably the painting once depicted a last judgment before it was devoured by mildew and moss. Wooden memorials are no match to a damp climate that slowly removes their inscriptions as their bones green and crumble.  Decay reconfigures their substance,  reminding us once again of our ephemeral materiality.

 And this is what the altar table looked like in 1916.

Or this, also purportedly from 1916: 
Source: Flickr:

What did it mean to photograph these bones and boxes in 1916, the very year of the nearby Battle of Verdun?  In contrast to the hundreds of thousands of German and French men dying in muddy trenches that very year, what could this pile of bones that inventoried the material remains of Marville mean?

Writing primarily about prehistoric archaeology (but his ideas are very fertile) Jones writes that “context does not so much frame the meaning of the artefact; rather, meaning bleeds or flows beyond the context: it is carried with the artefact.” Reading this, I began to think about how the skull box is a conduit for memory—as a hybrid person/thing it connects people and memories together—and may equally foster repulsion and horror. 

This made me think of Seamus Heaney's writing on the power of the Danish Bog Bodies:  
 they…. “have a double force, a riddling power: on the one hand, they invite us to reverie and daydream, while on the other hand, they can tempt the intellect to its most strenuous exertions. And it has always seemed to me that this phenomenal potency derives from the fact that the bodies erase the boundary-line between culture and nature, between art and life, between vision and eyesight, as it were….. [He continues:] These bodies have been moved through a process, brought from one condition of existence to another. At one level, the process is chemical and the change of the condition is physical. They have been tanned as leather is tanned. Their skin has become leathery. But at another level,  the process is artistic and the change comes about in the very nature of their presence and In the nature of their function.
Tollund Man

Once upon a time, these heads and limbs existed in order to express and embody the needs and impulses of an individual human life. They were the vehicles of different biographies and they compelled singular attention, they proclaimed 'I am I'. Even when they were first dead, at the moment of sacrifice or atrocIty, their bodies and their limbs manifested biography and conserved vestiges of personal Identity: they were corpses. But when a corpse becomes a bog body, the personal identity drops away; the bog body does not proclaim ' I am I': Instead it says something like 'I am it' or ' I am you'. Like the work of art, the bog body asks to be contemplated; It eludes the biographical and enters the realm of the aesthetic. 

Grauballe Man, hand.

For some, indeed, It enters that realm where the religious and the aesthetic merge, because in the figure of the bog body, the atrocious and the beautiful often partake of one another’s reality, coexisting inextricably in the lineaments of the transformed human features. In other words, the idea of redeeming the violent and brutal facts of human existence by subsuming them into a different plane of understanding (an understanding founded upon the concept that beauty is redemptive in itself), this idea finds its emblem and equivalent in the bog body, which is at once an object of contemplation and the violated remains of human flesh and bone. In fact, its total adequacy as an object of contemplation balances out against its status as the remains of a mutilated or violated human being. It hangs in the scales -- as I say in one of the poems- 'between beauty and atrocity'. 
(From "The Man and the Bog" a speech given by Heaney in Denmark, 1996)


Heaney’s comments have led me to ask: What does it mean when part of a body becomes a skull box?  When we have permission to look?  These things, unlike the bog bodies, are not anonymous body objects. They have names and dates that mark the duration of lifetimes.  When a body part becomes part of the memorial that is meant to represent the person…how does a skull become commemorative metaphor instead of forensic trace? Can it?

As I spend hours searching for vintage photographs of skull boxes being displayed in churches and ossuaries, and try to determine their dates and locations, it  occurs to me that of course there is no one true or superior configuration of them.   Like looking at a landscape with anthropologist Tim Ingold’s “dwelling perspective” we are always looking at a moment-- hoping to catch the "right" one-- in the flux of time.   In that way the boxes are really like memory itself—fresh, sharp and maybe painful when newly made and filled, then with age and decay, fuzzier, more erased, and finally crumbled away. They are a vain attempt to save—at least for a while, the body’s specific materiality—yet they attest to the near impossibility of retaining the named and remembered.


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