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.
Hinton, I., 2006. Church Alignment and Patronal Saintʼs Days. The Antiquaries Journal, 86(1), p.206–226. Available at: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S000358150000011
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.