Lanterns of the Dead


In several medieval cemeteries of west-central France stand some strange masonry buildings, of varying height, resembling small towers. The inside, bare and hollow, was sufficiently large for a man to climb to the top of the structure and light a lantern there, at sundawn.
But what purpose did these bizarre lighthouses serve? Why signal the presence of a graveyard to wayfarers in the middle of the night?

The “lanterns of the dead”, built between the XII and XIII Century, represent a still not fully explained historical enigma.




Part of the problem comes from the fact that in medieval literature there seems to be no allusion to these lamps: the only coeval source is a passage in the De miraculis by Peter the Venerable (1092-1156). In one of his accounts of miraculous events, the famous abbot of Cluny mentions the Charlieu lantern, which he had certainly seen during his voyages in Aquitaine:

There is, at the center of the cemetery, a stone structure, on top of which is a place that can house a lamp, its light brightening this sacred place every night  as a sign of respect for the the faithful who are resting here. There also are some small steps leading to a platform which can be sufficient for two or three men, standing or seated.

This bare description is the only one dating back to the XII Century, the exact period when most of these lanterns are supposed to have been built. This passage doesn’t seem to say much in itself, at least at first sight; but we will return to it, and to the surprises it hides.
As one might expect, given the literary silence surrounding these buildings, a whole array of implausible conjectures have been proposed, multiplying the alleged “mysteries” rather than explaining them — everything from studies of the towers’ geographical disposition, supposed to reveal hidden, exoteric geometries, to the decyphering of numerological correlations, for instance between the 11 pillars on Fenioux lantern’s shaft and the 13 small columns on its pinnacle… and so on. (Incidentally, these full gallop speculations call to mind the classic escalation brilliantly exemplified by Mariano Tomatis in his short documentary A neglected shadow).


A more serious debate among historians, beginning in the second half of XIX Century, was intially dominated by two theories, both of which appear fragile to a more modern analysis: on one hand the idea that these towers had a celtic origin (proposed by Viollet-Le-Duc who tried to link them back to menhirs) and, on the other, the hypothesis of an oriental influence on the buildings. But historians have already discarded the thesis that a memory of the minarets or of the torch allegedly burning on Saladin‘s grave, seen during the Crusades, might have anything to do with the lanterns of the dead.

Without resorting to exotic or esoteric readings, is it then possible to interpret the lanterns’ meaning and purpose by placing them in the medieval culture of which they are an expression?
To this end, historian Cécile Treffort has analysed the polysemy of the light in the Christian tradition, and its correlations with Candlemas — or Easter — candles, and with the lantern (Les lanternes des morts: une lumière protectrice?, Cahiers de recherches médiévales, n.8, 2001).

Since the very first verses of Genesis, the divine light (lux divina) counterposes darkness, and it is presented as a symbol of wisdom leading to God: believers must shun obscurity and follow the light of the Lord which, not by chance, is awaiting them even beyond death, in a bright afterworld permeated by lux perpetua, a heavenly kingdom where prophecies claim the sun will never set. Even Christ, furthermore, affirms “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
The absence of light, on the contrary, ratifies the dominion of demons, temptations, evil spirits — it is the kingdom of the one who once carried the flame, but was discharged (Lucifer).

In the Middle Ages, tales of demonic apparitions and dangerous revenants taking place inside cemeteries were quite widespread, and probably the act of lighting a lantern had first and foremost the function of protecting the place from the clutches of infernal beings.



But the lantern symbology is not limited to its apotropaic function, because it also refers to the Parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew’s gospel: here, to keep the flame burning while waiting for the bridegroom is a metaphor for being vigilant and ready for the Redeemer’s arrival. At the time of his coming, we shall see who maintained their lamps lit — and their souls pure — and who foolishly let them go out.

The Benedictine rule prescribed that a candle had to be kept always lit in the convent’s dorms, because the “sons of light” needed to stay clear of darkness even on a bodily level.
If we keep in mind that the word cemetery etymologically means “dormitory”, lighting up a lantern inside a graveyard might have fulfilled several purposes. It was meant to bring light in the intermediary place par excellence, situated between the church and the secular land, between liturgy and temptation, between life and death, a permeable boundary through which souls could still come back or be lost to demons; it was believed to protect the dead, both physically and spiritually; and, furthermore, to symbolically depict the escatological expectation, the constant watch for the Redeemer.


