On our recent trip to the UK, we visited several different sacred spaces. Two were on Orkney, one of the small islands 10 miles north of Scotland. Our first stop was the Standing Stones of Stenness.
There are only 4 megaliths still standing, but archeaologists say there were probably 9 or 10 to begin with set in an eliptical pattern. The site dates back to at least 3100 BC. Rising from the plain to a height of 19 feet, the stones are easily visible from a distance and have clear sight lines to a couple of other ancient sites–Maeshowe (a large barrow) and the Watchstone (a solitary stone giant).
Unlike at Stonehenge, we were allowed to walk among the stones and touch them. I confess I put my palms on the lichen covered rock, hoping to somehow hear its ponderous thoughts. Only the eternal Orkney wind swept past my ears.
One of the monoliths–called the Odin Stone–had an opening hollowed through it. According to legend, babies would be passed through the hole in order to bless them. A man and woman who joined hands through the hole were considered handfasted (married).
In 1814, a tenant farmer became tired of dealing with curiosity seekers around the site and began to destroy the stones. He demolished the “Odin Stone”–one with a hole in it–and one more before he could be stopped. The Orcadians were furious with the farmer, who was a “ferrylooper” (read: “not from around here”) and tried to burn his house down!
I can’t say I blame them.
The other sacred site on Orkney is much newer. It’s the Italian Chapel, which was built during WWII by POWs kept on the island. After the Germans slipped a U-boat into Skapa Floe and sank a British warship with 833 hands on board, the Brits decided to build a causeway to link two islands (There are actually 70 Orkney islands, only 20 of which are inhabited.) and shut off that devastatingly easy access. Italian POWs were brought in to provide labor.
While the POWs were required to work, they were not treated poorly. In fact, when they wanted to build a chapel for worship, the Orcadians provided two quonset huts, upon which the Italians lavished care and amazing artistry after their daily work on the causeway was done. There is no actual tile in the chapel. What you see is trompe l’oisle, a “fool-the-eye” style of painting. The ornate grillwork and lighting fixtures were made from scrap metal.
Beyond the creation of a lovely space, the existence of the chapel is testimony to the humane treatment of the Italian POWs by our allies in WWII. Years later, Domenico Chiocchetti, the principle artist, revisited the site and left this message to the Orcadians:
“The chapel is yours – for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality. . .
I thank the authorities of Kirkwall, the courteous preservation committee, and all those who directly or indirectly have collaborated for the success of this work and for having given me the joy of seeing again the little chapel of Lambholm where I, in leaving, leave a part of my heart”.
The other two sacred sites we visited were in Rouen, France. The first was the Cathedral of Notre Dame. There has been a church on this site since the late 4th century, but none of that early building survives. Construction of the current cathedral began in the late 1100’s. Since then, Notre Dame has been plagued with lightning strikes (5 times), multiple fires, at least one hurricane, the predations of Calvinists, nationalization of the building during the French Revolution so they could sell off valuable furniture & art, and WWII bombings. And yet the cathedral is still there, ever expanding over the years.
During WWII, the medieval stained glass was removed and hidden away to preserve it. I apologize for the poor quality of this photo, but this series of stained glass depicts one of the miracles of St. Romain, a 7th century bishop.
Apparently in those dark times, a dragon was terrorizing the countryside and no one was willing to face it down. The bishop took a prisoner who’d been condemned to death and offered him the chance to accompany him on the quest to kill the beast. The man accepted since dying by dragon couldn’t be worse than being executed for his crimes. When the convict and the saint found the beast, the bishop made the sign of the cross over it and it allowed him to leash it using his stole. After that, the dragon was either burned or tossed into the Seine, depending on which variation of the tale you choose.
But the convict who helped Romain was freed! After that, until 1790, the bishop of Rouen was allowed to pardon one condemned felon a year by allowing him to carry a relic of St. Romain in a procession.
The last sacred space is a much newer place just a short stroll from Notre Dame. It’s a church built in 1979 in the Market Square on the site where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Architecturally, it’s a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new. The stained glass shown here is medieval, but the ceiling of the church resembles an upturned boat hull. There are porthole-shaped windows along another wall.
I didn’t know much about Joan of Arc, other than the fact that she was martyred, but I was never sure why. This 15th century teenager was instrumental in leading the French army to victory during the 100 Years War with England and in putting Charles VII on the French throne. Dressed in male attire, she led the French to dazzling victories. But during a truce, she was arrested by the English and put on trial. Political wranglings on both sides–French as well–almost insured a guilty verdict for heresy.
I think the fact that she dressed as a male and proved a better general than many men also played a part in their desire to destroy her.
Inquisitors tried to trap her with scholarly questions. When she was asked if she knew she was in God’s grace, she realized a yes or no would be equally damning. So Joan neatly sidestepped the issue. She said: “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”
They burned her anyway. And once she was dead, they burned her ashes two more times to make sure no relics could be scavenged.
Amazingly enough, an appeal was made and she was retried posthumously in 1456, where she was declared innocent. Big whoop. She was still dead.
Sometimes, history is supremely unsatisfying. Which is probably why I prefer fiction…
How about you? Have you visited any sacred places that touched you?