Taken from Artefact – a website concerning Contemporary Art and Archaeology.
I’m making this initial visit to the chapel a few days before archaeological excavations are due to begin within its grounds. I’m interested in how my initial observations might be tied in with both the archaeology discovered there and the chapel’s history. How far is empathy an augmented discourse between bodily experience and knowledge?
As usual, I began by observing the chapel using a Goethean methodology, which – as if often the case – ended up following its own course.
Leaving Cowley Road and walking up the track to the chapel was like leaving the modern world behind; not completely for the outside around the chapel and here inside once can still hear the traffic humming like an overhead cable carrying electricity.
The first thing I notice when entering the chapel is the smell; the smell of age, of the past – the smell of the rooms in the church I’d attended as a child. Old books, paper and damp.
The light is slowly beginning to fade being as it is 6pm and the weather grey and raining.
I shall endeavour to carry out the observation without electric light for as long as is possible.
The chapel is small comprising two parts divided by a screen. The main door on the chapel’s western side is locked and one enters through a small door on the left hand (north) side. (I’m going to carry out my observation inside rather than out – not least because of the rain, but also because I can easily record outside at a later date).
The walls are all whitewashed; they are rough and bumpy beneath revealing the stone. There are five windows, each of which is arched and through which the last light of the day is creeping. Behind me to my left is a large door in front of which are stacked wooden chairs – no doubt for congregations when services are held here, which they still are. Along the left hand wall more chairs are lined up in a row – eight of them. At the end facing me and in front of the screen are two small pews. Running alongside the right hand wall is another row of chairs – nine of them. There is a radiator, an old wooden cupboard on the side of which are electric sockets and a light switch. I’m sitting on a small wooden bench. In the corner to my right is a large red candle holder replete with candle – no doubt for ceremonial purposes.
Ahead, either side of the doorway through the screen are two small stools. Beyond the screen, from my position, I can see a wooden altar with a crucifix and four candles. A stool stands before them on which rests a box. Above the altar is a window and on the left and right hand walls are also windows. In the wall in this half of the building, on the right hand side from where I am sitting is another window upon the sill of which – which is deep – sits a book, open on a small lectern. Another lectern stands next to me on my right with a book containing the names of visitors. I write my name in it now.
I get up and walk. The hum of the traffic is weak like the light. I can hear the wind rustling the trees outside. Outside the window above the book is an apple tree covered with fruit. My footsteps echo.
I measure the first part of the chapel which is approximately 8 paces. The floor in this part of the chapel is parquet. In the part ahead of me it’s stone.
The pew creaks as I sit down. There are two small pews divided in two to accommodate two people. There are candle stands with low candles (burned down) on my left, a crucifix on a pole and a blue bottle of gas. On the right hand side is another blue bottle, two more well-used candles, four chairs and a picture of Christ. I see now that the altar is stone. Either side in the corners are two wood burners. The window in the left wall is narrower than the others and has a deep sill. This part of the chapel again measures approximately 8 paces.
On a window sill (right) is the curled body of a dead fly. Outside I see the apple trees and the leaves on the wet grass.
The altar is covered by a cloth – green and another white one beneath.
The bible on what I now see is a folding lectern is open at John. Tomorrow’s reading, John 3:13-17.
The ceiling is wooden with numerous coloured shields placed between the beams. The light is fading and it’s getting harder to see.
As I stand before the altar my face is drawn up to the window above it and to the sky. I turn to my left and see the old building that stands alongside. The wind stirs again. There is a white iron work chair in the garden outside. No-one is sitting in it of course.
The window above the large door in the western end of the chapel is smaller than all the others. Again I find my eyes drawn up towards it, to the pale grey light of the sky. There is a large hole in the wall on the right hand side (as I look at it) no doubt where a wooden bolt was once used to secure the church.
There are two circles, unwhitewashed either side of the door.
There are four ‘arches’ supporting the ceiling. The wood appears to be very old. The stone of the floor around the altar is patterned almost as if something has spilled upon it and not quite dried.
The width of the chapel is 7 paces.
I look again at the book full of names and dates – someone from as far away as Australia has visited here. In just a few pages we’re back at the start of 2005. I think of what I’ve done in these few pages – I think of the people I know who have recently passed away.
As the light fades the windows become a stronger presence as they hold what remains of the light outside. I can hear the chimes of an ice-cream van – a sound from my childhood. But although the windows are dominant, I don’t find myself looking beyond – just at them.
Echoes and footsteps. Car horns.
I allow the cars and the sounds of the modern world to fall away and instead I listen only to the wind blowing through the trees. I look outside at the trees. I imagine the fruit trees across hundreds of seasons, bearing fruit, dropping the fruit, surviving the winter, blooming again in the spring. I imagine how much more important apple trees would have been long ago; a vital source of food rather than something one might idly pick while strolling past. The book on the sill is open at a text on St. Bartholomew. The words are silent on the page.
I read the first few words on the saint. I turn the page – again the ice-cream van. The page creaks like the pew I sat on. I can hear the words as I read them in my head, although of course they make no sound. I imagine hundreds and thousands of internal voices of people who have stood inside the chapel.
The shadow cast by my hand is more prominent here before the window.
I pick a spot on the left hand side of the chapel looking towards the altar. I imagine all those who have stood here in my place over the centuries, looking to their right at whatever was outside; up ahead through the window; at the others standing there with them; and I begin to imagine those other people. I begin to try and imagine their presence.
The crows outside help dispel the modern world. I think of the floor – how it would have been. I imagine the city behind me, Oxford as it was a few hundred years ago.
I move around the chapel before the screen and glance behind me to the side and up ahead and where I see the walls and windows I imagine people. Each glance is accompanied with a thought – my thoughts.
I try and get a sense of my body in relation to the chapel.
The shadows grow across the floor, blurring to become the first signs of nightfall. Forms in the chapel, like the legs of the chairs against the walls begin to disappear. Everything becomes a shadow – perhaps even me.
I imagine the large locked door being opened and people filing into the light behind. I picture that light filling the chapel, chasing away the shadows.
I’m aware of my body – how my back is aching – how I’m hungry.
The green of the leaves outside is still very visible. Everything is brown, green and grey.
My shadow is faint on the wall.
I move to stand before the altar. I turn and face the large door. Lines of sight from people long since gone still linger. I turn and face the altar. My eyes are drawn to the window, following these eye lines behind me.
I imagine the candles flickering, casting shadows on the walls as the light continues to fade. These candles which are little more than stubs of wax with short blackened wicks and puddles of wax around them.
The sound of the traffic cannot be stopped. It’s always present like interference. The only way to hear the past is with my body.
(Rather hard as I can hardly see to write.)
Fleeting, embodied shadows.
I try and think of myself as the chapel. There is, like everything, an outside (exterior) and an inside (interior). I can feel my body – my presence – not so much as me but as something within the chapel.
Contact with the floor, with the furniture means that the chapel and I are one.
NB I have to put on the light – and only then am I aware how dark it is outside. The shift from an external light and interior dark to interior light and external dark is striking. When I turn off the light it’s reversed.
I’m aware of my heart as I sit with my eyes closed – of my breathing. My back against the wall – my breathing and heartbeat becomes that of the chapel.
Exterior / interior.
Beyond the chapel and inside.
Beyond my own body and inside.
A reversal of the two.
Interior voice reading / exterior voice listening.
With the lights on, the light beyond the window is blueish above the door. Up ahead, the window above the altar is dark.
Again there is almost a grain in the building – of sight. Looking towards the altar one is aware of the individual; then turning round, of a crowd.