One last question is left, to which the answer can be quite surprising.
The theological meaning of the lanterns of the dead, as we have seen, is rich and multi-faceted. Why then did Peter the Venerable only mention them so briefly and in an almost disinterested way?

This problem opens a window on a little known aspect of ecclesiastical history: the graveyard as a political battleground.
Starting from the X Century, the Church began to “appropriate” burial grounds ever more jealously, laying claim to their management. This movement (anticipating and preparing for the introduction of Purgatory, of which I have written in my De Profundis) had the effect of making the ecclesiastical authority an undisputed judge of memory — deciding who had, or had not, the right to be buried under the aegis of the Holy Church. Excommunication, which already was a terrible weapon against heretics who were still alive, gained the power of cursing them even after their death. And we should not forget that the cemetery, besides this political control, also offered a juridical refuge as a place of inviolable asylum.

Peter the Venerable found himself in the middle of a schism, initiated by Antipope Anacletus, and his voyages in Aquitaine had the purpose of trying to solve the difficult relationship with insurgent Benedictine monasteries. The lanterns of the dead were used in this very region of France, and upon seeing them Peter must have been fascinated by their symbolic depth. But they posed a problem: they could be seen as an alternative to the cemetery consecration, a practice the Cluny Abbey was promoting in those years to create an inviolable space under the exclusive administration of the Church.
Therefore, in his tale, he decided to place the lantern tower in Charlieu — a priorate loyal to his Abbey — without even remotely suggesting that the authorship of the building’s concept actually came from the rival Aquitaine.


Cellefrouin, lanterne des morts

This copyright war, long before the term was invented, reminds us that the cemetery, far from being a simple burial ground, was indeed a politically strategic liminal territory. Because holding the symbolic dominion over death and the afterworld historically proved to be often more relevant than any temporal power.

Although these quarrels have long been returned to dust, many towers still exist in French cemeteries. Upright against the tombs and the horizontal remains waiting to be roused from sleep, devoid of their lanterns for centuries now, they stand as silent witnesses of a time when the flame from a lamp could offer protection and hope both to the dead and the living.

(Thanks, Marco!)

The mysteries of Sansevero Chapel – I

If you have never fallen victim to the Stendhal syndrome, then you probably have yet to visit the Cappella Sansevero in Naples.
The experience is hard to describe. Entering this space, full to the brim with works of art, you might almost feel assaulted by beauty, a beauty you cannot escape, filling every detail of your field of vision. The crucial difference here, in respect to any other baroque art collection, is that some of the works exposed inside the chapel do not offer just an aesthetic pleasure, but hinge on a second, deeper level of emotion: wonder.
Some of these are seemingly “impossible” sculptures, much too elaborate and realistic to be the result of a simple chisel, and the gracefulness of shapes is rendered with a technical dexterity that is hard to conceive.

The Release from Deception (Il Disinganno), is, for example, an astounding sculpted group: one could spend hours admiring the intricate net, held by the male figure, and wonder how Queirolo was able to extract it from a single marble block.

The Chastity (La Pudicizia) by Corradini, with its drapery veiling the female character as if it was transparent, is another “mystery” of sculpting technique, where the stone seems to have lost its weight, becoming ethereal and almost floating. Imagine how the artist started his work from a squared block of marble, how his mind’s eye “saw” this figure inside of it, how he patiently removed all which didn’t belong, freeing the figure from the stone little by little, smoothing the surface, refining, chiselling every wrinkle of her veil.

But the attention is mostly drawn by the most famous art piece displayed in the chapel, the Veiled Christ.
This sculpture has fascinated visitors for two and a half centuries, astounding artists and writers (from the Marquis de Sade to Canova), and is considered one of the world’s best sculpted masterpieces.
Completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino and commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro, it portrays Christ deposed after crucifixion, covered by a transparent veil. This veil is rendered with such subtlety as to be almost deceiving to the eye, and the effect seen in person is really striking: one gets the impression that the “real” sculpture is lying underneath, and that the shroud could be easily grabbed and lifted.

It’s precisely because of Sanmartino’s extraordinary virtuosity in sculpting the veil that a legend surrounding this Christ dies hard – fooling from time to time even specialized magazines and otherwise irreproachable art websites.
Legend has it that prince Raimondo di Sangro, who commissioned the work, actually fabricated the veil himself, laying it down over Sanmartino’s sculpture and petrifying it with an alchemic method of his own invention; hence the phenomenal liquidness of the drapery, and the “transparence” of the tissue.

