In our village, there is a church with an unusually pale spire. It is a pretty stone building, hung with flowers, but otherwise fairly plain. Inside, however, there is a surprise.
The barrel vaulted ceiling was painted, in the 17th century, as sky with saints sitting all around. They would have been very familiar, as the artist took local people for his models. The artwork is naïve in places, but it suits the country church and the people who frequented it. The child who found the sermon boring could have looked up to the sky to see his neighbour looking beatifically down at him. Whether or not his neighbour was of a saintly nature in life, the effect would have been comforting. Here, it would have said, you are among friends and equals.
In the Middle Ages, however, churches were built to impress. When anyone – rich or poor, educated or not – approached such a building, they were to be astonished by the grandeur, the architectural brilliance, and the colour of the edifice. Time has muted the effect: statues defaced, colours all but gone. Only the stone-workers’ genius still remains.
In the past, those with the power and the money chose their own way of achieving immortality, and those with the hammers and chisels made their response inside, where grinning faces and depictions of lewd acts were often added to the tops of columns or to the choir stalls. A monk singing plainsong could well be propped up on something rather more profane.
At different times of year, the front of the church of Notre Dame in Poitiers is restored to its original colours by means of a projection. All the statues on the brilliantly white façade are picked out, as they were intended, in red, blue and gold. The whole thing is a picture book, where biblical scenes take place in recognisably local settings.
We went there one Christmas. As the show began, a hush fell on the people gathering in the plaza. Lights slowly washed down, giving texture to the pineapple roofs, and picking out the mountings of the great doors. Stony faces took on colour under hair made young again; and as we watched, it began to snow, big lazy flakes drifting over the whole scene. It was completely magical, and it was not hard to imagine being a peasant newly come to town, encountering the wonder of the place. After a lifetime of country clay and red tiles, the sight must have been almost otherworldly.
But it would have said, ‘Look at us – we have assured our place in heaven, and it’s not for the likes of you.’ In a time when colourful clothes belonged only to the elite, the whole thing would have shrieked exclusion. The drab and dirty pilgrim would have shuffled, head bowed, under the beady gazes of his betters; those rude and knowing carvings inside would at least have spoken of being on the same side.
So next time you wander inside, have a look round. The powerful dead shout their presence: but the ordinary people may still be there, too, smiling from the sky, or whispering and sniggering from the sidelines. It’s a comfortingly human thought.