Stepping back in time ~ The painted church at Poitiers.
The air in the square outside the church is filled with the scents of fish from the market stalls now dismantled and gone in the heat of the afternoon, and of soap from the soap-maker’s stall, still with his wares laid out. I buy Alep soap and pure Arabic kohl, and pass the time of day discussing the properties of bay oil and the power of ancient remedies like kohl to restore sight and clear the vision. The stall holder is swarthy, from the far south of France or maybe from the territories of the Moors; he is delighted to discuss his wares and seems free of the habitual disdain many French people have for the English. This far south, this coolness seems to have slowly warmed into something friendlier. Perhaps while he can tell I’m not French, he’s probably not certain I am English. I walk away, drawn by the music that plays now in the area in front of the main frontage of the church.
I stand mesmerised as the drone of small-pipes mingles with the guitar and drums beats, and a shiver passes down me. It’s thirty degrees and the sun on my bare arms is reminding me that I’m going to burn soon if I don’t seek shelter. Yet the sound of the music is unearthly and makes me want to dance. Me, dance? Yes, to swirl and twist and stamp in this bright public square, trailing long sleeves along the ground as I spin like a slow Dervish, and feel the swish of silken skirts as they brush the dusty stones.
Looking down, I see my navy blue combat trousers and my arms in white cotton to the elbow and wonder for a second where my gown has vanished to. The neat satin slippers are not there, and my feet are encased in sturdy walking shoes.
Dizzy and a little disorientated I seek shade and make my way into the beautiful Romanesque porch and see that the heavy wooden door to the church stands open and with the music still pulsing in the hot air, I step inside.
A scent of old libraries fills my nose. Parchment and pigment and a hint of mildew, this is how I imagine the Great Library at Alexandria to smell. A faint trace of incense tops the whole aroma off and I take a moment to breath it in, a fragrance of lost centuries and secrets vanished now into the abyss of time.
I gasp, as I glance around now my eyes have become accustomed to the dimmer light. Pillars and walls and ceiling are all painted in intricate patterns of colour and form that defy capture. They’re faded a little now, but for a spilt second I can see them still moist from the paintbrushes of the townspeople and the colour is vivid and startling. Blues like polished lapis-lazuli, crimsons and scarlets like blood and poppies, ochre and white, and greens like slices of malachite and jade. Then the vision fades and like a great old lady whose face holds the memory of the beauty of her youth, the church seems to simply smile at me, and tells me that true beauty is eternal. While paint and rosy cheeks may fade, the loveliness beneath them cannot be touched by time; for those who can still see them, both the realities stand sentinel over this moment in my life.
Talking slow steps that seem to mimic the tread of the processions of the faithful from the last centuries, I walk round, taking pictures to try and capture the feeling and the power. And yet, when I see the photos later, much like the paintwork, the power is faded. You had to be there, to feel and see it.
The music swirls on, little dulled by the heavy walls of the church and as I step back out into the sunshine, I am filled with the desire to capture and retain some of the music. I ask one of the crew if there is a CD I can buy and am brought over to meet the musicians as the finish their set. I tell them their music has touched my soul and that they are like the ancient troubadours who lived in this town in the fifteenth century. They light up with real delight and give me a web address to find their music, and I wander away, thwarted in some way of my desire to bottle this feeling, this moment so that I may uncork it and relive the memory.
Rejoining my group, I sit in the baking sun and drink lemonade and listen now to hip-hop and watch the dancers in the square and the contrast to the grace of the dancers in my vision could not be more obvious nor the centuries gone by more distant from me now. The harsh modern lyrics and the skilled but disturbingly graceless movements remind me that every era has its iconic markers. Perhaps the future will look at this era with the same visionary nostalgia that I felt for the music and the art of the time when this church and town stood as important places.
Too soon, it’s time to leave and I shepherd my charges back to the coach and we drive away, back to our very modern hotel. As I go into my impersonal room, I have a sense of something being very close to me, and I turn to see what is there.
A breeze touches my face and is gone and the moment passes and I go inside to wash and change for dinner. Yet the distant memory of music and of lights and of dance and devotion haunt me all evening, and onwards into the future.