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,
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.
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 Detached from site, from their contents, they can no longer represent or mark their “relics.”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|