A medieval chapel pierced by an ancient light?

La Hougue Bie by Sam K

I learned some­thing new read­ing Mark Patton’s post on an equi­noc­tial align­ment at La Hougue Bie on Jersey. I knew the mega­lithic tomb at La Hougue Bie was equi­noc­tially aligned. It was also no sur­prise there was a reli­gious build­ing there, because it’s com­mon for Christian sites to be built over pagan sites. Sometimes there are good archi­tec­tural reas­ons for build­ing over sites. Sometimes it’s a stamp of author­ity say­ing that Christianity was in con­trol. What I hadn’t real­ised is that there’s an equi­noc­tial align­ment in the 12th cen­tury chapel of Notre Dame de la Clarté (Our Lady of the Light) added by Richard Mabon in the 16th cen­tury. He built a win­dow to light the Oratory. Looking at the photo you might won­der how I missed that, but the pho­tos I’d seen on La Hougue Bie were of La Hougue Bie, by pre­his­tor­i­ans with little inter­est­ing the later mater­ial over the top of the tomb.

The ques­tion is, is this shared align­ment inten­tional or a coin­cid­ence? My first reac­tion is that it’s a coin­cid­ence — but if it is then it could be a lot more inter­est­ing than if Mabon had been aware of the tomb beneath the chapel.

La Hougue Bie is a pas­sage tomb. It’s basic­ally a big mound with a stone pas­sage lead­ing in to the tomb. In this case the align­ment of the pas­sage is that the end of the tomb is best lit at the equi­nox. By itself that doesn’t interest me. There are all sorts of tombs with all sorts of align­ments. By chance you’d expect some to face due East. If all the pas­sage tombs on the Channel Islands faced east, then I’d be more inter­ested. It looks like this tomb went out of use in the Neolithic and it would have become a mound on the landscape.

So it’s no great sur­prise that a chapel should be built over it. It’s a high point. If I were look­ing into this fur­ther then I’d start by look­ing at the local land­scape. The more prom­in­ent or dis­tinct­ive La Hougue Bie is, the less excited you should be that it was that exact spot that was chosen to build the chapel. Mark Patton also points out the size of the chapel is down to the size of the mound, and that the chapel does not share an align­ment with the mound. Looking at the map, it’s a couple of degrees to the north.

Is that an align­ment to east-ish, or was it aimed accur­ately as at sun­rise at a spe­cific time of year close to the equi­nox? The answer is No or Not as such depend­ing on who you ask.

Ian Hinton would say no. He ana­lysed the align­ments of 1500 churches and found no cor­rel­a­tion between their align­ments and the feast days of their pat­rons. If you think that a church will face sun­rise on the patron’s feast day that’s a prob­lem. I’ll need to re-read his paper on church align­ments, as it’s been a while since I last looked at it. He does have altern­at­ive explan­a­tions for align­ments and these seem reasonable.

Steve McCluskey in con­trast is in the not as such camp. <a href=http://www.mendeley.com/c/4169093262/g/560521/mccluskey-2006-the-orientations-of-medieval-churches-a-methodological-case-study/”>He’s also examined a smal­ler sample of churches for pat­terns in alignments, but he’s taken a dif­fer­ent approach. He’s star­ted from the idea that not all saints days are astro­nom­ic­ally sig­ni­fic­ant, so there’s no reason to expect all churches to be astro­nom­ic­ally aligned. He looked at churches from the medi­eval period ded­ic­ated to Mary, John, All Saints and Andrew. Andrew was the con­trol as there was noth­ing astro­nom­ic­ally spe­cial about his feast day. He also found no link between churches and align­ments to feast days in gen­eral, but there were some hints of astro­nom­ical cor­rel­a­tions, but more for John than Mary. In the case of John there was a pref­er­ence for equi­noc­tial sun­sets and not sun rise on his feast day, which was a surprise.

Mary was pos­sibly an awk­ward choice. The Annunciation of Mary is March 25 in the litur­gical cal­en­dar. This was the offi­cial date of the Spring Equinox (and nine months prior to Christmas) so you could look for equi­noc­tial align­ment in Marian churches. In this instance, this chapel points slightly north of east. I’d be inter­ested to know if the align­ment is con­sist­ent with sun­rise on March 25 in the 12th Century AD. It sounds feas­ible, but before you get too excited, there are other factors. There are a LOT of events Mary includ­ing two other big ones, the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception. If you wanted to build a case that the spe­cific align­ment was import­ant it’d be help­ful to see if sim­ilar chapels of Notre Dame de la Clarté also poin­ted slightly north of east.