This legend keeps coming back, in the internet era, thanks to articles such as this:

The news is the recent discovery that the veil is not made of marble, as was believed until now, but of fine cloth, marbled through an alchemic procedure by the Prince himself, so that it became a whole with the underlying sculpture. In the Notarial Archives, the contract between Raimondo di Sangro and Sanmartino regarding the statue has been found. In it, the sculptor commits himself to deliver “a good and perfect statue depicting Our Lord dead in a natural pose, to be shown inside the Prince’s gentilitial church”. Raimondo di Sangro binds himself, in addition to supplying the marble, “to make a Shroud of weaved fabric, which will be placed over the sculpture; after this, the Prince will manipulate it through his own inventions; that is, coating the veil with a subtle layer of pulverized marble… until it looks like it’s sculpted with the statue”. Sammartino also commits to “never reveal, after completing the statue, the Prince’s method for making the shroud that covers the statue”. With this amazing contract, comes another document describing the recipe for powdered marble. If the two documents unequivocally prove the limits of Sammartino’s skills, they also show the alchemic genius of Sansevero, who put his expertise at the service of the hermetic doctrine, realizing one of the most important mysteric images of christian symbolism, that Holy Shroud Jesus was wrapped in, after he died on the cross.

(Excerpt from Restaurars)

Digging a bit deeper, it looks like this “sensational” discovery is not even recent, but goes back to the Eighties. It was made by neapolitan researcher Clara Miccinelli, who became interested in Raimondo di Sangro after being contacted by his spirit during a seance. Miccinelli published a couple of books, in 1982 and 1984, centered on the enigmatic figure of the Prince, freemason and alchemist, a character depicted in folklore as both a mad scientist and a genius.
The document Miccinelli found in the Archives is actually a fake. Here is what the Sansevero Chapel Museum has to say about it:

The document […], transcribed and published by Clara Miccinelli, is unanimously considered nonauthentic by scholars. In particular, a very accurate analysis of the document was conducted by Prof. Rosanna Cioffi, who in note 107, page 147 of her book “La Cappella Sansevero. Arte barocca e ideologia massonica” (sec. ed., Salerno 1994) lists and discusses as much as nine reasons – frankly inconfutable – for which the document cannot be held to be authentic (from the absence of watermark on the paper, to the handwriting being different from every other deed compiled by notary Liborio Scala, to the fact that the sheet of paper is loose and not included in the volume collecting all the deeds for the year 1752, to the notary’s “signum” which just in this document is different from all the other deeds, etc.). […] There are on the other hand certainly authentic documents, that can be consulted freely and publicly, in the Historic Archive of the Banco di Napoli, unearthed by Eduardo Nappi and published on different occasions: from a negotiable instrument dated December 16 1752, in which Raimondo di Sangro describes the statue in the making as “a statue of Our Lord being dead, and covered with a veil from the same marble”, to the payment of 30 ducats (as a settlment of 500 ducats) on February 13 1754, in which the Prince of Sansevero unequivocally describes the Christ as being “covered with a transparent shroud of the same marble”. All this without taking into account one of the Prince’s famous letters to Giraldi on the “eternal light”, published for the first time in May 1753 in “Novelle Letterarie” in Florence, in which he thus talks about the Christ: “the marble statue of Our Lord Jesus Christ being dead, wrapped in a transparent veil of the same marble, but executed with such expertise as to fool the most accurate observers”. […]
All the documentary evidence, therefore, points to one conclusion: the Veiled Christ is a work entirely made of marble. To settle things once and for all, there was eventually a scientific non-invasive analysis conducted by the company “Ars Mensurae”, which concluded that the only material present in this work is marble. The analysis report was published in 2008 in: S. Ridolfi, “Analisi di materiale lapideo tramite sistema portatile di Fluorescenza X: il caso del ‘Cristo Velato’ nella Cappella Sansevero di Napoli”. […]
We believe that the fact that Sanmartino’s Christ is entirely made from marble only adds charm […] to the work.

Miccinelli has subsequently found in her home a chest containing an incredible series of Jesuit manuscripts which completely overturn the whole precolonial history of Andean civilizations as we know it. The “case” has divided the ethnological community, even jeopardizing accademic relationships with Peru (see this English article), as many italian specialists believe the documents to be authentic, whereas by the majority of Anglosaxon and South American scholars they are considered artfully constructed fakes. The harsh debate did not discourage Miccinelli, who just can’t seem to be able to open a drawer without discovering some rare unpublished work: in 1991 it was the turn of an original writing by Dumas, which enabled her to decrypt the alchemical symbologies of the Count of Monte Cristo.

