This is the account of a peculiar exploration, different from any other abandonded places I had the chance to visit: this place, besides being fascinating, also had a macabre and mysterious twist.
It was November, 2016. We were venturing — my father, my sister, two friends and I — towards an ex convent, which had been abandoned many years before.
The air was icy-cold. Our objective stood next to a public, still operational structure: the cemetery.
The thorny briers were dead and not very high, so it was simple for us to cut through the vegetation towards the side of the convent that had the only access route to the building, a window.
With a certain difficulty, one by one we all managed to enter the structure thanks to a crooked tree, which stood right next to the small window and which we used as ladder.
Once we caught our breath, and shook the dust off our coats, we realized we just got lost in time. That place seemed to have frozen right in the middle of its vital cycle.
The courtyard was almost entirely engulfed in vines and vegetation, and we had to be very careful around the porch, with its tired, unstable pillars.
Two 19th-Century hearses dominated one side of the courtyard, worn out but still keeping all their magnificence: the wood was dusty and rotten, but we could still see the cloth ornaments dangling from the corners of the carriage; once purple, or dark green, they now had an indefinable color, one that perhaps dosen’t even exist.
We went up a flight of stairs and headed towards a series of empty chambers, the cells where the Friars once lived; some still have their number carved in marble beside the door.
Climbing down again, we stumbled upon a sort of “office” where we were greeted by the real masters of the house – two statues of saints who seemed to welcome and admonish us at the same time.
As we were taking some pictures, we peeked inside the drawers filled with documents and papers going back to the last years of the 18th Century, so old that we were afraid of spoiling them just by looking.
We got back out in the courtyard to enjoy a thin November sun. We were still near the cemetery, which was open to the public, so we had to move carefully and most silently, when all of a sudden we came upon a macabre find: several coffins were lying on the wet grass, some partly open and others with their lid completely off. Just one of them was still sealed.
My friends prefer to step back, but me and my sister could not resist our curiosity and started snooping around. We noted some bags next to the coffins, on which a printed warning read: ‘exhumation organic material‘.
A vague stench lingered in the air, but not too annoying: from this, and from the coffins’ antiquated style, we speculated these exhumations could not be very recent. Those caskets looked like they had been lying there for quite a long time.
And today, a year later, I wonder if they’re still abandoned in the grass, next to that magical ghost convent…
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.
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.
Ben Dova si chiamava in realtà Joseph Späh, ed era nato a Strasburgo nel 1905. Emigrato negli Stati Uniti in giovane età, divenne ben presto contorsionista ed acrobata negli spettacoli di vaudeville e circensi.
Il suo numero più famoso era quello denominato “convivial inebriate”, in cui vestiva i panni di un ubriacone che in piena sbornia si metteva in ogni sorta di pasticci. Camminava scomposto, ad ogni momento oscillava e sembrava sul punto di cadere, ma all’ultimo secondo riguadagnava l’equilibrio. Poi cercava in ogni tasca dello scompigliato vestito, contorcendosi, una sigaretta che era sempre stata nella sua bocca. Infine, per accendere la sigaretta, si arrampicava su un lampione di scena che cominciava ad ondeggiare paurosamente, piegandosi ed inclinandosi come fosse di gomma: Ben rimaneva aggrappato al lampione, sempre in bilico e sul punto di precipitare, ma il suo personaggio ubriaco riusciva contro ogni previsione a rimanere “in sella”.
Questo numero era davvero complesso, nonostante Ben lo svolgesse con una naturalezza incredibile. Ma la gente lo guardava comunque come un siparietto comico e poco più. Così, nel 1933, Dova decise che era tempo di far capire la difficoltà di ciò che stava facendo. Si preparò quindi a replicare il numero, ma questa volta sulla cima del Chanin Building di New York, un grattacielo alto 56 piani. Per i cinegiornali dell’epoca fu un momento epocale: senza reti, né cavi, né altri trucchi cinematografici, Ben Dova penzolò nel vuoto dal tetto del grattacielo, talvolta appeso per una sola mano, facendo fermare il cuore degli spettatori ad ogni nuova, paurosa oscillazione. Ecco il filmato della sua esibizione.
Quel numero di inaudita spericolatezza portò a Dova il successo, e la sua vita di artista sarebbe continuata indisturbata fino agli anni ’70, quando egli si ritirò dalle scene per recitare esclusivamente come attore in alcune pellicole famose (Il Maratoneta del 1976 sopra a tutte). Ma il destino aveva almeno un’altra grande impresa per lui, un’impresa da cui sarebbe dipesa la sua vita stessa.
6 Maggio 1937. New Jersey. Ben Dova era impaziente di sbarcare per incontrare la sua famiglia, che non vedeva da molto tempo. Con una cinepresa stava documentando, divertito, le fasi dell’atterraggio. Non sapeva però di trovarsi su un dirigibile che sarebbe divenuto tristemente famoso per uno dei più celebri disastri aerei di tutti i tempi, e che avrebbe sancito la fine dell’èra dei dirigibili: la tragedia dell’Hindenburg.
Il disastro dell’Hindenburg – così si chiamava lo zeppelin tedesco sul quale viaggiava Dova – è rimasto nella memoria collettiva grazie alla copertura mediatica (mai vista fino ad allora) fornita dai cinegiornali dell’epoca, da innumerevoli fotografie e dal commento radio in diretta di Herbert Morrison (che pronunciò la celebre, disperata frase “Oh, the humanity!“).
Quando il fuoco cominciò ad avvampare, Ben Dova se ne rese conto immediatamente. Usando la sua cinepresa come un martello, sfondò una finestra, e si appese fuori dall’aeromobile, restando aggrappato mentre il dirigibile cadeva al suolo in un inferno di fuoco e fiamme. Quando il suolo si era avvicinato abbastanza, Ben saltò e, grazie alle sue doti di acrobata, tenne i piedi uniti sotto di sé e cercò di rotolare via appena toccata terra. L’abilità di stuntman si rivelò la sua salvezza. Ben se la cavò con una distorsione alla caviglia, mentre dietro di lui il dirigibile esplodeva crollando al suolo in una visione apocalittica.
Successivamente, Dova fu addirittura accusato di sabotaggio, così come successe ad altri passeggeri, soltanto perché si era salvato. D’altronde la Germania nazista rifiutava di accettare pubblicamente un errore di progettazione o di costruzione nella sua flotta nazionale. Ma le teorie sulle cause dell’esplosione sono tante e controverse, e ancora oggi non è stato provato che cosa abbia veramente innescato l’incendio. Certo è che l’FBI indagò a fondo su Ben Dova, e non trovò alcun indizio del suo presunto sabotaggio.
Ben Dova morì nel settembre del 1986, lasciandosi alle spalle una carriera fatta di successi e una vita di spericolate, rocambolesche imprese.