Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Lantern of the Dead, Fenioux

Built above a wooded valley, the tiny village of Fenioux, in the department of Charente-Maritime, has two attractions: the richly carved doorway of its Romanesque church, and its lanterne des morts or lantern of the dead.
Over the years many stories have been told about these intriguing lanterns of the dead found in the Limousin, Poitou and Saintonge regions. Yet the truth is we know very little about these freestanding towers with apertures for a lantern fire at the top, of which only forty-eight survive (there is even some debate about whether all can be considered as lanterns of the dead). Depending on the width of the tower, access to the lantern was either by a very narrow spiral staircase like in Fenioux, a ladder, or notches on the wall. In some cases the lantern was simply hoisted by means of rope and pulley.
It appears they were built between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries but the absence of documents about their construction or inscriptions on their walls makes it difficult to be more precise. Their rather simple architecture, with very few sculpted elements, doesn't help either.
Their exact purpose is also uncertain. Since they stood in cemeteries it is often assumed their light represented a spiritual protection for the dead as well as for the living who ventured into what was considered a dangerous place, especially at night. Some researchers argued they guided pilgrims. However their light was certainly too dim and intermittent for them have played such a role.
The origin of the shape is equally subject to debate. According to one hypothesis developed in the nineteenth century, it was influenced by the memories of the light that burnt on the tomb of Saladin and of the minarets the crusaders saw in the Holy Land. To support this, some point to the crescent-like shape of the damaged ball on the south side of the pyramidal top of the Fenioux lantern (on the right on the picture). Yet this seems to be the result of imagination than rigorous scientific study.
Finally the eleven columns forming the main pillar and the thirteen little columns circling the lantern at Fenioux have given rise to many fanciful theories based on numerology.

Whatever the purpose of those lanterns of the dead and their origins, they are fascinating monuments that are well worth a detour.

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