The second part of this article is dedicated to another legend surrounding the Sansevero Chapel, namely the one regarding the two “anatomical machines” preserved in the Underground Chamber. You can read it here.

Crucifixion workshop

I see before me crosses not all alike,
but differently made by different peoples:
some hang a man head downwards
some force a stick upwards through his groin,
some stretch out his arms on a forked gibbet.
I see cords, scourges,
and instruments of torture for each limb and each joint:
but I see Death also.
(Seneca, Consolatio ad Marciam, translated by Aubrey Stewart)


Easter is coming and, like every year, on Good Friday the believers will commemorate the Passion of Jesus, nailed to the wood on the Golgotha. Are we really sure that the traditional representation of Christ on the cross is realistic? After all, also in the endless variations of the punishment’s scene that art history has been producing for many centuries, there always seem to be some discrepancies: sometimes the nails are driven through the Redeemer’s hands and feet, sometimes through his wrists. This confusion goes back a long time ago, to the early, rough translations of the Gospel of John in which the Greek word for “limb” was misinterpreted as “hand“.

How exactly did the crucifixion take place? And what caused the death of the condemned person?
Both historian and scientists have tried to answer these questions.


Coeval sources lead to the assumption that the word “crucifixion” in Latin and Greek referred to different methods of execution, such as the impalement and the tying on a simple tree, and most likely these methods varied according to time and place.
The only thing we know for sure is that it was the most humiliating, long and painful punishment provided for by the judicial system at that time (at least in the Mediterranean Basin). Cicero himself defined it as “
the most cruel and sombre of all punishments“: the sufferings of the condemned person, hanged naked and exposed to public ridicule, were prolonged as much as possible by means of drugged drinks (myrrh and wine) or mixtures of water and vinegar which served to quench one’s thirst, stanch bleeding, revive and so on.
In rare cases death was accelerated. This happened to keep law and order, because some friend or relative of the condemned person had intervened, or according to specific local customs: the two methods most frequently used to put an end to the pain of the crucified were the spear thrust to the heart, that Jesus himself is traditionally believed to have received, and the so-called
crucifragium, namely the fracture of the legs by means of hammers or sticks, in order to take every support away from the condemned person, who choked because of the hyperextension of the ribcage.


Three kinds of crosses were used by Romans for judicial punishments at the time of Jesus: the crux decussata, or St Andrew’s cross, consisted of two stakes fastened to form a X; the crux commissa, with stakes forming a T-shape; the crux immissa, the most famous cross, in which the horizontal beam (patibulum) was placed at two-thirds of the length of the vertical one (stipes). This arrangement allowed to put up the so-called titulus, a notice including the personal details of the condemned person, the charge and the sentence.


Another rather ascertained detail was the presence of a support half-way of the stipes, that was called sedile in Latin. It offered a support to the body of the condemned person, so that he/she could carry its weight without collapsing, thus preventing her/him from dying too fast. From sedile is apparently derived the phrase “to sit on the cross”. More complicated was the use of the suppedaneum, the support which the feet were nailed to and maybe rested on, often represented in paintings of the crucifixion but never mentioned in ancient manuscripts.


Although we now know many details about the cross itself, the methods of fastening were debated for a long time. The only skeleton ever found of a person condemned to crucifixion (discovered in 1968 around Jerusalem) had fractured legs and a nail into the outside of the ankle, which suggests that the feet were tied to the sides of the cross. But this doesn’t resolve the doubts that for many centuries have been tormenting theologians and believers. Where were the nails exactly driven? Through the hands or the wrists? Were the feet nailed to the front or to the sides of the stipes? Were the legs upright or bent at the knee?



It may seem strange but this matter was long debated also in the field of science, especially towards the end of the nineteenth century. Medical researchers could rely on a continuous supplying of corpses, and amputated arms and legs, to sieve different hypothesis.