Stephen McCluskey also has another source worth look­ing at, the Life of Dunstan. Dunstan was a tenth cen­tury saint, but his bio­graphy was writ­ten in the twelfth cen­tury, so the text is a record of what people believed in the twelfth cen­tury. There is a story that while arch­bishop of Canterbury Dunstan arrived to ded­ic­ate a church and saw that it wasn’t facing the equi­nox cor­rectly. He put his shoulder against the church and shoved to shift the align­ment to the cor­rect pos­i­tion (McCluskey 2006:412). I don’t think that actu­ally happened, but it shows a belief in the twelfth cen­tury that small changes of align­ment could be import­ant. Did this belief persist?

If it did then the increas­ing errors in the Christian cal­en­dar could have been a prob­lem, espe­cially in a chapel that was aimed at sun­light on a cer­tain day. Did Richard Mabon add a win­dow to his oratory to cor­rect this error? The next thing I’d want to know is what sun­rises would have best lit the Oratory in the chapel? I think the win­dow is too far south to light up the Oratory on March 25 in the six­teenth cen­tury. It’d be around April by our cal­en­dar in this period and the sun would be too far to the north. However if the win­dow faced some­thing like sun­rise on October 4 or October 5 in our cal­en­dar that would light up the Oratory on September 25 in the Julian cal­en­dar that was used at the time. ((The dates are con­fus­ing for a few reas­ons. One reason is the Julian cal­en­dar was out of sync with the sea­sons by about 10 days at the time. Another is that both Julian and Gregorian cal­en­dars (we use the Gregorian cal­en­dar) have the same names for months. Finally there’s the factor that the litur­gical cal­en­dar based its equi­noxes on the 25th and we tend to use the 21st. The fig­ures I’m using are back of the envel­ope cal­cu­la­tions. They’re not exact.)) From the out­side it doesn’t look likely, but the inner archi­tec­ture could make it dif­fer­ent. If this is a cor­rec­tion of astro­nom­ical align­ment then it would be a very rare bit of archae­olo­gical evid­ence that this was done. So coin­cid­ence could be the much more excit­ing answer than an inten­tion when look­ing at the shared align­ments between the chapel and La Hougue Bie.

But draw­ing con­clu­sions from one site is always going to be very dif­fi­cult. While I was try­ing to wrap up this post I saw that the Nativity of Mary is on September 8. Now, that would be the equi­val­ent of September 18 Gregorian which is close to an equi­noc­tial date, when the sun rises just north of east. This also fits the chapel’s align­ment, so when we’re talk­ing about Our Lady of Light exactly which light are we talk­ing about? There are a few feasts of Mary, and local tra­di­tions can add more, so his­tor­ical con­text is needed. Otherwise it’s very hard for some­thing facing sun­rise to avoid a spe­cial day for Mary.

Much as I’d like to think there was some deep ritual mean­ing for win­dow I’m wary that it’s get­ting easy to cre­ate reas­ons for astro­nom­ic­ally sig­ni­fic­ant align­ments. I won­der if the answer is more pro­saic. That’s a solid-looking wall. Could it be that the win­dow due East was simply the best way of let­ting in light when the chapel was restored?

I think Mark Patton has writ­ten a thought-provoking post. There’s a few ideas I have that could be developed. You should visit his blog to read it.

Useful papers

Hinton, I., 2006. Church Alignment and Patronal Saintʼs Days. The Antiquaries Journal, 86(1), p.206–226. Available at: http://​journ​als​.cam​bridge​.org/​a​b​s​t​r​a​c​t​_​S​0​0​0​3​5​8​1​5​0​0​0​0​011

McCluskey, S.C., 2006. The Orientations of Medieval Churches: A Methodological Case Study. In Todd W Bostwick & Bryan Bates, eds. Viewing the Sky Through Past and Present Cultures: Selected Papers from the Oxford VII International Conference on Archaeoastronomy. Phoenix: City of Phoenix Parks and recre­ation Department, pp. 409–420.

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