September 9, 2017

Lanterns of the Dead Lighting the Way

The Lanterns of the Dead

 Lanterns Of The Dead

At some point in the early part of the 12th century, people in the center and west of France began to erect strange constructions – effectively hollow towers with a hole for a lantern at the top - near or in their village graveyards (and before you ask, most were nowhere near the sea).  Although many were moved or destroyed during the revolution, about a hundred survive to this day.  Known as Lanterns of the Dead (Lanternes des Morts) their precise original use is still debated. In the French capital, Paris, a system of street lanterns did not evolve until the late 1500s. ..So why did the French place the only significant night-time light near or smack bang in the middle of their graveyards?...

One theory - Protection from plague

In times of plague, the flame from the lamp might serve as a way for the villagers to quickly transfer fire to their hearths without coming in to contact with each other – a pestilential pilot light, as it were. People could visit the lantern in isolation so helping to slow or halt the spread of disease.  This sounds plausible enough, no?...As time moved on, churches would remain at the heart of the village but medical advances pointed clinical fingers at the sanitary implications of burying the dead so close to where the living resided.  Graveyards were moved lock, stock and coffin to the periphery of many villages and the lantern of the dead was taken along too. ....

The First Crusade

Yet even though they had served the purpose of honoring the dead, Eygun’s research uncovered another reason for their construction – one which was no doubt their primary purpose, at least in terms of utility. Incredibly, they are intimately connected with the First Crusade (1095-1099), the first medieval military expedition made by Europeans to recover the Holy Land and one church in particular.  The Church the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Caliph Hakem in 1009.  When the city was seized by crusaders ninety years later in 1099, orders were given for the church to be rebuilt at once.

It would serve to remind the population of Jerusalem who was now in charge. The builders constructed a spiral staircase leading to the top of the building. There they placed a giant lantern to symbolize the resurrection of Christ which shone over Jerusalem from 1100 till 1187, when the city fell to Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria.

As such, it is now believed that the majority of the lanterns were erected by local nobility or monastics as an undoubted souvenir of the time they spent on the First Crusade. Specifically, they wished to evoke the presence of the remarkable church in Jerusalem where they worshiped in some awe of its magnificent lantern, the rays of which illuminated the city nightly.  There is, moreover, a definite correlation between the period of time during which the lanterns were developed in France and the era of the Latin Kingdoms in the Holy Land – the first three quarters of the 12th century....

It should be noted here that the First Crusade began as a pilgrimage before it descended in to the brutality of a military expedition ...  So, again, what better to mark the route of a pilgrimage than lanterns which echo the sight to be found at the endpoint of the most desirable of all – the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem?...

Lighting the way to Santiago

The route that the French lanterns take does not, of course, terminate in Jerusalem.  Rather they guide travelers towards the city of Santiago de Compostela, the Galician capital in northwestern Spain.  This was one of the most important medieval pilgrimages, after those to Rome and Jerusalem:
Posted by Jill Fallon at September 9, 2017 12:24 PM | Permalink