The theory that the nails were driven through the wrists, precisely between carpus and radius, had the advantage that this method probably allowed to slice the thumb’s median nerve and long flexor tendon, but without affecting arteries nor fracturing bones. On the other side, the idea that the Redeemer had been nailed through the wrists was considered – if not exactly heretic – at least risky by a part of Christian scientists: it certainly meant to disprove most of the traditional representations, but there was much more at stake. The actual theological issue concerned the stigmata. If Jesus had been nailed through the wrists, how could we explain the wounds that invariably appeared on the palms of people in the odour of sanctity? Maybe Our Lord Himself (that used to inflict stigmata as a punishment, but also as a sign of blissfulness) didn’t know where the nails had been driven? To accept the wrists theory meant to admit that the stigmatized person had been more or less unconsciously influenced by a wrong iconography, and that the origin of the sores was anything but ultramundane…

In order to repress these ignominious assumptions, around 1900, Marie Louis Adolphe Donnadieu, professor at the Catholic Faculty of Sciences in Lyon, decided to try once and for all a true crucifixion. He nailed a corpse to a wooden board, and even by a single hand.



According to professor Donnadieu, the cruel photograph of the dead hanging by an arm, published in his Le Saint Suaire de Turin devant la Science (1904), undoubtedly proved that Jesus’ hands could support his body on the cross. The other scientists should recant their theories once and for all; Donnadieu’s only regret was not a moral one, but concerned the fact that “the light in the photograph didn’t offer the best aesthetic conditions“.

Unfortunately his dramatic demonstration didn’t silence opponents, not even in the ranks of the Catholic. Thirty years later doctor Pierre Barbet, first surgeon at the Paris Saint Joseph Hospital, criticized Donnadieu’s experiment in his text La passion de Jésus Christ selon le chirurgien (1936): “The picture shows a pathetic body, small, bony and emaciated. […] The corpse that I had crucified, instead […] was absolutely fresh and fleshy“. In fact, also Barbet had started to nail corpses, but in a more serious and programmatic way than Donnadieu.



The meticulous research of Pierre Barbet undoubtedly includes him among the pioneers (they were few, to be pedantic) of medical studies about the Crucifixion, concerning in particular the wounds that marked the Shroud of Turin. Barbet came to the conclusion that the man represented on the Shroud had been nailed through the wrists and not the palms; that in the Shroud’s mark the thumb was missing because the median nerve had been cut off by the nail; that the man of the Shroud died of suffocation, when legs and arms were no more capable of supporting him.


The last hypothesis, that was considered as the most reliable for many decades, was disproven by the last great expert in crucifixion, the famous American forensic pathologist and anthropologist Frederick Zugibe. He mainly studied between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. He didn’t have corpses to nail in his garage (as you can imagine, the vogue for crucifying corpses in order to investigate this kind of questions had definitely died out) and he carried out his researches thanks to a team of volunteers. Incidentally, to find these volunteers was easier than expected, because the members of a Christian congregation near his home queued up to play the role of the Saviour.
Zugibe built a handmade cross on which he tied his test subjects, constantly measuring their body functions – pressure, heartbeat, respiration, etcetera. He concluded that Jesus didn’t die of asphyxia, but of traumatic shock and hypovolemia.



To complete the picture, other scholars assumed different causes of death for a crucified person: heart attack, acidosis, arrhythmia, pulmonary embolism, but also infections, dehydration, wounds caused by animals, or a combination of these factors. Whatever the ultimate cause, there was clearly only one way to get down off the cross.

Regarding the notorious nails and their entry wound, Zugibe believed that the upper part of the palm was perfectly capable to support the weight of the body, without causing bone fractures. He proved his theorem many times in the course of some dissections in the laboratory.




Then, after dozens of years, “an unbelievable and unexpected event, extremely meaningful, took place in the coroner’s office, confirming the existence of this passage [inside the hand]. A young woman had been brutally stabbed on her entire body. I found a defence wound on her hand, because she had raised it in the attempt to protect her face from the ferocious aggression. The examination of this wound on the hand proved that […] the blade had crossed the “Z” area and the point had gone out on the back of the wrist exactly as can be seen on the Shroud. A radiography of the area proved that there were no fractures at all!“.


The fact that a pathologist gets excited to the point of using an exclamation mark, during a murder victim autopsy, while thinking about the correlations between a stab, the Shroud of Turin and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ… well, this is not surprising in the slightest. After all, at stake here are a thousand years of religious imagery.


The English new edition of the text by Pierre Barbet is A Doctor at Calvary. The conclusions of Zugibe are summed up in his essay Pierre Barbet Revisited, that can be consulted online.