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!)

Annegare nel cielo


Il pomeriggio del 26 luglio 1959 il Luogotenente Colonnello William Rankin, veterano della Seconda Guerra Mondiale e della guerra in Corea, stava pilotando il suo aereo e tutto sembrava tranquillo. Era partito dall’aeroporto militare di South Weymouth, nel Massachussetts, ed era diretto verso la Carolina del Sud: il suo caccia supersonico Vought F-8 Crusader di ultima generazione filava liscio sopra le nuvole, a una velocità di crociera di 1.004 km/h.


Verso le sei di sera, Rankin vide avvicinarsi delle nubi dall’aspetto minaccioso, immense e scure torri di vapore illuminate da improvvisi lampi elettrici. Rankin decise di alzarsi di quota per superare il temporale, ma proprio mentre passava sopra alla tempesta udì un tonfo sordo e il motore del suo caccia cominciò ad emettere un brontolio che non prometteva nulla di buono. Dopo poco, infatti, si spense e la spia antincendio cominciò a lampeggiare: Rankin tirò la leva del motore ausiliario, e come in un film comico la manopola si ruppe e gli rimase nel pugno. Ma c’era ben poco da ridere: Rankin stava andando incontro a una morte certa, sia che fosse rimasto a bordo dell’aereo che perdeva quota rapidamente, sia che si fosse lanciato nel vuoto a più di 14.000 metri di altitudine, senza una tuta pressurizzata.


In pochi secondi decise di tentare la sorte e premette il comando dell’espulsione. Venne catapultato fuori, in un cielo freddo e senza ossigeno. La temperatura dell’aria era di – 50°C, e gli arti si congelarono all’istante; a causa della decompressione, Rankin cominciò a sanguinare dagli occhi, dal naso, dalla bocca e dalle orecchie e il suo addome si gonfiò a dismisura. Riuscì comunque a raggiungere la maschera per l’ossigeno, e mentre cadeva si accorse con orrore che stava precipitando proprio dentro a un enorme cumulonembo.


Questo tipo di nuvole, fra le più spettacolari, si sviluppano in altezza a causa di violente correnti ascensionali al loro interno: sono le nuvole tipiche dei temporali, a forma di torre e alte circa 12.000 metri. Il cumulonembo in cui si infilò Rankin 10 secondi dopo essersi lanciato dall’aereo era alto più di 14.000 metri.


Di colpo, tutto si fece buio attorno al veterano dei Marines; la visibilità, all’interno della nube nera e densa, era completamente annullata. Venti violentissimi, pioggia e grandine: Rankin sopportava tutto questo, in attesa che il paracadute lo frenasse. Ma il paracadute non si apriva. Dopo cinque minuti di caduta libera, Rankin cominciò a temere un malfunzionamento della capsula barometrica, perché a 10.000 metri il paracadute avrebbe dovuto scattare automaticamente. Quello che Rankin non sapeva, era che non si trovava affatto a 10.000 metri: i venti ascensionali lo avevano tenuto più in alto, impedendogli di scendere.


Finalmente riuscì ad aprire il paracadute, ma la sua situazione, invece di migliorare, peggiorò. In balìa dei venti, Rankin cominciò a salire e poi cadere nuovamente, in un ciclo ininterrotto e terrificante. La corrente ascensionale che lo risucchiava verso l’alto era talmente violenta che ogni volta che ne raggiungeva l’apice il suo corpo continuava a salire per diversi metri, andando a sbattere contro il paracadute; poi iniziava ancora la discesa. Rankin vomitò.


Nel frattempo, durante queste vertiginose oscillazioni all’interno del cumulonembo, i fulmini si scatenavano attorno al colonnello, la grandine lo mitragliava da ogni direzione e i tuoni gli facevano vibrare la cassa toracica. Un fulmine colpì il paracadute, incendiandolo parzialmente. Il vapore acqueo e la pioggia erano talmente densi che Rankin dovette trattenere il respiro più volte, per non annegare.

Quando finalmente Rankin sbucò da sotto la nuvola, controllò l’orologio: aveva passato ben 40 minuti in quell’inferno. Cominciò la sua discesa, finalmente tranquilla, verso una radura; ma un colpo di vento improvviso, all’ultimo istante, lo gettò verso gli alberi – come regalino finale. Il paracadute si incastrò fra i rami e Rankin sbattè la testa sul tronco. Una volta liberatosi, raggiunse una strada e cercò di chiedere soccorso alle auto che passavano di lì. Ma gli autisti non erano certo invogliati a fermarsi, vedendo la sua tuta strappata, insanguinata e ricoperta di vomito. Finalmente qualcuno lo accompagnò fino a una cabina telefonica, dove Rankin chiamò un’ambulanza.

Le settimane successive Rankin rimase in ospedale ad Ahoskie, nella Carolina del Nord, per riprendersi dall’assideramento, dai gravi effetti della decompressione, da diversi lividi e tumefazioni sul suo corpo. Non riportò comunque nessun danno a lungo termine, e più tardi raccontò la sua disavventura nel libro The Man Who Rode The Thunder, “L’uomo che cavalcò il tuono”. Rankin, morto nel 2009, rimane ancora oggi l’unica persona al mondo ad essersi paracadutata in un cumulonembo – sopravvivendo.


Grandinata record

Il 16 Maggio scorso, a Oklahoma City, era meglio starsene in casa: i chicchi di grandine che piovevano dal cielo erano grandi come palle da baseball. Su YouTube si trovano diversi video relativi a questa grandinata apocalittica. Qui ve ne proponiamo uno. Al riparo!