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 Mortuary Chapels

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PostSubject: Mortuary Chapels   Fri 27 Apr 2012, 13:43

I wasn't sure whether to post this in the "Mourning Clothes" thread elsewhere, but since it's an architecture thing I thought it better to start a new thread.

St Helier's Parish Church, Jersey, is in the last stages of a major renovation and archaeological investigation. The church retains its original 13th century mortuary chapel, which has been "lost" for well over a century; it was known it was still there (to the the north of the chancel), but had fallen into a state of disrepair, and in the 19th century the bulk of the pipes for the new organ were installed. To the best of my knowledge no proper record had been made.

Now the organ pipes have been taken out (with the intention to relocate them in the disused south gallery), and it is planned to put the chapel back into use (albeit not for mortuary purposes). What has been revealed is one of, if not the finest medieval single vault ceilings in the Island. More curiously, however, is a large, seemingly original niche in the north wall of the chapel.

I did wonder at first if it was for holding a body (given the original purpose of the chapel). However, it's fairly short - not more that five foot at the most - and the shelf is pretty narrow, too small I would have thought to hold a body. The arched top of the niche can't be more that two foot high, perhaps less, giving little room for manoeuver or tending to the corpse.

If not for that purpose, then, for what? A shelf for accoutrements when preparing the body for burial? One idea I did come up with is that it might have been the 'Sepulcher', the niche which many medieval churches had (or still have), in which a statue of Jesus would be ceremonially laid from Good Friday until its symbolic 'resurrection' on Easter Sunday. I believe these would usually be up by the altar; however, the mortuary chapel would seem a rather appropriate place to have a Sepulcher.

Unfortunately I don't have a picture, and I'm not sure if the archaeologist's report is yet publicly available.
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PostSubject: Re: Mortuary Chapels   Fri 27 Apr 2012, 14:06

Sounds very much like an arcosolia for a small person AN, I can't immediately think of anything else. I'm spending far too much time on here today, must stop, but I'll think about it.
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PostSubject: Re: Mortuary Chapels   Fri 27 Apr 2012, 14:19

It would be more usual to have two niches in a Norman chapel from the 13th century, one for the recently deceased religious local bigwig and one for the patron. They might have been very ornately decorated at one time - I believe the Town Church in St Helier was the subject of some rather zealous "de-Romanising" in the 16th century by locals (who presumably were of a class which wouldn't have qualified them for a niche themselves).

The two in St Michan's mortuary chapel in Dublin traditionally held corpses of eminent locals while their crypts were under construction. Ironically, both "Silken" Thomas Fitzgerald and his nemesis, the Lord Deputy Leonard Grey, ended up side by side in the place for a while.
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PostSubject: Re: Mortuary Chapels   Fri 27 Apr 2012, 17:15

Thank you both. It was the size more than anything which led me to doubt its body-holding potential.

You are right, Nordmann, in thinking the locals were very zealous in their de-Romanising activities, and they reordered it after the Calvanist/Huguenot fashion - stained glass smashed, altar and font ripped out, walls whitewashed, triple-decker pulpit erected in the middle with the pews arranged around it... (What on earth would you need a triple-decker pulpit for?! Surely they weren't preaching three sermons at once!)

When the Victorians restored it in the 1860s they didn't take the most refined of approaches. Many of the monuments were ripped out or moved to spurious locations (with the result, for example, that the monument to Major Pierson - hero of the 1781 Battle of Jersey - is some considerable distance from his tomb). So any evidence of use by local bigwigs has probably been long-since lost.
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PostSubject: Re: Mortuary Chapels   Sat 28 Apr 2012, 04:47

Could the niche have been a simple ossuary AN? Where there wasn't a lot of room for a large cemetary, the dead were buried for a few years until decomposition was complete and then the bones were re-stored in the church somewhere. Making way for the cemetary plot to be re-used, it is a practice still in use in Greece for example, although much of Europe have fallen out of the practice.

Just thoughts, but Nordmann is probably correct. The niche being in the chapel itself is suggestive that it would have been used for the local big wigs rather than the peasants.
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PostSubject: Re: Mortuary Chapels   Sat 28 Apr 2012, 08:38

An ossuary's an interesting idea, but again there's the issue of a lack of space - you wouldn't be able to get many bodies in there, even in stacked-bones form. I suppose it might have been reserved for the priviliged few, but I thougt ossuarys were generally only used for the masses who couldn't afford to be left in peace!

Certainly, burial space woulld have been an issue. There isn't a large churchyard, as the building is on what in the Middle Ages would have been the shoreline - an earlier archaeological dig found the remains of rings set into the west wall, which were thought to have been for tying up boats! Back then (the present church was founded in the 11th century, probably before 1066), there was no harbour and the offshore site of the Hermitage where Helier reputedly lived and was martyred would have been visible from the church. (Slightly later, in the 12th century, a monastery was built on the islets themselves, but since they're cut off from the shore six hours out of twelve, they would have been little use for a parish church).

There are no crypts, so far as I am aware. A handful of individual vaults (the aforementioned Pierson has a rather nice brick one usually concealed by the Victorian paving) serve a few notables,
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PostSubject: Re: Mortuary Chapels   Sat 28 Apr 2012, 18:07

Is this it AN? There are some interesting photos of St Heliers at various stages on this site, and a lovely chuch it is too.

http://www.theislandwiki.org/index.php?title=Parish_church_St_Helier
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PostSubject: Re: Mortuary Chapels   Sat 28 Apr 2012, 18:57

That's the church. Unfortunately there are no pictures of the interior of mortuary chapel, there. This one here does show the exterior - the large, dark arch to the left of the pulpit, and the two arches to the left of the window.
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PostSubject: Re: Mortuary Chapels   Sun 29 Apr 2012, 06:17

No unfortunately the site didn't have images of the chapel but it was interesting to see St Heliers church, never having been to Jersey.

I'm really trying to find photos of other mortuary chapels, intrigued to see if those particular (or similar) niches were a standard feature and also a possible explanation, but I'm not having much luck. Although it must be said that I'm not very good at google searches!
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